Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 April 2005
There is currently a backlash against modernism in English-language music studies. While this vogue of ‘modernism bashing’ is ostensibly based on progressive ideologies, it is dependent on a one-sided perception of musical modernism which it shares with earlier conservative disparagements. Of central importance in this respect is the ‘othering’ of musical modernism as an essentially continental European phenomenon in the ‘Anglosphere’, where it is consistently suspected of being a ‘foreign import’ – by conservative commentators in the first part of the twentieth century, just as by their ‘new-musicological’ successors at the turn of the twenty-first.
The example of the Anglo-American reception of the so-called Darmstadt school, usually regarded as quintessentially modernist, demonstrates how certain partial understandings and downright prejudices are handed down. For instance, the critical commonplace of Darmstadt’s presumed obsession with such values as technical innovation, structural coherence, and a scientistic rationalization of composition says more about those who coined it – mostly American critics who were uncomfortable with the aesthetic as well as the political radicalism of Darmstadt – than about the music itself. It is often precisely this depoliticized, sanitized construction of modernism that present-day critics have attacked, apparently unaware that this has always been a misrepresentation. By thus tracing some common misapprehensions in the Anglo-American reception of musical modernism, I want to argue for a fuller recognition of modernism’s essentially dialectical nature.