Taruskin: History of Western Music V

August 24, 2013

Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.V
Music in the Late Twentieth Century
Richard Taruskin
(Oxford, 2005)
606 p.

And so we come at last to the final volume of this great project, in which Taruskin covers music since the Second World War. Unfortunately it has been for me much the least enjoyable volume in the series, partly because the story it tells is such a depressing one and partly because the major figures in the story — Boulez, Cage, Babbitt, Varese, Carter, Reich, to name a few — are composers for whom I have little love. There were a few lights on the horizon to brighten my way: one chapter on Benjamin Britten, for instance, and a few pages here and there devoted to a handful of composers whom I do admire, but for the most part this was a dark tread.

The book opens with a description of the atom bomb and its disturbing effect upon western society and culture. Taruskin explores a series of oppositions — “triumph vs. insecurity, responsibility vs. escape, science-as-savior vs. science-as-destroyer, esotericism vs. utility, intellect vs. barbarism, faith in progress vs. omnibus suspicion” — and then remarks that

all of the bizarre and contradictory musical events and phenomena to be recounted must be understood as counterpoints against these intractable and irresolvable dilemmas that unbalanced the world’s mind.

This way of framing the matter is actually slightly encouraging, for he too seems to realize that the art of music in this period was beset by difficulties, and while it may have been necessary (and, since the problems in many cases remain, may still be necessary) to pass through these dark valleys, they were (and are) dark valleys, and there is no merit in pretending otherwise.

One of the central threads of elite music after the war continued to be serialism. There were a few reasons why composers continued to be attracted to it. In some cases they were under the influence of the myth of historical progress; they spoke of serialism as though it were an historical necessity, as when Rene Leibowitz spoke of it as “the only genuine and inevitable expression of the musical art of our time”. All nonsense, of course. Others saw serialism as a vehicle for political resistance against totalitarian governments; it was against the Soviets because it was disliked by the common man and (therefore) frowned upon by Soviet authorities, and it was against the Nazis because Schoenberg’s music had been banned by the Nazis. (This last, however, was based on a misapprehension: the Nazis had not banned twelve-tone music in general, but only Schoenberg’s music, and that because he was Jewish, not because he was a serialist.) Other composers were attracted to serialism from motives of artistic purity: precisely because it had a narrow appeal (viz. because so few people liked it) it was mostly immune from political manipulation and from commercial pressures; it therefore allowed composers to focus on purely musical considerations. The exemplar of this approach was Webern (who, unfortunately, and in tension with the point just made, had been a Nazi sympathizer). Finally, some composers professed a simple curiosity about serial music; Boulez said that he merely wanted “to find out how far automatism in musical relationships would go”.

It would go pretty far, as it turned out, though the quality of the music that resulted might be a matter of some doubt. Boulez set out to serialize not just musical pitches, after the manner of Schoenberg, but also durations and dynamics, resulting in something called “total serialism”. Composition in this manner wasn’t a matter of making melodies or exploring harmonic tension, but of devising rules which would govern the musical structure. The rules were identified at the beginning, and, to a significant degree, the music unfolded from them of its own accord. The composer, as much as the listener, was interested to see how it would turn out.

But to speak of a “listener” might not be quite right: Boulez himself said that his music was not really meant to be heard, but to be “read” — that is, analyzed, to draw out its underlying structure. This may seem perverse, but it is an idea not at all foreign to the serialist tradition. Schoenberg himself had expressed contempt for listeners: “All I know is that he [the listener] exists, and insofar as he isn’t indispensable for acoustic reasons (since music doesn’t sound well in an empty hall), he’s only a nuisance.” One detects a note of bravado in hyperbolic statements like this, but nonetheless he is making a point. Neither did he see musicians as intrinsically important to his music; he once said:

“Music need not be performed any more than books need to be read aloud, for its logic is perfectly represented on the printed page; and the performer, for all his intolerable arrogance, is totally unnecessary except as his interpretations make the music understandable to an audience unfortunate enough not to be able to read it in print.”

Serialism perhaps reached an apex — or a terminus of some kind — in the music of the American composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt had trained both in mathematics and music, and he approached serial composition through the technical apparatus of set theory. He held for many years a faculty position at Princeton, where he established a graduate program in composition (the first of its kind) and promoted the notion that composition was “music research” analogous to the work taking place across campus in the physics laboratories. In Taruskin’s words, his career could be described as “a tireless quest of greater and greater beauty (or “elegance,” as mathematicians use the word), for its commitment to an ever increasing, all-encompassing orderly control of an ever more multifarious and detailed complex of relationships.” He argued that music composition should be sheltered by the academy and not need to answer to (or appeal to) popular tastes, or indeed to any audience at all. His music was “music that only a composer could love.”

It is on the strength of such remarks that Taruskin wonders if serialism should be seen as as especially pure expression of the literate tradition in western music: here, at last, we have a music which seems to exist principally in its written form, with the composers themselves arguing that it need not (and, in some cases, cannot) be performed or heard. Whether this is the culmination or merely the reductio ad absurdum of the tradition of notated music could be debated.

It is also possible to argue, oddly enough, that the serialists’ push to greater complexity and greater control over every aspect of music actually proved to be the undoing of the literate tradition. The acknowledged difficulty of performing the music meant that the time was ripe in the 1950s and 1960s for composers to adopt the quickly developing technology of electronic music-making: here was a means of reproducing a score in all of its intricacy, without concessions to any of the limitations of human performers. The composer, who had always relied on an intermediary — the musician — to present his work, could now present his work directly, much as a painter or a sculptor did. The irony was that even as they enthusiastically adopted electronic means for playing their fiercely difficult notated music, the same technology was opening up the possibility of composing with no notation at all. It was the advent of a post-literate tradition of music-making, one which (Taruskin argues) has been among the most important developments in music in the last half-century, and one which may ultimately prove triumphant.

This volume spends quite a few pages discussing electronic music, but as I’ve no real interest in it I am going to skip to something else.

A second thread, apart from though interacting with serialism, was the exploration of indeterminacy in music. Composers would provide room for musicians to improvise during the performance of a piece, so that it was never exactly the same twice. Christian Wolff, who experimented with this idea, argued that it “makes possible the freedom and dignity of the performer” who becomes a kind of co-creator of the music rather than simply following the instructions of the composer. One can perhaps detect a political motive at play: this collaborative music is more egalitarian than the traditional model of a composer/conductor/musician hierarchy. Morton Feldman provided only very general instructions to performers in his quest to achieve “the wholly unmotivated gesture” in music; however he discovered that musicians fell into all-too-human habits that undermined the true indeterminacy he was seeking. So that was a bust (but Feldman went on to write very beautiful and alluring music). Xenakis explored the idea of stochastic music, in which sound were treated rather like molecules in a gas, behaving randomly within limits established by probability distributions. It’s an interesting idea, I suppose, but I cannot help wondering what it has to do with music? (I’ll admit I have a long-standing loathing of the music of Xenakis.)


Although this volume is primarily devoted to “movements” or “schools”, there are a few individual composers who loom large, and I would like to devote some words to three of them: John Cage, Benjamin Britten, and Elliott Carter.

Cage is a difficult case. On one hand, some of his compositions are little more than juvenile stunts (the infamous 4’33” falls into this category); on the other, some of the things he wrote are genuinely beautiful. He was a self-taught musician who never attained any great virtuosity — he once said, rather endearingly if finally disingenuously, that “the whole pitch aspect of music eludes me” — yet he was a kind of gadfly on the music of the twentieth-century, and even of the entire Western musical tradition, poking it in uncomfortable places and calling into question its settled views. He opposed, for instance, the emphasis on musical analysis in favour of pure, in-the-moment musical experience; he questioned the criteria by which we divide music from noise; he disputed the hierarchical social structure of music in which composers and conductors dictate orders to musicians. Some of this was potentially fruitful, some not, but it was all carried out in what seems to have been a spirit of genuine curiosity, without stridency or belligerence. He seems to have been a man whom it was difficult to dislike.

Benjamin Britten, whose centenary we celebrate this year, is in my judgement one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century music. He stands apart from most other composers of the period by viewing music as essentially social and contemporary: he almost always composed with particular performers in mind, and his intention was for the music to be enjoyable for both performers and audience, without any great concern for history or posterity. “That is what we should aim at — pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself,” he said. As one can imagine, his music is accessible (especially in comparison to the music of most of his contemporaries) and remains popular. He was critical of those who saw music as abstract and historically aware “because they may make the composer, above all the young composer, self-conscious, and instead of writing his own music, music which springs naturally from his gift or personality, he may be frightened into writing pretentious nonsense or deliberate obscurity.” Britten did neither.

But talk of pretentiousness and obscurity provides a nice segue-way to the music of Elliott Carter. Carter died last year, at the age of 103, and was praised as a giant of American classical music. I’m afraid I just don’t understand. He was seen as “the chief standard bearer for the traditional modernist view of art and its autonomous history” (Taruskin) and was in many respects the anti-Britten: though not technically a serialist, his music did push the boundaries of complexity to the edge of un-playability. Critics reveled in the innovative intelligence allegedly manifest in his music, even as they conceded that the magnificent structural complexity was difficult or impossible to hear. Taruskin comments that “Carter’s masterpieces were like the noise made by a tree falling in an empty forest. They existed purely “ontologically,” by virtue of their perceived complexity, whether or not anyone actually experienced them. Musical value had received its most purely asocial definition.”


Though it has been clear from the beginning that Taruskin is writing the history of “literate music” — that is, music that is disseminated principally in written form — he devotes a full chapter of this volume to a non-literate, but still well “documented” musical tradition: the popular music of the 1960s. As we all know, popular music in this period enjoyed a massive increase in artistic ambition and cultural influence. The Beatles are at the center of the story as Taruskin sees it; he notes the numerous serious composers who admired them and their music, and who saw them as heralding a decisive shift in the relative cultural importance of popular and “classical” music. Taruskin sees the music as a branch from the same trunk that gave us the elite modernist music that has been his principal theme these past two volumes:

… unlike virtually all previous popular music, it [rock] was the opposite of family entertainment. It was socially divisive as well as uniting, and in its own way it fostered elitism. In was, in short, a kind of modernism.

The move from thinking about popular music to thinking about minimalist music is a fairly natural one. Although the roots of minimalism (usually traced to the strange musical experiments of La Monte Young) pre-date the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, the two traditions bear a fair number of similarities: American roots (Taruskin remarks that minimalism is “the first (and so far the only) literate musical style born in the New World to have exterted a decisive influence on the Old”), rhythmic regularity, and popular appeal. The leading minimalists, such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, have been something akin to “cross-over” artists, making an appeal to both sides of the popular/classical boundary. This, in fact, has been one of the oft-heard criticisms of minimalism: that it is geared to satisfy commercial interests, or even that, with its mechanical repetitions, it is an apt musical expression of commercial, industrialized society. Perhaps there is some truth in that. Taruskin notes, however, the striking fact that all of the leading minimalists have seriously practiced some sort of religion: Glass Buddhism, Reich Judaism, and Riley a kind of Yogic meditation. It might be that the roots of this music are more organic and spiritual than is often assumed. This is especially evident, I think, in the music of Arvo Pärt, to whom Taruskin devotes too few (7) pages.

The penultimate chapter of the book is surprisingly cheering; in it, Taruskin describes challenges to the dominance of modernist music which arose on a number of fronts. One development was that modernism, with its constant stress on innovation and technical complexity and originality and (consequently) obsolescence, began to give way to something less doctrinaire. A number of composers took up a pastiche or collage approach to composition, in which numerous musical styles (or even direct quotations) from earlier times were revived and presented side-by-side. This approach, which has (inevitably) been called post-modern, has been said by at least some of its practitioners to aim at the liberation of music from the “tyranny of history” and from the dominance of “progress”, to achieve a kind of “transhistorical” perspective. But the pastiche style is still not well suited to direct, unselfconscious music-making; there is about it still something of the modernist taste for irony.

This too, however, has suffered some setbacks. A principal figure here is the American composer George Rochberg, whom I had considered a fairly minor figure but to whom Taruskin devotes a good deal of attention. In his early career, Rochberg was considered a leading modernist, hitting all of the right buttons and doing it well. But he experienced a personal crisis and realized, to his dismay, that the music he had been writing was unable to express the strong feelings his experience aroused in him, and this led him to reevaluate his whole approach to music.

Rochberg began to suspect that he, like every other committed modernist composer, had cut himself off from the expressive possibilities that enabled the older music to survive. That renunciation, he feared, probably doomed his music and that of his contemporaries to oblivion.

Rochberg’s break with modernism was dramatic: in his String Quartet No.3 he composed a long movement in the style of Mozart, without any stray dissonances or odd rhythms that would betray its twentieth-century provenance: it was sweet and lovely and apparently sincere, and it caused a storm of controversy. It would be one thing to hear such a thing from a peripheral composer, but Rochberg was at the center and couldn’t be dislodged or ignored. Thereafter he returned to tonality, and in his wake a number of other leading composers, such as Ligeti and Penderecki, did the same. The stranglehold of serialism and atonal music was loosened.

There also arose a serious intellectual challenge to serial music: Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackindoff published a book entitled A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, based on the linguistic theories of Chomsky. They argued, essentially, that the mind understands music using certain assumptions about structure, a kind of expectation of musical grammar, and that music which undermines those expectations, or which cannot be interpreted according to those rules, is heard as nonsense or noise. The theory asserted that human beings have certain cognitive constraints in their interpretation of music, and that, furthermore, “the technical premises of serial composition are…not available to cognition.” If the theory of Lerdahl and Jackindoff is correct, then

Music structured nonhierarchically is implicitly reduced to a kind of nonlinguistic or prelinguistic communication — grunts, sign language, or otherwise rudimentary conveyance of primitive needs and moods, if that. Whatever the complexity of its structural organization (discoverable from the score), its level of aural communication is drastically coarsened and blunted.

This upended things nicely: rather than being at the cutting-edge of sophistication, serial music was compared to brute noise. By these lights, large swaths of twentieth-century music began to look like tragicomedy — or, since I am smiling, maybe just like comedy.

In his final chapter Taruskin steps back a little to consider three principal strands of elite music-making vying for dominance at the close of the twentieth century (and, it is fair to say, at the beginning of the twenty-first). There are, on one hand — though, since I am about to describe three things, it is a blunder to begin by counting hands — there are the traditional modernists, more or less following the channels carved out by the pioneering modernists of the early twentieth century. This group is plausibly dominated by serialists, and they are committed not only to maintaining the literate tradition of musical composition but also, in the work of composers like Farneyhough and Finnissy, to pushing that tradition to new extremes of complexity and virtuosity. In their own way, they continue the pursuit of ‘maximalism’ that has been so central to the last few hundred years of Western music. At the other end of the spectrum is a group that has grown up out of the early experiments with electronic music. The new computer technologies, which have made possible a practical, experiential approach to music-making that incorporates sampling, randomness, and experimentation with unusual (synthetic) timbres has the potential, in Taruskin’s eyes, to depart from the literate tradition altogether, and perhaps to undermine it as well. Too bad the music is so terrible. A parallel tradition of performance art, which typically never assumes a written form, also fits into this stream of “non-literate” music. Finally, there are a small elite of commercially successful composers who cater to an upper- and upper-middle-class audience. These composers have returned to the idea that pleasing an audience is a legitimate goal. The hazard here, however, is that the limitations of the audience limit the music. Taruskin recalls, for instance, that the millenium’s end was marked by high profile commissions of new Passion narratives, one for each of the four Gospels, and he notes that the results were, to a significant degree, basically multicultural mish-mashes. Why was that? He points to the need to please the “bourgeois bohemians” (and he draws explicitly on David Brooks’ theory about “Bobos”) who dominate the audience.

That isn’t an exhaustive taxonomy, but it does capture prominent features of the landscape. Each of these groups has something going for it — well, except for the second — and nobody knows how it will turn out. Or, to quote the closing sentences of the book:

The future is anybody’s guess. Our story ends, as it must, in the middle of things.

That’s nicely said.


Whenever someone finishes reading a 4000 page book, I think it is acceptable for them to recline with a glowing sense of accomplishment; I am reclining now, and I am glowing. I’ve sung the praises of individual volumes in this set before, and I won’t belabour the point here. Taruskin is one of the world’s foremost musicologists, and, it is fair to say, this is now the principal history of Western music for a general audience; it is hard to think of who could write another of comparable scope to challenge it. No doubt I have been but a middling pupil; I nonetheless know that I have learned much, and I have been greatly enriched in the process. Richard Taruskin has put music lovers in his debt, and I, for one, thank him.


A little something to celebrate:


Notes on previous volumes:

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

  1. Osbert Parsley Says:

    Congratulations on finishing! I am studying for doctoral comps in musicology, so am looking forward to a similar feeling of achievement in a few more days. I think the ultimate significance of the late twentieth-century repertoire is still very much up for grabs, so that Taruskin’s conclusions in this last volume are more provisional even than is normal for the historian’s work. Electronic music is an extreme example: this music is historically fascinating as a clear and obvious outgrowth of the culture of the time, but not a single electronic work has entered the repertoire.

    Because Taruskin wants to tell a big story about the rise and fall of literate music, his account leaves out a lot of composers that play an important role in our concert life but don’t fit into the narrative (I believe he specifically mentions Vaughan Williams in his introduction as a composer he personally likes but doesn’t discuss in the book). But I suspect that these sorts of omissions may add up to a more significant lacuna than we think, at least in the mid-twentieth century where conservative tonal works may actually constitute a slim majority of the music that was composed and performed (think of the entire repertory discussed in Reilly’s book “Surprised by Beauty,” which is not in evidence in Taruskin’s survey). In a somewhat tendentious article, Joseph Straus has argued that our belief in a 1950s/60s serialist hegemony over composition is a myth, and that composers of twelve-tone (or even atonal) music represented a numerical minority among recipients of awards, commissions, prominent performances, and academic appointments. Straus lists various possible reasons for this myth: I think one reason for its present popularity that he does not list is its congruence with the larger cultural myth of 1950s cultural repression and 1960s/70s cultural liberation, so that an undergraduate learning this history will naturally associate the “emancipation” of someone like Rochberg to the narrative he has already absorbed about civil rights, the sexual revolution, etc.:


    I think it’s all right to say that we don’t yet understand the mess that was late twentieth-century concert music, and that we will need more time to sort out the ultimate significance of the modernist tradition. The ascent of Messiaen’s music in the past ten years is a good example: here’s someone who is now critically acclaimed as one of the key composers of the last century, yet it’s not clear whether he belongs to the avant-garde or to an antimodernist reaction against it. This sort of confusion is probably symptomatic.

    Lastly: if Taruskin is right that we are nearing the end of the literate tradition in Western music, it is not impossible to imagine that the Church will once again become one of the primary custodians of that tradition through the maintenance of its liturgy. I think there is evidence that this shift is already taking place, with the increasing interest in Gregorian chant: thirty years ago, the primary place for the study of chant was the university, where studies in chant transmission and paleography were some of the most prestigious fields of study in musicology, but now the prestige of chant scholarship has largely declined and there are far more people actually singing the music at the parish level. On balance, I think this may be a good thing.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I had been hoping that you might leave a remark, Osbert; thank you. I take it you have read the book yourself.

    What you say about the perceived vs. actual dominance of the more radical wing is very interesting. You are right that few of the composers whom Reilly highlights appear anywhere in Taruskin’s account; if I remember rightly, he himself acknowledges at one point that although he is critical of the standard history, it is a temptation for a historian to focus on what is new and different, so he is lured down the standard path even against his better judgment.

    Anyway, I’ll read the article to which you link when I get a chance. Thanks for the recommendation.

    About the migration of chant: if the Church is to become a custodian of the literate tradition by way of its custodial care for Gregorian chant, I am tempted to say that the literate tradition is doomed! But I am writing to you from my new home in a Toronto suburb where Gregorian chant is apparently unknown, and my judgment is clouded by depression. Through the fog I can see that it’s an intriguing thought.

    Best of luck to you as you stare down your comps! I’ll appeal to St. Cecilia on your behalf.

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