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Modern Period Celebration

Modern Period
20th Century String Music: Works by Bartók, Stravinsky, Britten, Walton, etc.
Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Richard Studt


Rel. 3 Jun 1994

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Modern Celebration Concert
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The Modern period (c.1900-1945) opened up a veritable revolution in every realm of musical composition: rhythm, harmony, melody, form, timbre, and beyond. The pioneers of the early Modern period – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartòk, Ives, and others – faced resistance and often scorn as they fearlessly rebelled against the conventions of the late-Romantic aesthetic. Given these innovations, the music often presents technical challenges that demand a particular kind of performer – including some of the most gifted in the classical arena. This “Modern Celebration” is the eighth in our series of features devoted to the nine principal periods of music history, whereby we invite our visitors – regardless of experience – to explore and discover the many composers and works that exalt the era, and some of the outstanding artists that successfully bring it to our ears. Specifically, this Feature includes a brief written Overview of the Modern era, as well as a useful index of key composers, works, and artists – each of which is linked to the related page on our site. In addition, we provide a two-hour 1-Click Concert (full streams to our subscribers only), a featured “sampler” album, and a set of “Modern” videos. Enjoy!

“Music's exclusive function is to structure the flow of time and keep order in it.”
– Igor Stravinsky

Modern Period Overview

The term “modern” is admittedly vague, and yet within the realm of art history it holds a rather specific meaning, as subsumed under the rubric “modernism”: applied to the period roughly 1880 to the end of WW II, the term refers to the conviction among progressive artists to offer a unique if not radical form of expression yielding a cutting-edge view of history, pointing decidedly to the future, and bringing forth the subjective experience of the artist and of modern life in general. The roots of the aesthetic go back to earlier 19th c. notions of art’s inherent independence of moral or social standards – as discerned in Victor Cousin’s famous expression “l’art pour l’art” (Art for art’s sake) – and especially to mid-century claims by Baudelaire and others regarding the revolutionary or avant-garde obligations of artists to reject historical models. In music, the roots lie in Richard Wagner’s notion of music history and the imperative of art to transcend the past, in opposition of those (e.g., Giacomo Meyerbeer) who merely conceded to popular taste. In the years after 1900, following leads established by Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, and Alexander Skriabin, among others, composers yielded to the “demands” of modernity – to shatter expectations and conventions, and instead to reflect the conditions of modern life with its progress in science, technology, urbanization, and industry.

The first dominant proponents of musical Modernism included especially Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók; despite their differing musical approaches, all three responded to an imperative to move beyond the established practices of tonality (major and minor keys, modulation, etc.), rhythmic regularity, use of traditional instruments and established forms, etc. The often violent response of the audience and critics to this music was in fact a reinforcing phenomenon to “serious” composers, who were critical of contemporary standards of culture and the prevailing addiction to the mere entertaining dimension of music. Indeed, it was in response to the growing schism between composer and public, especially after World War I, that many composers turned to private societies or organizations dedicated to “modern” music – such as Schoenberg’s Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances, 1918), and similar efforts by Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, and many others. As in painting, poetry, and other art forms, music flew through a number of short-lived movements –Expressionism (Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern), Primitivism (Stravinsky), Folkorism (Bartók, Villa-Lobos, Bohuslav Martinu), Neo-Classicism (Stravinsky, Sergey Prokofiev, Darius Milhaud), etc.

By the mid-1930s, opposition to Modernism came directly from political doctrines as well, namely in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, both of which attacked the modernist trends as degenerate, subversive, and anti-nationalist – leading to official bans. Ironically, the decade before World War II had witnessed an internal reactionary aesthetic among many composers throughout Europe and in America (Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Copland, etc.) – one, however, that would reverse itself markedly following the War, commencing the so-called “Contemporary” Period.

Principal Modern Period Composers

Here is a list of some of the principal composers of the Modern era:

Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954)
Principal genres: Symphonies, Orchestral Works, Songs

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Principal genres: Orchestral Works, Choral Works

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Principal genres: Stage Works, Orchestral Works, Concertos, Piano Works

Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Principal genres: Piano Works, Orchestral Works

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Principal genres: Suites and Tone Poems

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Principal genres: Concertos, Chamber Works

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Principal genres: Piano Works, Concertos, String Quartets

George Enescu (1881-1955)
Principal genres: Orchestral Works

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Principal genres: Ballets, Symphonies, Chamber Works

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)
Principal genres: Chamber Works, Electronic Work

Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Principal genres: Chamber Works, Orchestral Works, Songs

Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Principal genres: Operas, Orchestral Works, Songs

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Principal genres: Piano Works, String Quartets, Chamber Works

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962)
Principal genres: Orchestral Works

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Principal genres: Operas, Ballets, Symphonies, Concertos, Piano Sonatas, Film Scores

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)
Principal genres: Orchestral Works, Film Scores

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
Principal genres: Ballets, Symphonies

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Principal genres: Symphonies, Chamber Sonatas

Carl Orff (1895-1982)
Principal genres: Choral Works

Howard Hanson (1896-1981)
Principal genres: Symphonies

Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
Principal genres: Piano Works

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Principal genres: Opera, Orchestral Works, Concertos, Piano Works, Songs

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Principal genres: Songs, Choral Works, Piano Works

Copland, Aaron (1900-1990)
Principal genres: Ballets, Symphonies, Orchestral Works

George Antheil (1900-1959)
Principal genres: Piano Works, Orchestral Works

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)
Principal genres: Concertos

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Principal genres: Symphonies, String Quartets, Piano Trios, Film Scores

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Principal genres: Concertos, Organ Works, Piano Works

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Principal genres: Concertos, Orchestral Works, Songs

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Principal genres: Operas, Songs, Orchestral Works

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)
Principal genres: Piano Works

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Principal genres: Musicals, Symphonies, Choral Works

Key Modern Period Works

Here is a short, and quite partial, list of some of the many masterpieces of the Modern era. Use this list as a springboard for further musical exploration. In addition, please enjoy the 1-Click Concert above, which is in large part based upon these selections.

Ives, Orchestral Set No.1: 3 Places in New England, S.7

Holst, The Planets, suite for orchestra and female chorus, Op.32, H.125

Bridge, The Sea (suite), H.100

Schoenberg, Pierrot lunaire (melodrama), for voice and chamber ensemble, Op.21

Schoenberg, Violin Concerto, Op.36

Respighi, Fontane di Roma (The Fountains of Rome), P.106

Bloch, Baal Shem: 3 Pictures of Hassidic life, for violin and piano

Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB114, Sz.106

Bartòk, Concerto for Orchestra, BB123, Sz.116

Enescu, 2 Rhapsodies roumaines, Op.11

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps)

Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, for chorus and orchestra

Varèse, Ionisation, for 13 percussion instruments

Webern, Variations, Op.27

Berg, Violin Concerto

Villa-Lobos, Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, for voice and 8 cellos, A.389

Ibert, Escales (’Ports of Call’)

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet (ballet) Op.64

Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf (symphonic fairy tale), Op.67

Honegger, Pacific 231 (Mouvement symphonique No.1), H.53

Milhaud, La création du monde, Op.81 (ballet)

Hindemith, Symphony Mathis der Maler (Mathias the Painter)

Orff, Carmina Burana (scenic cantata)

Hanson, Symphony No.2, Op.30 (’Romantic’)

Cowell, The Aeolian Harp, for piano strings, HC370

Gershwin, An American in Paris (tone poem)

Poulenc, Gloria, for soprano, chorus and orchestra, FP177

Copland, Appalachian Spring (ballet) for 13 instruments

Copland, Fanfare for the Common Man, for brass and percussion

Antheil, The Airplane Sonata (’Second Sonata’), W.40

Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez, for guitar and orchestra

Shostakovich, Symphony No.5 in D-, Op.47

Shostakovich, String Quartet No.8 in C-, Op.110

Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano, I/22

Barber, Adagio for Strings (arr. of 2nd mvmt. of String Quartet), Op.11

Britten, Peter Grimes, Op.33 (opera)

Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op.31 (song cycle)

Ginastera, 3 Danzas argentinas, Op.2

Bernstein, Symphonic Dances from ’West Side Story’

Top Modern Artists

Here is a short, and quite partial, list of the many outstanding artists (conductors, soloists, chamber groups, orchestras) featured on Classical Archives who specialize in performing music of the Modern era – divided into their various categories:


Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Berlin Philharmonic

Boston Symphony Orchestra

London Symphony Orchestra

Los Angeles Philharmonic

New York Philharmonic

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Scottish National Orchestra

SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra


Claudio Abbado

Marin Alsop

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Pierre Boulez

Robert Craft

Antal Dorati

Valery Gergiev

Bernard Haitink

Richard Hayman

Herbert Kegel

Neeme Järvi

Michael Tilson Thomas

Chamber Ensembles

Alexander String Quartet

Amici Ensemble

Juilliard String Quartet

Kopelman Quartet

Schoenberg Quartett

Vermeer Quartet


Géza Anda

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Idil Biret

Jenö Jandó

Louis Lortie

Olli Mustonen

Other Instrumental Soloists

Natalia Gutman (cello)

Ilya Kaler (violin)

Timo Korhonen (guitar)

Heinrich Schiff (cello)

David Schifrin (clarinet)

Vladimir Spivakov (violin)


Theo Adam (bass)

Christine Brewer (soprano)

Dame Felicity Lott

Peter Pears (tenor)

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