In Challenging the Modern, Nicholas Attfield addresses the question of musical conservatism during the Weimar Republic, a phenomenon that for a variety of reasons has been largely ignored or misunderstood by music historians. Utilizing extensive archival research, Attfield ably demonstrates the complexity, dynamism and diversity of Weimar-era conservative thought in a variety of intellectual and geographical contexts. The heart of the book consists of four chapter-length case studies and an epilogue that considers the reception of Attfield’s subjects during the Third Reich. Additionally, a chapter discussing the history and critical application of the term ‘conservative revolution’ forms the central theoretical framework for the volume. An introductory chapter takes on the freighted notion of ‘Weimar culture’ and examines how historians have long associated the term with the era’s technological and artistic innovations—often conflated with democratic and progressive politics—thus distorting our view of Weimar musical conservatism. The author argues that these visions of a utopian golden era minimize or conceal continuities between Weimar cultural outputs and their pre-First World War roots while simultaneously papering over the many social, political and economic frictions of the era. Engaging with the work of Peter Gay and Michael Kater, Attfield demonstrates how historians have often characterized musical conservatism as a manifestation of reactionary or anti-modern right-wing political sentiment, attempting to define it as something separate from authentic Weimar culture. Thus marginalized, conservative figures lurk in the shadows plotting their revenge, something achieved presumably after 1933. Conservative rhetoric of the era often resists these reactionary stereotypes, however, consistently speaking in terms of rebirth, regrowth and rejuvenation. Far from offering only a pessimistic critique of modernity bent on a return to the past, the various iterations of Weimar conservatism proposed solutions to the modern malaise with an eye fixed firmly on the future. Chapter one features an extended discussion of the term ‘conservative revolution’ and its usefulness in understanding Weimar-era musical conservatism. Beginning with the work of Armin Mohler, Attfield situates conservative revolution in its political and aesthetic context, arguing against the term’s application to a uniform movement. Rather, the concept is useful as an ‘entry point into the charged constellation of protest, resistance, conservation, and transformation that characterize the Weimar era and its neighbours’ (p. 21). Building on the scholarship of Jeffrey Herf, Louis Dupeux and Roger Griffin, Attfield establishes points of contact between features of conservatism and modernism, challenging claims that modernism was primarily an expression of the revolutionary left while encouraging readers to ‘consider comparison rather than sharp contrast’, (p. 30) especially if it aids in evaluating conservative figures without the ‘rigid binaries’ of modern/anti-modern or progressive/conservative colouring the discussion. The case studies that populate chapters two through five reinforce the intellectual, aesthetic and political diversity of Weimar musical conservatism. Chapter two offers a fresh look at the relationship between composer Hans Pfitzner and Thomas Mann in the years after the First World War. Using Mann’s own writings from the period Attfield argues that the ‘sympathy with death’ approvingly identified by Mann in Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina was not simply an expression of cultural pessimism; rather, it was for Mann the very centre of a call for revival, advocated for by Mann and others through the formation of the Hans Pfitzner-Verein für deutsche Tonkunst. Attfield reads Pfitzner’s subsequent turn from opera to the more public form of the cantata with Von deutscher Seele as an attempt to seize the cultural moment and address the broadest audience possible. Rather than existing at the margins of Weimar culture, where he is so often relegated in standard music history narratives, Pfitzner stands poised in the early 1920s to occupy its centre. Chapter three considers Alfred Heuss and his time as the influential editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Unlike Mann or Pfitzner, Heuss distrusted all new music as soulless and decadent and used his position to attack composers and critics alike, especially Paul Bekker and Adolf Aber. Attfield considers a series of columns written by Heuss designed to educate his readers and unite them through an appreciation of the musical gestures and attitudes of the eighteenth century. His bombastic broadsides against his enemies attempted to engage in a ‘politics of mass influence’ (p. 88) in explicitly revolutionary terms. Chapter four analyses attempts by several biographers to decouple the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner from the facts of his biography and his historical context, reinventing him as a kind of timeless mystic in order to advocate a connection to a new, ‘higher sense of community over and above identification of the individual self’, (p. 12) that could transcend the fractured and fragmented modern world. While Bruckner’s cultural appropriation by the Nazis has received a good deal of scholarly attention, Attfield shows that the deconstruction of the composer’s legacy for ideological purposes was already underway well before 1933. The final case study focuses on August Halm, noted Bruckner biographer and music teacher. Here Attfield illustrates the broad sweep of conservative revolution: while in many ways Halm’s writing style and political sympathies contrast sharply with Heuss or Pfitzner, he too viewed contemporary musical culture as ruinous, preaching the spirit of renewal through rigorous engagement with German masterworks. Collaborating with school reformer Gustav Wynecken, Halm believed that a carefully administered aesthetic program combined with the Jugendbewegung could be a key component in the rebirth of German culture. Attfield’s epilogue treats the reception of his subjects after 1933. Following the example of Pamela Potter, the author focuses on mapping continuities between the Weimar and Nazi periods, eschewing a centralized model of totalitarian pressure in favour of a case-by-case approach that centres on issues of advocacy coupled with Ian Kershaw’s notion of ‘working towards the Führer’ (p. 178). One of the Attfield’s primary aims throughout is to ‘stress the differences between these conservative musicians’ projects’, (p. 32) a goal he accomplishes successfully over the course of the book. His use of previously unknown or underutilized archival material is compelling, shedding new light on the diverse manifestations and rhetoric of Weimar musical conservatism. Touching on issues of publishing, criticism and education reform, Challenging the Modern is broad in scope and appeal, inviting readers from a variety of disciplines. The introduction and first chapter are particularly valuable for the work they do in articulating a more refined understanding of Weimar culture and conservative revolution, aligning well with recent trends in scholarship that seek to understand cultural and political continuities between Weimar and the regimes that surround it. Attfield’s prose is lively and engaging, and the author does an excellent job of summarizing key points in order to keep his narrative focused. No doubt due to editorial requirements there is no bibliography provided, which would have been a welcome aid for further study. Challenging the Modern is a valuable addition to Weimar-era studies, offering a nuanced and much-needed reappraisal of the various musical conservatisms that existed during the years of the Weimar Republic. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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