Turning Back the Clock

Using an innocent language innocently—using tonality “in one’s own way”—is no longer even an option. The choice is bleak: either renounce expression altogether or borrow a voice.  — V, 435

The tumultuous late 20th century presented composers with a number of perhaps irreconcilable aesthetic challenges. Modernists like Carter and Babbitt pressed on with the historicist mission of musical progress, even though they had to rely on the largesse of universities and institutions to pay their bills. Minimalists opted out of the complexity arms race by radically scaling back their musical means, often under the influence of Eastern spirituality and popular music. But what about turning back the clock entirely to write music, unironically, in the “innocent” idioms of classical music’s hallowed past?

This is what George Rochberg attempted to accomplish in his string quartets no. 3-6. A university-trained modernist, Rochberg began turning his back on “progress” in the 1970s by adopting a purely tonal, Romantic idiom. His 3rd quartet, for example, is pointy and modernistic in all save the central Adagio movement, which jarringly pushes the listener into the Delorean and sets the gauge for 1820. This is music that Beethoven never got around to writing. But as RT (not to mention the composer) makes clear, there is no irony behind this gesture, no dark, sly, distancing maneuver a la Stravinsky’s neoclassicism (which never, of course, sounded remotely “classical”). Rather, what we have is a composer reclaiming a lost past of expressive possibility, and showing in the process that the very notion of stylistic obsolescence is bunk. Why not write a Beethovenian string quartet in 1972? Rochberg writes: “… I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with reactivated powers…” (V, 433).

There’s a lot of “re-” happening here. All this brings to mind Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” wherein a 20th century Frenchman decides that instead of translating Cervantes’s work, he needed to completely immerse himself in Cervantes’s world in order to recreate the book, word by word. To write Don Quixote, in other words, one had to become Cervantes, to hit reset and do it over again. There is something deeply charming about Rochberg’s expressive sincerity and lack of aesthetic “distancing” typically associated with postmodernism. But there is also something deeply sad and more than a little utopian. His embrace of the musical successes of the past, indeed, is all-too-uncomfortable evidence of today’s failures.

(I can’t find a clip of this Adagio on YouTube, but here’s something from the 6th quartet. Here, he takes perhaps the most canonical [and, by many modernists, despised, though don’t tell the bride] piece of music and sets it to a very pretty set of variations. Not entirely historically accurate, perhaps, but definitely not a ironic poke either.)



  1. May I recommend the later compositions of Easley Blackwood in a similar vein? He made a move back to tonality in the 1980’s and since has sometimes created projects such as: composing a string quartet that Schubert would have written had he lived to be 50.

    This was after his early ‘modernist’ period, followed by experimentation in microtones, in which he attempted to use Baroque forms to illustrate the properties of different tuning systems. The use of these forms was part of what sparked the idea of returning to more classical forms in part for expressive purposes.

  2. Whereas I do believe that Babbitt was a paid-up subscriber to the idea of musical “progress” I don’t think that’s the case with Carter. I could write a book detailing why Taruskin’s reading of Carter made me so angry. Carter said once (wish I could remember where) that the reason he wrote the music he did was that that was the sort of music he wanted to hear: I don’t think there is any more honest reason to write music. Composers tell themselves (and historians tell us) all sorts of reasons why they write: the historicist idea of “progress” is one of them, simple experimentation is another, some people think they write “for” an “audience” (more honestly they write for an imagined or ideal audience), etc. But I don’t think Carter ever subscribed wholly to the kinds of ideas Taruskin associates with modernism. Carter seems too quirky, personal and individualistic for that. Now one thing that struck me from re-reading the Taruskin history recently is this which I just offer as a question: is it not possible that the people who believe most in the “discredited modernist narrative of musical progress” are those who seek to escape from it? Even someone like Stockhausen tends to present his technical innovations as connected to expressive purposes. I’d also want to question Taruskin’s “bleak” choice: for me at least, when I accidentally discovered Carter’s Double Concerto on the radio when I was about 15 years old what struck me immediately was its expressive force. It seems ridiculous to assume that modernism, even in its later forms, meant a denial or evasion of “expression”: if anything, the “late modernism” of someone like Ferneyhough is if anything overwhelmingly directed by an idea of “expression” if not the romantic subjective idea of “expression” (this is perhaps why, although in many of his works there are various underlying quasi-serial structures of pitch and duration, nearly all other compositional decisions are “free”).

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