Taruskin: History of Western Music III

February 8, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.III
Music in the Nineteenth Century
Richard Taruskin
(Oxford, 2005)
928 p.

The previous volume of Taruskin’s massive history ended on a discussion of the music of Beethoven. This third volume rolls out, to a large extent, in Beethoven’s wake, describing the many currents of musical Romanticism in the nineteenth century. In my notes to Volume II I remarked that, with heavy-weights like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven filling its pages, it covered the most influential period of Western music, but I might with equal justification say the same thing about this present volume: here we find Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, and a host of well-known others whose music collectively forms the core of the repertoire for most of today’s professional musicians. We are getting rather far from the world of Machaut and Josquin, but we must try not to be too discouraged.

Romanticism in music is a many-headed beast which it would be foolish to box in too tightly, but some general contours can be discerned. The Romantic artist assumed a stature that artists had not previously enjoyed: the notion of the ‘genius’ was in the ascendant, and artists were bestowed with a new spiritual grandeur. Self-expression became more central to the artistic task, and art, music included, began to be seen as a possible alternative to religion, providing access to a form of non-dogmatic transcendence. The archetypal case is, once again, Beethoven. (Does the music of, say, Rossini fit this model of Romanticism? Like I said, the contours are blurry.)

Musical expression turned to the particular. Sometimes this yielded very personal, even private, music, which tried to convey and evoke states of mind, trances and reveries, and a general quality of inwardness. Schubert is a great example. On a corporate level, we witnessed the founding of national schools and styles, as composers sought to celebrate and distinguish their own cultures, turning for inspiration to folk music. Many Romantic artists believed that traditional folk art had a special authenticity, unpolluted by ‘artifice’, and they thought that that authenticity could inform their own creations as well, allowing it to truly express the ‘soul of the people’. Though this stress on national purity yielded much wonderful music, it had an ugly side too, as when Wagner attacked Mendelssohn’s music as being not ‘authentically’ (that is, not racially) German.

A general trend during this period was that the audience for high-art music broadened greatly. The rise of a middle class meant that many more people had the means, and often the interest, to hear the music of the ‘literate tradition’ (which is how Taruskin likes to denominate what is sometimes called ‘classical music’). The result was a ‘democratization of taste’, and the emergence of a marked populist tendency in music: a preference for big, memorable melodies and a stress on emotional expression. Composers no longer needed to seek their fortunes at the hand of wealthy patrons, but could court the public instead. The rise of musical nationalism, mentioned above, was clearly a related development, as was the rise of the crowd-pleasing virtuoso who dazzled the audience with his dexterity and brilliance, but whose antics were distressing to the connoisseur. The great examples here are Paganini and Liszt, but the phenomenon of the virtuoso is one that remains with us to the present day. (Can anyone say ‘Van Halen’?)

Meanwhile new ideas were afoot in Europe, and their influence was felt in music as in other spheres. Of decisive importance was the doctrine of what Taruskin calls historicism, but which I think is better dubbed progressivism. We all know what this means: history is developing in a particular direction, and those who know what is good for them will not fall ‘behind the times’:

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been abroad the idea that the history of music (like the history of everything else) has a purpose, and that the primary obligation of musicians is not to their audience but to that purpose — namely, the furthering of the “evolutionary” progress of the art, for the sake of which any sacrifice is justified.

The ascendancy of this idea had far-reaching consequences for music. A duty to destiny rather than to one’s audience naturally worked against the populist tendency described above, and sure enough the musical tradition split, over the course of the nineteenth century, into two branches: a conservative guard and an avant-garde. The former established the musical conservatories which have subsequently played such a central role in the education of musicians, and they solidified both the concept of the musical canon and its contents. The very term ‘classical music’ was coined in about 1850 as a description of the conservative project. Not incidentally, this same project gave the avant-garde something concrete to reject and subvert. (As is so often the case, the ‘progressives’ were reactionaries, their program being essentially defined in defiance of the establishment. If it is true that their music was usually more innovative than was their conservative counterparts’, it is equally true that their innovations were often perceived as dull and shapeless. A private language is, amongst other things, incommunicative. Jettison enough of your inheritance and your art begins to flirt with incomprehensibility. ‘Freedom can thus come at the price of significance,’ notes Taruskin, rather dryly. It is a danger that has haunted the avant-garde down to the present.) The historicist claim that music must evolve with the times is at odds with the very notion of ‘classical music’, which honours a tradition and preserves it. Interestingly, both the conservatives and the radicals claimed Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven for themselves.

An obvious problem for the avant-garde, at any time, is that if one does not take one’s bearings from the appreciation of one’s audience, from where does one take them? The answer, often enough — and certainly in nineteenth-century music — was: theory. One of the most significant developments in this period was precisely the emergence of self-conscious theory into the making of music. Theory dictated what was and was not music of the future. Theory prescribed certain types of composition, and proscribed others, at least for those who wanted to be on the right side of history. On an individual level this manifest as a special concern about musical style. An avant-garde composer had to be doing something distinctive, something to set him apart from the tradition, and something that was recognizably his own. Taruskin finds in Wagner an apt and influential example of this development:

Wagner’s own style, as we have seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.

This bundle of factors — the burden of a ‘personal voice’, an allergy to traditional forms and techniques, and a fear of being ‘behind the times’ — obviously continued to exercise formidable influence over music in the twentieth century, and up to the present.

It is worthwhile to spend a moment or two longer on Wagner. He dominated the nineteenth-century like no-one except Beethoven, and his influence is felt throughout this volume of Taruskin’s history. In interesting ways, he straddled the divide between conservatives and radicals. He jeered at those more conservative than himself (Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots he dubbed a ‘monstrous piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-libidinous, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-criminal, autolytico-sentimental dramatic hotchpotch’ — and I am sure it sounded even better in German) and at traditional musical forms (declaring, with a flair for the nonsensical that is common enough among radicals, that purely instrumental music was ‘obsolete’). In his music the aspirational aspect of Romanticism, striving after spiritual greatness, which had found such eloquent expression in Beethoven tipped over into exploration of the transgressive, and in this he was destined to have many imitators. Yet in Taruskin’s view he was, at a deep level, allied with conservatives like Brahms on account of his reliance on the integrity of traditional harmony. His most famous (alleged) assault on traditional harmony was no such thing:

The assumption that Tristan somehow started the process whereby functional harmony was fatally and inexorably weakened is an excellent example of historicist mythmaking. it embeds the opera in a progress narrative that justifies the radical departures of a later generation of German composers who did in fact attempt to attenuate, and finally eliminate, the role of functional harmony as a governor of musical structure. Their story, sometimes narrated as if it were about the collapse of tonality rather than about the changing techniques of a small group of composers, is a twentieth-century extrapolation.

Instead of Wagner, Taruskin sees Liszt as the headmaster of the avant-garde.

We see an interesting example of how historicist assumptions influenced music history when we look at the waning and waxing fortunes of the symphony in the nineteenth century. By the early decades of the century the symphony had become, starting from fairly humble beginnings, the prestige compositional genre. Yet by mid-century the situation had changed radically. Taruskin notes that ‘Not a single symphony composed in the 1850s or 1860s has survived in the repertoire’, and this dry spell is reflected in the structure of his book: the middle 500 pages pass without discussion of a single symphony. Why the gap? Why did the leading composers of that time not leave us any great symphonies? And what happened to bring the genre back?

I had generally assumed that composers shied away from the genre because Beethoven cast a long shadow. He, and especially the formidable triumph of his Ninth, left those who came after him an intimidating standard to meet. But this explanation does not really fit the data: Schubert wrote nine symphonies after Beethoven’s death, and Schumann wrote four, for instance. Taruskin argues that the decline in symphonic production was due to a decline in symphonic prestige, and this precisely because the preferred narrative of the progressives turned against it. Wagner touted opera and Liszt turned to programmatic music as the music of the future. In consequence, anyone who fancied themselves being ‘with the times’ knew better than to publish a symphony.

But this bifurcation between the conservative establishment on the one hand, with its network of conservatories and concert halls and its appetite for the music of dead composers, and the progressives on the other, with their guild prestige and triumphalist rhetoric, was not good for young composers. They were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t:

Composers were now really in a bind. The only way they could at once maintain self-respect in the face of historicism and at the same time have access to the newly defined ‘classical’ repertoire and its prestigious venues was to create ‘instant classics’ — compositions that in their high-minded and compelling seriousness could somehow simultaneously project both novelty and enduring value. They had at once to communicate, first, sufficient freshness and originality to stimulate interest; second, sufficient conformity to traditional values to warrant inclusion in the permanent collection; and third, sufficient intricacy of design to encourage a test of time.

This was a difficult terrain to navigate, but Brahms did it. It is Brahms who emerges as the hero of Taruskin’s tale, for he restored the symphony, and classical genres in general, to respectability. He did so by using traditional forms as vehicles to express novel and ingenious ideas. In a detailed examination of his Symphony No.1, Taruskin argues that its cunning combination of innovative harmonic and structural ideas with allusions to the forms and methods of earlier times was exactly what was needed to breathe life back into the genre. But even more importantly, Brahms changed music because he introduced another possible interpretation of music history: a conservative interpretation rather than a progressive one. This, according to Taruskin, is why the radicals raged against him as they did. He showed that tradition could be fruitful:

Tradition, in this view, is not a brake on innovation. On the contrary, tradition is the sole enabler of innovation that is meaningful rather than destructive, because it is mediated by social agreements (in this case, the recognition of a convention, permitting its intelligible transformation). That is classic ‘liberalism’, anathema to radicals and reactionaries alike.

And Brahms’ example was fruitful, for a host of brilliant symphonists followed in his wake: Bruckner, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Vaughan Williams, just to name some of the most prominent. Of course, the progressives had their triumphs too, and I don’t want to belittle them, but would you trade a single symphony by any of those I just listed for all the tone-poems of Liszt and Strauss? Not me.


The basic structure of this volume follows the pattern laid down in the previous ones: biographical sketches, social context, detailed examination of particular compositions, generous excerpts from musical scores, occasional excurses into music theory, a penchant for noncommittal meta-history, and a relaxed, sometimes witty, tone. Part of the reason it took me a year to read this volume was that quite a lot of the music he discussed was music with which I was not familiar, and I took time to listen. (This was especially true of the operas of composers like Glinka, Meyerbeer, Massenet, Gounod, and even Verdi and Puccini. Taruskin takes opera to have been central to the musical developments of this period, and spends a good deal of time on it. My explorations in that direction have sometimes turned up in the Great moments in opera series of posts.) Even when I was familiar with the music under discussion, the book frequently had me scrambling to listen again. Only occasionally did the music theory leave me stranded — and it doesn’t take much.

This is a history of ‘the long nineteenth-century’: it follows the trail, not worrying whether it crosses a temporal boundary. Thus composers who did a substantial part of their work in the twentieth century but who worked within traditions rooted in the nineteenth century — composers like Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Nielsen, and Puccini — all appear in this volume. This clears the deck, as it were, for a discussion of the radical music that erupted in the early twentieth century. It is to this period, early and late, that the final two volumes of Taruskin’s project are devoted. Onward! I’ll report back in a year or so.

3 Responses to “Taruskin: History of Western Music III”

  1. Mac Says:

    I finally took the time to read this, and it was well worth it. I really had never thought about the reasons why few symphonies were written mid-century. Besides the fact that the timeline has grown very vague in my mind since the music history course I took in college, and so I wasn’t really conscious of the gap, I just assumed the composers of the time happened to prefer other forms. But this makes a lot of sense.

    Liszt as founder of the avant-garde…the man who taught the above-mentioned m.h. course, a great teacher with a truly deep and wide love of music, said that Liszt was the only composer whose music he didn’t much care for. From him, that was almost like saying “I hate it.” Though I don’t think he had much real liking for the atonalists, either.

    Perhaps I’ll read these books someday when/if I retire, though I’m sure the music theory would be beyond me. I look forward to your next installment. (Very apropos Van Halen reference, btw–did you know they’ve returned from the grave?)

  2. cburrell Says:

    The thing about Liszt is that he doesn’t seem important enough to have such a central role. Sure, he was a virtuoso, and he wrote some daring harmonic experiments, but his music doesn’t seem, to me, to have the weight and substance of, say, Wagner’s. But in his own time he really does seem to have been regarded as a giant, and he was a patrician figure around whom (self-)important social circles swirled. Strange but true.

    I discovered only yesterday that a 1200 page, one-volume condensation of Taruskin’s book has been recently published by Oxford: they are calling it the College Edition, presumably intending it for music history and appreciation classes. It might be worth looking at if you’re not up to committing five years of your life to reading the full version!

    No, I had not heard that about Van Halen. How unfortunate.

  3. Mac Says:

    I guess that was at the root of my surprise about Liszt’s place in this–that he doesn’t seem important enough. But I guess that doesn’t mean he wasn’t influential enough.

    That one-volume edition does look like a pretty fair education in itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: