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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

After three quarters of a century one can appreciate the intelligence that informed Gilman’s sally. (Most contemporary critics failed to detect any expressivity in atonal music; they heard in it nothing but an outrageous and inexplicable—and therefore insulting—style.) At the time, Schoenberg and his pupils did not recognize good will from any critical corner. Their embattled (or “alienated”) posture—another maximalized inheritance from romanticism, though not often recognized as such—was widely imitated by modernists who otherwise had little in common with them. “The customer is always wrong” became an implicit motto.

What made the Viennese version of alienation so influential was Schoenberg’s, and his disciples’, willingness to act upon it. Immediately upon the end of the First World War, in November 1918, they organized a sort of concert bureau. They called it the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, or Society for Private Musical Performances. It was subsidized by subscriptions, by the contributions of its members, and by occasional donations from wealthy or aristocratic patrons. Its offerings were not advertised in the papers, and critics were never invited. Indeed, anyone buying tickets was treated with automatic suspicion. One had to promise never to write about the performances for publication. Nor were subscribers informed of the programs in advance (so as to insure “equal attendance at every meeting”). Even applause was forbidden, as if in church.

Not only the public but the performers, too, were watchdogged. The Society’s Statement of Aims, written by Berg with Schoenberg’s approval, included the proviso that

performers will be chosen preferably from among the younger and less well known artists, who place themselves at the Society’s disposal out of interest in the cause; artists of high-priced reputation will be used only so far as the music demands and permits; and moreover that kind of virtuosity will be shunned which makes of the work to be performed not the end in itself but merely a means to an end which is not the Society’s, namely, the display of irrelevant virtuosity and individuality, and the attainment of a purely personal success. Such things will be rendered automatically impossible by the exclusion (already mentioned) of all demonstrations of applause, disapproval, and thanks. The only success that an artist can have here is that (which should be most important to him) of having made the work, and therewith its composer, intelligible.32

Such an idealistic statement does contrast baldly with the commercialism (and “commodification”) that had by the early twentieth century become pervasive in the economy of all the arts, and that has only mushroomed since. The benefits of self-subsidy, moreover, were tangible: the performances given by Schoenberg’s Society before its tiny coterie audience, thanks to its mandated insistence on adequate rehearsal, were legendary in their accuracy; especially difficult pieces were often repeated within programs, and in successive programs as many as six times.

Such a venture could only be short-lived. The Society’s first concert took place in December 1918; by the end of 1921 it had fallen victim to the rampant inflation that plagued the economies of war-torn Europe. Within that short period, though, it managed to present 117 concerts at which 154 contemporary compositions by a wide variety of composers were given a total of 353 performances. And Schoenberg, though he ran the Society dictatorially and earned for that reason some ill will, seems to have been genuinely altruistic in his motives. He did not allow any performances of his own music until the second season, and devoted so much time to the enterprise that he completed no work of his own during the whole period of the Society’s existence.

Still, none of the Society’s seemingly revolutionary aspects—the resolute shunning of publicity, the intransigent pecking order that placed the composer at the top of a social hierarchy, the pious atmosphere—were really new. As already noted, they were all implicit in the aesthetics of romanticism, and had been explicit in music criticism ever since Liszt, writing about John Field in the 1850s, saw fit to praise the pianist’s “indifference to the public,” whom he “enchanted … without knowing it or wishing it.”33 Field, wrote Liszt, “was his own chief audience.” All that Schoenberg’s Society for Private Performance did was to institutionalize that circumstance and enforce it with a code of etiquette.

The irony of the situation, of course, was that the idealism expressed by Liszt and maximalized by Schoenberg, as a reaction to the commercialization of art, was the product of that very commercialization. But commercialization has gone much further since Schoenberg’s day. (For one thing, Schoenberg knew sound recording, the ultimate musical commodifier, only in its relative infancy, and did not take a stand on its potential for affecting the history of music in the twentieth century for good or ill. Needless to say, it will be a major theme in our own assessment of that history.)

The other major, far-reaching implication of the Society’s aims and practices was an outgrowth of the neo-Hegelian esthetics first advanced (also in the 1850s) by the New German School, according to which art was valued not with reference to its consumers but only with reference to its own autonomous history. The public was at best irrelevant to this history, at worst a brake on it. Art needed protection from people. It needed the sanctuary that Schoenberg’s Society provided for it. (More recently, that sanctuary has been sought in institutions of higher learning.) This has proven to be Schoenberg’s most controversial legacy. Does the public have any legitimate claim on artists? Are artists entitled to social support without any requirement of a reciprocal social responsibility? Has society a right to expect from the artists it supports work of social value? Does protection from the public help or hinder the development of art? Does there come a point when a stocktaking becomes possible—or necessary? And if so, who decides that it is time to perform it, and who then gets to actually do it?

Most disquieting of all for the twentieth century, the great century of democracy and totalitarianism alike, is Schoenberg’s most central precept, which he enunciated explicitly in an essay of 1946, composed in America, where for ten years he had been living as a refugee from totalitarian persecution: “If it is art it is not for everybody; if it is for everybody it is not art.”34 Can such a proposition be defended in a democracy? If not, is there something wrong with art? Or with democracy?


(32) [Alban Berg], Society for Private Musical Performance in Vienna: Statement of Aims; Slonimsky, Music since 1900, pp. 1307–8.

(33) Franz Liszt, “John Field and His Nocturnes”; in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (2nd ed., Belmont, CA: Thomson/Schirmer, 2007), p. 312.

(34) Schoenberg, “New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea” (1946); Style and Idea, p. 124.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006019.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006019.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006019.xml