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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions

Prokofieff; Satie Again; Berg’s Wozzeck; Neue Sachlichkeit, Zeitoper, Gebrauchsmusik (Hindemith, Krenek, Weill); Korngold, Rachmaninoff, and a New Stile Antico

CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Cynical modernism born of postwar disillusion was nowhere more pervasive than in theater, hitherto preeminently the art of illusion. “Illusionist,” in fact, was the name derisively given by the hardened modernists of the twenties to the traditional theater, which thought of itself as realistic. There was no contradiction, really. Precisely to the extent that it strove to convince spectators that the staged and scripted action they were witnessing was real, the realistic theater obviously traded in illusion. Not that anybody was ever really convinced, of course; but audiences were eager to play along with conventions, whether of romanticism or of realism, for the sake of the emotional payoff they received in return for their “willing suspension of disbelief, which constitutes poetic faith.”1 (The famous quoted phrase is by the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

One of the main conventions on which theatrical illusions of reality depended was the imaginary “fourth wall” that separated the audience from the players, who were never allowed to see through it. All illusion of reality would be destroyed the moment the players showed any awareness of the audience’s presence, let alone addressed it directly. The only traditional genres in which the fourth wall could be breached were farce and satire, which made the least pretense to realism, and even occasionally mocked it. But what was an exceptional “special effect” in traditional theater became ubiquitous, as an aspect of irony, after the Great War, when artists became compulsorily self-conscious, and art had to advertise itself as art as a pledge of good faith.

The playwright most often cited as the protagonist of this move was Luigi Pirandello, already named for us by Ortega in a passage quoted in the previous chapter. As its very title suggests, Pirandello’s play Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (“Six characters in search of an author,” 1921), challenges every convention of the illusionist theater, at times by ironically exaggerating them. The characters, refugees from an unfinished play, invade a rehearsal of a different play and, flagrantly breaching the fourth wall, confront the author, the actors, and the director with the request that they resolve the horrifying drama of betrayal and incest, murder and suicide in which they have become involved.

By thus insisting (or pretending to insist) that there are levels of reality within the theatrical illusion, Pirandello blurs the line between theatrical illusion and lived reality and directly exhorts the audience to ponder what he has done. And by portraying (or pretending to portray) the characters as independent agents (and therefore human), the whole “realistic” theatrical enterprise, the conventions on which it is based, and all parties to them from author to audience, are implicitly accused of voyeurism, taking pleasure in the misery of others. Like Stravinsky, but somewhat earlier, Pirandello unmasked the esthetic illusion to expose its ethical infractions. He used art to indict art and mock its audience for complacently believing in the “vitalist” fallacy.

But Pirandello had forerunners, and one of them was a composer. Serge Prokofieff (1891–1953), whom we met in the previous chapter as one of the “neoclassical” Stravinsky’s skeptical younger colleagues, actually anticipated Stravinsky in stylistic pastiche, and anticipated Pirandello in the ironizing game. As often happens, there was more of personal rivalry than of principled opposition in Prokofieff’s demurrers to Stravinsky. In the summer of 1917, between the two big political upheavals that shook Russia during that turbulent year (first the February revolution that toppled the tsar, then the October coup d’état that put the Soviet government in place), Prokofieff sought escape by going to a country house where there was no piano on which to experiment, and both as a lark and as an exercise to discipline his ear, writing a symphony “in the style of Haydn.”

Needless to say, it was no such thing. Rather it was a “culinary” romp of a kind that, as we saw in the previous chapter, composers had turned out all through the nineteenth century (and particularly in Russia). Its “eighteenth-century” was the usual imaginary one, pasteurized and homogenized: Prokofieff’s third movement, for example, was not a minuet, as in any Haydn symphony, but an anachronistic gavotte (Ex. 9-1). In view of the quirky harmonic progression that breaks every rule of eighteenth-century voice leading, moreover, it is obvious that Prokofieff was prompted to write his gavotte less by the example of Bach than by the example of Ambroise Thomas or Chaikovsky, as displayed in Exx. 8-3 and 8-4.

The “neoclassicism” of Prokofieff’s “Classical Symphony,” then, was not really modernist—another reminder that stylistic “retrospectivism” as such was neither a necessary component of neoclassicism or, when present, a sufficient one. It can amount, as in Prokofieff’s “Classical Symphony,” to nothing more than ingratiating nostalgia. Prokofieff’s next major work, however, though it was not stylistically retrospective at all, was a milestone in the postwar “neoclassical” project. And although it took the form of a genuinely funny comic opera called Lyubov’ k tryom apel’sinam (“The love for three oranges”), it was found (like Pirandello’s comedies) to be anything but ingratiating by its early audiences. “They found mockery and challenges and grotesques in my Oranges,” the composer wrote, compounding irony with irony, “while all I had done was write a merry show.”2

Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions

ex. 9-1 Serge Prokofieff, “Classical Symphony,” III (Gavotte), in the composer’s piano arrangement


(1) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), Chap. 14.

(2) Sergei Prokofieff, “Avtobiografiya,” in S. S. Prokof’yev: Materialï, dokumentï, vospominaniya, ed. S. I. Shlifshteyn (Moscow: Muzgiz, 1961), p. 177.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-009.xml