The Influence of 3 Musical Giants Led to the Rise of 20th-Century Classicism

From the overripe excesses of late Romanticism, there emerged a new Classicism—greater fidelity to the intentions of the composer combined with deep and complex expression—led by 3 Musical Giants.

By Scott Flavin | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine

The Romantic period, dating roughly between the early to mid-19th century into the early 20th, emphasized the importance of the individual. As a reaction to the unanimity of form and straightforward approach of the Classical period, musicians like Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) and Franz Liszt (1811–86) captivated Europe through the display of their innermost (oftentimes dark) personal emotions. This fascination with the ego of the individual gradually led performers to stretch the boundaries of rhythmic freedom, style, and emotion to sometimes absurd excess. The great composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), who lived during almost the entirety of the Romantic period, grew to resent the sometimes injudicious freedoms of vocalists singing his carefully crafted music.

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However, from the overripe excesses of late 19th- and early 20th-century Romanticism, there emerged a new Classicism—greater fidelity to the intentions of the composer combined with deep and complex expression. 


Every element in the score took its place as part of one thought and design. Every idea glowed with life and beauty… Each element was merged in the conception of a single despotic spirit—that of Toscanini—and, together with Toscanini, glorified Beethoven.

—Olin Downes, New York Times

A New Classicism

A reaction to the excesses of the Romantic period, 20th-century Classicism was epitomized by several characteristics. A more consistent and increased level of technique was put to the service of musicianship; greater importance was placed on the composer and musical styles of all periods, with less emphasis on the “ego”; and musicians began to brush off the cobwebs of “tradition”—gone was excessive rubato, stretching of tempo to the point of ridiculousness, and making musical decisions that were based primarily on the whims of the performer. While coming from different backgrounds and of varied ages, three of the most notable musicians of the 20th century heralded this change: Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), Maria Callas (1923–77), and Jascha Heifetz (1901–87).


The great conductor’s career began when, as an opera cellist and sometimes chorus master, he was asked at the last moment to conduct Verdi’s Aida, which he did extremely successfully—and from memory! Toscanini revered Verdi’s works, was keenly aware of the composer’s scores both in markings and spirit, and was relentless in his discouragement of excessive vocal ornamentation and overindulgent phrasing. In Beethoven’s symphonies, he brought a freshness of interpretation inspired by a mercurial energy, closer adherence to Beethoven’s metronome markings (though not slavishly so), and crisp and meaningful articulation. Throughout all of his work as a conductor, Toscanini insisted on an ever-higher level of seriousness and quality of musicianship. 



Maria Callas created a sensation, not due to a gorgeous vocal sound, but to the depth and range she gave to every role. She epitomized the 20th-century Classical approach in her intelligence and insistence on bringing out the drama inherent in each work, the truth in each character. This meant that sometimes she could sound terrifying, naïve, or even ugly, all to suit the drama presented. But her approach wasn’t limited to her role as a vocalist: Callas studied the full orchestral scores of each opera she performed and abhorred the excesses of some of her colleagues. This knowledge of and connection with the composer’s score is brought to life in her approach to “Mi chiamano Mimi” from Puccini’s La Bohème. While closely following Puccini’s detailed and subtle markings, Callas used her voice as a vehicle to bring the character to life in concert with the orchestra, imbuing her performances with realism.


Jascha Heifetz changed the world of instrumental music in a profound way—his perfectionism and deep musical intelligence created a new standard in the 20th century. String players are fortunate that his recorded legacy traces his journey from youthful 19th-century Romantic excess to a mature style, which was free from the stifling traditions of the past, yet also intensely expressive. Listening to his 1911 recording of virtuoso chestnut Souvenir by Franz Drdla, you hear the thick slides and heavy rubato so typical of 19th-century violinists; however, even at the age of ten, he plays with a vibrato that is much more energized than that of his older contemporaries, Ysaÿe and Kreisler, and a standard of technical prowess that foreshadows his later playing. In his maturity, Heifetz displayed a greater connection with the composer, borne, like in the cases of Callas and Toscanini, from a deep study of the score. While his Mozart is not of today’s period-performance style and contains some vocal slides and varied articulations, it is remarkable in its clarity and freshness—this is certainly no Romantic reinterpretation of Mozart. 


The parallels between Toscanini and Heifetz can be best shown by his approach to the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Heifetz’ tempos tended to the brisk and highlighted, especially in the first movement, the obligato character of much of the solo violin writing. The famous opening of the violin solo part, consisting of arpeggios and scalar-derived passagework, makes total sense in the fabric of the work when not played in an overindulgent manner, and with a flowing tempo. This is not to say that Heifetz doesn’t sing—he shows inflection, subtle rubato, and audible slides in the melodic writing. Like Toscanini, he is not a slave to the score either. For example, in many of the 16th-note passages, which are written with separate articulation in the score, Heifetz adds various bowings and articulations, all to create an effect of color and meaning throughout the passages and to highlight the improvisatory nature of Beethoven’s writing. One only has to listen to recordings of the Beethoven concerto by earlier, Romantic-era performers to hear the 20th-century Classical approach of Heifetz.

The time period from Toscanini’s rise in the 1880s to the last performances of Heifetz and Callas in the 1960s and early ’70s ushered in a new appreciation of and desire for the truth and spirit of the composer, bringing music to life with an ever more profound emotion. It continues to inspire musicians today.