RT pulls no punches when it comes to the work of T.W. Adorno. Indeed, he makes his opinion clear in the introduction that the Frankfurter is “preposterously overrated.” With his strong views in mind, the lead-up to the 20th century these last three volumes has been filled with taut anticipation. How is Prof. Taruskin going to grapple with the ideas and the legacy of Adorno, this paragon of “new musicology”?

Gingerly, it turns out. If you’re expecting a devastating repudiation, you might be disappointed. RT outlines some of Adorno’s big ideas and major works with a dispassionate approach that belies the stormy rhetoric of “preposterously overratedness.” (For example, see p.189, where he speaks of how “the influential German social philosopher” “felt” about Stravinsky.) It seems that his approach here is to not overtly take a side, giving Adorno his due insofar as his ideas have proved influential, but largely withholding judgment otherwise. His view of Adorno is perhaps most patent, in fact, in what is not said in the text. Frankfurt theory plays a puny role in the volume. By the numbers (according to the index), Adorno comes up on a mere 11 pages (out of 796). By contrast, José Ortega y Gasset, who tends to be relatively neglected in most musicological literature, appears on 27.

This omission is, in itself, significant. Just as Kant and Burke are the accepted aesthetic authorities for 18th century music, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for 19th, Adorno has become, over the last 30 or so years, the poster-child philosopher for understanding 20th century music, particularly its social significance and political economy. During this time, “new musicology” has painstakingly deconstructed the canon, but in doing so, has appeared to canonize this fascinating, prickly, frustrating, and endlessly complex thinker. It’s an odd paradox: those Adornian ideas that have had the most currency in the discipline – namely his thoughts on the sociological agency of music, on aesthetics and musical meaning in the age of the “Culture Industry,” on the historical “truth” of music as social critique – are precisely where Adorno can be the most regressive, ethnocentric, and just plain snobby. There seems to be a lot of cherry-picking going on in Adorno reception: people accept the liberal political and cultural arguments that come from his work while ignoring his more ignoble claims (his thoughts on jazz are particularly egregious in this regard). Like a well-loved elderly relative who occasionally lets a bigoted comment slip (“oh, grandpa!”), we seem to be able to hold this cognitive dissonance together, admiring his many good qualities while gently admonishing his faults. It is peculiar, though, that the same scholarly movement (if you can call “new musicology” that) that has strove to bring respect and academic currency to the study of popular music also has the tendency to lionize a man who so infamously denigrated popular culture. Indeed, contradictions abound in Adorno’s place in musicology.

By privileging Ortega y Gasset, RT does a few things. Most pragmatically, he stays clear of the hornet’s nest of these contradictions, a debate in which he has, in other venues, vigorously taken part. More significantly, though, he subtly shifts the balance of power in 20th century historiography away from Germany. By signalling the 1920s as an aesthetic turning point (and the beginning of the “real” 20th century), he tilts our attention away from the problematics of Viennese atonality and nods instead to the hyper-rationalism of Stravinsky. Highlighting Ortega (a Spaniard) and neoclassicism (associated with Franco-Russian impulses) over the early-century composers, techniques, and thinkers that usually play the leading role in 20th century histories (read: Schoenberg, atonality/12-tone, and Adorno), RT makes a bold counterclaim to the “germanoromantocentric” biases that inform much of the conventional wisdom regarding this important period.

I think it’s a courageous and elucidating approach, but I anticipate many OHWM readers will feel otherwise. Adorno remains a delicate and invidious matter, in part because his writings are so dense and – let’s face it – often so totally inscrutable that it can be easy to think you know him, only to embrace and promulgate a misreading of his ideas. (I have been guilty of this in the past, alas; I’m a lot more skeptical of Adorno now, though my opinion of him is a lot better than RT’s.) I certainly wouldn’t want to instigate a screaming match here, but I’m curious: what role does Adorno play in your thinking, research, and teaching? How about Ortega y Gasset? And how do you think RT handled the ideas and influence of these two major thinkers?

The thread of irony that snakes its way through the volume strikes me as hugely significant and generally under-discussed in most histories of modern music. RT’s century, which begins in the twenties, is marked by this unstable relationship to the Romantic “Truth,” not by specific musical techniques per se. By placing aesthetic distance and cool irony as the true marker of the modernist mentality, RT susses out some of the major questions of music in the last century: what is music’s place in history, what is its relationship to truth, and what role does it play in society? These questions came under radical scrutiny in the twenties.

As a teacher, the issue of irony seems to come up often in discussions with students. Perhaps this is because, for many, irony is essentially the only musical mode they’ve been exposed to in the popular music of their lifetime. (Or at least sincerity that can easily come off as ironic, like Kurt Cobain.) In any case, students are excited to learn that this expressive mode has a history prior to the Sex Pistols. Neoclassicism also helps contextualize the tricky notion that aping the past in the present is more a reflection of today than it is of that imagined, usable past. (This topic links up to contemporary pop all too well.)

To generalize hugely, it seems to me that major epistemological shifts like this count more in the narrative of music history than progressive steps on the teleological scale of technical development. If tonality (and its disillusion) is the primary bellwether for music historiography, who’s to keep us from beginning the “20th century” with Liszt in the mid-19th century, or Wagner, or Mussorgsky? Schoenberg’s early atonal works or Debussy’s non-functional harmonies seem just as arbitrary a demarcation line for musical “modernism.” In fact, tonality is a highly unstable and short-lived value system to begin with; it seems that just as it comes to maturity, composers begin picking at its seams. What RT points out in the “Pathos is Banned” chapter, however, is a wholesale rethinking of what music can and should do (musical ends), not just an examination of structural/technical poiesis (musical means). (I imagine that Cage and the 1950s will be framed as similarly decisive as a point of historical rupture.) This shift, as Mark trenchantly observed, is still active today.

With very little fanfare save for the light breeze made by page turning, Vol. IV came to a close a week ago. That’s four down and one to go—though if you’re like me, you’ve peeked more than once at the final volume.

As is our custom, we’ll take a week or two of wrap-up time to comment on more of the text, as well as to perhaps ask some global questions and discuss the big points of the volume.

And what a volume it was. Prof. Taruskin rocked several boats holding the traditional thinking on twentieth century music. Some of the biggest he salvoed and aimed to sink. He moved the inception of the musical “twentieth century” back by more than a decade, redefined its central characteristics (neoclassicism, ban of pathos, irony), and argued for a repositioning of the era’s most important philosophers (notably a increasing the importance of Ortega y Gasset and decreasing that of T.W. Adorno).

The influence that these changes and challenges might have on the teaching and understanding of music history is well worth discussing, and I’d like to open up a discussion here.

Teachers: how have you used Taruskin’s arguments in your presentation of the narrative of twentieth century music? To what effect?

Students: how have Taruskin’s revisions and emendations affected the way you understand early twentieth century music?

Challenges of your own? Seconding Prof. Taruskin’s arguments? Questions or ruminations? Let’s get this comments section working—pathos and irony allowed.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Josquin des Prez was one of the first composers to gain widespread renown through the printing press. Gottschalk accomplished his national success by riding the cross-country American railroad system in the 19th century. Enrico Caruso was the first international recording star, beginning in the first decade of the 20th century. Arturo Toscanini’s widespread celebrity as a conductor was amplified exponentially through the new medium of radio broadcasts beginning in the late 1930s (Vol. IV, 752).

The contours of music history are bound by the history of technics, and vice versa. And as I pointed out in an earlier post, sometimes the nature of one’s success is dictated by when one is born, and what technology is available to you—or invented by you. More recently we’ve had the music video star (Michael Jackson), the youtube “star” (more infamous than famous, usually), and the indie-“wunderkind”. One can only imagine—what’s next?

12-tone music (and atonality more generally) has a reception problem. On the one hand, the mathematical rigor of the compositional process (poiesis) lends it the elite prestige that all things “scientific” garner in the modern world. RT identifies this extreme focus on musical ends rather than means – high academic modernism’s “cult of difficulty” – as a “deliberate strategy… keeping the hostile crowd at bay” (IV, 738). Listeners may not like the music, but, understanding that its composition is akin to research in particle physics – in other words, recognizing that it’s way over their heads anyway – listeners can accept its “necessity.” One takes it at a concert much like one takes a dose of cod liver oil.

It’s fascinating to me how, out of all the “high modernist” art forms, atonality (especially 12-tone music) has been perhaps the most stubborn to absorption into the cultural bloodstream, at least in the concert-going world (movies are another question). Corporations display Kandinskys in their lobbies, yet Webern continues to arouse ire among subscribers in many an American concert hall. A hundred years later and it’s still controversial with audiences. Preoccupied with its “difficulty,” it’s easy for listeners to feel stupid and alienated; after all, it shouldn’t take a Ph.D. to listen to music.

This is deeply unfortunate. There is more to the Second Viennese School than pure poiesis, despite the fact that, as RT laments, “… the ‘esthetic’ aspect – the relationship between the music and its audience, or the impact the composer seeks to make on a hearer – is rarely addressed” (ibid). I recall my first concert experience with Webern (Oliver Knussen with the New World Symphony playing 5 Pieces, Op.10). Never mind its “difficulty,” this music was a sensual epiphany. Knussen lovingly and delicately presented us with five wildly, extravagantly flavored tiny morsels of sound, like rich and unusual chocolates in a box. Each bite was a universe of sonic sensations. After finishing, he turned to the audience and, with the playful naughtiness of a young boy sneaking a cookie, asked if we minded that he played the whole piece once again. We were all intoxicated with Webern.

In my company that evening was a friend who was, to say the least, highly skeptical going into the concert. A rock fan with little or no experience in classical music, she was mystified and fearful of the legendarily “difficult” reputation of the music. (In fact, she even had an excuse to bow out during intermission if her ears were intolerably assailed.) How did she take this performance of Webern? Let’s just say there’s now a CD or two between Tom Waits and Wilco in her music collection. Motivic unity be damned, she was mesmerized by the sheer, luxuriant sonic surface of it.

RT points out that, despite its reputation for onerousness, Webern’s music “lays everything bare.” Eschewing structural analysis for a moment, I’d like to look at one brief moment to illustrate the drastic immediacy of this music, an immediacy that, I think, is heightened by the extreme subtlety of his use of timbre. Tone rows and recurring motives are relatively easy to identify – the act of esthesis, when this is all you’re focusing on, is equivalent to investigating the music’s poiesis. But Webern, like his teacher, was a genius of timbral contrast and control. Since this element of musical sound is much harder to quantify than pitch relationships, it often goes unremarked. In the Five Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, Op.10, however, timbre appears as the primary expressive ingredient. (N.B.: Op.10 is a “free atonal,” not a 12-tone piece. This is a bad recording, but I cant’ find anything better on YouTube):

The whole thing is an intimate landscape of whirling, dynamic, kaleidoscopic sound, but turn to Mvt. 3 (beginning at 1:16) for my favorite example. The PPP opening, which combines mandolin and guitar tremolo with harp, celesta, and a deep, randomly-articulated bell, evokes something teeming, liquescent, and dimly crepuscular. A rumble of the bass drum at 1:36 (though faint in this recording) adds a viscous and chilling sheen to the unfolding sound-world. A muted horn, distant and haunting, rings out bell-like at 1:43. From here it’s all twittering and hushed movement, closing with the rustling wind of a snare drum roll (2:32). Robert Erickson memorably describes this movement as “flickering, hazy insect music.” (Sound Structure in Music, 166)

Actually listening to Webern is a very different experience than either reading about Webern or analyzing Webern’s scores. And it is here that Second Viennese atonality has a PR problem: its intense logic and formal complexity begs it to be read as a gnomic text, yet the way it sounds at its best moments – captivating, evocative, surprising, and chaotic – can be grasped without the aid of the score. All music is about sound, of course, but by fixating on structure and technique (poiesis) – its “difficulty” – at the expense of its sensual sonic surface, a strategy that RT is guilty of, even though he recognizes the bias, it’s easy to forget what a singularly bewitching sound world we’re dealing with. Close the score and listen to Webern – you might be surprised.

The persistent contrast between Schoenberg’s heavy content and its feather-light containers was perhaps the most vivid example of postwar irony to be found in all of modernist music. It gave his early twelve-tone music a crooked side that is not only useless to deny, but makes the music all the more genuinely a reflection of its time, all the more genuinely interesting, therefore, as a historical document, and all the more esthetically pleasing.   (Vol. IV, 692)

Stravinsky and Schoenberg represented two wildly divergent paths forward after the war. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t think highly of each others’ music, and the rancor over whose definition of “modernism” was the most true to history occasionally turned to outright mockery (Schoenberg referred to his competitor as “little Modernsky,” for example). Indeed, the cool and restrained neoclassicism championed by the Russian seemed miles apart from the red-hot, wild expressionism (or, to detractors, “romanticism”) of the Austrian. But in many ways the 12-tone technique was just as classicizing as Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, just as driven by the primacy of rationality over pathos, and just as fundamentally ironic in outlook.

Take the formal structures (“containers”) that characterize Schoenberg’s first full-scale 12-tone piece, Suite for Piano, Op.25. With a Präludium, Gavotte, Musette, Intermezzo, Menuett, and Gigue, we’re back in the territory of “Papa Bach’s” pedagogical keyboard works, a bizarre and incongruous fit for the extreme dissonance contained therein. (We’re also back to dance forms, which is another tasty irony considering the lack of motoric regularity in Schoenberg’s music.) As RT notes, these are patently (if not risibly) “feather-light” forms put to the service of one of the most extravagantly intellectualized compositional techniques ever devised. Why would Schoenberg, a la Stravinsky, turn back the clock to mine obsolete forms from the 18th century?

The movement titles in Op.25 are significant for a number of reasons. For one, they create a “classical” and “Apollonian” (read: rational and objective) contextual frame that assists the listener in fusing the poietic and esthetic dimensions of the music’s 12-tone underpinning. Since it’s difficult to “hear” the exacting order and mathematical elegance of a tone row, in other words, titles can belie the craggy and disruptive phenomenological surface, showing listeners that the apparent chaos is actually driven by a deep logic, the cold irrefutability of a mathematical proof. For example, imagine if “Musette” was titled, in the manner of pre-war Viennese fashion, “Manic Laugh Under a Blood Moon” – it would significantly alter how this creepy music is heard. “Musette” keeps it cool and dispassionate. (More on the poiesis/esthesis divide in another post.)

In addition – and this is a point about Schoenberg that doesn’t often seem to be discussed – the adoption of Baroque/Classical forms shows the composer poking gentle fun at his own 12-tone pretense. Take the “Menuett” movement, whose trio section unfolds in the form of a strict mirror canon. Contrapuntal exactitude is rendered absurd in an “emancipated dissonance” context, not that a listener would be able to tell anyway. This technique, which results in grotesquely jagged figuration, “shines such a garish spotlight on the contour inversion as to leave no doubt that the composer is in on the joke” (695). Or how about the “Musette” mentioned above, which references the traditional bucolic imagery of droning bagpipes with a recurring tritone (the tell-tale sign of an unreconstructed expressionist).

In on the joke, indeed.

In a comment to my last post on musical Americanisms, reader Bodie asked after another “forgotten giant” of American music, John Philip Sousa. (Taruskin does in fact mention Sousa, though only briefly and as a secondary point to his discussion of Charles Ives in Vol. IV.) So I thought I might let Sousa speak for himself on the topic of America’s musical place vis-à-vis Europe. And from Sousa’s point of view, it was not as a meek supplicant content with playing second-piccolo to the big-boys.

In his memoir of 1928, Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women, and Music,* Sousa recalls his band’s first tour to Europe in 1900. When in Paris, Sousa published an article criticizing the French bands for being too beholden to, he surmised, “the domination of publishing houses, or some narrow control that made them play only French music….” His main argument in the article, which he reprinted in part in his memoirs, was that “subsidy is the death of Art.”

His article was in turn criticized in print by an anonymous American, signed “Musician”—whom Sousa suspected to be a Frenchman in disguise—who was flabbergasted by Sousa’s hubris. The thought of an American prescribing musical curricula for the French, an ancient musical powerhouse, was offensive to “Musician,” and purportedly to many others.

Sousa did not back down. He defended his argument in a lengthy, point-by-point rejoinder that smacked of press not pall. What right did Americans have to remark or improve on long-standing European traditions? Sousa made clear his view:

In passing, it is not inápropos to remark that Europe gave us the tallow candle, but like grateful children we sent in return the electric light; Europe gave us the primitive hand-power printing press of Gutenberg, and in our simple-hearted way we showed her the Goss perfecting press; Europe placed the goose-quill in our hands and we have added the typewriter to her resources; Europe put the bare needle in our fingers and we reciprocate with the modern sewing-machine. But why enumerate? (Sousa, 194)

The implication is that Americans, like they had done in the area of technics, could advance the art of music into the modern era, electrify it, even. Sousa was not naive, as a musician, author, or businessman. He did not have scorn for the “old masters,” as is plainly seen by his programming choices, which frequently included arrangements of Wagner, Verdi, and other “classics.” But Sousa was confident. At the dawn of the 20th century America was flush with innovative spirit, and as Sousa exemplifies, musicians were not immune to it.

Sousa’s band was indeed a great success on that European tour. How did an American, one of the “grateful children” of Western art music, win this small conquest of his elders?

He believed he could do it in the first place.

*John Philip Sousa, Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women, and Music (Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1941 [1928]).