The Romantic Era is likewise filled with much good music; probably more than any other period in musical history. This was due to the intellectually liberating influence of The Enlightenment and the fact that for the first time in history human art recognized, projected and exalted Man’s volitional nature as Master of His Own Destiny and potential for Benevolent Greatness. Notables: Liszt for Harmonic structures and Tchaikovski for Melodic and Thematic construction. Many of Chopin’s pieces are lovely and wonderful music, even if a bit whimsical in structure. Some of Schubert’s pieces have parts that are good music but for some reason he always manages to surround these wonderful sections with substandard ideas. How’s that for brief? I bet you didn’t think I could keep discussion of my favorite musical period so short and to the point.
The short lived and brief era after Romantic was Impressionistic. It’s best known practitioners were Faure, Debussy and Ravel, all of whom wrote good music only eight or sixteen measures at a time and buried it in their compositions between vast sections of strange miasma.
The Modern Classical, Post Modern, Avant-Garde, Neo-Classical Era of the early 1900′s was filled with so much bad music and noise I refuse to talk much about it here. The only thing I have to say right now is that most of it was chaotic noise. Even if it was cleverly constructed with it’s own internal logic (and much of it certainly was) it completely ignored the nature of the human mind and ear in assimilating melody, harmony and rhythm sounds. I have discussed this in depth elsewhere and I may do so in the future, but not now. Happily there were wonderful exceptions in this era; Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Mahler being the primary exponents of good music. Stravinsky stands completely alone as a creator of individualistic style. Although not always very melodic, his skill in all other areas of musical composition are staggering. Rachmaninoff and Mahler are considered “throwbacks” to the Romantic Era, but if you listen careful you will be rewarded with many new, fresh, original ideas (especially harmonically and in structural integrity). Unless you are chronologically confused and say, “What a minute I’ve heard ideas like that before.” Yes, but all those big beautiful movie themes and thunderous metal riffs were influenced by these guys. Not the other way around.
Gershwin, Copland and Joplin occupy unique positions in early 1900’s music (at least in my mind). None of them were overtly influenced by European Musical Dogma, all were quite original and individualistic composers and wrote in a strongly American music character. Sometimes the large scale structure of their music is not quite satisfying or perfect but their inventiveness, strong sense of theme and melodic and rhythmic structures are usually enough to carry the day. A concrete illustration is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. The themes are sometimes thrown together haphazardly but they are great themes. They are not always developed or contrasted with convincing secondary themes or segues (sometimes never) but the same can be said of most of Mozart’s music (with the exception of those later works). Fortunately, old George lived long enough to write “An American in Paris and “Concerto in F” which are masterpieces. If you have never heard these pieces I urge you to do so. They are pristine examples of Good American Music free of minor flaws and overt European influence.
There are many old jazz standards from the 1920′s to the 1950′s that are wonderful tunes and quite good music. There are some that only have sections (a verse here, a chorus there, the occasional well-placed bridge or segue) which are top quality. I would say Ellington stands out as the real innovative genius in this area. After this time period, however, music got increasingly bad even though much of it still remained somewhat fun as light entertainment. A good example of this would be late fifties instrumental pop tunes and early sixties pop/rock/R&B tunes.