Posts Tagged ‘musicology’

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.


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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?

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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]).

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Here’s a partial playlist for vol. III, chapter 9, “Lost—Or Rejected—Illusions.” Click through below for scenes from Prokofieff’s Love for Three Oranges.

Prokofieff, “Classical Symphony,” (III Gavotte)

Satie, Embryons desséchées (No. 3, “De podophthalma” begins at 3:43; end of this movement is a caricature of the extended coda in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony)


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No one could possibly have foreseen […] that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world in bringing the latent objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the preromantic era.   — Aaron Copland, about Stravinsky (1941)

As RT points out, nothing is truly innocent of history, least of all instances of artistic revival masquerading as the real thing, “on its own terms.” This critique was at the core of his indictment of the “authentic” performance practice movement, and it makes an appearance in his discussion of neoclassicism as well: Stravinsky’s 18th century affectations tell us much more about the 1920s than the 18th century.

The “Pathos is Banned” chapter resonates uncannily with a similar conundrum we face in the world of popular music today, though with some pronounced differences. This position was quite recently summed up by music critic Simon Reynolds in a piece from this Sunday’s NYT, “The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then.” Reynolds examines the “atemporality” that marks much of the pop music from the last decade, claiming that – short of auto-tune – we don’t really have any distinct, identifiable sounds or genres that define our era, nothing “that screams, ‘It’s 2011!'” Cataloging the various styles that helped to date and define the pop cultures of decades past, he goes on to write: “The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying.” Here are a couple of his examples of throwbackism in today’s pop, from Cee-Lo Green and Adele:

The prefix “neo-,” like the neoclassicism of yesteryear, has become synonymous with atavism, and there are no shortages of “neos” in today’s pop. I don’t buy Reynolds’s argument that there is literally nothing differentiating this music from its earlier models, but it’s hard to contest that “pop eats itself” in 2011 is less about synthesis, for many, than it is about crafting historically “authentic” replicas of music from the 60s through the 90s, down to the superannuated technologies used in its production. On this point, “atemporality” in pop differs considerably from Stravinsky in the 20s. Indeed, as RT makes clear, there is nothing authentically “classical” about Stravinsky’s neoclassical music: his harmonic palette, counterpoint, and voice leading would have been impossible in the time of Mozart. For Stravinsky to adopt an “atemporal” stance a la Cee-Lo Green, he would have just written a Mozart symphony. No, neoclassicism gestures toward the past while remaining uncompromisingly modern, in the sense that it is clearly a product of its post-Great War European moment.

Today’s “fading of newness” emerges from a very different set of cultural and historical circumstances, but it’s just as much a marker of our present moment as the Octet was of 1923. Perhaps what “screams 2011” is indeed its atemporality and fragmentation. (This gets into some postmodern territory, of course: how can we forget Frederic Jameson’s prognostication that “we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.”) And just as it’s not entirely mysterious why Stravinsky made his move when he did (as this chapter virtuosically demonstrates), today’s throwbackism is, despite Reynolds’s head-scratching, entirely explicable from a variety of perspectives, many of which Reynolds goes on to list.

Is today’s pop music atavism indeed as “mystifying” as it might at first seem?

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In the first half of his chapter on Bartók (Vol. IV, Ch. 7), Taruskin shines a focused spotlight on several of Bartók’s pieces, including Kossuth, Four Dirges, the set of bagatelles (Op. 6) for solo piano, his string quartet No. 4, and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Here is a partial listening list based on what I could find in the broad but inconsistent wells of youtube. Listen as you read:
[In order to save space on our front page, I’ve only included the first two pieces here. Click through to listen to the rest.]


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We eased back into our Challenge this week like an elephant eases into a teacup. This week’s reading covered almost all of Taruskin’s chapter on the early life and work of Arnold Schoenberg, a composer whose opaqueness is famous, and well known in his own day: Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg wrote an article called “Why Is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?” in honor of his teacher’s fiftieth birthday (IV, 324). Taruskin’s discussion of Schoenberg’s music includes the opera Erwartung (Op. 17), the art song Mädchenlied (Op. 6, no. 3), Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (“Six Little Pieces for Piano,” Op. 19, no. 1), “Vorgefühle” (“Premonitions”) from Five Orchestral Pieces (op. 16), and the unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter. The analyses, which are written in a style considerate of the reader, are still heady and dense enough to give the undergraduate music student—not to mention the intelligent general reader—pause.

Indeed, for many music students, the real question is not Berg’s “why so difficult to understand?” but “why should we try to understand Schoenberg’s music in the first place?” Taruskin offers a compelling answer by linking Schoenberg’s technical developments, the realm of the mind, to his vision of transcendence, the realm of the elevated soul. Rather than being merely a set of mathematical exercises (a common blanket attack leveled at “atonal music” without regard to its accuracy or chronological appropriateness) that negated the spiritual aims of Romanticism, Taruskin argues that Schoenberg was taking transcendence to new extremes (Taruskin uses the term “maximalism”).

This chapter is the final piece of Taruskin’s trilogy of transcendentalism (chapters 4-6), in which he sets forth a major rethinking of the traditionally held division between the Romantic and Modernist periods in musical history. One of its major results is to revise the core definition of what comprises Romanticism—namely, that transcendence, rather than harmonic practice, is the Romantic trump card.

This runs directly in contrast to traditional understandings of the divisions between Romantic and Modernist periods, which are usually cast in technical terms: extreme chromaticism gave way to “atonality” and the final vestiges of common-practice harmony were eradicated, ushering in the new age. The example of this narrative I happen to have on my nearby shelf at the moment is Robert P. Morgan’s textbook, Twentieth-Century Music.* His analysis of Erwartung forms an apt comparison to Taruskin’s. Whereas a description of the plot is something of an afterthought in Morgan’s, second to Schoenberg’s compositional technique, it comes up front in Taruskin’s, framing the entire discussion. In Morgan’s, Erwartung is the clarion call of something new: “With its vivid suggestion of impending disaster and emotional disintegration, it is a true child of the new age” (73, emphasis added). In Taruskin’s narrative, Erwartung is driving toward a climax of pathos, the last gasp of the historical stream of Romanticism. As Taruskin will go on to argue in chapter 8, the “real” twentieth century didn’t begin at the fin de siècle, but in the 1920s when composers like Stravinsky sought to eradicate not Romantic harmonic practice, but Romantic subjectivity.

I, for one, will continue chunking through Taruskin’s text with one of Schoenberg’s (Taruskin’s?) lessons ringing in my ears: transcendence ain’t easy, but it’s worth it.

*Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1991).

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