A Funeral Rite for Vol. IV

And now to the music. (IV, 10)

To the music indeed. Over the last couple of weeks, Zach and I have been wrapping up our comments on Vol. III (19th century). We both realized that the “wrapping” could indeed go on and on, and that we must move forward.

So here we are at the dawn of Richard Taruskin’s next volume, Music in the Early Twentieth Century (his account of the century comprises two volumes). And the first musical example we are introduced to is the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, first premiered in Berlin in late 1895. The movement is called Todtenfeier (“Funeral Rite”).

May I suggest sitting down, putting on the first movement of the symphony, and reading the first 20 pages of RT’s text? There’s no better way to get in the spirit—and trust me, you’ll finish the 20 pages before the orchestra finishes the first movement…

With a Little Help from My Friends

“Henceforth [i.e., from the 1870s], Grieg was the Norwegian composer in the eyes of Europe and America; and, as always, it was reception, not immanent content or character—consumption, not production—that proved decisive in making him so.” (III, 818, emphasis in original)

Consumption, not production. This is a radical up-ending of the 19th-century nationalist narrative (see my recent post on Elgar). It’s supposed to matter where you’re from (production), not how you’re marketed (consumption). But Taruskin is right on this one. Has any composer entered the canon without the benefit of a highly influential advocate, whether of their own time or later in history?

The Riddle that Broke History’s Back

What do you get when you put the best four composers ever to come out of London in a room together?

-Two Germans, one Italian, and a Bohemian.

By the end of the 19th century, English culture had become the butt of every nationalist joke. They were known to Germans as Das Land ohne Musik, a people without a music—and by extension without a culture—of their own (III, 802). England was undergoing a dry spell. A centuries-long dry spell in fact—”since the death of Purcell in 1695, the English had been without a native-born composer of wide international repute” (III, 804).*

But my poor excuse for a joke above is not the “riddle” that I refer to in the title of this post. I’m of course talking about Continue reading “The Riddle that Broke History’s Back”

Arthur Sullivan

The nineteenth-century tendency toward specialization was much abetted by the widening gulf set in between “high” and “low” genres in the twentieth, which increasingly entailed the segregation of performers and audiences as well as composers, and a rigid hierarchy of taste that reinforced social distinctions. That hierarchy is already evident in the case of operetta, not so much in the way in which the genre was valued by audiences as in the way in which it was valued by its own specialist composers. The three with whom we are acquainted – Offenbach, Strauss, and Sullivan – all eventually aspired to the higher status of the very genre they spoofed.  (III, 657)

There’s something Faustian about this bargain: aspire to the “high” and risk alienating the masses (and their $) in the pursuit of Art; give “the people” what they want (ie. embrace the “low”) and risk forever being branded as an unserious, pandering lightweight. Operettas of the 19th century are a lot like musicals today – big market, little respect from the arbiters of high taste. For an ambitious, highly talented composer like Sullivan, this false dichotomy was an iron cage. When he attempted to make the transition to “serious opera” with Ivanhoe, his adoring public “betrayed him,” and he was mocked by the taste-makers. Embittered and ghettoized to the lighter genres, he soldiered on for the last ten years of his life with both inspiration and popularity flagging, dying at a fairly young age with the “feeling he had been mistreated and unjustly forgotten” (658). Ironically for such a master of comedy, poor Sullivan’s story is more fitting for tragic opera than the operetta form in which he so greatly excelled.

Music History in Pairs

Comparison is a strong rhetorical tool. Bach vs. Handel, Beethoven vs. Rossini, Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg. These are only a few of the piquant juxtapositions that have been used by music history teachers for years, to great effect in the classroom. Taruskin has used this approach in his history as well, by treating exact contemporaries as “classes.” In Vol. II it was the class of 1685: JS Bach, Handel, and D. Scarlatti; in Vol. III it is the class of 1813: Wagner and Verdi.

Is there any stronger or more towering comparison in the 19th century than the two titans of opera, Verdi and Wagner?Continue reading “Music History in Pairs”

Victory over Vol. III, or, The Chaikovsky Problem

Appropriately enough, Vol. III ends with Tchaikovsky (RT’s more consistently anglicized “Chaikovksy”), the master of the (melo-)dramatic finale. It was an arduous journey through the thickest volume of the set but, like the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, we emerged triumphant. Three down, two to go!

As we did with the last two volumes, we’re going to take a short reading break before resuming the Challenge with the early 20th century. But before moving on, expect some catch-up posts on the fascinating last 200 pages of the text. Also look for a Must-reads update in the near future.

But back to Chaikovsky for a moment. As I ruminate on my personal history with this composer, I remember that, as a kid, Tchaik was on par with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as far as “greatness” goes. I even owned a plastic bust of the guy (bearded composers were my favorites). Pieces like the 1812 Overture and the Nutcracker were about as amazing as classical music could get (come on, it even has a part for cannon!), and my family, which is full of musicians, ranked him high on their list (although my curmudgeonly grandfather always liked to point out that he was “as queer as a three-dollar bill”). Imagine my surprise, then, when at the tender age of 18 my college music history prof dismissed his music as “sentimental.” I clearly recall the cognitive dissonance I experienced upon learning that the music of a great composer was really something twee, excessive, and – worst of all – “popular.” I guess I, along with audiences for over a hundred years, was wrong about the guy!

The reception history of Chaikovsky is a twisting and (at times) tragic story that highlights the seismic shifts in our musical values over the last 100+ years. By “our,” of course, I mean music scholarship. For many decades, Chaikovsky’s link to ballet, his homosexuality, and his grand, gushing melodies were enough to make more than a few musicologists blush with shame. How could such a composer compete with the “serious” (read: German) masters? As a result of this category crisis, Chaikovsky was denigrated, dismissed, and discarded by generations of scholars.

Not that the concert-going public would know any of this, however. Chaikovsky, along with composers like Rachmaninoff, Rossini, Puccini, and Sibelius, dazzlingly demonstrates the frequent disconnect between what scholars deem important and what actual audiences do. Even during the darkest years of Chaikovsky-negativity in the academy, music-lovers flocked to annual performances of the Nutcracker, tingled as the 1812 finale joyously marauded their eardrums, and pondered in rapt concentration the 6th symphony in a darkened concert hall (sharing a billing with Beethoven, no less!). While I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s musicology’s job to slavishly track the popular simply by virtue of the fact that it’s popular (though tell that to the growing Lady Gaga Studies crowd), such a profound disjuncture between what is “important” to the scholar and what is “important” to the audience should give us pause.

Of course, Chaikovsky (along with the others mentioned above) has since been rehabilitated, giving today’s scholars the opportunity to look back smugly on the benighted history of the discipline and revel in just how far we’ve come. It does make you wonder, though, what we could be missing or dismissing right now. Might the musicologist of the future look back with bemusement at the conceptual blind spots that caused us to neglect such “important” artists today (Lady Gaga)?


I’ve devoted a fair amount of post space to Wagner lately, despite the fact that he’s now 200 pages behind us in the text. I’ll dislodge my obsession shortly (Wagner skeptics, cheer up!), but before doing so, I wanted to pose a couple questions relating to Wagner’s impact.

The sheer force of Wagner’s music, along with its philosophical back-story, gave the Germanic tradition another big feather in its cap (as if the cap wasn’t be-feathered enough before Wagner came onto the scene). Indeed, the scales had been tilting heavily in Germany’s favor for quite a while before the magician of Bayreuth, at least among critics, music historians, and composers who happened to be German. But Wagner broke the scale (the weight of the Ring cycle had to break something). Not only were Germans the undisputed champions of “absolute” instrumental music; now they had wrestled control of opera from the Italians, and, as Tony Montana would say, the world was theirs. Even Verdi was “spooked.”

This historicist phenomenon – the privileging of musical Germanness – is captured in RT’s mouthful of a coinage, “pan-germanoromantocentrism.” Like Wagner’s music, the primacy of the Germanic tradition was a contentious, tangled, and deeply complex issue as is spread around the Western world. Many non-Germans embraced this aesthetic model openly (the Boston School and the Société Nationale de Musique, for instance [III, 769-778]); others defined themselves by how un-German they were (Debussy perhaps, but that’s an oversimplification), a negative self-identification which only confirms the hegemonic power of pan-germanoromantocentrism. Indeed, in the 19th Century, Deutschland über alles.

But why exactly? There are many ways to answer this question (which I hope readers will help me out with): German music gave primacy to instruments, which made it more romantically transcendent; it had a high degree of technical complexity, long fetishized as a yardstick for musical value; it tended to deal with more “tragic” themes (RT characterizes Wagner’s idiom as “tragic” and Verdi’s as “tragicomic”). There are gobs more. But the three explanations outlined here, as tentative and incomplete as they are, point to something else: German music gained its power and prestige from its “seriousness.”

At the root of pan-germanoromantocentrism is the idea that German music is fundamentally more serious than other models. It deals largely in instruments, vehicles of “pure Will” (Wagner is no exception), and not the shallow, quotidian stuff of language. It traffics in heavy philosophy. It’s encoded with all sorts of technical complexities that take gnomic study to suss out. It’s intellectual and masculine (thus the characterization of its musical others as sentimental and feminized).

Everybody wants to be taken seriously. Indeed, the charge of “unseriousness” can be damning and tricky to disavow; as RT points out, France’s late-century National Music Society was shaped by an “inferiority complex” in an attempt to challenge the (German) stereotype of French music as merely “culinary” (776). The values of “seriousness” and “lofty artistic aspiration” were explicitly written into the group’s manifesto.

The question of pan-germanoromantocentrism is thus not limited to musical aesthetics, but reaches deep into social history. When Verdi toyed with Tristanisms in his late operas, he was clearly intrigued by the harmonic doors this musical language opened; his engagement with Wagner was thus justified by art. However, it could be as well that this “purely musical” choice was conjoined by social factors, namely the desire to appear “serious.” This is speculation, to be sure. I do wonder, however, about the relationship between the “purely musical” and other powerful social dynamics (“seriousness,” intellectualism, masculinity, power, etc) in the spread of Germanic musical thinking. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. (Anyone looking for a dissertation idea out there?) Like most questions of historical influence, this one is just as much about social power, distinction, and prestige as it is about the music itself.

Ross on Rheingold

The first reviews of the new MET Ring cycle are starting to trickle in. New Yorker critic and music blogger Alex Ross recently published his thoughts on “Rheingold” (“The Depths,” in the 10/18 issue) and the verdict is mixed. The big winner of this new production? Alberich. There’s a lot more to this bitter troll than is portrayed in the typical cycle, which tends to characterize the Niebelung as monstrous, buffoonish, or both. (Ross’s mainly positive review is a relief after seeing portions of LA Opera’s bloated, ill-conceived Ring over the summer. The Alberich in that production wore a massive mask that made him virtually impossible to empathize with. The whole affair was deeply alienating. Glad to learn that there’s still subtlety, grace, and deep psychological characterization left out there in Ring-land, though not here in Los Angeles.)

Wagnerian Aesthetics 101

What I experience when I experience the tonal tendency of a sound is the dynamics of my own desire, its arousal, its satisfaction, its frustration. It is my own desire for the leading tone to move up, the satisfaction of my own desire when it so moves, the frustration thereof when it refuses to budge or when it moves elsewhere, that I feel… Thus, the precondition of my being able to hear an imaginary pattern of lines of directed motion in a tonal work is that I first experience the desires, satisfactions, and frustrations of this sort. In tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire precedes any recognition of the represented object, of lines of directed motion, and is the necessary precondition of such a recognition. I must first experience the desire that the leading tone move up, before I can recognize the representation of an imaginary ascending line when it so moves.

It follows that tonal music, like a visual medium, may represent an imaginary object different from myself, an imaginary world, albeit a highly abstract one, consisting of lines of directed motion. But, unlike a visual medium, tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring, my own inner world, and it is this latter experience that is the more primordial one, since any representation depends on it. While visual media allow us to grasp, represent, and explore an outer, visual world, music makes it possible for me to grasp, experience, and explore and inner world of desiring. While visual media show us objects we might want without making us aware of what it would feel like to want anything, music makes us aware of how it feels to want something without showing us the objects we want. In a brief formula, visual media are the instruments of knowing the object of desire but not the desire itself, tonal music is the instrument of knowing the desire but not its object.   — Karol Berger, quoted in III, 529-530

What perfect thoughts to frame the mammoth issue of Wagnerian aesthetics, and also to demonstrate Wagner’s fundamental contradictions and, as we shall see, “dangers.” In fact, like Wagner’s music, this lengthy excerpt (RT rarely interpolates quotes this extensive) is an exercise both in profundity (or seeming depth, at least) and in vexing frustration. Let’s start unpacking.

The philosophical premise of this observation is, of course, straight-up Schopenhauerian. Music in this schema (tonal music, to be precise) represents the inner stirrings of the Will, an unadulterated snapshot of “pure” desire. Berger, then, assents to the fundamental premises of Wagner’s own conception of music: it is deeper than simple harmonious arrangements of sounds, instead striking at the lived essence of being human. Indeed, it seems to me that without accepting this supposition on some level, even with a critical ear, Wagner’s “Schopenhauerian” operas would be at times utterly mystifying and, frankly, incoherent. More so than any other composer, a philosophical context is needed to appreciate what Wagner’s up to.

But when Berger and RT talk about the channeling of desire that lies at the root of Wagner’s tonal procedures, just who is doing the desiring, and what sort of desire are we talking about anyway? In this regard, the use of a false “we” glosses over an important question: just how universal is this representation of desire? (Berger, partially in his defense, promiscuously alternates “us” with “me.”) As Berger and RT point out – and Wagner requires – music has the power to stir us deeply by connecting with the fundamental temporal rhythms of life (expectation, desire, frustration, satisfaction, etc) in a mimetic relationship that can eschew metaphorical representation to strike at the actual feelings themselves. However, we must be careful not to universalize this phenomenon in regard to tonal music. Like any historically bounded cultural phenomenon, tonality is a construct, not a universal technology for the expression of human drives. Berger is correct when he specifies that he feels a certain way when listening to tonal music; when he switches to “us,” he strays from the fundamental claim, that as Westerners steeped in the rules of tonality from birth, we connect to tonal patterns as if they are idealized analogs to interior experience. Background and exposure are critical here: in the absence of enculturation into the tonal system, Wagner would make just about as much sense as the Klingon language.

Is there a claim here that tonality is uniquely qualified to represent the deepest desires of people? “Tonal” is the ubiquitous qualifier in this excerpt (RT adopts it as well): thus, “in tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire..” and “tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring,” etc. It is difficult to deny that tonality, in all its ephemeral glory, represents a certain triumph of expressive economy, but I don’t see how you could argue that it is more effective at channeling our desires than a vast array of other musical systems at mankind’s disposal. A Monteverdi madrigal, while not strictly tonal, manipulates desire in extremely effective ways; so does a Charlie Parker improvisation and a Japanese shakuhachi honkyoku piece. Is tonality sui generis in its ability to channel desire, or just one technique among many?

And just what are we desiring when we experience musical desire? It’s difficult not to broach the topic of sex here, though RT and Berger seem to safely eschew the issue (Susan McClary doesn’t, and neither, thankfully, does Wagner in Tristan). Not to venture too far into the trendy field of body scholarship here, but “desire” is a mighty abstract concept when completely decoupled from our experience as embodied beings. Is Berger relating his experiences of listening to tonal music to some disembodied, idealized form of desire? Is it a puzzle-solving sort of desire, an intrinsic compulsion to solve problems and work out conundrums, that a resolved leading tone connects us to? If limited entirely to that, what an impoverished sort of desire we’re dealing with. As reams of scholars have attempted to show, “internal” desires are directly related to the “external” desires of the body, and in this regard, in tonality we have a forcefully articulated symbolic system for talking about sex (and experiencing its impulses vicariously). It’s reductionistic to boil down all desire to sex, of course; the sexual experience is but one form of the bodily pattern of ebb/flow, tension/release that repeats itself in many guises. But it seems to me that the body at least merits some mention whenever the tricky question of desire comes up in relation to music. If we want to get into human universals as a grounds of music making, this seems a fruitful place to begin.

To close out this over-long post, let’s return to the issue of danger mentioned earlier. Wagner, more than anyone else in the history of Western music, is still, as in his own day, viewed by many as a threat. His connection to Europe’s brutal history of anti-semitism is the most obvious reflection of his music’s dangerous powers, of course, but there’s more to the problem of Wagner than this (or rather, this is symptomatic of a more general problem of danger and contagion that his music represents). As Hanslick observes, “while the other arts persuade, music invades.” (III, 531. Italics mine.) This gets us back to the dichotomy of inner/outer, hearing/vision, and to the fundamentally embodied experience of all music. It’s a problem with roots as far back (in the West) as Heraclitus, snaking its way through the work of Plato, Aristotle, and all the way to Rousseau and Kant – sight is the “objective” sense, and hearing is the “subjective” sense. Wagner himself followed this logic when he observed: “To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.” (For a couple of great resources on this topic, see philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice and Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound.)

Music, in this schema, can be dangerous because unlike visual stimuli, it invades our very bounded sense of personhood without warning. We can shut our eyes to block sights, but we cannot easily shut our ears to block sounds. This makes us vulnerable to music’s potentially pernicious influences, and for a composer whose sumptuous, seductive music touches upon our (careful: tonally-trained individuals’) psychological drives to the extent that Wagner’s has the ability to do, this can be problematic. In a key sense, Tristan is basically one long auto-asphyxiation fantasy: orgasm and death are equated in a way that, when most of us think about it closely, is quite troubling. (See John Deathridge’s classic book Wagner Beyond Good and Evil for more on this.) But because the musical message has the ability (some would argue) to bypass reason to strike at the Schopenhauerian Will, our guard is down and we cannot block this dangerous, subversive message. Anxieties like these, similar to the taboos around dirt and contamination outlined by Mary Douglas, play at our deep fears of boundary crossing, of bodily invasion and contagion. What makes Wagner’s music so potentially dangerous, so argues Hanslick, is not necessarily its anti-semitic content (though this is repulsive in the extreme): it’s the inability for it to be contained. Wagner’s greatest power – the Schopenhauerian depths of his music, its ability to channel desire, its overwhelming expressive force – is thus also its most subversive quality.

Wagner’s Influence

Only because of Wagner (and the rampant “1870 Germany” he represented) did Italian and French musicians, whatever their level of patriotism, feel the need to become stylistic nationalists. Previously the style of Italian music had been the one European style virtually free of self-consciousness – a luxury enjoyed only by the self-confidently topmost, and a testimony to that happy state of security. But as we have just seen, by the end of his career even Verdi had been spooked. Even he needed to situate himself stylistically vis-a-vis the wizard of Bayreuth, and so have practically all composers ever since. Wagner’s own style, as we have also seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.   (III, 567-568)

Wagner’s influence on the national styles of Germany’s neighbors was no doubt profound, but I wonder if this might be overstating the point slightly. Was Wagner (and what he represented) really the “only” reason Italian and French musicians became stylistic nationalists around this point in time? Further, although Wagner’s style was self-conscious to the extreme, could this not also be said of other major innovators (and myth-makers) of the century? It could easily be argued that Beethoven upped the artistic imperative of the self-willed, self-conscious model even more than Wagner, in fact. The superlatives in this passage make me a bit squeamish; they seem to suggest a strict demarcation of “pre-” vs “post-” Wagner, a sort of “BC” and “AD” stylistic chronology with Wagner at the center. His influence was incalculable – this much we can agree on. Perhaps that’s why such pat attempts to calculate his influence fall flat.