The 20th Century and Me: Beginnings

Photo by David Peck

Editor’s note: Alan Rich has been the classical music critic at the L.A. Weekly for the past 15 years. Prior to the Weekly, he wrote for Newsweek and the Herald Examiner and California Magazine and, before that, New York Magazine and the New York Herald Tribune. Now 82, he is a local and national treasure, if we do say so ourselves, and he has a new book, a collection of his criticisms and essays, most of which appeared in these pages. The following is excerpted from a piece written in 1999, a list of 100 works from the 20th century that define their time. The full piece can be viewed online at

No time in recorded history could match the sense of wonderment, the euphoria, the eager curiosity about the future that gripped the Western world right around 1900. The previous couple of decades had given the world the telephone, the light bulb, the phonograph, the automobile, and, a couple of years later, would give it the airplane; these were not merely improvements on things already in existence (as the compact disc might — just might — seem an improvement on the 78-rpm shellac disc, or the Airbus on the DC-3); they added up to an explosive expansion beyond what had previously been assumed the limits of human possibility. All the arts seemed to draw new energy from the spirit of innovation in the land; in the decade and a half from 1900 to the outbreak of World War I, the air crackled with the shock of the new.

Some of the newness may have been the logical consequence of the recent past; the whisperings and half-lights of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande clearly stemmed from the impulses that guided Claude Monet’s brush at his lily pond; Gustav Mahler’s last symphony and the first works of Arnold Schoenberg took the agonized harmonic frustrations of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde onto the concert stage. So, with more surface glitter and less inner substance, did Richard Strauss in his blood-drenched Elektra. Igor Stravinsky’s first ballet scores were recognizably the work of Rimsky-Korsakov’s star pupil. Yet the spirit of the times seemed to drive the new creators hard and fast. The merely two-year stylistic gap between Stravinsky’s Petrushka and his Rite of Spring yawns wider than the 20 between Beethoven’s “Eroica” and his Ninth. So do the two years between Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the Pierrot Lunaire of his self-anointed apostle, Arnold Schoenberg.

Jump back a few decades — to 1880, say. The European bourgeoisie prospered; the great cities celebrated their grandiosity by building concert halls and opera houses. Virtuosos flourished — sopranos, pianists, conductors. The old masters — Beethoven, Haydn and Bach in monstrously perverse re-orchestrations — held their place; just the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that supremely romantic gesture of bringing the music in gradually as if from a distant cloud, became the gambit for dozens of latter-day rip-offs, some successful. It was taken for granted, however, that by far the majority of the concert and operatic fare was to be music hot off the press. The audience eagerly awaited the latest Brahms symphony, the latest Verdi opera. Richard Wagner died in 1883, and the world awaited with bated breath the emergence of his successor, assuming beyond argument that there would be one.

Around 1900, however, the signs first appeared of a schism between “music” and “new music.” Wagner had implanted some of the attitude with his orotund pronouncements about “the music of the future.” By 1900, too, Europe’s great music-publishing houses had caught up with the past, with complete performing editions of practically every major composer, from Bach to Beethoven and on through Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz. Performers could, better than before, think in terms of a “repertory” of past masterpieces; audiences, too, developed a fondness for wallowing in the familiar. And so the world at large no longer awaited the next symphony by Mahler or the next string quartet by Debussy with the hunger for newness that had driven taste in, say, 1880. Newness had become newer, and therefore more fearsome, than in the good old days. The impact of Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring — and the dozens of similar assaults on the musical status quo — drove the wedge.

Music’s world expanded beyond its traditional French/German/Italian/Slavic boundaries in these years. Finland’s Jean Sibelius brought his country its first fame, with music basically rooted in the mainstream past but with at least one splendid work, the bleak, ascetic Fourth Symphony, that does indeed mirror the fog-shrouded bleakness of its native soil. Spain’s Manuel de Falla wrote Spanish-tinged music that went past post-card prettiness in a dark, edgy and wonderfully witty manner. England’s Ralph Vaughan Williams, though defiantly anchored in his country’s ancient musical styles, at least turned out a repertory of symphonies that did not sound fresh off the boat from Germany, as did those of his countryman Elgar. And the United States, whose handful of respectable 19th-century musicians also composed with heavy German accents, produced its first generation of indigenous crackpot/geniuses with the likes of good ol’ boy Charlie Ives, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles and the émigré Edgard Varèse, who proclaimed his Americanness with a wildly dissonant piece called Amériques that had the critics disputing whether it was more descriptive of a zoo or a boiler factory.

The War happened, and then jazz happened, and the timing was just right. Great wars always leave the creative world with the need for a fresh start from some zero point. In the post-WWII decade, the musical world would flop around for a time in desperate search of fresh impetus, adopting and rejecting a variety of artistic possibilities; but in 1918 that impetus had come ready-made, or so it seemed: a fresh, immensely vibrant language, laden with fascinating interconnections to other arts (Cubism, for one), its horizons far out of sight. Like its music, its very name — jazz — was a hybrid of arguable origin. Its vitality was, however, beyond argument. Almost everybody was hooked at first.

Visiting New York, France’s Darius Milhaud raided the shelves of Harlem record shops and returned home to create his ballet nègreThe Creation of the World; Germany’s Paul Hindemith blended the kicky new rhythms into his Bach-inspired chamber concertos; Stravinsky tried his hand at a couple of ragtime pieces, both terrible. Paul Whiteman toured Europe with his big, symphonic jazz band and played George Gershwin’s synthetic Rhapsody in Blue to awestruck crowds — lively stuff, even if neither jazz nor symphony. In Paris, another young innovator, Aaron Copland, was urged by his teacher — the legendary Nadia Boulanger, godmother to a generation of American composers — to use music as a way to define himself and his world. He did so by including, in his delicious, lighthearted Music for the Theater, a generous admixture of the newfangled jazz.

Stravinsky’s revolutionary orchestration in The Rite of Spring gave off all kinds of messages about new ways to make musical sounds. Ten years later, Stravinsky created Les Noces, depicting a Russian folk wedding, with an orchestra consisting of four pianos and a huge battery of percussion; the American George Antheil, in cahoots with the Cubist painter Fernand Léger, did some of the same in his Ballet Mécanique, whose scoring included an airplane propeller. Before either of these, a San Francisco teenager named Henry Cowell astonished audiences with his piano pieces that involved reaching inside the instrument to stroke the strings or whomping down on the keys with a fist or forearm to produce what he called “tone clusters.” Later, Cowell would become mentor and role model to the most carefree and influential of the century’s innovative spirits, the Los Angeles–born John Cage.

If Arnold Schoenberg had little taste for percussion ensembles or airplane propellers, he had his own visions of musical sounds hitherto unheard. Six months before Stravinsky’s bombshell went off in Paris, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire had earned a comparably hostile — if less vociferous — reception in Berlin: music in which a solo voice keened, wailed, howled and whispered poetry about a moonstruck madman, joined by a chamber-music ensemble enhancing the spooky atmosphere with music devoid of any sense of harmonic progression or key. Standing aloof from all the jazzy razzma­tazz, Schoenberg sought to codify his wholesale revision of traditional musical values with his “method of composition employing all 12 tones,” which he perennially explained as the logical extension of principles reaching back to Bach. His 1923 Suite for Piano, his first “pure” piece employing all 12 tones in strict serial order, did indeed link hands with Bachian models. But it was Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg, in Wozzeck, his harrowing, immensely powerful operatic setting of Georg Büchner’s play, who proved, even more fluently than his teacher, the expressive potential of the Schoenbergian style, moving in and out of 12-tone writing, and also in and out of the Mahlerian shadows, as the moods of the intensely moody story dictated. Just by themselves, The Rite of Spring and Wozzeck were enough to prove that the new century had not lost the ages-old power to produce masterpieces.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >