Classical music started the century as the undisputed master of its field. It was recognised (in the West) as the main purveyor of music of emotion, subtlety and innovation. It reached a vast mainstream audience. Gradually this changed. Classical music began a journey into the avant-garde, and abandoned western tonality, the familiar ‘rules’ and practices of music that had served for several centuries.
Whatever the artistic merits of this new approach, there is little doubt that the mainstream audience couldn’t – or didn’t want - to follow it. A vacuum was thus created. Into it stepped an enriched form of popular music, that now began to take over as the principle producer of sophisticated, emotionally and artistically satisfying music that could be understood and enjoyed by an intelligent, mainstream audience. But that’s not to say that this new, enriched popular music was free of innovation. It wasn’t. It not only created new musical forms; it enthusiastically embraced all existing forms of music, be they classical, popular, folk, ‘world’ – or whatever. (The very musical forms the avant-garde were rejecting.) Popular music even embraced the avant-garde!
At the highest level of popular music, the most gifted composers consistently produced music that was at the same time familiar yet strange, a clever and exciting mixture of the old and the new. And the greatest popular composers didn’t just influence other popular composers. They also influenced a new generation of ‘classical’ composers. No doubt composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Schoenberg and the other twentieth century ‘classical’ giants will – rightly - feature in future music histories. But the pivotal story of Twentieth Century music, Howard Goodall believes, is this astonishing, unexpected and unprecedented flowering of popular music. In this new century, the old, damaging division between the two camps – classical and popular – will no longer be an issue. There will just be music, good and bad.