A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 52. Eclecticism

Chapter 41.
Chapter 42.
Chapter 43.
Chapter 44.
Chapter 45.
Chapter 46.
Chapter 47.
Chapter 48.
Chapter 49.
Chapter 50.
Chapter 51.

ECLECTICISM: the essence of the 20th century

ImageSally Mankus:
Pink Napkin
Mankus uses an eclectic mixture of rust, carbon, acrylic, clothespins, towel rack, and image transfer to create her artistic vision. 1998


To be completely truthful, ECLECTICISM (choosing diverse elements from many different sources) is the essence of the 20th century, demonstrating the individualism and pluralism which characterizes the era. Certain composers simply cannot be placed into neat categories due to their originality and individuality.

Composers throughout the century have extensively utilized a great diversity of new techniques and new styles in their music, and although the term is frequently used to define certain music in the second half of the century, this text will expand the meaning to include several categories. Eclectic music might draw from pre-existing music (quotation), non-Western music, or popular music, or be a significant transformation of traditional materials.







Although there have been female composers throughout music history, the list of prominent women in this field was small; the majority were not generally recognized for their talents. The 20th century was far more inclusive, especially in the second half.

Representative female composers of the 20th century



(It is important to note that the citation of Thea Musgrave's composition above, the last of this text, is the first one placed in the 21st century.)


It generally takes many years for composers to establish themselves and their work in the concert hall, so it is not unexpected that all of the composers cited in Microcosms share one common element: they were all born between 1851 and 1950.

Below is an extensive list of men and women born after 1950, who are already greatly admired and have become or are becoming well-known as composers. It is likely that future surveys of music will include their work as standards of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Representative composers from the second half of the 20th century

1950's 1960's 1970's 1980's


Top Ten lists are a popular way to indicate the relative importance of items. While it could be considered somewhat irrelevant to apply this to music, in all its quantity and diversity, it can be an informative way to start building a listening repertoire, and perhaps even a library. The list below is not intended to be a compilation of the best pieces of the century, nor the most performed; it is simply one view which focuses on essential characteristics which represent the time. The author of this text asked several friends. composers, and music scholars, to create their own lists, and those lists were significiantly different from each other. The criteria for these lists was to have five works from the first half century and five from the second half, and that no composer could be cited twice. It would be an interesting project to create your own list.

These are compositions which, if you could only listen to ten, significantly represent the 20th century. They are all pieces that influence and inspire listeners; pieces that receive notice, respect, and many performances and recordings; pieces that generate discussion and arguments; pieces that are often cited and quoted.

  1. Claude Debussy: La Mer (1905)
    Listen to a performance of the first movement.
    Listen to a performance of the second movement.
    Listen to a performance of the third movement.

  2. Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire (1912)
    Listen to a performance
    (Follow the links to hear the entire piece.)

  3. Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1913)
    Listen to a performance.

  4. Alban Berg: Lyric Suite (1926)
    Listen to a performance.

  5. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (1940)
    Listen to a performance.

  6. John Cage: 4'33" (1952)
    Listen to several performances:
    performance 1
    performance 2
    performance 3
    Learn more about it from John Cage.

  7. Edgard Varese: Poeme Electronique (1958)
    Listen to a performance.
    Background information

  8. Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)
    Listen to a performance.

  9. Terry Riley: In C (1964)
    Listen to a performance.

  10. George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children (1970)
    Listen to a performance.


Stefan Kostka writes the following in his book Materials and Techniques of Twentieth-Century Music:

While the post-serial avant-garde tradition has not died out, it has certainly met with serious opposition in the forms of indeterminacy, minimalism, and neo-romanticism. Indeterminacy was a reaction against the total control that is the basis for integral serialism. Minimalism opposed the atonal ideas of the incessant recycling of pitch material, of constant variation, and, of course, atonality itself. Neo-romanticism does these things too, but it represents also a complicated relationship between today's composer (and listener) and the music of the past.

And so twentieth-century music continues as it has always been: a maddening but fascinating collage of approaches and materials, a period without a style. It may be, of course, that the difference between composers and techniques that seem so blatant to us will seem to be only matters of detail to later generations, and that the music of the twentieth century will have a characteristic "sound" that will be easily identified, much as the sound of Haydn and Mozart represents a certain portion of the eighteenth century. But those who struggle to understand twentieth-century music are generally more impressed by its contrasts than by its consistencies.

Kostka said it correctly: the contrasts ARE greater than the consistencies. But, in spite of this and the basic premise of this text that there are at least 12 microcosms which constitute the 20th century, the truth is that they are all interconnected, and this very Eclecticism is, in and of itself, a comprehensible style. All periods of music have experienced times of experimentation and times of conservatism; the pendulum between these two concepts swings large and small. The 20th century is just one more swing in this arc.

Although the era's pluralism, in all its diversity, defies one theory to explain it (Kostka's "period without a style"), the past century will ultimately all fit together as one thing: a period of music as individual as the composers who contributed to it.


Predictions are difficult. It is obvious to state that Bach would have had a difficult time predicting Beethoven, just as Mozart would predicting Stravinsky. But the temptation to predict what might happen to music in the 21st century is too wonderful to ignore.

Peter Schikele, our pre-eminent pseudo-musicologist states that "all music is created equal". This says that a rock tune written in a garage is equal to a Beethoven symphony. Although noble in sentiment, this is a hard statement to take at face value looking at what happened in the 20th century. You might find Leonard Bernstein's (a great conductor, composer, and teacher in the 20th century) statement on the future of music to be illuminating.

Our past century is unique in its ultimate segregation of art music, traditional music, and popular music. It was not unusual for proponents of each category to value their own style and look down on the other two. To understand this, one must examine the presumption that there is such a thing as an "absolute" standard of quality; that is, having the ability to state that one style of music is inherently better than another, and that there is such a thing as a "best" style of music ever written. The only response is, of course, that taste is personal, and quality is what we as individuals perceive in a piece, not what others perceive.

It is this author's prediction that this will be the century of inclusion. We have witnessed some of this happening already at the end of the 20th century. Musicians have talked about third stream music for 50 years, although it has not become standard yet. Music studies in the last 20 years have moved from an effete view of the highbrow and academic to include jazz, Broadway, gospel, and other genres more commonly associated with the popular side of the art. New music being presented recently frequently utilizes idioms from these genres. We have even seen one of our most respected (and still living) art music composers, John Corigliano, being honored with one of the hallmarks of popular culture, an Oscar at the Academy Awards, for his extraordinary music written for the movie The Red Violin.

Our preconception that certain styles are better than others is being eroded. Music of the 21st century will continue to accept all influences as valid, and will find a way to amalgamate diverse styles. The first great composer of this century will be the one to find a way to cross this hurdle; he or she (in the 21st century, the concept of a female composer will not be exceptional) will not be an Eric Clapton or an Elliott Carter; this composer will represent all categories of music equally, and will be a new breed. The best thing that could happen for music is the discovery of new audiences. There is a profound segregation presently, with rock audiences and classical audiences rarely seeing eye-to-eye. There could be no healthier possibility than inclusion as one of the attributes of 21st century music.

One thing is for absolute certain: the music of the 21st century will be completely different from the century past. Music history never travels backwards. Progression, change, and development are as constant as they have been for the last 1000 years.


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