Discussion Thread #1: Irony

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.

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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”

Maximalism and Transcendentalism

The question of how to slice and dice the history of western music into a narrative that is stylistically coherent, historiographically intelligible, aesthetically prepossessing, and ideologically “usable” is, of course, a perennial concern to those working in a discipline whose job it is (in part) to define such a narrative. As Mark just pointed out in his last point, the conventional wisdom regarding the flow of music history more often than not centers itself around the technical, particularly how technical means get more and more complex with time. This teleological strain of music historiography has dominated the field for most of its history (for more, see Allen’s singular Philosophy of Music History, particularly the section on “organicism” [in Must-Reads]), giving us the familiar “chunks” that all of us learn in undergraduate history sequences today (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.).

One of the things I’ve found most refreshing about Taruskin’s telling of music history so far is his willingness to confound the standard historical periodization, eschewing the purely chronological and the purely technical in favor of developing parallel, alternative narratives based on a range of considerations that fall outside of the details of the musical texts themselves, including philosophical preoccupations (aesthetics, philosophy of history), political ideologies (nationalism), economics (commodification of music), sociological aspects (sacralization of the arts, etc), and more. This is especially true of Volume IV, where the first half is devoted to developing two new categories of thinking about early twentieth century music that fall outside of the standard account: maximalism and transcendentalism. Since we were running out of steam a couple months ago and didn’t post nearly as much as I had hoped to on the likes of Stravinsky, Ives, Scriabin, and Messiaen, it’s worth taking a moment to return to these central organizing categories now.

Maximalism is an interesting and revealing interpretive window through which to view Mahler, Strauss, early Stravinsky (“aristocratic maximalism”) and the like, for it implies a certain liminal element, a striving for extremes of expression and the outer boundaries of the stylistic code. True, this category fits more comfortably within what we understand as “Romantic,” while at the same time portending its dissolution. Like mannerism, however, maximalism is liminal both in its propensity to embrace the extremes and also, in a more Turnerian sense, in its transitional function. Indeed, the ends of one style very easily blurs into the beginnings of another.

Transcendentalism likewise plays with a certain limit concept, namely the bounds of humans as spiritual beings. And just as maximalism deals with pushing against the thresholds of what the common practice musical code could bear, the transcendental musical mode rubs up against the limits of Being to suggest the supra-temporal, supra-corporeal, and supra-rational.

The wonderful thing about a felicitously chosen metaphor, a spot-on musical analysis, or any other successful descriptive strategy for talking about music is its ability to “kindle” new understandings (Lawrence Kramer’s word, not amazon’s). This is true for broad historiographical categories as well. Placing Strauss and Mahler into the same camp makes a lot of intuitive sense; it doesn’t really cut against expectations. But uniting composers as disparate as Scriabin, Ives, Schoenberg, and Messiaen under the “transcendental” label kindles a very new sort of understanding, at least for this reader. It is revealing that both Scriabin and Ives went to their graves with grandly transcendental projects unfinished; the vastness of their ambitions, it seems, was paralyzingly daunting even for these immense talents. In attempting to transcend this ultimate limit through musical sound (and failing), the late-Romantic conceit of Weltanschauungsmusik was punctured. Such a transcendental project was, in the end, circumscribed by its own set of limits, and the “modernism” that began in the 1920s was in some ways an attempt to reimpose, through technical strong-arming, the limits that were breached (or at least threatened) by the Thanatos of Romanticism. In Nietzschian terms, the Dionysian, limit-shattering impulse of maximalism and transcendentalism (itself a form of maximalism), by pointing out the impossibility of such a lofty project, led to an “Apollonian” embrace of limits.

(Messiaen is the great anomaly of this scheme, and perhaps of 20th century music as a whole. Rather than push through any limits of the code, he just invented a new one, doggedly following his own sweetly sublime musical path for some fifty years after Auschwitz made poetry impossible.)

In short, I find a lot to admire in the guiding categories of the first half of the volume. Did you find this organizational schema compelling, or better yet, did it kindle a new understanding that usefully augments what you know (or think you know) about early twentieth century music?

We’re Back

After a sleep-deprived academic quarter, Mark and I are skidding into the summer exhausted but pumped to be returning to the TC. It is now official: half of our writing team has a Ph.D.! (But don’t go expecting posts to be that much more trenchant and deep or anything.) Despite projections when we launched the blog, Mark has scaled the doctoral summit in advance of completing the Challenge. Congratulations, fellow traveler!

So, it’s back to business. Beginning this week, we’ll be returning to our original weekly posting schedule, and we’ll be continuing with Vol. IV p.300. We’re also going to be returning to the Must-Reads list for some much-needed updates; if you have any suggestions, be sure to let us know.

Thank you, readers, for your patience and understanding during our hiatus. It’s good to be back.

Let the Challenge commence!

Short Hiatus—Back in Summer

As you may have noticed, the TC has lain dormant for a couple of weeks now. Zach and I were hit with an especially busy term teaching and researching. This term doesn’t look like it will be much better: Zach is teaching a seminar, and I’m living in a cave while I finish up my dissertation in the coming weeks. Because we want to make sure that we give these last two volumes the attention they deserve, we have decided to take a short hiatus. But never fear! Look for us to return at full tilt at the beginning of summer, as we come to the end of this journey. I’m sure there will be a cluster of juicy topics coming our way. Till soon—

The Ten Greatest Composers

NYT classical music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent article and videos have been making the rounds the last couple weeks now, so I’ll keep the description brief: Mr. Tommasini, much to the delight (and ire) of music fans, has ventured to rank the top 10 greatest composers of all time. I was a bit shocked, and dare I say even a little offended, when I stumbled upon the list last month, but Tommasini is just as skeptical of his own project, going to great lengths to remind readers that this is merely an “intellectual exercise,” and not an attempt to establish any sort of absolute hierarchy. The response has been extraordinary (866 comments so far on the article alone).

There’s something so compelling about lists. Perhaps it appeals to our urge to categorize, rank, and compare, even if what we’re comparing is fundamentally uncomparable (how can one call the B Minor Mass “greater” than “The Rite of Spring,” for instance?). In this sense, making a list of the ten greatest is nothing more than a game, but as Tommasini points out, games are only fun when the participants take them seriously. After painful deliberation, evaluating versatility, technical command, reception, influence, and a range of other factors, here’s what he came up with:

(1) Bach (2) Beethoven (3) Mozart (4) Schubert (5) Debussy (6) Stravinsky (7) Brahms (8) Verdi (9) Wagner (10) Bartok

In the spirit of the game, I thought the TC could get in on the action and offer our own lists of the ten greatest. So, without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling; please post your lists (or your criticisms of Tommasini’s project) to the comments. My top-10 is tilted more towards the “influence” part of the equation, and it’s absolutely killing me that I didn’t have room for Messiaen, Schubert, Bartok, Brahms, and Sibelius, but here goes (drumroll, please..):

(1) Beethoven (2) Bach (3) Wagner (4) Schoenberg (5) Mozart (6) Debussy (7) Stravinsky (8) Chopin (9) Cage (10) Monteverdi

French Modernist Listening List, Part I

A partial list of musical examples from Taruskin, Vol. IV, Ch. 2. This is part I, corresponding to pages 59-84: Erik Satie, and Claude Debussy. More to come later…

On a personal note: my 1 1/2-year-old son sat by my side as I compiled this playlist. He kept saying “No! No!” when he heard/saw the videos. But trust me, it’s not that he didn’t enjoy the music: “no” is just how he says “piano” right now.

Click through below for more videos. Enjoy!

Continue reading “French Modernist Listening List, Part I”