Intertextuality and (modernist) medievalism in British post-war music

Kolassa, Alexander (2021). Intertextuality and (modernist) medievalism in British post-war music. In: Kostka, Violetta; Castro, Paulo Ferreira de and Everett, William eds. Intertextuality in Music: Dialogic Composition. London: Routledge, pp. 114–128.



British composers in the latter half of the twentieth century pursued a belated version of musical modernism rebelling against the establishment by ‘returning’ to little known medieval manuscripts. The contradiction here is an interesting one, and what the author identifies here as modernist medievalism—the contradictory appropriation of the medieval to expressly forward-thinking ends—is explicitly intertextual. This chapter argues that a modernist composer conjuring the medieval is doing something less than the literal representation of an ‘authentic’ past than they are engaging in a nexus of imaginary (re)representations of a non-contiguous and Other, shared, version of history, one that elides any such reified notions of the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ and unites disparate fields of artistic activity. Beginning with a brief summary of twentieth century precedents focussed principally on the ‘Tudor medievalism’ of, among others, Benjamin Britten, the author turns his attention to the contrasting medievalisms of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. And specifically, their career-long appropriation of the works of earlier composers John Taverner and Guillaume de Machaut (respectively). For the former example, Davies entered into existent intertextual networks incorporating In Nomine and Dies Irae chants; whereas in the latter case, Birtwistle repeatedly rearranges, deforms, and disguises the techniques of the medieval poet-composer.

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