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Short Essay #2 – Rethinking Modernism

“At a time when musicology’s sights seem set ever more squarely on eradicating boundaries…the study of modernism can seem a rather antiquated concern.  Modernism is arguably all about boundaries, in the heightened sense that it is itself a contested category, whose only red thread seems to have been an investment in distinction and hierarchy.”

from Christopher Chowrimootoo, “Reviving the Middlebrow, or: Deconstructing Modernism from the Inside,” in Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 139, no. 1 (2014), p. 188.

What does it mean for music to be “modern”?  And why should we care?  For the last few decades, musicologists have thought about these questions, finding that modernist composers often defined themselves by differentiating their work both from traditional forms of expression and from mass popular culture.  Although this so-called “great divide” between art and popular music, between traditional and progressive ideas is prevalent in many primary sources, it need not be the only way we think about the last 150 years of music history.

Please read Christopher Chowrimootoo’s “Reviving the Middlebrow” (pp. 187-193 in the “Modernism and its Others” PDF.  Chowrimootoo claims that we should begin to rethink this history of modern music by paying more attention to “middlebrow” music: repertories that fall somewhere in between modernism’s divides.  Write a brief essay in which you try this approach: consider music that does not align neatly with clear categorizations and hierarchies, and reflect on how understanding this music might impact our understanding of music history.

Your essay should address the following points:

  • How do you understand the “great divide” discussed on p. 188? How has it affected our discussions of music history, and of music more generally?  Please expand on Chowrimootoo’s short discussion by briefly citing examples of composers or pieces from different sides of the divide (at least one from each side).
  • What does Chowrimootoo mean by “middlebrow” (introduced on p. 190)? What, specifically, does paying more attention to middlebrow music do to help our understanding of music history more generally?
  • Select a piece (from the syllabus or elsewhere), and consider it from the “middlebrow” perspective. How does it fit between tradition and innovation?  Between “high” art and popular culture?  Be specific, and be sure to consider both its musical features and its historical context.
  • Do you think music history ought to focus more on these “middlebrow” pieces? How should they be balanced with our understanding of a more divided view of modernism?

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