20th Century Timeline

What is 20th Century music? The history and politics of the 20th Century provided inspiration for the diverse range of musical styles developed between 1900 and 1999, pioneered by composers ranging from Elgar and Britten, to Stravinsky, Gershwin, and John Williams. Advancing technology enabled the recording of classical music and jazz, which in turn lead to the rise of globe-straddling artists like Pavarotti and Callas.

Find out about Britten, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and 20th Century music...

Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life

Britten: music, biography and videos Bernstein: music, biography and videos

Elgar’s Cello Concerto No. 1 explained

Richard Strauss: music, biography and videos Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 explained
Einaudi: music, biography and videos Vaughan Williams: music, biography and videos
John Rutter’s ten essential works John Rutter: A Life

John Williams facts

Karl Jenkins composes Adiemus

20th Century: Fast And Friendly Guid

Music in the 20th Century changed dramatically, due to the hostile political climate, advances in technology, and huge shifts in style. Many composers, struggling to build any further on the music of generations gone by, reacted against established musical trends, creating exciting new forms and styles.

  • Music was greatly influenced by the enormous political events which shook Europe in the middle of the 20th Century. Shostakovich, in particular, was persecuted by the Soviet regime when his music was thought to be too ‘modern’ or élitist, meaning he was forced to write in two styles - symphonies for the authorities, and smaller works such as string quartets which were true to his own voice. The Holocaust, Hiroshima and World War II convinced many post-war composers that they needed to put the past behind them and find ever more progressive methods: see Pierre Boulez’s Structures, Schoenberg’s experiment with tonality and John Cage.
  • American composers like George Gershwin and Duke Ellington began to draw on their own native music - jazz. Stravinsky and Ravel responded with music that also embraced jazz styles. Folk music was also a great source of inspiration for composers like Vaughan Williams, Bartók and Messiaen.
  • Modernism in music was about being radical and different. For the first time, musicians and audiences realised that music didn’t have to be confined to tradition, but by 1960 this idea had run out of steam. The next generation of ‘serious’ composers relaxed and had a wider palette of musical colours to work with - influences from other cultures, popular music, ancient music and the experiments of modernism.
  • Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and John Adams championed Minimalism, breaking musical boundaries and winning them huge popularity. Their music reflects advances in music and technology - sometimes including elements of jazz and rock.
  • A group of composers who met while studying in Manchester have become the main exponents of ‘post-modern’ music in Britain. While music written by Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, it can be profoundly powerful and stimulating.
  • Film music and video game music increased in popularity towards the end of the century, with the soundtracks to E.T., Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings making their mark on classical music.

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Bernstein’s Candide explained

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