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Who Killed the Concert? Heinrich Besseler and the Inter-War Politics of Gebrauchsmusik


By examining the ideas expressed by the German musicologist Heinrich Besseler in his 1925 essay ‘Grundfragen des musikalischen Hörens’, this article attempts to find precedents in Weimar Germany for a contemporary social conception of music, and to trace the effects of this conception on music history between the wars. Although Besseler's position is seen to be complex and not wholly consistent, from his ideal of music as an expression of community (Gemeinschaft) arose two influential claims: that the concert was in crisis because it could no longer correspond to that ideal, and that the real source of communal vitality lay in Gebrauchsmusik, music for everyday use. The article explores the immediate political and musical consequences of these claims, both for the German youth music movement (Jugendmusikbewegung) and for Gebrauchsmusik as composed by Weill, Hindemith, and Eisler. It argues that the social aims of the Gebrauchsmusik movement were in fact best met when combined with an earlier understanding, rejected by Besseler himself, of the concert's own ‘community-forming power’ – a theoretical combination that was to lead outside Europe to the American musical and the Soviet symphony. By contrast, the sidelining of such ideas in post-war Germany was reflected in Adorno's outright rejection of musical community, a move which served to confirm only Besseler's first, negative claim – thereby establishing as normative an ‘autonomous’ conception of concert music and leaving musicology unable to give any positive account of the concert's social role.

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Twentieth-Century Music
  • ISSN: 1478-5722
  • EISSN: 1478-5730
  • URL: /core/journals/twentieth-century-music
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