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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)

Ives, Ruggles, Crawford; Microtonality

CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.1

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.2

Emerson, “The Over-Soul” (1841)

Music is essentially the manly art.3

William Lyon Phelps, Music (1930)

The two epigraphs from the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) may seem to be in contradiction. One places a proud and (it might be thought) typically American emphasis on individualism; the other places an equally strong premium on collectivity. Yet Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance” is also the source of his most famous maxim: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”4 The great American poet and preacher would surely have chimed in gladly with Walt Whitman’s celebrated lines (in “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass, published somewhat later) proclaiming, on America’s behalf, “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” And indeed, from a particular philosophical perspective Emerson’s two insights may be easily reconciled—or, to speak philosophically, “synthesized.” That standpoint can be found in a distinctively American strain of idealist thought that historians of philosophy now call New England transcendentalism (or “Transcendentalism,” unqualified and with a capital T, to use the name its proponents, like Emerson, preferred). Flourishing in and around the town of Concord, Massachusetts, between the 1830s and the 1850s, the movement is often cited as the first indigenously American “school” of philosophy.

That may be an exaggeration. For one thing, its roots are overwhelmingly German (Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” for one thing, being a direct translation of Hegel’s Überseele). For another, it may not have been sufficiently systematic to qualify as a real “school of thought.” As Michael Moran, a historian of Transcendentalism, has noted of its devotees, “although nearly all had made some attempt to read the German philosophers, very few had persevered to the point of mastering them.”5 Instead, they imbibed their philosophy from Romantic poetry, both by Germans like Goethe and by English nature poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, who had imbibed Germanic idealism before them.

It was from these poets, predominantly, that Emerson derived the chief tenets of his philosophy. Still, he gave Immanuel Kant the (perhaps undeserved) credit for his biggest idea, first put forth in a Boston lecture of 1842. A Transcendentalist, he told his audience, believes in “a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself”6. Transcendentalists, therefore, and simply, were people who had embraced a “tendency to respect their intuitions,” whether or not such intuitions could be supported by observation or rational argument.

The chief intuition, paraphrased by Octavius B. Frothingham in his Emerson-authorized history of the movement (1876), was “the immanence of divinity in instinct,” which made possible “the transference of supernatural attributes to the natural constitution of mankind.”7 In short, by trusting their individual instincts (or, as Emerson said, “respecting their intuitions”), people could gain direct access to the all-encompassing wisdom of God. Here was the link between the individual and the collective. The only requirement, of course, was that instinct or intuition be truly that, rather than one’s conventional schooling in disguise. And this was, for most people, a very difficult requirement indeed.

This call to unlearn one’s learning was given its most memorable literary expression in Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854), the philosophical memoirs of Emerson’s disciple Henry David Thoreau (1817–62). It put New England transcendentalism in touch with a long line of inspirational “gnostic” or “primitivist” thinking. It was not so much a system of thought, then, as it was (to quote Frothingham) “an enthusiasm, a wave of sentiment, a breath of mind that caught up such as were prepared to receive it, elated them, transported them, and passed on.”8 Transcendentalism enters our narrative at this point — quite some time after the movement, properly so called, had ended — because it inspired Charles Ives (1874–1954), a New England composer, with both the vision and the self-reliance to become the one American whose music fully embodied the maximalistic spirit that was seizing his European counterparts in the first decades of the twentieth century.

No descriptive phrase could better capture Ives’s expressive purposes than Frothingham’s. He meant his music to provide a rush of sentiment and enthusiasm — some of it transcendental, much of it nostalgic—that would catch up such as were prepared to receive it and elate them. And to accomplish this, Ives was prepared to go to stylistic extremes that forced (or enabled) him to renounce his conventional schooling and follow his “instincts” to a degree that few other composers had the fortitude (or saw the need) to match. Yet because his vision was in so many ways a nostalgic one, Ives is a rare instance of a composer who, although the very model of a musical maximalist, cannot really be called a modernist.


(1) Emerson’s Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1901), p. 31.

(2) Emerson’s Essays, p. 188.

(3) William Lyon Phelps, Music (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930), p. 3.

(4) Emerson’s Essays, p. 39.

(5) Michael Moran, “New England Transcendentalism,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. V (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 479.

(6) Emerson, “The Transcendentalist,” quoted in Moran, p. 479.

(7) Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1876); (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), p. 136.

(8) Ibid., p. 355.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-005.xml