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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits

Modernism: Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg

CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


This is the whole flaw of “emotional” music. It is like a drug: you must have more drug, and more noise each time, or this effect, this impression which works from the outside, in from the nerves and sensorium upon the self—is no use, its effect is constantly weaker and weaker.1

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound, an American poet living in London, wrote these weary words in 1914. By then he had lots of evidence with which to back his pronouncement up, evidence that we will be tracing in this and the following chapters. The period we will be investigating, from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the year in which Pound made his disillusioned diagnosis of its effects, is sometimes called the early modernist period. It was a time of enormously accelerated stylistic innovation, accompanied by an enormous expansion of technical resources. The two accelerations were symbiotic: neither can be called the effective cause of the other, but each fed the other since both fed off the same underlying drives, drives at which Pound was rather darkly hinting.

Before investigating those drives and their artistic consequences, a word is in order about the term “modernism” and the concepts it embodies. To make an ism out of being modern is on the face of it paradoxical, since if modern simply means “of or pertaining to present and recent time”2 (as one dictionary defines it), then everyone is modern by default, and always has been, since we cannot live at any other time than the present. To be modernist, then, is more than to be modern. Modernism is not just a condition but a commitment.

It asserts the superiority of the present over the past (and, by implication, of the future over the present), with all that that implies in terms of optimism and faith in progress. It was an optimism that many had begun, under the stress of industrialization and its social discontents, to lose toward the century’s end, leading to the malaise that the term fin de siècle (end of the century) was coined to evoke. The generation gap that began to widen between disillusioned romantics and young moderns is illustrated by a possibly apocryphal anecdote that, owing to its very aptness, became a veritable legend. Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), one of this chapter’s protagonists, was supposedly taking a walk with Johannes Brahms at Bad Ischl, an Austrian spa where Brahms habitually vacationed, in the summer of 1896 (Brahms’s last).

In the version of Richard Specht, one of Brahms’s biographers,

Brahms began discoursing, as usual, on the decline and fall of music, but Mahler suddenly took his arm and, pointing down to the river they were passing with his other hand, exclaimed, “Just look, doctor, just look!” “What is it?” Brahms asked. “Don’t you see, there goes the last wave!” It was a good symbol for the eternal movement in life and in art, which knows of no cessation. But I seem to remember that it was Brahms who had the last word, thus: “That is all very fine, but perhaps what matters most is whether the wave goes out to sea or into a swamp.”3

This tension between generations stimulated the modernist penchant to celebrate innovation as a mark of vitality. It further implies exclusivity: all are modern, few are modernist. Some live in the present with resignation; others with indifference; still others in a state of resistance to it. Modernists live in the present with enthusiasm, an enthusiasm requiring audacity, high self-regard and self-consciousness (along with its complement, heightened alertness to the surrounding world), and, above all, urbanity in every meaning of the word from “citified” to “sophisticated” to “artificial” to “mannered.” All of this sounds like the very opposite of romanticism as originally defined—in terms, that is, of spirituality, sincerity, naturalness, spontaneity, naïveté, authenticity, pastoralism, and transcendence of the worldly, all being aspects or echoes of the original romantic revolt against the militant optimism of Enlightenment. Modernism celebrates every quality that Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Johann Gottfried von Herder reviled—and does it, moreover, with irony (as anything so self-aware must do), so that any attempt to reduce modernism to a set of core beliefs or practices quickly turns into an exercise in chasing one’s tail.

Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits

fig. 1-1 Gustav Mahler, bust by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) at Vienna State Opera.

But of course we have been observing a symbiotic process of highly self-conscious technical innovation and expanded technical resources over the whole course of the nineteenth century; one carried out, moreover, in the very name of romanticism. The romantic century, after all, was also the great age of industrialization and urbanization. We have already witnessed immense changes in artistic aims and means brought about as by-products of underlying changes in demography, as the populations of Europe and America were increasingly concentrated in cities. Nor are we strangers by now to irony. We know how calculated the impression of romantic spontaneity can be. We know how detached an artist has to be in order to create a complicated artwork, even one that broadcasts immediacy. Indeed, we will find that one of modernism’s great ploys is to hide itself behind a mask of pastoral innocence. It is a long time since anyone has dared take anything at face value.

And we may also be wondering what the difference could possibly be between modernism and the “Zukunftism” (future-ism) of the New German School, epitomized in Wagner, which was also predicated on optimism and faith in progress. Haven’t we seen it all before? Was there ever a more sophisticated composer than the one who wrote Tristan und Isolde? Was there ever a more artificial or mannered technical innovation than the Tristan-chord, however elemental and seemingly natural its representational power? Isn’t the difference between what we’ve already seen and anything we’re likely to see now just a difference in degree?

Of course it is—with one possible reservation. Consider the implicit paradox that has always attended Wagner and his “future-istic” methods. The most radically innovative composer of the nineteenth century—or at least the man so reputed, however equivocally—was in fact no friend of modernity. On the contrary, the social vision that motivated Wagner’s artistic reforms was one of restored premodern harmony. At least by the time he finished composing The Ring of the Nibelung, his gargantuan mythological tetralogy, Wagner was not a futuristic utopian but the very opposite, a nostalgic (which is to say, a reactionary) one. The nostalgic vision, widely shared in the nineteenth century in direct reaction to the social discombobulations caused by modernization, informed not only Wagner’s spectacular artistry but also his horrid politics. For the very incarnation of modernity in its every threatening aspect was, for Wagner and for every other nostalgic nationalist, the figure of the emancipated, assimilated, urbanized Jew.

And so, inevitably as it might seem, two of the paradigmatic early modernists within the German sphere—two of the leaders in the radical acceleration of stylistic innovation and technological advance that we will now be tracing—are Mahler, whom we have already met, and Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), both of them emancipated, urbanized, and assimilated (indeed, converted) Austrian Jews. Their modernism was widely taken—not only by their enemies, but also by their supporters and even by themselves—as the expression of that social emancipation and racial assimilation. Modernism, for them, was a source of optimism in the face of romanticist gloom. As always, what threatened some promised deliverance to others.

But it also expressed withal (and inevitably) their ineradicable sense of outsiderhood and, eventually—for Schoenberg, especially—of social alienation. And so modernism—like the romanticism it in some ways continued, in others supplanted—has always been an ambiguous and ambivalently regarded phenomenon. There is radicalism of ends and radicalism of means; and as Wagner’s case already makes clear, the two do not necessarily coincide. Not all radicalism should be regarded as modernism. And not all modernism requires radical means of expression.

But of course the easy association of modernism with Jewry, whether maintained by friend or foe, was illusory. Jews had no lock on modernism. Just as deserving of the name among German composers, at least for a while, was Richard Strauss (1864–1949), who although a gentile was equally at the forefront of stylistic innovation and technological expansion during the rough period 1890–1914. Nor did assimilated Jews necessarily identify themselves consciously as modernists. Some were ardent defenders of tradition, seeing any attempt to upset the social or artistic apple cart as a threat to their precarious status. Even Mahler and Schoenberg showed signs of ambivalence about their modernism. They identified strongly with the distinguished tradition of German music in all its aspects, the Wagnerian one emphatically included. They saw themselves as its heirs and rightful continuers.

To maintain such a divided consciousness meant detaching musical tradition from social and ethnic tradition, and regarding it exclusively as a matter of style and technique. That was the most controversial move of all, and (being the one with which Wagner would have most vehemently disagreed) the most exclusively modernist one. So successful has the modernist viewpoint been in the twentieth century, though, that even Wagner has been assimilated to it. It is the only way in which Jews can love and follow him. And since emancipated Jews have not only been among the strongest creative talents in the twentieth century, but among the most influential historians as well, that is the way Wagner has figured in modernist musical history—worshipped as a stylistic innovator and technical expander, forgotten (or repressed) as a political and social thinker.

The modernist narrative, even though it is at bottom an instrument of social change, has always insisted on representing art as divorced from the social world, subject only to internally motivated stylistic change. In music history that view was most powerfully promulgated by Guido Adler (1855–1941), another emancipated Austrian Jew (a pupil of Bruckner and in his youth an ardent Wagnerian), who succeeded Hanslick as professor of music history at the University of Vienna. In 1885 Adler published a paper entitled Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft (“Scope, methods, and aim of musicology”), the influence of which can hardly be overestimated.

As the zeal with which its centennial was observed in 1985 made clear, this short article managed to chart the course of the newly recognized academic discipline of musicology for a hundred years, limiting its scope to the study of music in the literate Western tradition as an autonomous discourse (as opposed to “primitive music,” which could be studied as a social phenomenon); limiting its methods to those of “style criticism” or stylistic classification; and limiting its aim to that of narrating and justifying the progress of the art toward the autonomous, socially divorced status that warranted the establishment of an independent academic discipline for studying it.4 The circularity of the project was as momentous as it was paradoxical.

The viewpoint of this book, meanwhile, even though it accepts Adler’s definition of the territory it will cover, nevertheless implicitly opposes that divorce, canonized though it has been within the discipline of musicology. Its coverage of modernism will go perforce against the grain, just as (and just because) the advent of modernism made insistence on the divorce explicit. Things will have to be represented here, on occasion, in ways that contradict both the traditional viewpoint of music history and the formulated declarations and explanations of the historical actors. The relationship of the early modernists to tradition will be the first case in point. Though they tried to present it as an unproblematic matter of inheritance, it was a deeply conflicted and contentious relationship. The conflicts, and the tensions to which they gave rise, were themselves among the engines driving the accelerated pace of change.


(1) Ezra Pound, “Arnold Dolmetsch” (1914), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1968), p. 434.

(2) The American College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 781.

(3) Richard Specht, Johannes Brahms (Hellerau, 1928), p. 382.

(4) See Erica Mugglestone, “Guido Adler’s ‘The Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology’ (1885): An English Translation with an Historico-Analytical Commentary,” Yearbook for Traditional Music XIII (1981): 1–22.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-001.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 14 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-001.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 14 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-001.xml