Listening to Society: Concert Hall Experiences as Social Practices in the 1920s

Hansjakob Ziemer (Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)

Historians who study the Weimar Republic as a musical era often rely on the categorical differentiation between musical reactionaries (e.g. Stavinsky) and musical progressives (e.g. Schoenberg), thereby (sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly) associating music with the political dichotomy so frequently drawn between reactionaries and liberals in the same period. This differentiation has remained one of the most influential and entrenched musical categorizations of the 20th century. While musicologists have recently begun to revise this standard view, the social origins of the dichotomy between reactionary and progressive music have largely been neglected. Why did this particular dichotomy emerge in the 1920s, how was it imposed on musical meaning, and what are the sources of its resonance?

I propose that we can best answer these questions by tracing the roots of this construction back to the political and cultural contexts of contemporary listeners. By examining the contemporary perception of selected composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Mahler and Hindemith, I show how listeners used specific cultural tropes to order and manage broader social dilemmas of citizenship and cultural identity. Analysing the listening experiences of concert-goers as well as the institutional basis of the musical world, sheds light on how social and political ideals were projected onto music, and how the metaphors used to translate the emotional experience of music into meaning were intimately connected to the urban and social landscape of the 1920s. This approach differs from traditional approaches to music history that focus on the passive reception of musical works and concentrate on the biographies of composers. Instead, I view musical experiences as social practices through which contemporaries sought to actively participate in society.

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