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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

That kind of emulation—outward homage concealing an effort to surpass—has an ancient history in the literate music of the West, and has often seemed to drive that history, insofar as the history of music is conceived as the history of innovative composing techniques. Early instances of creative emulation include the many polyphonic Mass Ordinary cycles composed in the fifteenth century on shared cantus firmus melodies like L’Homme armé, with their dizzying feats of contrapuntal virtuosity.

Friendly (or not so friendly) rivalry among composers has surely undergirded many instances of “mutual influence,” such as that between Mozart and Haydn, particularly in the domains of string quartet and symphony, which contributed greatly to the so-called emancipation of instrumental music—“absolute music”—in the nineteenth century. Beethoven’s semiantagonistic (or at least “agonistic,” contestatory) relationship to his immediate predecessors and contemporaries has become proverbial, and, constantly replayed and reenacted by succeeding generations of agonists, created a crisis in the histories of the same genres.

More recent notions, such as historicism and modernism, were similarly saturated with the principles of emulation, contest, and innovation as a measure of strength, to the point where many historians and critics (in particular the literary theorist Harold Bloom47), seizing on Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “Oedipus complex,” the natural rivalry of fathers and sons, have elevated the contest of strength into the essential driving force in the history of the arts. That theory will certainly appear to fit and organize a multitude of facts in the history of twentieth-century music, as we are about to discover them. But is Bloom’s theory a diagnosis of romanticism and its more recent metamorphoses, or is it in itself a symptom of them?

One group of critics who would certainly call it a symptom rather than a diagnosis would be feminist critics, who have tended in recent years to read the history of art as driven primarily by the male ego—“machismo,” as we often call it now (from the Spanish)—with deleterious effects not only on the fate of women artists, but on the content and quality of art itself. In an article provocatively entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), the art historian Linda Nochlin subjected the notion of “greatness” to a cultural analysis and concluded that it rested in part on a foundation of fierce self-assertion—behavior deemed unacceptable in a woman, however talented. In this way the question posed by Nochlin’s title could become a self-fulfilling tautology: There are no great women artists because women are incapable of [read: socially barred from] greatness—unless, that is, they were willing to be looked upon, and vicariously slaughtered, as “idols of perversity” (to recall the conclusion of chapter 1).

Thus the social costs of artistic success for a woman, amounting to virtual ostracism, were literally prohibitive. “The choice for women,” Nochlin wrote, “seems always to be marriage or a career, i.e., solitude as the price of success or sex and companionship at the price of professional renunciation.”48 This unhappy set of alternatives is well illustrated even by the relatively happy career of Amy Beach (1867 –1944), a talented Americn pianist and composer who had to put her performing career “on hold” for the duration of her marriage, and could only reassert herself as a professional after her husband’s death.

France, as it happens, was the one country where the institutional means for artistic success became available to women toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the ban on feminine participation in the yearly contests for Rome Prizes was lifted, first in painting, then in music. Nochlin rightly points out that this greater democratization of the artistic and musical academies coincided with (and in a way gave recognition to) a drastic lessening of academic prestige, and a no less drastic weakening of the academies’ power to act as gatekeepers regulating access to the arts and professions.

Nevertheless, the removal of barriers to feminine participation did seem to create, as if out of nothing, a cadre of female candidates, showing that there had never been a lack of feminine talent or ambition, only of social outlets for their expression. Women were first allowed to compete for the Prix de Rome in 1903. Over the next decade there were four female finalists for the prize, two of them—Nadia and Lili Boulanger—from a single family. In 1913, the younger of the two Boulanger sisters, the tragically short-lived Lili (1893–1918), became the first woman to win it.

In keeping with a pattern to which Nochlin had already called attention in her essay on women in the visual arts, the Boulanger sisters were the daughters (and granddaughters) of successful composers who had taught at the Paris Conservatory. Their father, who was in his seventies when they were born, had won the Prix de Rome himself in 1835. This created a certain amount of good will toward Nadia when she first entered the competition in 1906; but although she tried four times, and although each time a significant number of jurors judged her work to be the best, she never rose beyond the level of “second runner-up” (Deuxième second grand prix), the rank already attained by Hélène Fleury in the 1904 competition. As the music historian Annegret Fauser has observed, this was probably by tacit consent the “glass ceiling” for a woman competitor.49

Female Competition

fig. 2-8 Lili Boulanger.

Fauser has speculated that Lili Boulanger’s success in 1913 was due in part to a strategy she deliberately adopted in the wake of her sister’s failure. In 1908, the consensus had been that the large-limbed and robust elder sister would have won the prize had she not committed a minor infraction of the rules, composing the required fugue for string quartet instead of the customary chorus. Playing as it did into the stereotype of the femme nouvelle, the aggressive and rebellious “new woman” who threatened traditional family values, Nadia’s bold behavior may have inspired a misogynous backlash.

In any case, the slightly built and fair-faced Lili Boulanger presented herself in 1913 not as a femme nouvelle but as a femme fragile, a tender and submissive maiden, and walked off with the prize. Her enormous talent contributed to her success, no doubt, but as Fauser observes, “Nadia’s fate shows that musical talent alone was not sufficient” to overcome prejudice.50 Lili’s prize cantata, the love scene Faust et Hélène, set to a prescribed text drawn from Goethe’s Faust, part 2, was not dangerously original: a salad of near quotations from Parsifal and Siegfried, it shows that the “default mode” for young French musicians, the style that came with least resistance to a harried prize contestant working on a deadline, was still tinged with Wagnermania, and can seem unintentionally amusing to a listener today. But one thing that it surely is not is fragile. However she chose to present herself to the jury, Lili Boulanger was in her creative work as capable of intensely assertive expression and effect as any male member of her generation. (So which was the disguise and which the “real Lili”—the fragile persona or the assertive music? Or is such a framing of the question, like most dichotomies, a double bind?) In several later works she achieved a much greater individuality without loss of directness. There are no “late” Lili Boulanger works, because she became chronically ill shortly after taking up residence in Rome in accordance with her prize, and died, possibly of malaria, in March 1918, at the age of twenty-four. Her most characteristic compositions are choral: several psalm settings, a Vieille prière bouddhique (“Old buddhist prayer”), a war elegy called Pour les funéerailles d’un soldat (“For a soldier’s funeral”). At the time of her death she was working on an opera based on yet another play by Maurice Maeterlinck, La princesse Maleine (previously fancied by both Satie and Debussy).

Lili Boulanger’s last completed composition, Pie Jesu for mezzo-soprano (or choirboy), string quartet, harp, and organ, was dictated by the composer to her sister Nadia during her final illness. It bears a clearly emulative (are we still prepared to say “macho” or “Oedipal”?) relationship to Fauré’s Requiem, which contains a similarly scored setting of Pie Jesu, the gentle concluding verse of the otherwise omitted Dies irae sequence.

Despite the steady atmospheric murmur of semitones in the ostinato accompaniment, the organizing principles of the music are by now familiar from our survey of the French music of the period. The vocal line is “modal” in the fashion of the restored medieval chant. Where the key signature contains one sharp, cadences are made to E, but the leading tone is conspicuously suppressed in “Dorian” fashion (Ex. 2-33a). In the coda, where the key signature changes to three sharps, the vocal cadences on B display an even more literally Dorian character. Here the meter, changing to common time with steady rhythmic activity at the level of the eighth note, reinforces the allusion to Fauré’s setting, which moves similarly. The accompaniment, moreover, is progressively purged of its Wagnerian chromaticism, achieving diatonic purity to accompany the concluding “Amen,” which Marc Blitzstein, one of the many American composers who studied in the 1920s with Nadia Boulanger, aptly characterized as “the essence of affirmation”51 (Ex. 2-33b).

Female Competition

ex. 2-33a Lili Boulanger, Pie Jesu, mm. 3–9

Female Competition

ex. 2-33b Lili Boulanger, Pie Jesu, last seven measures

Female Competition

ex. 2-33c Block representation of last harmony

At the same time the harp part begins to emphasize “pentatonic” fourths and major seconds: its ostinato pattern, reduced to block formation in Ex. 2-33c, shows the way in which a “triad” consisting of a fourth plus a second (or, alternatively, two “stacked” perfect fourths) becomes the normative harmony, replacing the chromatically slithering thirds (normally considered a more consonant interval) heard at the opening. The harmonic change, a triumph of “half-steplessness,” signals (or reflects) the triumph of faith over fear that the music is meant to delineate (or inspire). And in view of the common thread linking the many stylistic developments this chapter has traced, it was also a triumph of “gluelessness” and the “essence” of France.


(47) The two main texts are Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), and Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

(48) Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971); in Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 167.

(49) Annegret Fauser, “La Guerre en dentelles: Women and the Prix de Rome in French Cultural Politics,” JAMS LI (1998): 122.

(50) Ibid., p. 127.

(51) Marc Blitzstein, “Music’s Other Boulanger,” Saturday Review, 28 May 1960, p. 60.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002011.xml