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Contents

Music in the Early Twentieth Century

RETREAT?

Chapter:
CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Source:
MUSIC IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin
Retreat?

ex. 7-26 Béla Bartók, Quartet no. 4, I, mm. 93–104

Retreat?

ex. 7-27 Béla Bartók, Quartet no. 4, I, re-introduction of Z-tetrachords after reprise (mm. 112–114)

The movement, in fine, breaks down into a four-part scheme: mm. 1–49, mm. 50–93, mm. 93–126, mm. 126–160. All of the observations we have been making–the “bithematic” structure of the first section; its thematic correspondences with the third; the seeming dissection of the music into its elementary particles in the second; the integration of elements from the second section within the otherwise “recapitulatory” third; the significantly modified tonal scheme of the third; to which we may now add the quickened tempo and percussive address of the last—conspire to produce an impression of a symmetrically reinterpreted “sonata form” as the composers of the nineteenth century had inherited it from Beethoven, replete with exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda.

That format does not correspond exactly to any modern historian’s description of sonata form. Such a description, based on a historical investigation of its origins and genealogy in the eighteenth century, must emphasize the sonata’s descent from the earlier binary form (which means interpreting it chiefly in harmonic or “tonal” terms). But the conservatory textbooks of the nineteenth century interpreted the form, based chiefly on its thematic content, as “ternary” or “ternary plus coda.” This was the model Bartók inherited, learned, and adapted.

All of this raises some important and interesting historical questions—or are they merely “historiographical” ones? In keeping with the “modernist” spirit as defined in chapter 1, a spirit that unquestionably drove much of the musical thought of the early twentieth century, our discussion of Bartók has emphasized his most maximalistic devices, and these at their peak period of concentration. This peak period, it has probably been noticed already, came significantly later with Bartók than it had with Schoenberg, who was an older composer than Bartók, or with Stravinsky, who was his almost exact contemporary. And that partially explains the curious fact that Bartók’s most maximalistic phase simultaneously entailed a reaffirmation of fidelity to “timeless” musical standards, as exemplified by the fugue and the sonata, genres that the early twentieth-century maximalists since Mahler had made a point of ignoring. (And even Mahler had made a point of modifying his deployment of sonata form in accordance with the post-Wagnerian precept that “content must create its own form.”).

As we are about to discover, the turn back toward the timeless or the “classic” was perhaps the dominant esthetic swerve of the so-called “interwar” decades, the 1920s and 1930s, a period in the history of twentieth-century music that is often christened “neoclassical.” To a certain extent it was characterized by its protagonists (and to a much larger extent by their critics or detractors) as a retreat or even a regression: a pullback from the brink or abyss—or, from the detractors’ point of view, from responsibility to one’s historical obligation.

One would hesitate to apply such a term to so aggressively, even recalcitrantly discordant a work as the first movement of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, let alone a work so intricately realized on premises so novel as to require the combined efforts of a generation of scholars to crack its code. It hardly seems to be shrinking back from anything. And if it evokes a form that textbooks purvey as a sort of exemplary musical behavior, it does so in a way that implicitly challenges the form to embrace a novel, almost feral dynamism. One would be hard put to deny its composer’s commitment to the technical advancement of his art, even at the risk of its comprehensibility to a nonprofessional audience.

And yet if we compare the Fourth Quartet of 1928 with the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta of 1936, we might be tempted to question that commitment after all. And as we shall see later, were we to compare the works Bartók composed in America during his last five years of life with those of his maximalistic peak, we might be even more inclined to wonder at his creative path, if our model of composerly responsibility is founded on notions of progress and technical advancement.

Bartók, it seems, could not have believed in those “progressive” notions to compose the way he did in the last decade or so of his career—but in that case, how is one to explain his maximalistic phase? Is it fair to describe the move away from it as a retreat, or is that a necessarily (and therefore superfluously) prejudicial term? Can one move forward in time yet backward in “history”? These paradoxes and contradictions indeed became a crux—a problematical moment—in the history of twentieth-century music. The way in which historians, critics, and composers have dealt with it provides another example—actually, a whole heap of examples—of historiography’s impact on history. From this point on, that crux and its impact will be one of our predominating themes.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." 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-div1-007007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Social Validation. 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-div1-007007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." 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-div1-007007.xml