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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 12 In Search of Utopia

Schoenberg, Webern, and Twelve-Tone Technique

CHAPTER 12 In Search of Utopia
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


On the evening of 23 February 1928, Arnold Schoenberg went to the opera. A new work by Stravinsky was having its local premiere, and attendance, so to speak, was mandatory. Stravinsky, at forty-five, had yet to make a name for himself as a composer of opera. Having made his reputation as a composer of ballets, he affected coolness toward music theater encumbered (as he maintained) with words. “Music can be united with action or with words,” he once told a reporter, “but not with both without bigamy.”1

To date he had written only a couple of one-acters. The Nightingale, based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, had had its Paris premiere in 1914 during Diaghilev’s last prewar season. As befitted its performance by a ballet troupe, it was more a pageant than a conventional opera, very long on stage spectacle and very short on sung content. Mavra, a trifling “opéra bouffe” based on a funny little story in verse by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, performed (again in Paris and again by Diaghilev) in 1922, was Stravinsky’s first downright flop. The scuttlebutt was that the great Russian composer, who ironically enough was the son of a star opera singer, just wasn’t cut out for opera (or “lacked melodic invention”).

Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia

fig. 12-1 Stravinsky, by Picasso, 1925.

But the new work, Oedipus Rex, had had a big success when first performed in Paris in 1927, and came to Berlin preceded by a formidable reputation. Like the other Stravinsky operas it was a terse one-act affair, and like the others it was extremely unconventional in its dramatic methods. But otherwise it was very different from them, in ways that were expressly calculated by the composer to be seen as a sign of the times. Having decided not to go back to Russia after the Bolshevik coup d’état, Stravinsky had renounced the Russian language as a medium for his music. Instead—and very much in keeping with the postwar “neoclassical” idea—he composed the opera on a “universal” myth (for such was the prestige enjoyed by the culture of ancient Greece, the original “classical” culture), and in Latin, a “universal” and “classical” language. He probably chose Latin over the original Greek because, unlike Greek, it signified religious ritual to modern Western Europeans, especially the Roman Catholics among them, and this further emphasized notions of universality and authority.

The fact that the language was unintelligible to modern audiences anywhere in the world did not worry Stravinsky. He solved the problem, at least to his own satisfaction, by having the librettist—the ubiquitous Jean Cocteau, whose text had been translated into Latin by a scholarly priest (later a cardinal) named Jean Daniélou—furnish a little précis of the action that could be announced to the audience in advance of each scene by “Le Speaker” (as the part was identified in the score), in the language of the country where the opera was performed. There could hardly be any greater “distancing” of a drama than that. But as Stravinsky’s strange methods of course assumed, myths were well-known stories; nobody, he could reasonably suppose, would go to see an Oedipus opera for the plot. In that sense attending a mythological opera really was, or could be, like attending a religious service. It provided an occasion for an audience to come together in worship: not of God, precisely, in this case, but of an artifact of “universal” culture that bore a “universal” message.

But what was that message? By the time Stravinsky wrote his opera, the myth of Oedipus, the tale of a ruler who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, was well on its way to being appropriated and transformed by Sigmund Freud and his followers in psychoanalysis into an allegory of family relationships and the guilt anxieties they produce in modern men. For the Greeks, especially as embodied in the famous tragedy by Sophocles, it was an allegory of fate, which took revenge on the great and powerful king by revealing to him the horrible and unacceptable circumstances of his ascent to the throne: a “classic” case of skeletons in the closet and a chilling reminder that good fortune is precarious and provisional. Because he must acknowledge crimes he has unwittingly committed, the lofty Oedipus is cast down; Sophocles’s chillingly memorable last line, spoken (or sung) by the moralizing “Greek chorus,” exhorts the audience to “count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.”2

For Stravinsky, the play was less a “family romance” or a parable of fate than an allegory of insubordination and submission—precisely the haughty lesson we have seen him impose on musical performers in his Harvard lectures, applied now on a “universal” scale. Not fate but Oedipus’s pride brings him down, for it causes him to tempt fate and pursue dangerous knowledge. At the beginning of the opera his musical utterances are placed high and are richly and ostentatiously ornate. At the end his voice is brought low and his lines are stark.

But that is not all. To symbolize and ratify the offended universal order, Stravinsky resurrected in glory every stiff traditional convention of the eighteenth-century musical stage (da capo arias, monolithic choruses, accompanied recitatives) and every seemingly outmoded harmonic cliché (arpeggiated triads, diminished seventh chords, formulaic cadences). It was (to put it Greekly) as if Apollo himself, the god of formal beauty and repose in whose honor Stravinsky had recently composed a ballet, were beating back the “Wagnerian revolution” (here standing in for revolution in general) with its vaunting individualistic hubris and its frenzied overthrow of conventions as if in the name of Dionysus, the god of wine and orgies, for the sake of untrammeled emotional arousal and expression.

In the Harvard lectures, Stravinsky connected the theme of his Oedipus with the objectives of his musical neoclassicism. He invited his audience to receive his words as “dogmatic” and “objective” confidences, delivered “under the stern auspices of order and discipline,”3 virtues that are finally associated, in the fourth lecture, with their “best example” in music, a Bach fugue: “A pure form in which the music means nothing outside of itself. Doesn’t the fugue imply the composer’s submission to the rules? And is it not within those strictures that he finds the full flowering of his freedom as a creator?”4 The artist must “submit to the law,” to ordained values that transcend individuals, because, Stravinsky finally said explicitly, “Apollo demands it.”5

Needless to say, Stravinsky’s Oedipus made Schoenberg ill. He vented his rage at it, and at Stravinsky, in his diary the next day. “This work is nothing,” he noted in exasperation; and yet he also noted, with impressive candor, that he feared it, for “the works which in every way arouse one’s dislike are precisely those the next generation will in every way like.”6 The Oedipus premiere came at the end of a period that Schoenberg later remembered as the worst in his life as an artist, “the first time in my career,” as he put it, “that I lost, for a short time, my influence on youth.”7 The reason? A French journalist summed it up: “Schoenberg is a romantic; our young composers are classic.”8 That sense of vulnerability conditioned Schoenberg’s furious rejection of neoclassicism.

By 1928, Schoenberg’s polemics against Stravinsky were nothing new; and the mutual antagonism of the two composers’ followers were approaching proportions that became legendary in the annals of twentieth-century music. Two years earlier, Schoenberg had fired off a little squib called “Igor Stravinsky: Der Restaurateur,”9 the punning title of which compared Stravinsky, who claimed to be restoring timeless musical values, to somebody who ran a restaurant (and merely catered, that meant, to trivial “culinary” taste).

Stravinsky, for his part, liked to poke fun at those (beginning, he supposed, with Wagner) who claimed to be writing the music of the future. Stravinsky claimed, instead, to be writing the true music of the present. He went around telling interviewers, tongue in cheek, that “modernists have ruined modern music.” One reporter, in New York in January 1925, asked him who he had in mind:

Stravinsky smiled. “I shan’t mention any names,” said he. “But they are the gentlemen who work with formulas instead of ideas. They have done that so much they have badly compromised that word ‘modern.’ I don’t like it. They started out by trying to write so as to shock the bourgeoisie and finished up by pleasing the Bolsheviks. I am not interested in either the bourgeoisie or the Bolsheviks.”10

It is not entirely obvious that Stravinsky had Schoenberg (certainly no Bolshevik, though often touted as a revolutionary) in mind, but Schoenberg had no doubt about it. Who else could Stravinsky have meant, Schoenberg thought, but he, the extreme maximalizer of Romantic individualism in music, the composer who brought the art of psychopathology to its final shriek in Erwartung? It is reasonable to believe that Schoenberg was at least among Stravinsky’s targets, because (as he put it elsewhere) “atonality” implied “anarchy,”11 a state of lawlessness against which Stravinsky wanted to dictate the Bachian reaction. It must have seemed to an uprooted Russian aristocrat an analogue to the “Bolshevik” straits in which his native land was foundering.

But if Stravinsky was writing the music of the present (and Schoenberg was by implication a thing of the past), then why, Schoenberg wanted to know, did Stravinsky look to the even more distant past for models? That was the nub of the issue as far as Schoenberg was concerned: Stravinsky was trying to turn back the clock on the development of music, substituting restoration for the progress it was every artist’s obligation to advance. It was not just an esthetic but a moral issue, involving not just taste but the artist’s responsibility. After reading Stravinsky’s New York interviews, Schoenberg retorted not only in word but in musical deed. In November and December of 1925 he composed (to his own texts) a set of Three Satires, opus 28, for chorus, of which the first two were unaccompanied canons and the last a little cantata called Der neue Klassizismus (“The new classicism”).

In the cantata Schoenberg, like Stravinsky, named no names, but spoofed those who say (with the tenor at the outset), “No longer will I stay Romantic. I hate Romantic! From tomorrow on I am writing only the purest Classical!” or who aver, with the chorus at the end, “Classical perfection — that’s the latest style!” But in the text of the second canon (a clever piece called Vielseitigkeit (“Versatility”) that can be turned upside down and performed with the same results as rightside up) he could not resist a direct hit:

Ja, wer trommelt denn da?

Das ist ja der kleine Modernsky!

Hat sich ein Bubizopf schneiden


sieht ganz gut aus!

Wie echt falsches Haar!

Wie eine Perücke!

Ganz (wie sich ihn der kleine

Modernsky vorstellt),

ganz der Papa Bach!

But who’s that drumming away there?

Why, it’s little Modernsky!

He’s had his hair cut in an

old-fashioned queue,

And it looks quite nice!

Like real false hair!

Like a peruke [pigtail wig]!

Just like (or so little Mo-

dernsky likes to think)

Just like Papa Bach!

By 1928, then, the lines seemed pretty well drawn between those who were still committed to perpetual progress in art and those who wanted to make new contact with old wellsprings.


(1) The Daily Mail (London), 13 February 1913; Eric Walter White, “Stravinsky in Interview,” Tempo, no. 97 (1971): 7.

(2) Oedipus the King, trans. David Grene; Sophocles, Three Tragedies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), p. 76.

(3) Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, trans. Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), pp. 5–8.

(4) Ibid., p. 79.

(5) Ibid., p. 83.

(6) Arnold Schoenberg, “Stravinsky’s Oedipus” (1928); Style and Idea, p. 483.

(7) Schoenberg, “How One Becomes Lonely” (1937); Style and Idea, p. 52.

(8) Paul Landormy, “Schönberg, Bartók, und die französische Musik,” Musikblätter des Anbruch, May 1922; quoted in Scott Messing, Neoclassicism in Music from the Genesis of the Concept through the Schoenberg/Stravinsky Polemic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), p. 126.

(9) Style and Idea, pp. 48 1–82.

(10) Henrietta Malkiel, “Modernists Have Ruined Modern Music, Stravinsky Says,” Musical America, 10 January 1925, p. 9.

(11) See Arthur Lourié, Sergei Koussevitzky and His Epoch (New York: Knopf, 1931), p. 196.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 15 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 15 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-012.xml