Technics and the Contours of Music History

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?

Sousa and American Attitude

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]).

Musical Americanisms

Around the turn of the 20th century, Dvorak famously gave his predictions about the repertoires that would be the wellspring of an American national style. Though a hopeful prediction, it also served as a stinging reminder that no such style yet existed, something that American composers were well aware of. Between the wars, several candidates arose to fill the vacancy.

Would it be the uniquely American “folk” music, jazz? Copland and Gershwin, not to mention Duke Ellington (Taruskin, in fact, doesn’t mention him), all wrote concert pieces in “jazzy” styles. Jazz also made the leap across the pond and became a short-lived vogue, especially with French composers. Would it be the wild, free, “self-made” musical language of Roy Harris, symphonist and later film composer? (IV, 640) Was it in the expanse of the prairies? the folklore of the Appalachians? the spirit of the American working man?

There is no answer to this question, per se, no “natural essence” of American music (IV, 673). The only “answer” we can claim is the discourse of artistic creativity that such a question ignites.

(More music after the jump.)

Continue reading “Musical Americanisms”

Vol. IV, Ch. 9 Playlist, Part I

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)

Continue reading “Vol. IV, Ch. 9 Playlist, Part I”

Stravinsky and the New Black Irony

One need only read the first half dozen or so pages of John Keegan’s history, The First World War (1999), to get a chilling picture of the social devastation of what was then known as the Great War. Almost an entire generation of young men was lost, and those who remained had witnessed unthinkable carnage and mass death. They came away with not only great physical, but psychological loss. Reading the lists of names on memorials that are replicated in every town throughout France and England, Keegan was struck with their heartrending length, “all the more heartrending because repetition of the same name testifies to more than one death, often several, in the same family.” (Keegan, 5)

In the wake of the horror of the war, many prominent composers responded by turning to cynicism, biting sarcasm and black irony.* Stravinsky manifestly banished all trace of pathos, most clearly with his Octet for Winds of 1923 (Stravinsky: “My Octuor is not an ’emotive’ work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves.” IV, 490). It is this shift that Taruskin sees as the true break from the Romantic tradition, and the moment that announced the end of the long nineteenth century with a dead-pan, ironic scoff.

Taruskin is right to see this response (which went beyond Stravinsky, but was admittedly not the only response) as a recoiling by composers from the burden of cosmic transcendence that they had inherited from the Romantics. Composers sought to reclaim “their etymological identities as artisans or artificers—skilled makers and doers, and professionals—as opposed to dreamers, reformers, philosophers, priests, politicians, or saints” (IV, 491). It was a loss of that supreme confidence (arrogance?) in the quest for human perfection that had been a driving force for so long.

Have we ever fully recovered from this blow?

*471-478 of Vol. IV should be essential reading for students looking to get an introduction into the effects of World War I on the arts.

A Bartók Playlist [Updated]

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.]

Continue reading “A Bartók Playlist [Updated]”

Transcendence Ain’t Easy: Schoenberg’s Spiritual Side

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).