How the Most Musical Century in the History of Western Civilization Came About

By Guido Mina di Sospiro (August 2020)

Modernist Orchestra, David Aronson, 1950s


When the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg escaped from Germany’s Third Reich in the 1930s, he came to Los Angeles, where he first taught composition at USC, then at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). By then he was held in high esteem in the classical music world as one of its greatest innovators. Along with Alban Berg and Anton Webern, Schoenberg belonged to the Second Viennese School (Zweite Wiener Schule), which pioneered and promoted atonality and then dodecaphony, or twelve-tone serialism. In their view, the deliberate choice of a series of notes from among the twelve notes would free composition from the tonal gravitational field.

        Ever since Claudio Monteverdi, tonality had been the key factor in, and ruler of, the art of composition. It was always the same story: leaving the home key (the tonic, or tonality of choice), exploring other key areas, and finally returning. Of course harmony, and that is, chord progression, without a gift for melody would not mean much. By the time romantic composers came along, starting with Schubert, modulation complicated the story, but did not really change it.

        In music, modulation consists of moving from one key to another, without necessarily changing the key signature. The composer takes some license, leaves home, explores other places, only triumphantly to come back home, both he and the composition enriched by a longer and more complex exploration. Rather than revolting against the gravitational field of tonality, such a procedure strengthened it, because when the listeners were taken back home, the conclusion was all the more satisfying. Richard Wagner, and after him the late romantic Gustav Mahler, stretched the possibilities of tonal composition to its limits, and some musicologists maintain that toward the end of his life Mahler went beyond them. At around the beginning of the twentieth century, composers were no longer content with tonality, and set about finding new approaches.

        Claude Debussy employed non-traditional scales and chromaticism, resulting in his version of impressionism; Alexander Scriabin resorted to the circle of fifths and, consequently, pentatonic scales; Igor Stravinsky innovated in many ways: the relentless ostinati of The Rite of Spring, for example, were unlike anything that had been heard before, so much so that decades later composer Philip Glass would write about the composition’s “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive”—with rhythm having been somewhat of a missing ingredient in classical music. It was always there, of course, but not in a prominent role.

        Debussy, Scriabin, Stravinsky are all still enjoyable, perhaps because they never gave up all reference points, but rather created new ones the listener could hang on to.

        Conversely, Schoenberg and the other members of the Second Vienna School made certain that music, through their arbitrary dodecaphonic manipulation, would do away with its habitual reference points and become completely abstract, losing, in the process, the support of ordinary people, who could no longer understand it.

        The Second Vienna School, and its epigones all the way to Karlheinz Stockhausen, had the most prodigious—if involuntary—effect on the history of music in the twentieth century. The music it championed, atonal and then dodecaphonic, abstract, experimental, abstruse and, to most ears, incredibly boring as well as incredibly ugly, was unintelligible. In some listeners it induced nausea. A new language had come into being (the French would call it langage, the Italians linguaggio), one that very few understood. From composers such as Offenbach and Johann Strauss II, whose music was of universal appeal and would even be whistled in the streets, to Arnold Schonberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern it had been a fast transition. Schonberg regarded his new musical language—dodecaphony—as equivalent to Albert Einstein’s discoveries in physics. During a walk with his friend, the musicologist Josef Rufer, the composer famously stated, “I have made a discovery that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” In fact, through dodecaphony music went from being a language that everyone in the western world could understand to an obscure language that very few spoke.

        To make things worse, or better, depending on one’s point of view, Theodor W. Adorno, the philosopher as well as trained musician who belonged to the Marxist Frankfurt School, wrote the influential The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949). In it, he essentially polemicized against beauty itself, having beauty become a component in the ideology of advanced capitalist societies. Art, and music, contributed to the sustainability of capitalism by making it “aesthetically pleasing” and “agreeable”. Only avant-garde music would tell the truth by representing human suffering. “What radical music perceives is the untransfigured suffering of man [...] The seismographic registration of traumatic shock becomes, at the same time, the technical structural law of music. It forbids continuity and development. Musical language is polarized according to its extreme; towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks [...] Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.”

        Ugliness, in other words, was to be reproduced in the new language of avant-garde music, and art in general.

        A few months before coming to L.A. as a student at USC, I had driven through an Italian national park. Sitting next to me was a girl who thought of herself as being alternative and avant-garde. She was, above all, a hard-core ecologist, hence the visit to the park. While driving, I casually started a certain cassette tape that was lying in ambush in the car stereo system: Differences, for five instruments and magnetic tape, by contemporary composer Luciano Berio. She became increasingly uncomfortable, and asked me to “stop this noise!” I pretended to try, and said, “I can’t, I don’t know what’s wrong, but I can’t stop the music.” Her discomfort was turning into distress. Suddenly she let out a scream, fumbled around the stereo until she managed to eject the cassette, and threw it out of the window, in the midst of the national park—she, the hard-core ecologist.

        As I had pushed myself to delve into the history of classical, and then formal music all the way to contemporary composers, I did speak this rarefied and ugly language, but did not like it. That is because learning a language, let’s say, Japanese, doesn’t necessarily imply that one likes anything he reads in it only because he can understand. But did understanding matter at all? According to American composer Milton Babbitt, it did not, as he substantiated in his article Who cares if you listen? Its ending reads: “Admittedly, if this [advanced, rarefied] music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”

        But people, whether or not for whistling purposes, needed music. So we owe not only to the Second Vienna School but to all the composers who took music to a rarefied realm of near-unintelligibility the coming into being of new forms of popular music. From ragtime to Dixie, and all the developments that jazz underwent all the way to the free jazz of the 1960s; from Elvis Presley and the Beatles to King Crimson and David Bowie to the Talking Heads and Nirvana along with all sorts of new genres and subgenres well into the 1990s; from the Great American Songbook of, among others, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart to the German (Berlin in the 1920s), Cuban (Havana from the 1920s through the 1950s), and Brazilian (Rio de Jainero in the 1950s and 1960s) songbooks, people in the western world repossessed themselves of music, and music paid their loyalty back with dividends, by producing the most musical century in the history of western civilization.

        It was in L.A. that Schoenberg had continued his music-cide—only to contradict himself gloriously, for which I give him credit, when around 1940 he told his advanced composition class at UCLA: “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.” But it was too late, the damage had been done. Not only by him, of course; more by the idea that music was all about experimenting something new, to the point that, within a few decades, everything had been tried. It was more about ideas, by then, than about what our ears would hear.

        Art had become artifice.

        Jazz too had imploded. Free jazz, at least to my ears, had never sounded as abstract and abstruse as contemporary formal music, but it too had devolved into inaccessibility. Back in Milan, I used to have a frind buy saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s albums from his most radical and experimental period just to see the former’s facial expression when he listened to them. His reactions were terrific fun; the music, not so much.

        Rock music too had taken an unexpected path. Born as the music of the people based on three chords and with no cultural pretensions whatsoever, within two decades at least some of it had betrayed its roots and become brainy, either by fusing with jazz, or by morphing into “progressive rock” and then by taking it to its most extreme.

        It had taken centuries for classical music to become tonal, which it subsequently remained for about three centuries, then less than a century to become so abstract as to be abstruse; less than a century for jazz to go from Louis Armstrong to Anthony Braxton, and others, and their own brand of abstruse inaccessibility; and, incredibly, less than two decades for rock to go from Elvis Presley to what the band Yes had become after their fifth album. It had come to the point in which the three western traditions had, in essence, imploded, unable to produce participable music any longer. It’s a very western thing, to arrive at something, and then to proceed to take it apart in search of something better, newer, or both. The western music telos seems to have marched toward entropy, despite what Schoenberg believed about his highly controlling and structured approach.


Guido Mina di Sospiro was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, into an ancient Italian family. He was raised in Milan, Italy and was educated at the University of Pavia as well as the USC School of Cinema-Television, now known as USC School of Cinematic Arts. He has been living in the United States since the 1980s, currently near Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books including, The Story of Yew, The Forbidden Book, The Metaphysics of Ping Pong, and Forbidden Fruits.

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31 Jul 2020
Send an emailMatthew
I share some of these views about serialism and the avant garde and a sort of pernicious "progressivism" in music. But the problem I have with this critique is that 1) dodecaphony was a short-lived movement and 2) almost no one tries to write "atonal" music (for want of a better term) any more. Art music went through a nervous transitional period after the Second World War, but by the 70s it was largely over. Music went to the cliff edge, and then walked back. The contemporary classical music landscape is now quite polystylistic, and while there is still much allegedly "ugly" music (but which I do not disregard, and in many cases adore), there is also much beauty, rhythm, a renewed sense of tradition and history... It does not look to me like an "implosion".

31 Jul 2020
Guido Mina di Sospiro
Yes, among others Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, John Tavener have returned in their own way to tradition. But atonal or at any rate highly dissonant music lasted for long enough in the twentieth century to prompt and boost the birth of many music genres in the popular realm, some of which were, in fact, quite sophisticated. As I explain in the essay, classical music went from being popular, in some instances very much so, to being esoteric, for a very few. I am paradoxically grateful to this involution because, as a reaction, so much beauty was born and cultivated by other musicians in new genres. The horrors of modern music pale in comparison to the architectural horrors, however. Nobody needs to bother to listen to, say, Luciano Berio, but the monstrosities of modernist architecture are eyesores in in plain sight.

31 Jul 2020
Send an emailMatthew
Well, we can certainly agree that horrors of modern music pale in comparison with architecture! The point you make about nobody needing "to bother to listen" to certain music is a good one. This is of course how canons are made, and we are seeing a 20th century canon emerging which shows the century to be far from some horrific disaster. There is also a lot of good, meaningful highly dissonant music that should be separated from Boulez, Berio et al. Messiaen, Charles Ives, Frank Martin, Sofia Gubaidulina, Lutoslawski, Per Norgard, Ginastera are only some of those who come to mind.

31 Jul 2020
Guido Mina di Sospiro
The point I am making is a simple one: classical music became “formal music” (even worse in Italian: “musica colta”, highly educated music), and gradually adopted a language that most people did not understand. But people still needed music. So, a few decades after Offenbach and Verdi, they started to enjoy ragtime, then Dixieland, swing, and so on. But bebop and cool jazz complicated the musical language of jazz and, not surprisingly, another “accessible” music language was born right alongside it in those years: rock’n’roll (later on, through Ornette Coleman and others, jazz took a further leap into inaccessibility). Remarkably, it took only twenty-two years to go from Buddy Holly’s to King Crimson’s respective debut albums. The telos toward rarefaction and incommunicability was faster for jazz and then even faster, if not precipitous, for rock because both genres learned and then borrowed from classical music, and hence they got to abstraction more quickly. Of course there are some formal composers that can be salvaged from the twentieth century, but such a century will not be remembered for their music, but rather for that of popular musicians. Let us not forget that Verdi, among others, was immensely popular, especially but not exclusively in Italy, to the point of composing the soundtrack of the Italian unification, no less, with the memorable aria "Va’, pensiero" from "Nabucco", and even through his very last name; his multitude of aficionados would intone, Viva Verdi! Meaning both long live Verdi and long live Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia. For that kind of anthemic reaction, in the twentieth century one must look at rock stars, not at composers. And this just about does it for me.

1 Aug 2020
Send an emailMatthew
Yes I quite understood your point, but it's not that clear-cut. You could level the same "formal music" charge against the great polyphonists (Dufay et al.). The relative popularity of "classical" music seems to have been a development starting somewhere around 1500 and accelerated as we moved into the Enlightenment, and fell away again with modernity. It's not in fact clear to me, at least not yet, whether this is a bad thing or not. Why don't you think the 20th century will be remembered for its great composers? Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Britten, Part, Messiaen, so on, all clearly have a defining place in history (and some of their music is genuinely popular). In fact I think we'll find that, in the long run, 20th century classical music will prove to have more durable aesthetic value than popular music.

1 Aug 2020
Guido Mina di Sospiro
"Why don't you think the 20th century will be remembered for its great composers?" Because it won’t. Formal music stopped being participable. The composers you artfully picked— Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Britten, Part, Messiaen—did not abandon tonality entirely (and some of them not at all). My piece was about deliberately atonal and ugly, migraine-inducing, abstract, unlistenable music, not by these composers. And at any rate, apart from a couple of pieces by Stravinsky which by now are almost as inflated as Vivaldi's "Four Seasons", they fail to have the impact the music of the old masters has. To the famous question of yesteryear, What albums would you take with you on a desert island? There would not be much space, if any, for formal music from the 20th century, but plenty for music from the three preceding centuries. If I had to pick 20th century composers I’d go with Albeniz (who died in 1919, so he is more 19th century, really) De Falla, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Villa-Lobos, the latter two vastly underrated geniuses. Years ago I asked an established composer which was his favorite piece of music, and he replied, after some thought, Bartók’s string quartets. “Why?” I asked, but only in my mind, as we were friends and I did not wish to offend him. Why such turgid ugliness when he could easily have replied, Beethoven’s late quartets, for example? Because, I can say now, a lot of modernist unlearning had gone into that reply, camouflaged as learning. There is an overabundance of glorious music from other genres in the 20th century that is memorable, is still being listened to in this century, and will be listened to in the next one. But, no list. I am done.

2 Aug 2020
Lorna Salzman
Tonality is only one aesthetic component of a musical composition. Rhythm, timbre/sonority, form, structure and thematic development are some of the others. The problem with 20th century atonal and dodecaphonic music is that musically untrained listeners rarely pay attention to anything beyond tonality and themes, and are thus unable to distinguish between "good" and "bad" music. But this is also true of these listeners with regard to classical music! How many untrained listeners fully appreciate Beethoven's late quartets? How many listeners actually hear and appreciate the complex structure and thematic elaborations of a Brahms symphony? Tonality has the innate capacity to allow listeners to listen to the most obvious component of a music composition. But when it is abandoned and the other less prominent components remain, the untrained listener is naturally left at sea. What is needed for ALL music is a listening public exposed to all kinds of music from childhood. Those of us who were brought up with daily classical music around us have probably had little or no problem listening to atonal music. And this must be said: it is irrelevant whether a piece is based on 12 tone principles PRECISELY BECAUSE these other components and the piece as a whole demand the same kind of attention as pieces based on a specific key. Those who lack the ability to understand (or try to) a piece's myriad components will therefore be puzzled or enraged at a 12 ton piece, or even a tonal one. Exposure to music at an early age is the secret. Lacking this there will always be adverse reactions fo compositions based merely on the absence of a key signature because the listener doesn't bother to pay attention to anything else.

2 Aug 2020
Guido Mina di Sospiro
To Lorna Salzman: I wrote: "As I had pushed myself to delve into the history of classical, and then formal music all the way to contemporary composers, I did speak this rarefied and ugly language, but did not like it. That is because learning a language, let’s say, Japanese, doesn’t necessarily imply that one likes anything he reads in it only because he can understand." I was classically trained and familiar with most major and minor 20th century composers since my early teens. I studied harmony and composition, but understanding exactly what the composers are doing, which I did, does not necessarily imply liking it. Reference point go missing altogether. I made the example of Debussy, Scriabin, and Stravinsky who all resorted to different reference points, but still gave the listeners something to hang on to. Do try to listen to Luciano Berio's "Differences", for five instruments and magnetic tape, or Stockhausen's "Telemusik"... I see how the inertia of the 20th century continues to linger well into the 21st. Here we are, in 2020, and some still defend, however unwittingly, a certain period of the preceding century, alas, many decades, in which, and not only in music, there existed the cult of the ugly, promoted in particular but not exclusively by the School of Frankfurt and by Bauhaus as a reaction against bourgeois (non)values. It's curious how much the Germans have done, be it the Second Viennese School or the Vienna Circle (with their radical anti-metaphysical stance) or Gropius, be it Marx or Hitler, to undermine western civilization. According to C.G. Jung, who was Swiss, nota bene, at its greatest, Germany was the land of Goethe, Beethoven, Bach. At the same time, its bourgeois civilization, he felt, was deadly, and beneath it all ran very dark undercurrents. In his 1918 essay "The Role of the Unconscious" he noted, “The layer of culture, this pleasing patina, must therefore be quite extraordinarily thin in comparison with the powerfully developed layers of the primitive psyche. But it is these layers that form the collective unconscious, together with the vestiges of animality that lose themselves in the nebulous abyss of time. “Christianity split the Germanic barbarian into an upper and a lower half, and enabled him, by repressing the dark side, to domesticate the brighter half and fit it for civilization. But the lower, darker half still awaits redemption and a second spell of domestication. Until then, it will remain associated with the vestiges of the prehistoric age, with the collective unconscious, which is subject to a peculiar and ever-increasing activation. As the Christian view of the world loses its authority, the more menacingly will the ‘blond beast’ be heard prowling about in its underground prison, ready to burst out with devastating consequences.” Such words written at the end of WW I have been interpreted as a foreshadowing of the events that led Germany, and then the world, to WW II: “It is not the barbarian in us who takes things seriously—they become serious for him.” Modernism has been a far more devastating illness than commonly perceived.

3 Aug 2020
Lorna Salzman
Respone to Guido: my apologies but I confess that my love for classical music has not enabled me to understand and participate in a sociopolitical analysis of the intersection of politics and culture. Part of the reason is that I consider music as an independent and abstract "language", not as a representation of its era except to the extent that each era has both limitations and new possibilities, but which in its essence also derives from the music that preceded it. I dont attribute more to a musical composition than what is presented to me aurally. Neither program notes nor the gender of the composer nor his or her sex life nor political events of that era have, in my view, any influence or validity whatsoever on the musical composition. It is the tools of music and the concept of the composer that count...and these are the ONLY things that we can actually perceive. Whether the composer makes the right AESTHETIC choices depends on that composer's abilities or genius. We can only judge the result. We cannot insinuate motivation or emotions or other influences into the composition. The piece is a result of aesthetic choices and nothing more.

4 Aug 2020
Guido Mina di Sospiro
"The International Clique of Cacophony" - last contribution “The piece is a result of aesthetic choices and nothing more.” As if art happened in a vacuum! The exact opposite is true, of course. Verdi greatly contributed to the unification of Italy and Wagner, alas, to a growing anti-Semitic sentiment. Schubert struggled, sensing that his trademark modulations to distant tonalities were not “proper”, but he followed his melodies anyway. Beethoven, on the other hand, managed with a great effort of self-restraint to stay within the bounds of harmony as it was understood then—and possibly by keeping the genie inside the bottle, his “magic” was all the more potent. What I state in my essay, which you may wish to reread as repetita iuvant, is paradoxical: I am grateful to the intellectualized, modernist and boring composers of a good chunk of the XX century for making people look for participable music elsewhere. Thus many a genre was born, in various countries within the western world. Nobody listens to that ugly and headache-inducing modernist "music" any longer, and if anyone ever did, it was to be part of a “fad”. No one would bring that "music" to a desert island. The verdict is out: it was no longer art, it war artifice: brainy, arbitrary, pretentious, uneuphonic, deliberately dissonant/never consonant, and above all so insufferably boring that one would happily pay NOT to attend that kind of “concert”. The whole western international edifice of formal music took a dive into abstruse incommunicability and the steadfast pursuit of ugliness. The few composers who still wanted to express beauty in music were ridiculed by the pretentious and elitist cacophonists belonging to the International Clique of Cacophony and, to make ends meet, the former found work in writing soundtracks for films. Outside the International Clique of Cacophony, many genres were born and developed, regaling the XX century with a cornucopia of music masterpieces.

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