We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 8 Midcentury
Richard Taruskin

Difficulties like these, however real, were nevertheless tolerable within a value system that equated innovation with liberation, and that took as its objective the freeing of the artwork and its producers from dependence on social norms defined by consumers. Boring or annoying their contemporaries was not only considered by committed Zukunftists a fair price to pay, it was often taken in itself to be a mark of progress. Casting the New German or neo-Hegelian philosophy of art in terms borrowed from economics, moreover, was very much the fashion at the time, vividly illustrating the way in which the innovatory spirit in the arts reflected other modes of nineteenth-century Utopian thought. At a time of widespread Utopian theorizing, it was considered the very opposite of a defect to be ahead of one's time, in communion not with one's contemporaries but with one's progeny. The myth of the artist-prophet, to which Beethoven was at once assimilated, had its birth in these theories. It still lives.

Art and Truth

fig. 8-7 Alexander Nikolayevich Serov, autographed photo.

A striking specimen of these ideological commitments was an article by Alexander Serov (1820–71), the most enthusiastic Russian follower of the New German School (and author of the hypothetical question and answer quoted above). It appeared in Brendel's Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1857 in the guise of a review of Beethoven, ses critiques et ses glossateurs (“Beethoven, his critics and his explicators”), a book by the conservative critic and Mozart biographer Alexander Ulybyshev (1794–1858). It was already typical that a debate about contemporary musical values should have taken place behind a Beethovenian screen. Beethoven's authority, acknowledged by all sides, was the most desirable of trophies. All factions in the esthetic wars of the later nineteenth century claimed him as their founder, none more zealously than the New German School. And the debate between Ulybyshev (writing in French) and Serov (writing in German) was an indication of the role that Russians were lately playing on the main stage of European musical art.

Serov's article, published as “Ulibischeff gegen Beethoven” (Ulybyshev vs. Beethoven), came to a climax with the dogmatic assertion of two “laws” that between them summed up with breathtaking succinctness practically the whole Zukunftist position:

1. Wenn eine Theorie nicht mit der Praxis eines Weltgenies stimmt, da wird sie nie bestehen, denn die Kunst lebt ihr Leben nicht in Büchern, sondern im Kunstwerk. (If theory [that is, classroom music theory] does not accord with the practice of a world-genius, then it must always give way, for art lives its life not in books but in artworks.)

2.Das Criterium des musikalischen Gesetzes liegt nicht in den Ohren des Consumenten, es liegt in der Kunstidee des Producenten. (The basis of musical law lies not in the ear of the consumer but in the artistic inspiration [literally, the art-idea] of the producer.)22

Liszt himself pronounced a benediction on these precepts in a Neue Zeitschrift article of his own, “Ulibischeff und Seroff. Kritik der Kritik” (“Ulybyshev and Serov: A Critique Critiqued”). They were received with fury back home in Russia, where notions of social utility hung on with unusual tenacity in art criticism, partly because both the autocratic Tsarist regime and its revolutionary foes wanted to enlist the arts in their political struggles. But Serov and Liszt were also engaged in a political struggle. The frankly Hegelian concept of the Weltgenie, the world-genius—on the one hand free to abrogate the laws of ordinary mortals and, on the other, charged with the making of new and ever more binding laws—was nothing if not a site of political power.

Vladimir Stasov (1824–1906), another Russian critic and Serov's nemesis, saw in it a ploy for the establishment of a “despotism of artists,”23 free to abuse their contemporaries in pursuit of vainglorious goals that violated the proper boundaries of art. Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky (1840–93), the most eminent and abundant Russian composer of the later nineteenth century, complained that “formerly, music strove to delight people—now they are tormented and exhausted.”24 The Nietzschian concept of the Übermensch, the superman who existed on a plane beyond good and evil, a figure modeled originally on the artist-prophet envisioned by the Zukunftists, was already strongly prefigured.

The role of the artist as a prophet and a lawgiver was a religious and political extension of the idea of the artist as philosopher, the idea that motivated the New German School and opened up a new era to add to Brendel's historical categories. Where Brendel had seen the Age of Beauty succeed the Age of the Sublime, his contemporaries, in large part at his enthusiastic instigation, now proclaimed the Age of Truth. And where an earlier generation of Romantics could proclaim with Keats that “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” stanza 5), the New Germans, their disciples, and even some who thought of themselves as their enemies, turned savagely on beauty as on some sort of loathsome falsehood.

Reacting a decade later than Serov (but no less angrily) against Mozart's panegyrists, whom he likewise saw as thwarting the historical tide, Friedrich Nietzsche lambasted the self-styled guardians of the classics. “Let us but observe these patrons of art at close range, as they really are, indefatigably crying ‘Beauty! beauty!’ ” the philosopher taunted. “Do they really bear the stamp of nature's darling children who are fostered and nourished at the breast of the beautiful, or are they not rather seeking a mendacious cloak for their own coarseness, an aesthetical pretext for their own insensitivity?”25 In a phrase that acquired a chilling resonance in the twentieth century, Nietzsche condemned the devotees of beauty as the standard-bearers of an entartete Kunst, a degenerate art.

In a similar vein but to a different purpose, the Russian composer Modest Musorgsky (1839–81) inveighed against the hypocritical “religion of absolute beauty,”26 a devotion that, he believed, masked an altogether worldly “aim of winning a name and some public acclaim.” In his view, “the artistic representation of beauty alone is coarse childishness—art in its infancy.” Instead, the “thinking artist of the present day” must aim higher, or rather deeper: “The subtlest aspects of human nature and of humanity as a whole, the persistent exploration of these uncharted regions and their conquest—that is the true mission of an artist.”27 There are many truths, of course. The New Germans, Serov and Nietzsche were after metaphysical truth, an ideal truth not of this world. They followed directly in the footsteps of German romantics like E. T. A. Hoffman, and shared his veneration of Beethoven as the Quelle der wahren Glaube, the “source of the true faith.” Their favored medium was instrumental music, a language of ineffable expression. Their tendency culminated in what the German musicologist Rudolf Stephan dubbed Weltanschauungsmusik—roughly, “music expressive of a philosophy of life,” a music of grandiose conceptions and gigantic forms, always impressive but rarely pleasant.

Musorgsky and many of his non-German contemporaries were after experiential truth, a realistic truth very much of this world. They followed in the footsteps of Berlioz, and shared his veneration of Beethoven (the composer of Fidelio) as the voice of oppressed humanity. Their favored medium was opera. Their work culminated in naturalism and verismo, attempts (often didactic) to show the world and its inhabitants as they really are, warts and all, often as a spur to social change.

Against both were the keepers of the old flame, who mounted a considerable counteroffensive against what they deemed the anti-artistic bluster of metaphysicians and realists alike. Chaikovsky derided the German music of his day in newspaper articles and letters, protesting its “detestable pretensions to profundity, strength, and power.” In his view it was “all seriousness and nobility of purpose, but the chief thing—beauty—is missing.”28 For what he considered his own countryman Musorgsky's studied ugliness he had, if anything, even greater contempt: “there is something low about him, something base,” he admonished; “he passes the bounds of the possible.”29


(22) Quoted from Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, “Ein Wort der Gegenwart gegen zwei Phrasen der Zukunftgilde,” Niederrheinische Musik-Zeitung (1859); in V. V. Stasov, Izbrannïye sochineniya v tryokh tomakh, Vol. I (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1952), p. 40.

(23) Stasov, Izbrannïye sochineniya, Vol. I, p. 42.

(24) Quoted in Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer, 1991), p. 181.

(25) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1868), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 120.

(26) Musorgsky to V. V. Stasov, 26 December 1872; M. P. Musorgsky, Literaturnoye naslediye, Vol. I, eds. A. A. Orlova and M. S. Pekelis (Moscow: Muzïka, 1971), p. 142.

(27) Musorgsky to V. V. Stasov, 18 October 1872; Ibid., p. 141.

(28) Chaikovsky to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 2 October 1888; A. A. Orlova, ed., P. I Chaikovskiy o muzïke, o zhizni, o sebe (Leningrad: Muzïka, 1976), p. 218.

(29) Chaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck, 5 January 1878; trans. Vera Lateiner, in Letters of Composers through Six Centuries, ed. Piero Weiss (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1967), p. 363.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Midcentury. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008006.xml