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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

Within the period 1890–1914, and especially in the German-speaking lands, modernism chiefly manifested itself in the manner to which Pound drew attention in the passage that heads this chapter as an epigraph: as a radical intensification of means toward accepted or traditional ends (or at least toward ends that could be so described). That is why modernism of this early vintage is perhaps best characterized as maximalism. The cultural phase we are about to embark upon was called the fin de siècle not only because it happened to coincide with the end of a century, but also because it reflected apocalyptic presentiments—superstitious premonitions of ultimate revelation and possible catastrophe—such as attend any great calendrical divide. The acceleration of stylistic innovation, so marked as to seem not just a matter of degree but one of actual kind, requiring a new “periodization,” looks now, from the vantage point of the next fin de siècle, to have been perhaps more a matter of inflated rhetoric than of having new things to say.

What were the traditional ends given radically intensified or maximalized expression? Pound has already mentioned emotional expression, one of the prerequisites of romantic art. Another, from the very beginning of romanticism, was a sense of religious awe in the presence of the sublime. A third, sometimes an ally of the other two but potentially a subversive diversion (hence the most essentially “modernist”) was sensuality.

What were the intensified means? One involved the two dimensions in which musical works exist, the temporal and the sonorous, both of them already maximalized to a degree by Wagner. Turning musical works into awe-inspiring mountains—by extending their length, amplifying their volume, and complicating their texture—became an obsession. Another way of amplifying the sense of musical space, as Wagner had also demonstrated, was to increase the range and maneuverability of “tonal navigation,” that is, the range of key relationships. Yet another area in which Wagner had set a benchmark to be emulated and, if possible, exceeded, was the sheer level of tolerable (or at least tolerated) dissonance, and even more important, the postponement of its resolution. The former maximized the representation of emotional tension, the latter maximized the listener’s participation in it.

The “Brahms line” could also be maximized. Here the benchmark could be described as “motivic saturation”—the loading of the texture with significant motifs to be kaleidoscopically recombined. By thus maximizing its “introversive reference”—the profusion and density of significant internal relationships—the musical texture was made ever more pregnant with potential meaning. That meaning could be harvested either in the domain of transcendence (in which nothing was specified, the imagination left free to organize the received impressions according to its own subjective criteria of relevance) or in the domain of “extroversive reference,” where motifs are invested (as in the case of leitmotives) with paraphrasable connotations.

At its peak, the maximalizing tendency in fin-de-siècle or early modernist music gave rise to a body of works to which the German music historian Rudolf Stephan gave the name Weltanschauungsmusik5—roughly, “music expressive of a world outlook,” or even “philosophy-music.” Such works, always of hugely ambitious dimensions, attempted, through all the devices broached in the foregoing paragraphs, to deal with and resolve the metaphysical issues—questions that cannot be answered on the sole basis of sensory experience or rational thought—that had preoccupied philosophers (especially German philosophers) throughout the nineteenth century. The belief that music, in its word-transcending expressivity, was the only medium through which eschatological matters—matters of “ultimate reality”—could be adequately contemplated impelled the early modernists on their quest for new horizons.


(5) Cited in Harmann Danuser, Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1984), p. 24.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001003.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001003.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001003.xml