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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

Complete History of Music: Lesson 10

Hello friends and fellow music history enthusiasts.  This is the last lesson in our tour of Western music. It's been quite the journey. But before getting onto some of the strange avenues that developed in 20th century music, I thought a quick review might be in order.  And I thought I might do it through the element of rhythm which I have sadly neglected up until now.

By rhythm I mean the interconnected elements of pulse (an ongoing, unvarying beat that surely was inspired by the pulsations of our blood flow), meter (the cycles of these pulses rather like the cycles of the moon - think the 1- 2 - 3, 1- 2 - 3 of dancing a waltz) and finally the actual rhythmthe duration of each note in the music, which is always a factor of the pulse.  In the music we commonly listen to, both classical and rock, the meter is in 2, 3, or 4.  If we clap our hands to the pulse, we can count ongoing cycles of these numbers.  But obviously there are notes that come more quickly than each clap.  These are called subdivisions.  Usually we subdivide in half ( i.e.1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and).  But sometimes we subdivide in 3 (i.e. 1 and ah, 2 and ah, etc).

Looking back at some of the first music we talked about, Gregorian chant, we find that it was free flowing and unpredictable in the arrival of each new note.  It had no pulse!  But as soon as another part was added,organum, pulse was necessary to keep the two parts together.  And similarly, the addition of a third part with quicker notes suggested the advantage of meter. By the 13th century, a system of musical notation developed which could not only convey pitch but could also fix rhythm. There were 6 rhythmic modes (we had used that word in relation to pitch when talking about the Church modes which were 7 different scales) which were all in triple time.  In other words, rhythm was as prescribed as pitch! It was in the 14th century that a system developed which could represent individual note lengths and which therefore freed the composer to be less hidebound by the modes.  But it wasn't until the late Renaissance that bar lines which fixed the meter became commonplace.  And the rhythms and meters of Baroque music held in place through the developments that led to Classical and Romantic music.  In our last lesson we touched on some of the pitch variations in folk music.  What we didn't talk about was the unusual (for Westerners) use of rhythm.  For instance, in some of the folk music Bartok discovered, the meter was in 5. Or 7. Sometimes it was in an unusual division of 8 where the singer and dancer must count: 1 - 2 - 3, 1 - 2 - 3, 1 - 2, or some combination thereof.

So  - 9 weeks of lessons in one paragraph!! :)))

How Richard Wagner changed the course of music

Leaving rhythm for a moment, I wonder if you remember our discussion of Richard Wagner, the composer of mammoth operas who was something of a megalomaniac in terms of hands-on attention to detail.  I promised you he would figure largely in Lesson 10 and now I'll tell you why. In the late 1850's Wagner had been working on the libretto and music for an opera based on a 12th century chivalric tale,Tristan and Isolde.  At last it was performed in Munich in June of 1865 and in one fell swoop the trajectory of Western music was blown off course.  Here is the Prelude of Tristan and Isolde. The monumental event happens for the first time at 10 seconds and then twice more in quick succession:

If I have left you confused, it is, I assure you not your fault.  Our 21st century ears have grown accustomed to a great deal of dissonance.  But the chord that occurs at 10 seconds into the Prelude, now known as the  'Tristan chord' was not shocking in and of itself. Although a dissonant chord, it had been used previously - Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and even earlier composers had incorporated it into their work.  What was unusual about Wagner's use of the chord was that he didn't resolve  the dissonance.  You may remember from Lesson 8 we talked about the role of consonant harmonies in resolving dissonant harmonies.  The idea was to create a sense of friction, dis-ease, disharmony in fact but then to alleviate the dis-ease through the resolving of the dissonance into assonance, a pleasing and easeful combination of sounds. The method of resolution was  fairly prescribed involving rules that harmony students had studied for almost two centuries. Wagner, in his wish to convey intense emotion (he wrote of the opera: 'Never in my life having enjoyed the true happiness of love I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of all dreams in which, from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter repletion. I have devised in my mind a Tristan und Isolde, the simplest, yet most full-blooded musical conception imaginable, and with the ‘black flag’ that waves at the end I shall cover myself over – to die.') decided to dispense with the ease of resolving the dissonance.

Arnold Schoenberg's new method of composing

It was as if this one chord gave composers everywhere the licence to ignore the rules!  And it was not quite 10 years later that in Vienna, a baby was born who would grow to contemplate the significance of the chord and to work his way through to a whole new set of rules.  The baby's name was Arnold Schoenberg and he was born to a Jewish family in the rather unsalubrious district of Vienna called Leopoldstadt. He was fascinated by music and, largely self-taught, he produced at the age of 25, his own testimony to love.  It was based on a poem which tells the tale of a woman carrying the child of another man who walks with her lover in the moonlight. The lover tells her that the splendour of the moon will transfigure the child to become his own child. You may be able to hear the influence of Wagner in Schoenberg's rhapsodic string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night):

Although Schoenberg uses a great deal of dissonance and unresolved harmony in Verklärte Nacht, it is fundamentally a tonal piece of music, i.e. it is based on the traditions of keys (scales) and harmonies that had been in place for the previous 250 years.  But as Schoenberg pushed into his 30's he began to experiment with more dissonant music.  His haunting set of 21 songs based on poems by Albert Giraud, 'Pierrot Lunaire' (Schoenberg had a thing about the moon) not only is NOT tonal, i.e. is atonal, but employs a technique called sprechstimme in which the singer half-sings and half-speaks the lyrics.  Here are the first 6 songs from the cycle:

And here are the lyrics of the first song:

Moondrunk The wine we drink with our eyes Flows nightly from the Moon in torrents, And as the tide overflows The quiet distant land. In sweet and terrible words This potent liquor floods: The wine we drink with our eyes Flows from the moon in raw torrents. The poet, ecstatic, Reeling from this strange drink, Lifts up his entranced, Head to the sky, and drains,— The wine we drink with our eyes!

Does the weirdness of 'Moonstruck Pierre's' sound world convey to you the strange surreal night-time experience?

As time went on Schoenberg felt a bit unmoored in atonality.  After all it, in its very denomination, is all about NOT doing something rather than doing it.  Creativity seems to need some boundaries and strictures (the great 20th c. Russian composer who lived for much of his livein California once famously said that the most creative thing he was ever asked to do was to write the music for a 60 second advert).  So Schoenberg began to music about a whole new system of using pitch.  The hubris of the enterprise was monumental. It wasn't until 1921, 10 years after the completion of Pierrot Lunaire that he unleashed on the world his new conception of how music could be ordered (this ordering was an essential part of Schoenberg's personality. He was fascinated by numerology and number patterns and had a morbid fear of the number 13. He even accurately predicted the day and hour of his own death on the 13th of July 1951!) and which he called: "Method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another" and which came to be called serialism or dodecaphony or 12 tone technique.

What is Serialism?


Why 12 tones?  Well, if you count all the semi-tones in the octave you will find that you have counted the 12 notes of the chromatic scale (see the video about scales in Lesson 9).  Schoenberg's idea was to create a new scale for every new piece of music he composed by rearranging these 12 notes in a unique order, discreet to that particular composition.  He called this the tone row. From there, it may surprise you to know that Schoenberg basically nicked the rules of a 17th century compositional technique, the fugue.  In Lesson 3 we talked about these rules in relation to the fugue subject or short main theme. More than 200 years later they now became the method of varying this 12 tone row within the composition.  The row would first be heard in its normal order with the caveat that all pitches had to be sounded before anything else could happen even if they didn't appear in the same voice. After that the row could be heard backwards (retrograde), upside down (inverted) or backwards upside down (retrograde inversion). All of these 4 options could be used on the same row order but starting on a different pitch (transposition - transposition is something you most likely have come across in relationship to vocal music, as in: 'Sorry, that's too high for me.' 'Okay, we'll do it in a lower key.').  And there was no prescription to the rhythm.  In fact Schoenberg often used rhythms that crop up in Mozart and Brahms (two of his favourite composers surprisingly enough).

The following short video may give you a flavour of this revolution:

How did Schoenberg's students carry forward his ideas?

Initially Schoenberg had two main disciples:  Anton Webern and Alban Berg , both major composers in their own right if in a very different way.  Webern was prone to writing pieces that only lasted a minute or so but that were intensely detailed:

And Berg was somehow able to combine 12 tone technique and a more tonal approach. His music is lush and sometimes troublingly beautiful:

In 1941 Schoenberg, whose music had been labelled degenerate by the Nazi Party (the Nazi's, like the Communists a bit later favoured easily recognisable melodies and rousing rhythms) was forced to leave Vienna and emigrated to the United States.  There his influence widened and amongst the long list of his pupils you'll find some of the greatest musical thinkers of the 20th century (the list is far too long to even begin but you may want to check out Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and Luciano Berio). Eventually some of them collaborated to create what is referred to as the Darmstadt School although it was never really a school but more a loose collection of like-minded musicians. What is fascinating is that having sought to create order out of chaos, Schoenberg's system had gained a sort of evangelical status amongst these composers and anyone who dared to break free, was censured. One of the leading lights of the school who disagreed with the extremism that had developed actually labelled the other composers 'The Dodecaphonic Police'!  How strange we humans are, bouncing from one extreme to another. And yet, the two World Wars and Great Depression of the 20th c. surely impacted on a sense of security and a wish for order that found its way into the arts.

This video, although in German, will give you a flavour of what was going on at Darmstadt:

And if you want to read more about these composers, and many others in fact, I highly recommend Alex Ross's wonderful book, The Rest is Noise:

But let me at least mention one of the serialist disciples as his music is too original and transcendent to be ignored.

Olivier Messiaen and Time! 

Olivier Messiaen was a French composer and organist whose music was largely influenced by his Catholic faith, his interest in and love of birds and by a condition called synaesthesia in which he 'saw' sounds as colours and experienced harmonies as if they were panes of stained glass.  For a short time he experimented with quite an extreme form of serial composition, even serialising his use of rhythm! He was in any case, fascinated by our human experience of time and in 1941, captured by the German army and incarcerated in Stalag VIII-A, a Silesian prisoner of war camp, he wrote one of his greatest and most loved works.  Quartet for the End of Time (the title is taken from a passage in the Book of Revelation: 'the angel... lifted his hand to heaven... and share... that there shall be time no longer') is scored for fellow inmates of the camp (violin, cello, clarinet and piano) and is made up of 8 movements which combine the instruments in various ways.  The bird song which offered hope and solace in very dark times finds its way into the 3rd movement, 'The Abyss of the Birds', a clarinet solo which in its extremely slow developing seems to convey what timelessness might be:

What is minimalism?

Speaking of time, the time grows near to end these lessons.  But I can't do that without at least mentioning minimalism, another very influential style of composing that emerged in the middle of the 20th century.

It all began with Terry Riley's 1964 revolutionary 'In C'. 'In C' is a fascinating experiment in chance and pattern-making. It picked up on many ideas and themes running through 20th c. musical thought,  tipping its hat to Eastern musical ideas, the idea of chance in music (the very opposite of Schoenberg's wishing to pin everything down) and the idea of cyclical music that we saw in the isorhythmic motets of the 13th c.  Again, what goes around, comes around.  Here is a blog about it that I made earlier (sorry couldn't resist!)

The minimalist composers (notably Philip Glass and Steve Reich) have gained a wide and non-exclusive following.  Probably you have heard of Glass's opera 'Einstein on the Beach' even if you haven't settled down for the 5 hours necessary to watch it.  And you may have already seen Glass's 1982 experimental music video commentary on contemporary society, Koyaanisqatsi, dated now, but still compelling:

The music of the minimalists is hypnotic not just in its repetitions but in its subtle and hard-to-pin down variations. It has somehow been able to bridge the gap between so-called serious Classical music and non-classical music, a division that has narrowed in the past decades and has begun to blur. Increasingly, young instrumentalists, composers and conductors who have grown up listening to rock music, find themselves creating and playing music that struggles to be identified either as experimental rock or avant-garde classical. Nico Muhly  who was born the year before Koyaanisqatsi and who studied with Glass at Juilliard often works with musicians the other side of the divide as has Glass himself. Here is Muhly performing with Björk:

This course has, as I've said before, been notable for the trends and composers that I've had to omit - great composers who wrote wonderful music. I wish I could have included so many more of them; I feel I've sacrificed them to a wish to make each lesson easily digestible.  But maybe the course has sparked your curiosity and you'll continue to discover and listen to more music.  It's been a privilege to work on this project - I hope you have enjoyed the lessons as much as I enjoyed writing them. 

Musical Terms





consonance, dissonance, assonance, resolution



serialism/dodecaphony/12 tone music

tone row

chromatic scale

inversion/retrograde/retrograde inversion




Some of the composers mentioned:

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Anton Webern (1883-1945)

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992)

Terry Riley (1935-)

Philip Glass (1937-)

Nico Muhly (1981-)

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