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This list includes 10 seminal works from the 20th century classical repertoire. They represent a range of styles and methods explored during the past century. In a way, they were included because they are "the pieces that everyone talks about." I have included links so you can listen to each piece, giving you a crash-course in 20th century music.


1. Claude Debussy: La Mer (1903-1905)

This work exemplifies Debussy's "impressionist" style, and it ushers forth modernism in its break from functional tonality and its emphasis on timbre.


Look at the score


2. Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire (1912)

This is a work from Schoenberg's free atonal period, before he invented the twelve-tone method. This is an expressionist piece for soprano with chamberensemble, exploring insanity and other sundry subjects.

Listen (tracks 2-22)


3. Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1913)

This ballet, about a virgin who is forced to dance herself to death, is the culmination of Stravinsky's "primitive" period. Its premiere famously caused a riot in Paris, and the music accompanied dinosaurs in Disney's Fantasia.

Listen (tracks 8 & 9)


4. Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (1944)

Copland is most famous for his populist, folk-influenced style, and this is a great example. Originally a ballet premiered by Martha Graham, this piece won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Listen (track 6)


5. John Cage: 4'33" (1952)

Cage's infamous "silent" piece is not a joke, as some believe. Instead, Cage points out the fact that any sound can be heard as music, even unintended background noises.

great video, with orchestra and commentary

for piano, closer to how it was originally performed


6. Iannis Xenakis: Metastasis (1953-4)

Xenakis was also a mathematician and an architect, and he used these techniques in his music. This is often referred to as a "sound mass" composition, as Xenakis uses probability to create many small events, that, added together, make masses of sound.

Listen, and look at a graphic analysis


7. Edgard Varese: Poeme Electronique (1958)

While this is not the first electronic piece, it remains an important early example. It is the culmination of Varese's search for unique timbres. It was composed for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels worlds fair, a collaboration with architect Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis.

background about the piece and the exhibition

Listen to the piece

Xenakis's Concret PH, a companion piece


8. Terry Riley: In C (1964)

This is an early example of minimalism, a hypnotic and repetitive style of music that marked a return to tonal harmonies.



9. Luciano Berio: Sinfonia (1968-9)

This work could be considered "post-modern", as it combines many styles in one musical stew. The third movement in particular uses the third movement of Mahler's second symphony as a springboard for snippets of other pieces to appear, creating a musical collage.



10. Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) (1976)

This glacially-paced and beautifully haunting work became a surprising bestseller in 1991, 15 years after it was composed.


“Great additions all around - it was hard to keep it to 10. I was sad to leave out Ligeti and Messiaen in particular. But, that's why we have a "thoughts and perspectives" section!”
Posted over 6 years ago
“Adam, good suggestions! I also personally enjoy Varese's "Ionisation" (, Grisey's "Partiels" (, as well as Ligeti's "Atmospheres" (”
Posted over 6 years ago
“I do not know about the rest of you but Messiaen and Turangalila-symphonie keeps adding itself to this list.”
Posted over 6 years ago
“Thanks Adam for this information. 20th Century music is also known as the Age of Technology, 20th Century Music took full advantage of new technologies as they became available. Not constricted by rules of the classical period, composers had the stylistic freedom to write however they pleased. Music Forms/Styles • Impressionistic - A term derived from one of Monet's works - Impression, Sunrise. In music it is applied to works of early 20th century composers such as Debussy. Debussy rejected the rules of tonality and created music that is pleasing to the ears as impressionist paintings are appealing to the eyes. This resulted in music that was relaxed, almost dreamlike. • 12-tone System - A term mainly attributed to Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg wanted to eliminate the tonal center and developed a technique called 12-tone system wherein all the 12 notes of the octave are of equal importance. The 12 notes are placed in a specific order called a "tone-row" or "tone-series", and no note is repeated within a row. This evoked music that felt anxious and unresolved. • Neoclassical - A term applied to the music of early 20th century composers like Stravinsky which reflects 18th century music. Stravinsky's works, particularly after the highly acclaimed The Rite of Spring, did not emphasize tonality but felt restrained. Stravinsky was discovered by Sergei Diaghilev, the producer of the Ballet Rouse. His earlier works reflected influences from Debussy, he used dissonance and irregular rhythmic patterns. ”
Posted over 6 years ago
“as an addendum, la monte young, eliane radigue, maryanne amacher, steve reich, and morton feldman are all essential as well.”
Posted over 6 years ago
“Thanks Marc - I hope this will be helpful to people!”
Posted over 6 years ago
Posted over 6 years ago
“This is fantastic!!!! The Iannis Xenakis - Metastasis is phenomenal. I so look forward to listening to everyone of these pieces. Thanks for a great list. ”
Posted over 6 years ago
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