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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Richard Taruskin

But then so was everything in Janáček. His music, however novel its ways and means, always avidly sought popular appeal, and the composer measured his success in terms of his popularity. His role model, he was unabashed to admit, was Puccini. (Indeed, few commentators have failed to notice that the title character’s first entrance in act I of Kát’a Kabanová, not yet singing but accompanied by her soaring leitmotif, directly parallels the analogous moment in Madama Butterfly.) Despite Adorno’s wishful attempt at “co-opting” him, alienation simply was not this composer’s bag. He was as enthusiastic a communitarian as a modernist could be. As a result, his historical prestige has suffered. Many twentieth-century histories of twentieth-century music omit him altogether, or write him off in spite of everything as an insignificant regionalist. Janáček made his comeback into history during the 1950s, when he was rediscovered (first in England) not in the classroom but in the opera house, largely thanks to the efforts of Charles Mackerras (b. 1925), a conductor who had studied in Prague with Václav Talich (1883–1961), Czechoslovakia’s outstanding orchestra director.

Prestige attaches itself more readily to the esoteric than to the popular. It has been the lonely modernist’s chief consolation, and it has been as avidly sought by some as social acceptance has been sought by others. One cannot imagine Janáček setting up a Society for Private Performances or writing a fawning letter to a potential aristocratic patron lauding “the fairest, alas bygone, days of art when a prince stood as a protector before an artist, showing the rabble that art, a matter for princes, is beyond the judgement of common people.”29 That is what Schoenberg wrote, in 1924, to Prince Egon Fϋrstenberg, the bankroller of a contemporary music festival in the South German town of Donaueschingen. The attitude it encapsulates is the one to which the term “elite”—or, more balefully, “elitist”—is now often applied. It regards art as both the product of elite circumstances and the creator of elite occasions.

The dichotomy between the elitist model epitomized by Schoenberg and the populist model epitomized (practically alone among modernists) by Janáček has been perhaps the most contentious issue in twentieth-century music and musical politics. Few composers have been as single-mindedly committed to an extreme position as have these two. Most have been ambivalent, susceptible to both pulls. Bartók was one. The thrust of this chapter has perhaps too easily suggested a grouping of Bartók with Janáček against the Vienna Schoenberg circle, the one group associated with the spirit of particularism as against the other’s universalism, or with the provinces as against the capital, or with the cause of vulnerable national minorities as against the tyranny of the powerful cosmopolitan majority. The ivory tower might seem the “natural” prerogative of one group, social validation the “natural” requirement of the second.

But Bartók was torn, like all educated Magyars, both between the universal and the particular and between the elite and the popular. He could be contrasted with Janáček as easily as with Schoenberg, depending on the vantage point from which we choose to view him. Like Janáček but unlike Schoenberg, he sought inspiration in folklore. But like Schoenberg and unlike Janáček, he felt the urge to generalize and systematize his innovations. Like Janáček but unlike Schoenberg, he claimed simplicity as a virtue. But like Schoenberg and unlike Janáček, he saw virtue as well in abstraction, which led him, at times, to write music not easily followed by nonprofessional audiences. His music, too, creates elite occasions, and he knew it. He once discouraged a correspondent from performing some of his more difficult works “in places where the level of music is like that of the provincial towns of Hungary,” since they “will merely deter listeners who do not have the necessary level of preparation.”30 He was well aware that he was appropriating from “simple” people the basis for an art that excluded them, and at times it troubled his conscience. For all his fascination with symmetry, this was an asymmetry he could not reconcile.

Placing Bartók and Janáček in opposition usefully shifts the ground of contention a little from its usual terrain. A composition like Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, with its systematically worked out symmetrical schemes and not always obviously expressive (therefore “alienating”) dissonance, implicitly upholds a model of composition driven as much by “research” as by the urge to communicate. The research model implies further an emphasis on the making of the artwork rather than on its effect, and, ultimately, an emphasis on the rights of the autonomous creative individual rather than those of the receiving community. Observing all of this in Bartók, we are observing it within the “camp” identified, in broadest and crudest terms, as the “socially committed” one. And that should suffice to show how uselessly broad and crude such terms can be.


(29) Arnold Schoenberg to Prince Egon Fürstenberg, April 1924; Arnold Schoenberg’s Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), p. 108.

(30) Béla Bartók to Jenö Takács, 31 December 1925; Béla Bartók, Letters, ed. János Demény (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971), p. 168.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007011.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007011.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007011.xml