It is a feature of twenty-first-century British musicology that the relevance of modernism as a defining concept has usually been considered in relation to leading composers who came to prominence between 1900 and 1950 – Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge, Walton, Tippett and Britten, for example. None of these might be thought overtly radical alongside such non-British contemporaries as Skryabin, Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Webern: and thinking of Elgar or Walton as modernist certainly does not imply the presence of an expressionistic quality in their work. Even with Frank Bridge, who of all those listed is often thought of as having affinities with Schoenberg or Berg, it is difficult to find anything as explicitly expressionistic as Erwartung or Wozzeck. Despite the fact that ‘ultra-modern music’ was not excluded from British concerts and broadcasts during the first half of the twentieth century, it was only with the emergence after 1950 of a younger generation, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Cornelius Cardew and Jonathan Harvey among them, that the aesthetics of expressionism came together with the techniques of modernism to move British music into a new, and more progressive phase.
Such a suggestion reflects the conclusion of recent chroniclers of expressionism: Paul Griffiths accepts that despite being ‘a short-lived movement … some later composers … have sometimes been seen as perpetuating the expressionism of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern’, while David Fanning regards Maxwell Davies as showing ‘the continuing potential of expressionist gestures to re-vitalize music theatre’, even if, as ‘only one among many competing trends’, expressionism ‘could hardly claim to be a leading force’ on the early-twenty-first-century scene as a whole. Fanning then identifies what he calls ‘one intellectual extreme’ of present-day expressionism with the work of Michael Finnissy (b. 1946). Moreover, despite not wanting to grant present-day expressionism the accolade of being ‘a leading force’, Fanning suggests that
perhaps [expressionism’s] most valuable legacy has been as a vital ingredient in an internationally communicative, progressive style, less militantly dehumanized than the 1950s avant-garde yet still untainted by proximity to the entertainment industry. … As an onomatopoeia of the emotions, as a subversive corrective force to complacency or academicism, musical expressionism seems likely to live on and reappear in limitless, unforeseeable new guises.