Claude Monet, Waterlillies

Musical Modernism: the Revolutionary Decade

Instructor: Nathan Shields
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Musical modernism arrived, and went out, with a bang. Over the course of less than 10 years, from the premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome in 1905 to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, the language and ethos of western music changed more drastically than it had in the preceding century. During the “modernist” decade, composers like Stravinsky, Strauss, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók produced their most radical and indelible works, pushing their music toward extremes both expressive and technical—of rapt stasis and dissonant complexity, violence and sensuality, collective impersonality and alienated introspection—that polarized public opinion and sparked riots. “Since then,” as Schoenberg later remarked, “the scandal has never ceased.” What is musical modernism? Why did it emerge when it did? And why do the masterworks of musical modernism retain, even today, the capacity to shock and seduce?

In this course we will examine the touchstones of musical modernism both as artworks and as cultural documents, placing them in the context of the musical traditions from which they sprang, the larger modernist movement of which they were a part, and the rapidly transforming society they both reflected and reshaped. We will listen to the Rite, Salome, Bartok’s In Bluebeard’s CastleDebussy’s Pelléas et Melisande, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and other works, considering them alongside the writing of such contemporaries as Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Kraus. We’ll trace the impact on music of the major artistic and ideological movements of the era, from the French decadents to the expressionism of fin-de-siècle Vienna to the nationalism gathering force across Europe. Through secondary readings by Theodor Adorno, Carolyn Abbate, and Richard Taruskin, among others, we’ll explore the connection between the masterworks of the prewar decade and the ensuing collapse of European society. Did modernist music forewarn of the coming disaster or embrace it with nihilistic eagerness? And finally, we’ll discuss the live, still-contested legacy of these works today. In what ways do they continue to shape the musical language of contemporary composers, the relationship between artists and their audience, and our understanding of music’s power and possibilities?

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
November 18 — December 16, 2020
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, November 25th.


Registration Open

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