Taruskin: History of Western Music IV

October 30, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.IV
Music in the Early Twentieth Century
Richard Taruskin
(Oxford, 2005)

879 p.

It is not easy to know where to start with this, the penultimate volume in Richard Taruskin’s monumental survey of Western music. I have before me a dozen pages of typewritten notes that I have compiled in the course of reading it, and were I to expand them into prose, they might well run to twenty or thirty pages. No one wants that. On the other hand, a brief overview is bound to be too brief: there is too much fascinating material here to pass over lightly. My intention, then, is to pick out a few of the most interesting points for special attention, and hope that things don’t get out of control.

This volume is devoted to developments between roughly the turn of the century and roughly the Second World War. This is a period that defies easy summation, for it was the period in which the Western musical tradition, to a first approximation, shuddered and shattered. Chesterton, writing (somewhere) at a time contemporaneous with many of the figures most involved in that upheaval, observed that the central question asked of these composers, by the common man at least, was not whether the music was good or bad, but whether it was music at all. From our vantage point today, and particularly under the tutelage of one as instructive as Taruskin, we can see that it was indeed music, but that Chesterton’s question was nonetheless astute, for there was, in certain musical circles (though not by any means in all), a widening divide between the composer and the audience. It could no longer be taken for granted that the composer thought well of the audience and aimed to please. In earlier times a composer might let his arrow fly and miss or hit the target; now the target was contested and the aim was correspondingly wild.

Taruskin divides the music of this period — again, roughly speaking — into two strands: that which was in continuity with the Romantic tradition of the nineteenth-century, and that which was not. Surprisingly (at first) and helpfully (in the end) he puts the composers with the biggest, baddest reputations — I am thinking here of the so-called Second Viennese School led by Schoenberg — into the former group; into the second group, the truly modernist school, he puts Stravinsky and his progeny. Prior to reading this volume I’d have contested that general mapping of the terrain; now, as I emerge from the book’s hind end (and I apologize for this awful imagery), I am almost, more or less, convinced.

The rubric under which he is able to assimilate the twentieth-century radicals into the Romantic tradition is that of “maximalism”: if Romanticism consisted in pushing musical boundaries — boundaries of emotional expression, religious awe, sensuality — then it was possible to see quite a number of the leading twentieth-century composers as continuing the tradition, albeit often by means which the earlier Romantics did not attempt. It is fairly clear, for example, that Mahler and Strauss can be regarded in this light, and having accepted as much we can in turn see them as proximate anchors for the likes of Scriabin or Messiaen, each of whom was striving after a kind of transcendent musical experience, a sublimity that would “extinguish the petty ‘I’”, and this ambition was indeed part of the Romantic inheritance. On the face of it Messiaen seems a long way from Schubert or Berlioz, but (argues Taruskin) this distance is principally due to differences of musical technique, not differences of expressive aim.

Stravinsky’s early music — the primitivism of The Firebird and even The Rite of Spring — is also, by Taruskin’s reckoning, part of the maximalist tradition, in this case pushing the Romantic fascination with the “authenticity” of rustic folk music. He argues that Stravinsky’s radical musical ideas were paired, as if by way of compensation, with increasingly brutal “primitive” subject matter.

The basic argument, therefore, is that many composers adopted the expressive aims inherent in the Romantic tradition, and in so doing accepted, rather than rejected, that tradition. But it would be insupportable to claim that there was therefore nothing revolutionary about the music they wrote, for clearly there was. Messiaen’s “modes of limited transposition” and Schoenberg’s “motivic saturation“ may not have been entirely without precedent, but they pushed their particular innovations to lengths undreamed of by earlier generations. Taruskin attributes this mad rupture of musical technique to the influence of Hegel, who argued that history is intrinsically developmental, and innovation manifests the Zeitgeist. Western music, in this view, is characterized by stylistic and technical flux and progress, and only by continuing that “flux and progress” could one be faithful to the tradition. In musical circles this gave rise to certain aesthetic values, which Taruskin summarizes thus:

The highest of all values, in this view, is technical innovation, provided that (1) the innovation in question can be viewed as an emancipation, (2) it was “influential” (in other words, that it inspired imitation, or at least turned up in a lot of later music), and (3) it placed the innovator beyond the comprehension of his contemporaries (or beyond all but an initiated elite), so that he might learn, in the words of Milton Babbitt, “how it feels to have the history of music leave you ahead.”

From where I am sitting it is hard to see how this credo was ever attractive, but evidently it had a certain allure. Knowing the degree to which its adherents have been lionized by some historians of twentieth-century music, Taruskin’s bemused skepticism comes as welcome relief. The “techno-essentialist” view of art, he says, in which an artist’s method looms so large in our assessment of his worth, inherently relativizes, and thereby devalues, his actual, concrete accomplishments:

If the Great Emancipator were merely the Great Anticipator (as a skeptical joke of the period had it), then the basis of his reputation would stop being what his work accomplished (in the present) and become simply a matter of when it was written (in the past).

That is probably worth reading again.

We must be careful not to generalize too readily about the music of this period, and this is nowhere truer than when considering the music of Arnold Schoenberg. He passed through at least three quite radically different creative periods — a lush late Romanticism, a thorny atonalism, and a methodical dodecaphony — and what one says about one period can often not be said about the others. He abandoned his early manner after his score for Verklärte Nacht (which remains popular to this day) was rejected by a conservative musician’s club. “This experience,” notes Taruskin, “seems to have equipped Schoenberg with the resentment and the sense of alienation that a modernist giant needs.” If he could not please, he would not try to please, and Schoenberg turned away (sometimes literally) from the public, toward “the representation of inner occurrences”. To adequately express himself in all of his intensely personal specificity, Schoenberg found it necessary to abandon not just the tonal system that had structured harmony since the seventeenth century, but any tonal system at all. This music has come to be called “atonal”, though Schoenberg himself preferred “pantonal”. The music was written in no particular key, and the distinction between harmonic consonance and harmonic dissonance was erased (at least in theory; in practice we seem to go on hearing a distinction). Schoenberg’s language for describing this conflagration of harmonic theory was annoyingly disingenuous: he called dissonances “the more remote consonances”.

There was another motive at work in this “emancipation of dissonance” as well, and for me it makes the whole affair somewhat more palatable. Under the unlikely influence of Swedenborg, Schoenberg conceived a desire to raise the veil on the sublime, to show forth through his music a transcendent unity, to experience “an absolute and unitary perception” by means of “a unity of musical space”. His technical means to this “unity” was rather literal, and even literate: he undid the distinction between the “horizontal” (melodic) and “vertical” (harmonic) elements of music, so as to create an “integrated musical space” within which to move. Formerly it had been acceptable to construct a melody from any sequence of notes; now one could, if one wished, play any set of notes simultaneously and still call it a valid harmony. And into this newly symmetric musical space he deployed the method of motivic integration, in which the music was constructed from the repetition and variation of small musical fragments, or motives. This was not a new technique: Beethoven had used it frequently (witness the famous first movement of the Symphony No.5), but Schoenberg pushed it further than anyone before him, precisely because he pushed it further than the rules of harmony would have permitted. His scores could be saturated in motives precisely because he no longer needed to worry about avoiding dissonances. It sounds like cheating, yet, let it be noted, this method of motivic saturation was, in a genuine if somewhat perverse sense, well-suited to his spiritually-informed expressive aim, which was to convey the experience of “everything existing in everything else”.

[Let’s hear an example of this motivically-driven music. Here is a short piece for piano, Op.19 No.1, from 1911. The music here grows out of a special motive called the “Aschbeg motive” because the sequence of notes A — E♭ — C — B — B♭ — E — G was Schoenberg’s own musical representation of his name. (Using German names for the notes, the motive is A — Es — C — H — B♭ — E — G, for Arnold SCHoenBErG.)]

It is worth remarking on the fact that these two strands of Schoenberg’s expressivism — the focus on private, “inner” experiences, and the longing for sublimity and spirituality — were both inherited from Romanticism. Schoenberg’s claim to being a custodian of the tradition therefore had some justification, even though the music he created was mostly perceived as being radically at odds with that tradition. He was a maximalist, and in that sense he was conservative. And, notes Taruskin, “Schoenberg’s was the most complex and far-reaching maximalism of them all, and by far the most lastingly influential.” That influence has often been lamented, not least because of the stridency with which his disciples, again in doleful submission to a Hegelian view of history, attacked those who were not converted. It became common, after Schoenberg, to hear the claim (not only by composers, but also by historians of music) that tonal music had “collapsed” and was “obsolete”. Taruskin, again, will not be taken in by this sort of rhetoric: “To claim that all of this music is based on premises that have long since “collapsed” is of course to stigmatize it. That is a rhetorical, rather than a historical, allegation. One name for it is propaganda.” That is refreshingly frank.

For Taruskin, then, the decisive break of modern music with Romanticism does not come, as one might at first suspect, with the atonalists. Rather, he argues that it arrived a little later, in the 1920s, and especially in the person of Igor Stravinsky. We have already seen Stravinsky’s early scores, such as Le Sacre, as part of the “maximalist” tradition, but in the 1920s he entered a new creative period, which has come to be called neo-classicism, and it is here that Taruskin identifies the emergence of an aesthetic fundamentally distinct from, and at odds with, the Romantic legacy. Stravinsky cast an eye backward, past the nineteenth century, to figures like Pergolesi and Mozart. He began to write music in antique forms. Most significantly, he cultivated anti-Romantic expressive aims: his music was now to be cool, dry, objective, plain; it was to be pure style, with no extra-musical meaning; it was to be a kind of “geometrical” music, with clean lines, straight corners, and strict order. And for him the composer too was to retreat from his position of cultural eminence, shouldering again the humble mantle of the craftsman: “Stravinsky was only one of many artists who were reclaiming their etymological identities as artisans or artificers — skilled makers and doers, and professionals — as opposed to dreamers, reformers, philosophers, priests, politicians, or saints.”

Of course, we are talking about Stravinsky, so this business about humility has to be taken in the proper spirit — that is, an ironic spirit. It may seem paradoxical that he could maintain, and even enhance, his position of cultural eminence by proclaiming that he did not want it, but that is just what happened, and one suspects that he liked it that way, the ol’ rascal. He might have claimed to be effacing himself behind a stately minuet, but no-one who heard his music with educated ears — which included most everyone Stravinsky cared to impress — could possibly mistake it for genuine eighteenth-century fare. His trademark rhythmic complications and his impish spirit kept popping up. (Prokofiev famously referred to Stravinsky’s music in this period as “Bach with smallpox”.) His turn to neo-classicism was widely seen, therefore, as ironic, and a summons to irony. Irony is at odds with the Romantic spirit, which had valued sincerity, pathos, and immediacy. Stravinsky’s new manner was brisk, sleek, and emotionally flat.

[Let’s hear an example of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style. Here is the finale of his Octet for Winds, from 1923.]

There was a further irony at play here as well. Whereas Schoenberg had turned to radical musical means to pursue a conservative aesthetic aim, Stravinsky did more or less the opposite: he used conservative musical means to effect an aesthetic revolution.

A man does not stay on the forefront of his art for sixty years without having a keen sense of what will be successful, and Stravinsky’s conversion to neo-classicism was no exception. It was a success, and one suspects that in his mind it was not a gamble. High European culture in the 1920s was ripe for such a move. The Great War, which so recently had worked its sad and futile way to a conclusion, had changed the tenor of the times. The Romantic preoccupation with greatness, with glory, and even with beauty seemed to some tarnished and unserious. The “maximalists” were going into eclipse: Mahler, Ives, and Scriabin all lost their place in the repertoire, and it took decades for them to make a recovery. The chaos of the times made a “geometrical” music attractive: no bombast, no emotional manipulation. Composers, “all reeling together at the futility, the anarchy, the loss of faith, and the havoc wrought by the most needless and destructive of all wars, took refuge together in a consoling order they had purchased by a huge investment in irony.” (It is good to remember that it was around this time, too, that there was a change in performance practice, with “execution” of a score taking precedence over “interpretation”; the score was to be followed to the letter, without injecting personality. We see here the same aversion to pathos that Stravinsky turned so adroitly to his advantage.)

Neo-classicism was not entirely without forerunners, and it was not without followers. French composers, especially, had been consciously cultivating a music that was at odds with the mainstream of Romanticism, in the sense of being at odds with the music of Germany. Composers like Debussy, Ravel, and especially Satie had to various degrees rejected a music of drama and rhetoric, emphasizing instead “the sensual surface”. They sought to convey beauty rather than sublimity, to purge their music of will and desire, making it more impersonal and elegant, an objet d’art. At the same time, theirs was unquestionably a modernist movement, for, like Stravinsky’s neo-classicism after them, it set a high premium on self-consciousness and urbanity. Following in Stravinsky’s wake, meanwhile, were a host of others. In the music of Prokofiev or Hindemith, for instance, we can hear the continuation of the ironic tone: playful, distant, humorous, and suspicious of greatness. All of this was very interesting, and in a certain sense it was refreshing, but we cannot forget that a price was being paid for this cool detachment. The music was no longer “transparent”; it was no longer to be experienced directly, but always only mediated by an ironic distance. The problem is obvious: irony might be temporarily amusing, but it cannot be loved. A composer who insists that his music is not to be taken too seriously runs the risk of being taken at his word.

Schoenberg saw Stravinsky’s neo-classicism as a failure of an artist’s (alleged) responsibility to “move forward”. (This despite the fact that, as we have seen, moving backward under ironic cover is not precisely the same as moving backward.) Meanwhile, he was having forward-motion difficulties of his own. The expressionist ideal, which was (in Taruskin’s words) “to avoid the appearance of rationalized routine and yet achieve a coherently expressive result”, came to be a burden for Schoenberg. The avoidance of routine tended to thwart coherence. He therefore began casting about for a way to structure his music, and ultimately this quest resulted in the invention of the famous twelve-tone method, which was probably the most influential and controversial compositional technique of the century.

Twelve-tone composition, or serialism (as it is sometimes called), or dodecaphony (as it sometimes called by those with a penchant for Greek), or dodecacophony (as it sometimes called by those with something to prove) is a technique for structuring music without having recourse to tonality. Each composition is based on a “tone row”, which is a particular ordering of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. (Thus there are 12! (=479,001,600) different possible tone rows, though Wikipedia informs us that only 9,979,200 of these are truly unique — that is, “unrelated to any others through transposition, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion”.) The tone row, once chosen, limits the composer’s options, though the degree to which it limits him is somewhat unclear to me. For twelve-tone composers of the strict observance, I believe that the tone row can only be played and re-played, in its entirety, either in its original form or under one of the standard transformations (transposition, inversion, retrograde, or retrograde inversion, as above); the rhythmic shape of the tone row can (presumably) be varied from one statement to another; and the tone row can be played by different instruments so as to overlap in time. The essential feature is that no one tone in the row is allowed to dominate over the others; the tones are all placed on an equal footing; each is played as often as all the others. Thus there is no “functional differentiation of scale degrees”, and so no tonality.

The tone row, once chosen, is thus the seed from which the composition grows, giving the whole an “organic” motivic consistency — and thus achieving something akin to the “motivic saturation” method of Schoenberg’s expressivism. Yet here, instead of the music expressing the unfathomable uniqueness of the composer’s “inner occurances”, it is generated almost mechanically, according to strict rules. This innovation broke Schoenberg’s creative logjam, and founded an influential school of composition to boot, but ironically it also seemed to concede the argument to Stravinsky: if Schoenberg had presented his expressivism as a music of freedom opposed to Stravinsky’s orderly and rational classicism, his adoption of serialism committed him to an even greater degree of order and rationality. Taruskin notes that “twelve-tone composers went further than any others in ordering the content of their work according to rational structural principles, making content in effect tantamount to form.”

It is telling, however, that these “rational structural principles” were almost always far more evident to the mind than to the ear. That is, the basis of each composition was lucid to the intellect — it was just the particular tone row the composer had chosen — but it baffled the ear, and this “gnawing tension between poietic transparency and esthetic opacity would never be entirely dispelled”. This contrast is perhaps most clearly illustrated in certain compositions of Anton Webern — my personal favourite of the serialists — whose carefully chosen tone rows and minimalist manner yielded music that often sounds like very carefully constructed chaos.

[Here is an example of Webern’s serialism. His String Quartet, from 1928, is constructed from a famous tone row based on the B — A — C — H motive that has been used by many composers (including Bach himself). This is considered one of the most tightly constructed serial compositions in the repertoire.]

Yet “esthetic opacity” did not prevent twelve-tone composition from becoming the chic compositional school of, at least, the first half of the century. There was something about it that appealed. Its highly structured form gave it an aura of scientific positivism, which was attractive for many of the same reasons that neo-classicism was attractive. It also seemed to suit the Zeitgeist between the wars; says Taruskin, “No music better illustrated the debunking, materialist, objective, and antimetaphysical spirit of postwar disillusion.” A dubious honour, to be sure.


These notes thus far have been oscillating between the twin poles of Schoenberg and Stravinsky; this is justified but regrettable. It is justified because these men loom large in both the history and the historiography of music in the twentieth-century, and regrettable because there were many fine composers who resisted their influence, who carried on, in a more straightforward way, the musical traditions they had inherited, and who suffered neglect as a result. I have, it seems, repeated the injustice. (In partial recompense I can recommend Robert Reilly’s wonderful “alternate history” of the music of the twentieth-century, Surprised by Beauty.) In fairness, Taruskin had already discussed several of those composers toward the end of the previous volume in this set, and may discuss more of them in the following volume.

Even in this volume, Taruskin covers many composers whom I have not mentioned. There are several chapters about American music, starting with Charles Ives — much the most interesting American composer, in my opinion — and up through the jazz age (Copland, Gershwin) to the so-called “American symphonists” (William Schuman, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson). There is a chapter devoted to Hungarian music, especially that of Bartok and Janacek. There is quite a lot about French music, focusing especially on Satie, Les Six, and the birth of surrealism. There is a fascinating chapter devoted to the history of ballet, culminating in the tradition-busting ballets of Stravinsky’s early period, and the book closes with a look at how music fared under the three main totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth century: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Communist Soviet Union. Is it paradoxical that the most benign of the regimes, under Mussolini, produced no very great music, while the most repressive, under Stalin, produced several composers of note and, in Shostakovich, at least one of the highest rank, whose music became, in Taruskin’s words, “the secret diary of a nation”? Perhaps not.


In a general way, this fourth volume continues to mightily impress me. The strengths of Taruskin’s writing that I have noted before — the wit, the clarity, the comprehensive scope, and the accessibility — are again evident. Because of the nature of the subject matter in this volume there is quite a lot of technical discussion about harmony and the structural principles of music. I didn’t follow most of it, but that is a failure on my part. I am looking forward to the next volume, and, even 3500 pages in, I am sorry to see that the end is in sight.


A more sensible blogger would probably have split this long post into several shorter ones.

2 Responses to “Taruskin: History of Western Music IV”

  1. Many thanks for this fine summary – I am reading this in New Orleans at the annual conference of the American Musicological Society, where Taruskin is much in evidence (he’s a larger-than-life figure who strikes terror into the hearts of ill-prepared presenters by his aggressive questioning after the end of each paper). Hope that you’re having a happy Feast of All Saints and that you and your family were spared any weather-related difficulties. . .

  2. cburrell Says:

    I don’t doubt that he is an imposing presence! I hope he doesn’t see these notes — no doubt he’d pick up on more than a few infelicities on my part.

    A happy Feast of All Saints to you as well. The weather here has been milder than you’d expect from the news reports.

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