Mahler, Debussy & Bartok: Transition from Late-Romantic to Modern

Mahler, Debussy & Bartok: Transition from Late-Romantic to Modern
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  • 0:01 Turn of the Century Music
  • 0:37 Late Romantic to Modern Music
  • 2:05 Gustav Mahler
  • 3:32 Claude Debussy
  • 4:37 Bela Bartok
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you'll explore the transition from Late-Romantic to Modern music through the compositional styles of Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, and Bela Bartok.

Turn of the Century Music

If there are two things I love, it's music and time travel. Luckily, they're basically the same thing. Music gives us a glimpse into people's lives, attitudes, beliefs, goals, and cultural aspirations. It's basically like traveling back in time. What mattered to people in ancient Rome? Look at their music. What was going on in the 13 colonies in the 1700s? Check out their music. How was the world changing in the late 19th century? You guessed it! The answer is in the music.

Late-Romantic to Modern Music

So, where are we? The late 19th century, which in terms of music would put us in the Late-Romantic period, the cultural era and musical genre that flourished from roughly 1850-1900. This was a big transitional period for music, and really for the world in general. Romantic music was a big deal, especially in Europe, and over the last several decades it had defined people's ideas about music.

In general, Romantic music is characterized by a focus on subjective emotion and personal experience, national pride, and musical richness or flamboyance requiring virtuosic skill. Before this, music was often stiff and rigid - beautiful, but focused on achieving an almost academic perfection. The rules were strict. Romantic composers started to bend these rules, playing with new ideas, sounds, and even instruments.

By the Late-Romantic period, composers were obsessed with pushing the limits of music, and this is where we see the transition into Modernism, the music of the 20th century, characterized by freedom and experimentation with traditional rules of musical composition. So the late 19th century was an important transitional era, as composers rejected the constraints of the past and looked to create a new world in the new century.

Gustav Mahler

Looks like the first composer on stage today is Gustav Mahler, an Austrian composer of the late 19th century. Mahler was one of the last great Romantic composers from this region, and his compositions represent the synthesis of a century of Austro-German Romantic music into something new and fresh. Mahler wrote symphonies, compositions with several musical parts made to be played by large ensembles. Now, remember when we talked about Late-Romantic music breaking rules and experimenting with compositions in new and unexpected ways?

Mahler's symphonies were unique in that they were narrative, meaning they followed something of a storyline because they were based in emotional experiences. This isn't a dry, objective piece of technically perfect music. It's driven by Mahler's own personal emotions dealing with the subject of death; that's the theme of the narrative that drives the music and gives it direction. Mahler also creates this sense of narrative by using vocals as a major part of the performance.

Traditionally, this was only done in opera, and in those cases the voice was really the focus, separate from the orchestra. Mahler used voice as part of the symphony, as just another instrument. This was a significant change that represented the increasing focus on freedom and experimentation that would define later Modernist music.

Claude Debussy

Next up on our musical trip back in time is Claude Debussy, a Late-Romantic French composer of the late 19th and early 20th century most associated with Impressionism. The Impressionists were painters who used color to capture the feeling of a passing moment in time, to capture an impression. Debussy did a similar thing with music, although he never personally liked the term Impressionism. His compositions were created to evoke the impression of a mood, emotion, feeling, or atmosphere.

Just as Impressionists used layers of colors with rough textures, so did Debussy. The only difference is that he used layers of harmonies to build texture. Not only did Debussy rely on the personal, subjective emotional experience, he also heavily experimented with exotic chords and scales from places like Asia and Africa, bringing non-European motifs into European music. This was partly a reflection of the world at the time, as the French extended their economic power into Japan and Asia.

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