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A Level Music Clinic: Understanding 20th Century Composers

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

Getting your head around the music of the 20th century isn't easy - Genevieve talks us through three of the key composers you'll need to know for Edexcel A Level Music.

Modern Classical Music Compositions

The 20th century was a huge turning point in the history of classical music. By this point, music had finally became accessible for the general public after the development of radio broadcasting in the early 1900s, and the invention of mass market gramophone records. This makes for a particularly interesting period of music history: we’re talking about music which could influence everyone.

Tracing the most influential composers of the 20th century gives an insight into the culture and into the philosophical movements of the time period. If you are studying A-Level Music, I would encourage you to look into the movements that the composers are associated with; it will give you a more complete understanding of the works themselves.

So, with that in mind, here’s a whistle-stop tour of three of the most influential 20th century musical composers in our latest A-Level Music clinic.

John Cage

If you haven’t heard about John Cage, you’re in for a treat – he’s typically the most fun to learn about. Born in 1912, Cage was a leading avant-garde American composer.

Cage is famous for his ‘prepared piano’, meaning that he manipulated the actual instrument of the piano by placing objects between or on its strings or hammers. If you have a spare piano lying about, why not try playing one of his pieces after preparing the piano? Or you could always try to make a ‘prepared glockenspiel’ if you have a lower budget like my class did!

John Cage perhaps thought about sound more deeply than the average person – check out his interview on silence, where he talks about everything from the spheres of time and space, to sounds pretending that they love each other. Confusing stuff!

He also says that the sound experience which he prefers to all others is the experience of silence, and the silence almost everywhere is traffic. If you listen to Mozart, it’s the same each time. But if you listen to traffic, it’s always different. Ever thought of traffic as music before?

Cage pushed the boundaries of what should be called ‘music’, not only by changing the physical instruments, but by performing silence. I’m serious – his piece 4’33 involves no actual deliberate sound at all – each performance is different, because any noise that the audience hears becomes the sound of the piece.

Cage’s ‘Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos’ is currently on the Edexcel music syllabus for A level. If you’re going into be studying him next year, why not get ahead and go through some of the philosophical background with your tutor? You could even try performing his silent work!

Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky was another influential 20th century composer, born in 1882. One of his most famous works, the ‘Rite of Spring’ was written for the 1913 Paris Ballets Russes company. The avant-garde nature of both the music and choreography meant that the reception of its first performance was essentially a riot. The Rite of Spring contains a lot of features ahead of its time: it experimented in tone, metre, and dissonance.

Rite of Spring is currently on the Edexcel A-Level specification – perhaps check out this article by the Telegraph for some further insight into the reception of his work if you want to get ahead!

Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams was an English composer, who wrote in a range of different styles such as operas, ballets, chamber music, and orchestral compositions. He wrote nine symphonies, and was influenced by Tudor music and English folk song.

He was a strong advocate for music being accessible to all, rather than being an elitist form of entertainment. He also composed very staunchly English music, which helped Britain become less of the musical province of Germany that it had been for two centuries.

‘On Wenlock Edge’ is a song cycle composed for tenor, piano and string quartet, based on Houseman’s poem collection. See if you can pick some harmonic and structural features while listening to it!

If any of these pieces have sparked your interest, why not consider getting a music tutor? Learning about the 20th century composers allows you to know that bit extra about the philosophical debates within music – get ahead this summer with the help of our amazing music tutors!

Blog Post Crafted by Genevieve

Genevieve is currently working towards her bachelors in English Literature at the University of Warwick.

Born in Coventry, she now tutors English SATs and GCSE in her free time, as well as working for the university as an outreach ambassador in local schools.

She also enjoys playing piano and flute, and often performs as a backing singer at local gigs.

Whenever she has a moment to spare, you might find her driving to the beach or catching up on her reading!


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