Multiple Modernisms: The Complexities of Central European Music at Home and Abroad, 1918–60

AHA Session 114
Central European History Society 6
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Riverside Suite (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Joanna Zuercher Curtis, New York University

Session Abstract

The historical narrative of musical modernism, for the past several generations, has revolved around the Second World War in Europe. The typical story begins with late-nineteenth-century Central European experimentation with tonality and rhythmic structure. Often understood as having emerged from the work of Richard Wagner, early modernism’s best-known voices spoke from Vienna, Paris, Prague, Berlin, and Budapest, and programmed its works on Europe’s most important stages. Modernists claimed the music’s internal complexity marked it as inherently democratic. But the advent of Nazi Germany supposedly quelled the modernist spirit in Europe; modernism in the Americas gave way to wartime nationalism. After the war, modernism found a home in West Germany at the Darmstadt International Summer Music Festival, and a secure place in the European canon.

More recent studies of modernism have complicated this picture, and moved beyond Europe. Musicologist and historian Pamela Potter has noted that Nazism’s claim to embody Europe’s dynamic future meant it could not afford to abandon modernism altogether. Modernist composers like Paul Hindemith and conductors like Erich Kleiber tried at least initially to work with the Nazi regime. Other observers have argued against Europe’s centrality, given the importance of New York for the creation of a jazz-inflected modernism in the twentieth century’s first decades. Roughly contemporaneously, in Mexico City, Julián Carrillo and Carlos Chávez experimented with indigenous polyrhythms and melodies. Arnold Schoenberg’s important Viennese studies on the twelve-tone method were in fact preceded by Carrillo’s publication of El sonido trece (The Thirteenth Sound), a parallel effort to push musical composition beyond traditional Western tonality.

These sets of questions might seem narrowly musicological, but in fact go far beyond notes on the page. The centrality of music to the history of the German-speaking world makes modernism useful in contemplating Germanness in the twentieth century. This session’s papers bring together cultural, social, and institutional history as well as music history, musicology, and the history of migration to query the development of twentieth-century musical modernism both in its Central European and transnational contexts. The participants will explore modernism’s trajectories in Central Europe and its development across Latin America through the experience of Central European wartime refugees. The session will also highlight connections among disparate genres of high-cultural innovation, including the visual arts, and the specific lived experiences of composers, conductors, musicians and their audiences, from Munich to Buenos Aires. In thinking together musically, we will also draw larger conclusions about the nature of Nazism’s relationship to culture and identity, the legacy of the Habsburg Empire at home and abroad, and the definition and rejection of “German” and European culture in the Americas.

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