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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)
Richard Taruskin

Scriabin has often been viewed by historians as a dead end, not only because of this dilemma but because of the more mundane historical fact that he had few identifiable heirs. As we will learn in later chapters, there would be a sharp antimetaphysical turn—sometimes called “positivist,” sometimes “materialist,” most often “classicist” as it related to the arts—in the decades following World War I. In the aftermath of a real apocalypse—a real end-of-the-world experience—apocalyptic thought began to look like the opposite of avant-garde.

In Russia, Scriabin’s luxuriant musical style was much imitated for a while. By 1931, however, only sixteen years after Scriabin’s death, Dmitry Shostakovich, the leader of the younger generation of what by then were called Soviet composers (educated after the Russian Revolution of 1917), frankly called him “our bitterest musical enemy.”21 In part this may have been because Soviet education was militantly antireligious. But Shostakovich put it this way: “Scriabin’s music tends to an unhealthy eroticism; also to mysticism and passivity and escape from the realities of life.” Attention everywhere—not just in the atheistic Soviet Union but (as we shall see) in Western Europe and America as well—was increasingly focused on the real world and its exigencies, which entailed a substantial loss of faith even in “ordinary” romanticism, let alone its maximal, religiously transcendent phases.

A Maximalist Against the Tide

ex. 4-22 Nikolai Obouhov, Berceuse d’un bienheureux, beginning

The only Russian composers who maintained a Scriabinistic stance well into the later twentieth century were a couple of religiously minded émigrés who lived most of their lives in France: Nikolai Obouhov (or Obukhov, 1892–1954) and Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893–1979). Obouhov found his own way to what he called “total harmonies” or aggregates, but his motivation was similar to Scriabin’s. His Berceuse d’un bienheureux (“Beatific lullaby”), composed in Russia in 1918 but published in Paris in 1921, begins with three widely spaced aggregates partitioned like Scriabin’s into identifiable layers. They serve to illustrate the Biblical aphorism, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Ex. 4-22). Wyschnegradsky actually managed to continue Scriabin’s maximalism past the seeming limit imposed by the aggregate, by joining a small but hardy contingent of composers who split the musical atom, so to speak, dividing the semitone into smaller “microtonal” intervals. This provided a greater spectrum of available pitches for musical use, but (like much maximalist music) would raise serious problems of perception. We will face them in due course.

A Maximalist Against the Tide

fig. 4-3 Olivier Messiaen; Paris, 1983.

Obouhov and Wyschnegradsky were marginal figures, regarded as eccentrics out of step with the majority of their fellow composers, whose numbers gave them the power (and the right?) to define the musical “mainstream.” But there was one resolute maximalist who managed, despite everything, to acquire a major reputation and maintain it throughout the period of positivist or classicist “retreat” with which he was completely out of sympathy, and even exert a considerable influence, though not without controversy. Despite the chronological discrepancy, then, the proper context to begin investigating and evaluating his music is the present chapter rather than one more contemporaneous with his work.

Our unregenerate maximalist is Olivier Messiaen (1908–92), a French composer whose Scriabinish affinities, like Obouhov’s and Wyschnegradsky’s, were a matter not merely of stylistic or technical means, but of spiritual ends. Indeed his technique as such, which (unlike many modernists) he loved to describe, often in phenomenal detail, was not directly modeled on Scriabin’s. Though demonstrably among them, Scriabin was only one of a great number of highly disparate sources that Messiaen combined into his remarkably eclectic modus operandi. But the spiritual vision that drove him, and the purposes he wished his music to serve, were so like Scriabin’s as practically to assure that they ended up in what might be called the same esthetic space.

Yet perhaps the word “esthetic” is misleading, since it refers to beauty. Rather, Messiaen wrote, “let us have a true music,” italicizing the word himself;

that is to say, spiritual, a music which may be an act of faith; a music which may touch upon all subjects without ceasing to touch upon God; an original music, in short, whose language may open a few doors, take down some as yet distant stars.22

The words, for all their religious euphoria, come from the preface to Messiaen’s Technique de mon langage musical (“Technique of my musical language,” 1944), one of the most systematic expositions any composer has ever given to the mechanisms of his art. And past the preface, the treatise is true to its title. It resolutely ignores all meaning and treats “language” alone—or as Messiaen put it, “technique and not sentiment,” abstracted and broken down in extraordinarily schoolmasterly fashion into its rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic dimensions.

Any seeming paradox or contradiction is dispelled when one considers the nature of the truth that Messiaen designed his art to convey. It is neither a personal doctrine nor an occult one, but rather “the theological truths of the Catholic faith,”23 as dogmatically set forth in scripture. Messiaen was an extreme rarity among leading twentieth-century composers (indeed, among composers since the advent of romanticism) in being a working church musician. For more than forty years, beginning in 1930, he served as regular Sunday organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité (Church of the Holy Trinity), one of the largest churches in Paris.

Messiaen wrote many of his most important works for La Trinité’s huge Cavaillé-Coll organ, and was without question the most important organist-composer of the twentieth century, as César Franck, who also served as organist for many years at a Parisian church, and who also wrote a highly spiritualized brand of modern music, had been in the nineteenth. For a further parallel, both Messiaen and Franck were famous and much-sought-after teachers of composition, whose pupils and disciples formed an elite group of modernists who universalized their master’s teaching and made it an important “mainstream” influence.

But Franck, whose career ended shortly before the great wave of maximalism broke, was never drawn to such radically novel means as Messiaen proposed, nor did he ever systematize his practices so thoroughly into a teachable method. It was the latter that made Messiaen such a potent force in the technique of contemporary music even among those who held his esthetic principles in disrepute. He managed to transform theological dogma into musical dogma, and that is why Messiaen always objected to being called a mystic. Rather than a mystic he was a scholastic, in the medieval sense of the term. Like Saint Thomas Aquinas, he sought to embody the mysteries of faith in a rational and transmissible discourse. No wonder his self-analysis was so “schoolmasterly,” and so influential. What were means for him became ends for many.

As already observed, Messiaen’s treatise very rigorously analyzes his maximalistic techniques into their rhythmic and melodic-harmonic domains. And yet the remarkable thing is how much the pitch and durational aspects of his innovative “language” had in common. The chief innovation with respect to pitch was the use of what Messiaen called “modes of limited transposition,” and the chief durational innovation was a preference for what he called “nonretrogradable rhythms.” Both of these impressively named devices depend on a single quality, one that has already figured frequently in our encounters with musical maximalism, and especially in Scriabin. That quality is invariance: more specifically, invariance achieved by means of symmetry.


(21) Rose Lee, “Dmitri Szostakovitch: Young Russian Composer Tells of Linking Politics with Creative Work,” New York Times, 20 December 1931; reproduced in facsimile in Eric Roseberry, Shostakovich: His Life and Times (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1982), p. 79.

(22) Olivier Messiaen, The Technique of My Musical Language, trans. John Satterfield (Paris: Leduc, 1956), p. 8.

(23) Messiaen, Technique, p. 13.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." 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-div1-004009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I). 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-div1-004009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." 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-div1-004009.xml