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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

That was how Babbitt's brand of postwar modernism related to the overarching cold-war debate. Deeply concerned with the restraint that political tyranny can exercise on thought and expression, and aware that even in open societies majority opinion (or commercial interests) can marginalize—or even, without explicitly prohibiting, effectively exclude—unpopular or abstruse thought, Babbitt allied himself and his exceedingly rationalistic musical activities with the philosophy known as logical positivism, the toughest and most skeptical variety of “show-me” empiricism.

The term, which dates back to the 1930s, describes an attitude “classically” expressed in Der logische Aufbau der Welt (“The logical structure of the world,” 1928), a treatise by the Viennese philosopher Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970), who like Schoenberg had been exiled from his native country by the rise of Nazism. From 1936 to 1952, Carnap taught at the University of Chicago, and had many American disciples including the philosopher Carl Hempel, Babbitt's friend and Princeton colleague (and an important influence on his thinking). Carnap's logical positivism was an attempt to introduce the methods and precision of mathematics and the natural sciences into the field of philosophy, which, he insisted, should stop being a speculative field and become an analytical one, devoted to maintaining rigorous standards of inference and proof. No statement can be regarded as true, for logical positivists, unless it can be shown to derive logically from observed phenomena. Only formal logic and direct observation, then, can ever validly constrain conceptual thought—not tradition, not authority, not political or religious dogma, sentiment, hopes, desires, wishes, or fears, and certainly not threats or reprisals.

Babbitt might have been paraphrasing Carnap when, in a widely discussed lecture called “Past and Present Concepts of the Nature and Limits of Music,” he declared that “there is but one kind of language, one kind of method for the verbal formulation of ‘concepts’ and verbal analysis of such formulations: ‘scientific’ language and ‘scientific’ method.”28 In another lecture he quoted Michael Scriven, a historian of science, who had put logical positivism into a memorable nutshell when he observed, “If we want to know why things are as they are…, then the only sense in which there are alternatives to the methods of science is the sense in which we can if we wish abandon our interest in correct answers.”29 It is obvious that the targets of Scriven's cautionary remark were religious bigots and political dogmatists. What could possibly be its relevance to the arts, traditionally regarded as the fundamental preserve of subjective judgment or taste?

Zhdanov had given the answer when, acting on behalf of the Soviet Communist Party, he made one man's subjective taste a political dogma. Babbitt sought liberation, not only for himself but also for all artists, from the potential tyranny of taste when he tried, in verbal exhortation but more fundamentally by the example of his work, to make truth rather than beauty the criterion of artistic as well as scientific achievement. The measure of good music, like good science, would be not the pleasure that it gave, or the political tendency that it served, but rather the truth that it contained—objective, scientifically verifiable truth, that is, not truth as a Zhdanov might define it.

The model of truth that logical positivists proposed for science (and, following them, Babbitt for music) was of course that of mathematics. Truth lay in accountability to principles. In math these were axioms and theorems: basic truth assumptions and the proofs that they enabled. In science, these were observed phenomena and logical inferences. Music had its “observables” in acoustic phenomena, and its axiomatic premises in its motivic content or (to use Schoenberg's word) its Grundgestalten. The most generalized form motivic content could take was a twelve-tone row. If everything in a composition were accountable to a twelve-tone row, then everything in it was verifiably true. And the greater the number of demonstrable relations one managed to embody in the music, the more objective and verifiable truth it contained.

We have already seen how fully Babbitt's own music met these criteria, and his critics were quick to suspect him of a self-serving assertion of privilege. Also troubling was Babbitt's easy assertion of the unique validity of “one kind of language, one kind of method,” namely his own, which seemed to contradict the very premise of freedom of expression (or more precisely, freedom from restraint) on which his whole philosophy rested, since it seemed to imply a justification for restraint (should Babbitt have the power to impose it) on anyone who disagreed. But as long as science, in the aftermath of its victory in World War II, retained its unprecedented prestige in America, Babbitt's ideas carried considerable potential weight, at least in academic circles.

Logical Positivism

fig. 3-5 The artificial earth satellite Sputnik (“traveling companion”) was launched by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957; here, scientists view models of it.

As it happened, that prestige and that weight received a powerful boost in 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched the first artificial space satellite, called Sputnik (“Traveling Companion”), in an orbit around the earth. Taken by surprise and humiliated, American scientists and politicians made educational reform, particularly in science and technology, a cold-war priority. Government investment in scientific endeavors—“big science” as it was called—gave scientific advancement in peacetime something of the sense of urgency that wartime bomb-development had commanded. Any argument that proceeded from “scientific” premises could now catch something of that urgency.


(28) Milton Babbitt, “Past and Present Concepts of the Nature and Limits of Music,” in International Musicological Society: Report of the Eighth Congress, New York 1961, Vol. I (Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 1961), p. 398.

(29) Quoted in Milton Babbitt, “Contemporary Music Composition and Contemporary Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History,” in Perspectives in Musicology, eds. Barry S. Brook, Edward O. Downes, and Sherman van Solkema (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 180.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 The Apex. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 15 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 15 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003010.xml