Important Musical Works of the 20th Century

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Important Musical Works of the 20th Century

Important Musical Works of the 20th Century

Music is one of the ways in which humans express their feelings. Studying a group of people’s music and the changes that have occurred in it over time is an effective way of understanding people’s history, values, and religion. A study of all cultures of the world reveals that every community has its music but it changes over time. The classical music genre has defined the general history and aura of the music industry guided by strict rules of engagement and adherence to the rule of playing and recording. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, (1913), Alban Berg’s, Wozzeck (1925) and Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie (1949) are some of the most important works of the twentieth century. Their analysis shows that they have influenced modern music significantly in various aspects such as audio-visual effects, costumes, performances, as well as good stage presence.

The Rite of Spring was released by Stravinsky in 1913, in the original Russian version, Le Sacre du printemps. It was composed specifically for the 1913 ceremony of the Ballet Russes Company in Paris. The composition, the voice inflections, the arrangement of the instruments and the general standard of performance, together with the dressing and costume appropriateness was done with a high degree of care. The standard of the music led to the immediate public appreciation of the song. The first performance was on 29th May 1913, and the reaction of the audience was equated to a riot in some later reviews (Ross, 2013). Stravinsky was young and virtually unknown in the music industry when he released the song. Therefore, the success and excitement were not caused by the hallo effect of audience expectation as is the case in some modern performances. The song had to be good enough for it to cause such a sensation from an unknown composer. While the original composition was designed for the stage with accompanying performances, the reception was so good that it became a common song in the public and private lives of the people in Russia.

The song tells the story of the coming of the season of spring and how the people of a Russian town choose a young girl for religious pagan sacrifice. It depicts a number of rituals that were familiar in the country at that time, which shows that it partly a commentary on the people’s lives. Therefore, the song was not just a masterpiece in its quality of voice, instrument and dance, but also in its relevance as a message on the issues in the society. Classical music had its roots in Western culture and was associated with the middle class that emerged during the industrialization and the educated citizenry. Listening to the high-class genre was seen as a sign of prestige and sophistication (Thorau and Ziemer, 2018). In addition, the classical music genre is used in both secular and religious aspects. The expansion of Christianity in the early 19th century contributed significantly to the growth of this type of music. Classical music is important because it is associated with the history of the developed world and tracing its development overlaps to many fields such as history, religion, and anthropology. Much of the traditions and cultural evolutions that have occurred across the word can be closely linked to the evolution of classical music.

Great works of music are recognized not just as entertainment sources but also as useful avenues that the people use in commenting on, criticizing, or highlighting issues in society. It was a climax of a project that Stravinsky had worked on for some years with notable improvements in the quality and presentation of the message. It was said to be a revolutionary song and a turning point in the public perception of music. The song significantly shaped the music scene to date. In addition, the historical events surrounding the release of The Rite of Spring placed it among the important developments of the time. At the time, the world was preparing for the First World War and tension, fear, and resentment dominated the minds of many people across the world. The release of an enjoyable classic soothing music was a way of distracting people from the fearful atmosphere while serving as comic relief.

The song also received a fair share of criticism from some quarters. Some felt that its choreography was too provocative and was too violent in its presentations. Some of its initial performances received too much shouting from an audience that was annoyed by its features, especially its open portrayal of a pagan rite. However, its portal was evidence of the song’s message of criticizing primitive practices. Eventually, the song succeeded in attracting public discussions on the issues it addressed. The song set the singing, instrumentation, and choreography standards too high such that other artists of the time had a difficult task trying to match it. Therefore, The Rite of Spring helped raise the standards of music in the world to date.

The second work of music that has had a major impact on the music scene in the 20th century is Alban Berg’s, Wozzeck, which was released in 1925. The song was initially composed by Alban Berg, an Australian songwriter, from around 1914 to 1922, but the first public performance was in 1925, as an accompaniment to the play Woyzeck, which was left unfinished by the playwright Geog Buchner on his death. The song was Berg’s attempt to turn the play into a musical drama. The long time taken to achieve this feat is a testament to the effort required to come up with such high standard songs. The public interest in the play and the death of the writer may be partially responsible for its success. The song tells the story of soldiers and peasants in a rural German town and elements of World War I that disrupted Berg’s composition of the song. Berg served in the war, which makes the allusion to the effects of war in his song understandable. It depicts the suffering of soldiers and the common people and displays the callous nature of human beings, and the sadism that accompanies the war. After the conflict, Berg took a leave to complete the song, and the first performance in 1925 was a great success, followed by much public interest. The song was performed in Philadelphia in 1931 and the public interest and media publicity that accompanied it showed that it was a major work that would have a major impact on the world music scene.

One of the reasons behind the good public reception was the use of a unique production style. Wozzeck is among the initial productions that utilized the avant-garde style in the twentieth century. Berg was stretching his imagination and seeking to pioneer bold new ways in which musicians had previously used the stage. He also experimented with the idea of producing an atonal piece, which means that he sought to avoid the sticking tone in his production. Instead, he sought to sing in a free tone, which helped him to express emotions freely, unlike traditional classical music prescriptions that sought to limit the singer’s ability to be creative with emotion on stage. The use of free tone and the extreme emotional expressions of the actors in the song helped to connect with the audiences. However, this does not mean that the song did not have any plan for good voice presentations. It followed a strict key arrangement that helped keep it within the required voice ranges. In addition, Berg employed leitmotifs and other complex systems of musical quotation to create harmony in the song (Boyden and Kimberley, 2002). Consequently, Berg managed to achieve quality and emotion in his performances, which made his work successful.

Wozzeck was the first and only atonal opera followed by his other song Lulu. The performance of Wozzeck continued across the world, with new versions developing over time. The song’s success may be attributed to several factors, for example, its departure from the traditional pure singing routine presentation to a more relaxed new system in which the performer had some freedom to use different tonal variations to express his emotional attachment to what he was saying. It enabled the composer to shift focus from attempting a perfect rendition of the laws of music and made him concentrate more on expressing his feelings about the message he was putting across. Secondly, the song was a new format, as it was the first time a composer sought to present a full play in the form of a song. The enjoyment of the song and the deduction of its message were not just on the words, but also on the actions of the actors on stage. In addition, it was one of the first songs that put much emphasis on visual aspects such as voice inflexion, appropriate dressing and costumes and facial expressions. The song marked the beginning of inclusion of both oral and audio-visual components in music, an aspect that has become popular in the current times with the invention of video technology. The physical presentations and the dramatization of the song formed a major part of the performance. It was a full story with characters, a plot and setting. Finally, the song was a story about an event that was in the minds of the people. The World War was a major issue at the time the song was released. Its focus on the consequences of the conflict helped the audience to identify with the issues that Berg was raising. Therefore, the audience perceived the song not just as a source of entertainment, but also as a commentary on the social problems at the time.

The third influential music work of the twentieth century was Oliver Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie that was written from 1946 to 1948 for the Boston symphony orchestra festival. It was first performed during the festival on 2nd December 1949 and was immediately noted by music enthusiasts as a great work. Unlike Messiaen’s earlier compositions that had mainly been religious, the song was inspired by the myth of Tristan and Isolde that centred on love, romance, and death.  The song was a love and romance piece, but with a tragic tone that pulled the emotions of the performers and by extension, the audience. Turangalila was known for its extreme emotional exposition, which was one of the reasons the audiences found its performances addictive. The detailed dramatized choreography and performance was carefully designed to carry this theme. The song went noticeably longer in its orchestra length with an average performance taking 80 minutes and required 127 performers (Alsop, 2019). The amount of time, energy, and the quality of the performance was noticeably great, which was the reason it generated much interest at the ceremony and thereafter.

While rhythm is maintained in the song through the use of a chromatic scale and pitch, the adherence to the fixed series happens for the first time, which marked an important step in the development of integral musical codes and organized rhythmic renditions. Many of these aspects are still noticeable in modern music. The messaging in the song is carefully arranged, with four noticeable themes of brutality in the ancient Mexican ancients, the flower themes that is a representation of happier times and love, the theme of love that is the most detailed and the longest section of the song, and the theme of death presented as the sad reality that human, even those in love, must face onetime. The song complies with some characteristics of traditional classical music such as its long hours of practice before performances because the singers must memorize and follow predetermined voices and instrument playing systems. The music strictly follows the traditional music adherence to notes and instruments, unlike modern music that concentrates more on creativity and the music and less on the notes and voices (Thorau and Ziemer, 2018). Therefore, it was a great work of music that has shaped some of the modern music, especially in the inclusion of audiovisual aspects as accompaniments to music.

These three songs were composed at a time when there was little technological advancement. There were no formal recording studios like in the present times, and a lot of the music was accessed by the audience through physical attendance in theatres and auditoriums. Despite these limitations, the composers managed to produce some of the most memorable pieces known in music history. Therefore, art requires diligence, patience and hard work to achieve high standards. The current music has borrowed heavily from the older versions of song and dance. Classical music has had an important influence on all other types of music. The three songs discussed are among the greatest works of the 20th century because they were received with much excitement at their time. In addition, the composers spent a lot of time in making the songs thereby resulting in high-quality pieces. However, it is evident that each sought to be unique in some way to resonate with the audience well. Finally, the three works were relevant because they sought to address the issues that the audience could identify with at the time. They were not only works of entertainment, but also avenues of expression of social concerns at the time.


Alsop, M. (2019). Finding God, Love And The Meaning Of Life In Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla-

Symphonie’. Retrieved from


Boyden, M. and Kimberley, N. (2002). The Rough Guide to Opera. London: Rough Guides.

Ross, J. (2013). Four Finger Exercises for the Fretting Hand. New York: Jim Ross Proijects

Publications, Inc.

Thorau, C. and Ziemer, H. (2018). The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and

20th Centuries. New York: Oxford University Press.


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