The 20th Century’s Transition Away From Classical Music

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Last century was, in the history of Western music, the first time that different genres of music became more popular than the classical genre. Besides some traditional folk tunes and religious songs, classical music was what well-to-do people played and listened to for nearly three hundred years. This all changed in the 20th century when other types of music began to emerge and evolve from the foundations laid by previous composers. Of course, it is difficult to differentiate select genres of music from one another because there aren’t universal rules surrounding these classifications. Classical music is split up into a few separate eras because each time period produced its own original music. However, you could say that impressionistic composers such as M. Ravel and J. Turina created a whole other genre that was unlike anything ever heard before. For the purposes of this column, I have exaggerated the generalizations that apply to different genres of music — Such as rock music having guitars — so that I can clearly explain the shift that led to the decline of classical music’s popularity. 

At the beginning of the 1900s, opera still dominated America’s performance halls. Yet by the end of the 1990s, pop and rock were the chart toppers. How did this happen? Well, there were many factors involved, but historians and musicologists can agree that one of the first big changes to the music scene was the introduction of the jazz band in the 1910s and ’20s. These early groups were mostly made up of Black musicians, and artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong led the way in expanding the genre. The 1930s and ’40s are considered to be the height of the “swing” era, and group leaders such as Benny Goodman and Count Basie popularized “big band” music. During World War II and throughout the ’40s, the big bands never lost their popularity, and the addition of a solo singer to the band laid the groundwork for pop music. The 1950s saw the rise of country and rock ‘n’ roll, and singers like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly exploded the music world with their songs. After the early 1960s, the popular genres were less straightforward, as this decade also brought in music from other cultures. In simplified terms, the ’70s were all about disco and electronic music, the ’80s had hard rock, early hip hop, and heavy metal, and the ’90s saw a take-over by pop and hip hop. 

So where were classical music composers during all this? They certainly weren’t in hiding. In fact, many were some of the most prominent citizens of their countries. You have to remember that many European countries hung on tighter to classical music traditions than the United States. After all, they did create this genre.! Modern classical music blossomed in Europe during the pre-World War II era, and such composers as D. Shostakovich, B. Britten, and B. Bartok were compared to the likes of brilliant 1800s composers. However, the world was slowly but steadily moving on, so many classical composers went along with it. Leonard Bernstein is one of the best and well-known examples of a “transition” composer: he was a classical conductor, but he also wrote the famous soundtrack to the musical West Side Story. This Broadway show and film was considered revolutionary because it highlighted immigrants, remade Romeo and Juliet, and had such outstanding music. As we see with Bernstein, many classical composers had to adapt to the new era because the world was changing, whether they liked it or not. The 20th century was a time of great growth, and not just for music. 

I don’t grieve the “loss” of classical music because I honestly love so much of last century’s music, and artists such as Doris Day, The Beatles, ABBA, and Bon Jovi. Frankly, classical music had its time as reigning champion, and it was time to move on. However, I have no doubt that it will continue to be appreciated for many years to come, and I am proud to sustain its legacy through my playing.