Fear of tradition: Modernism and the rejection of national identity in music

by The Editor

Fear of tradition: Modernism and the rejection of national identity in music
Robert Servaud examines atonal Modernism within music and finds only anti-traditional discordance.

In recent decades there has been a noticeable decline in the number of those British composers reflecting a true sense of national identity in their music. The landscape of this land and the culture of its indigenous population which once seemed to provide a wealth of inspiration for so many creative minds now seems to have been relegated into a secondary position.  Any ensemble or organisation wishing to commission a new work is now faced with a whole set of criteria prescribed by the various funding bodies whose agenda emphasises inclusivity and multiculturalism combined with the favouring of non-traditional modes of expression. The barriers to be overcome in applying for funding are rooted in a culture which places diversity first and expression/nationhood second.  The following extract from a recent strategic planning document published by Arts Council England in 2013 reflects this thinking in no uncertain terms:

“Our commitment to diversity and equality is a long-standing one. We believe arts organisations, museums, and libraries, should ensure that their work draws on and reflects the full range of backgrounds and perspectives to be found in our society. While we can point to examples of best practice, where this approach to diversity is part of an organisation’s DNA, we know that not all the work we currently support does this to the extent it should. We will use our funding, development and advocacy roles to ensure that these examples of best practice are replicated and built upon” (‘Great art and Culture for everyone’, 10-year strategic framework,  2010-2020, Arts Council England)

Those voices which are heard and taken as being representative of the ‘British’ voice in music are those which have passed the Arts Council diversity and equality litmus test. A symphony orchestra now wishing to commission a contemporary Vaughan Williams ‘Fantasia on a theme of Tallis’ would only pass the test if the underpinning modality was combined with raga scales and tala rhythms from the Asian sub-continent.

Such elements go counter to the natural flow of stylistic musical development within these Isles, a flow which can be traced back to the middle ages and beyond, resulting in the current fragmentation of the British voice in music. Even when that voice appears to emerge it is frequently clothed in post-modernistic attire which dilutes the purity of the original musical source or inspiration. This is not a contemporary cultural phenomenon and historical precedents can be identified in the decade following the cessation of hostilities in 1945. This cultural shift of emphasis commenced in post-war Germany, followed by France and then the United Kingdom.

This is no hidden conspiracy but a well-evidenced process recently documented in ‘The Rest is Noise’ by the North American music critic, Alex Ross. For example, post-war Germany saw the allies providing financial backing for ‘new’ music festivals such as those held at Darmstadt and Donauschingen, concert events being dominated by the likes of Stockhausen and other similar atonal, discordant voices. In this music the emotional response of the listener was suppressed in favour of intellectual analysis of complex mathematically derived musical structures.  Richard Strauss was one of the few composers in these post-war years not afraid to continue writing works in a traditional extended tonal form rooted in the latter years of the romantic era. His ‘Four Last Songs’ not only bid farewell to this world but also create a feeling of being a final farewell to tradition before the modernist anti-tradition machine laid waste to the musical landscape. Following Strauss, any sense of national identity in music had been eradicated in favour of global, inclusive forms. The foundations had thus been laid for the current leftist dominated cultural establishment who no longer live in fear of the new in art and music but possess an almost obsessive desire to reject traditional artistic values and grammar, an obsession fuelled by the dominant multiculturalist lobby.

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