Modernism

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Artists took to modernism like ducks to water. Writers, I have read, seemed reluctant to follow but I’m not quite sure how this conclusion was reached.

Who were the British modernist composers? I suppose you could argue that Tippett was a sort of modernist.

I mean, there were anti-modernist British artists and writers. I think there’s something about music that divides and segregates people’s approaches to it in a way that doesn’t happen in the other arts.

I think that Britain’s peripheral position in Europe and its conservative musical history impeded or limited the acceptance of modernism in music. And we didn’t have the creative soil for it to flourish. There was no 19th century British Berlioz, Wagner or Strauss to lay the foundations for modernism. Even Vaughan Williams’s music was thought strange by some distinguished musicians in 1909, and Holst’s “Choral Fantasia” was criticized because its opening didn’t observe the rules of figured bass. And only in England could Walton’s “Façade” have been thought avant-garde.

If pushed, I’d cite Lutyens’s 12-tone row-based O Saisons, O Chateaux of 1947 as definitively the first modernist statement in British music. Its idiom is very close to contemporary pieces by Dallapiccola.

But in the end it all comes down to how one defines modernism in the musical context – or any other, for that matter. The Bexhill Lido is sometimes offered as the first example of post-Corbusian architecture in this country, but one can probably find modernist elements within the fabric of many a more traditionally shaped and framed building in one’s own locale.

Can the bog standard 1930s British semi be considered a work of modernism? Can the ubiquitous neo-classical facades of our municipal buildings? Like the sounds of Stravinsky’s Apollo, they couldn’t have been created in any other century.

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