Cultural contexts for the starting conditions of contemporary are explored, with a particular focus on the responses of composers who finished their training and entered the profession just as its practices were changing radically, around 1910. Their situation is analyzed according to Edward Hall’s definition of high- and low-context cultures, Kenneth Burke’s concept of “piety,” and the psychological stress of “choice anxiety.” These lead to behaviors that can be read in musical compositions according to a few heuristic binaries: (1) attitudes to historical practice (ironic, sincere); (2) preferences about appeal (popular, rarefied); and (3) identification with communities (local, global). Essays on compositions by Shostakovich, Hindemith, Bernstein, Wilson, Chen, Martin, Barber, Shire, and Prokofiev illustrate pertinent analytic techniques.
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