Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap / Revue Belge de Musicologie
In 20th-century music historiography there are at least two problems: what is understood by modernism and consequently, does Benjamin Britten belong to it or not? Based on a study of some thirty music histories, I analyse the different ways Britten is discussed and historically positioned. It seems that the most important criterion to position Britten is the author's stance towards modernism.
Furthermore the music histories show the extremes of a continuum along which Britten is positioned, ranging from a conservative, traditional composer who has almost nothing to do with modernism to a composer who was socially committed and for that reason belongs to modernism.
Most music histories of the 20th-century focus on new compositional techniques and on the composers who introduced them, respectively on the works which expose them. Terms as modern, new, progressive, original are frequently used, albeit without being clearly defined.
Over the last few decades music historiography has been confronted with reflections considering the relation of compositions and their context. If music history is seen in a broader perspective than new compositional techniques, what does that mean for the position of Britten who said 'it is the composer's duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings.'? (speech in 1964 On Receiving the first Aspen Award)