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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin

The feature of the Octet that most forcibly impressed early listeners (especially composer-listeners) like Copland—namely the “pastiche” element that impressed him as a “mess of eighteenth-century mannerisms”—was actually its least distinctive or necessary aspect, however useful it was as an attention-grabber, and however durable it has proved as a superficial mark of “neoclassicism.” The deliberate imitation or revival of “ancient” or obsolete musical styles for specific emblematic or expressive purposes has a history that goes back at least as far as the Renaissance. Opera was born out of one such revival, associated with the northern Italian academies of the late sixteenth century.

An even more literal attempt to revive ancient music was musique mesurée à l’antique, a music rhythmicized according to the meters of ancient Greek poetry, through which musicians who shared the aims of the French poet Jean-Antoine de Baïf (1532–89), or who belonged to his Académie de Poésie et Musique, tried to duplicate the feats of what the Greeks called ethos, the direct influence of music on morals and behavior. Ex. 8-1, by Claude Le Jeune (d. 1600), set to a vers mesuré by Baïf himself, not only imitates the Greek quantitative meter but also adopts the “chromatic tetrachord” (half step, half step, minor third) as described by the theorist Aristoxenus in the fourth century bce.

The result may not be authentic Greek music; in fact, with its triadic harmony and conventional “Renaissance” counterpoint, we can be sure that it bears no stylistic resemblance at all to any ancient original. But, like Stravinsky’s Octet as described by Copland (which neither he nor anyone else ever confused with actual eighteenth-century music), it also bore scant resemblance to the styles listeners at the time regarded as normal for contemporary music. A listener unaware of Le Jeune’s expressive or “ethical” purpose would have been in the same predicament Copland was in when confronting Stravinsky’s Octet. It would have produced (indeed, was in part designed to produce) mystification.

Pastiche As Metaphor

ex. 8-1 Claude Le Jeune, Qu’est devenue ce bel oeil (Le printemps, no. XXX)

Pastiche As Metaphor

ex. 8-2 W. A. Mozart, Gigue for piano, K. 574

By the late eighteenth century, composers had a sufficiently historical or “modern” sense of changing musical fashion to enjoy stylistic pastiche as a form of exoticism. Mozart may have been the earliest composer to write what might be called “epicurean” or “gourmet” parodies of outmoded styles, notably those of Bach and Handel, whose music he discovered late in life at the Viennese salon of Baron van Swieten: yet another reason for attributing to Mozart the earliest truly “modern” (or even modernist) musical sensibility. Whereas Haydn discovered Handel as the national composer of England during his visit of 1795, and imitated his grandiose oratorio style in The Creation (Die Schöpfung) and The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten) for purposes of religious edification, Mozart composed a keyboard suite in the style of Handel (K. 399) as early as 1782, for no other purpose than sensory delectation—aural “deliciousness.” Mozart also wrote imitation “Baroque” music for ritual use, especially in his Masonic cantatas and his Requiem, and echoed it parodistically in the last act of The Magic Flute, which contains a little chorale setting that mimics the style of Bach’s then very little known church cantatas. One of his best known pastiches is a Gigue, K. 574 (Ex. 8-2), that (to keep up the culinary metaphor) adds a maximum of chromatic spice to the Bach-Handel recipe.

“Delicious” neoclassicism begins with Mozart, then, and continues thereafter in an unbroken, albeit minor, stream. Simply as pastiche, Stravinsky’s Octet was part of that stream. And if pastiche were all that it was, it would never have had the major influence that Copland rightly attributed to it, no matter how formidable the composer’s prestige. For “delicious” pastiche or stylistic parody was by then a part of every concertgoer’s experience. In certain contexts, imitation eighteenth-century music had even become something of a nineteenth-century specialty.

The chief context, easily guessed, was the theater, where the setting could call for it. One of the most popular morceaux de concert (concert pieces—“morsels”—extracted from operas or ballets) in the late-nineteenth-century orchestral repertory was the entr’acte or curtain music before the second act of Mignon, an opéra comique by Ambroise Thomas (1811–96), the very respectable director of the Paris Conservatory. An adaptation of a novel by Goethe (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre or “The Education of Wilhelm Meister”) that is set in the late eighteenth century, the opera concerns the adventures, mainly amorous, of a stage-struck youth who falls in with a troupe of traveling players.

The entr’acte (Ex. 8-3) is in the form of a gavotte, a sprightly court dance of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century with a distinctive upbeat figure, known to nineteenth-century musicians primarily thanks to its presence in many of Bach’s instrumental suites. Thomas’s gavotte precedes, and sets the tone for, a boudoir scene that was considered very risqué. After the entr’acte had become popular in its own right, Thomas interpolated into the scene a “rondo-gavotte” (Me voici dans son boudoir / Et je sens mon coeur battre d’espoir, or “Here I am in her boudoir, and I feel my heart beating with hope”) based on its familiar strains. The character who sings it, moreover, was recast from a tenor to a boyish contralto “in trousers” to make the part, the situation, and the music seem even sexier by virtue of androgyny.

Pastiche As Metaphor

ex. 8-3 Ambroise Thomas, Mignon, Entr’acte to Act II, mm. 9–25

“Delicious” here takes on a new connotation, now covering any sort of sensual delight. And “the eighteenth century,” invoked by countless nineteenth-century writers and playwrights as a time at once of sybaritic innocence and of aristocratic guile, became a sort of fairyland or sexual playground, no different in principle from the romantically imagined “Orient.” That sexualized eighteenth century found a new metaphorical referent in “period” music harmonized and orchestrated as flavorsomely as possible, not at all for the sake of stylistic authenticity, but for the sake of that metaphorical resonance with sensuality.

This strain of fake eighteenth-century music as soft-core nineteenth-century pornography reached its maximalist phase in a pair of operas by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. They followed directly on the same team’s Elektra and are often viewed by historians as an unfortunate stylistic retreat from the composer’s far out point. In the first of them, Der Rosenkavalier (“The cavalier of the rose”, 1911), the curtain goes up on a pair of naked women in bed (one of them a “boy,” but without his trousers). The title of the second, Ariadne auf Naxos (“Ariadne on the Isle of Naxos”, 1912, rev. 1916), deliberately evokes one of the most distinguished libretto traditions of the old mythological opera seria, one that went all the way back to Monteverdi and included works by Handel, Galuppi, Sarti, and Riccardo Broschi, the brother of Farinelli, the great castrato.

Strauss’s Ariadne began life as a musical play-within-a-play to cap a revival of Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Molière’s farce about a rich status-seeker’s pretensions to aristocratic manners. The deflation of an opera seria by a troupe of masked comedians was a metaphor for the social incongruity of Molière’s comic situation. In its final, fully operatic form, Strauss’s work is still an opera about operas and all their esthetic and (sometimes scandalous) social subtexts, rather than a straight dramatization of its ostensible subject.

Its prologue features some backstage amorous byplay involving the pretty coloratura soprano from the comedy troupe and the ostensible composer of the opera seria who is cast, by now predictably, as a delicious boy-toy in trousers. So Strauss’s “neoclassical” operas turn out not to have been such a retreat after all. Their social and sexual conceits are even more “avant-garde” than the ones in Strauss’s earlier, stylistically sensational operas (in which upsetters of social or sexual proprieties are duly punished), and the eighteenth-century stylistic veneer is an integral part of their “decadence,” masking or excusing an otherwise socially unacceptable (if aristocratic) “libertinage.” Meanwhile, the nineteenth-century eighteenth-century pastiche had ridden the coattails of morceaux de concert like Thomas’s, or of operatic and ballet suites and divertissements, to an independent status as nineteenth-century instrumental music. The independent keyboard or orchestral suite, unattached to a theatrical source or prototype, became its main vehicle. Originally modeled on the Bach keyboard and (especially) orchestral suites, some of which were published for the first time in the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) edition beginning in Bach’s centennial year of 1850, the genre spread far and wide and even had its specialist composers.

One of the earliest such pieces was a Suite for piano, op. 38 (1855), by the Russian piano virtuoso Anton Rubinstein. It had ten movements: Prelude, Minuet, Gigue, Sarabande, Gavotte, Passacaille, Allemande, Courante, Passepied, Bourrée. But even if the Bach keyboard suites were Rubinstein’s obvious model, what he actually produced was not an imitation Bach keyboard suite. For one thing, it was an encyclopedic compendium that did not follow its Prelude with the normal sequence of dances that Rubinstein knew perfectly well from the actual suites of Bach. And for another, much more important, thing, the cultivation of an “olden style” had always prompted, and was meant to prompt, a great deal of chromatic or quasi-“modal” harmonic piquanterie that was as plainly anachronistic to its practitioners as it is to us now, just as the “folk” or “oriental” styles of the time were knowing, sophisticated inventions whose credentials did not at all depend on their authenticity. In all cases it was the pretext for modern harmonic, melodic, and (in the case of orchestral music) timbral invention that justified pastiche and cinched its popularity with audiences.

The earliest specialist composers of orchestral suites were Germans: the long-lived Franz Lachner (1803–90), who in his youth had been a friend of Schubert’s, and Joachim Raff (1822–82), who had been a pupil and disciple of Liszt (and had his earliest experience with the orchestra as the ghost-orchestrator of Liszt’s early symphonic poems). Between them, Lachner and Raff wrote eleven orchestral suites between 1861 and 1881. Next in line was the Frenchman Jules Massenet (1842–1912), who in his more usual guise of opera composer wrote an Ariadne opera packed even fuller of eighteenth-century parodies than Thomas’s Mignon. Between 1865 and 1881 Massenet composed seven suites caractéristiques for orchestra, less concerned with the archaic sort of “stylization” than with the exotic (Scènes hongroises, 1871; Scènes napolitaines, 1876; Scènes alsaciennes, 1881). He did write at least one conspicuous bit of fake old music, however: a curiously titled Sarabande du XVIe siècle (“A sarabande of the sixteenth century”), somewhat overshooting the mark, in 1875.

In that same year Pyotr Chaikovsky, Rubinstein’s most famous pupil and a composer with whom Stravinsky would later avidly claim kinship, wrote the first of his four orchestral suites. It contains two “neobaroque” movements: an opening Introduzione e fuga avowedly “in Lachner’s manner”3 (five of Lachner’s seven suites having fugues, not usually regarded as much of a nineteenth-century genre, as either first movement or finale), and a concluding Gavotte (Ex. 8-4), recognizable as such from its kinship with Thomas’s famous rondo-gavotte, even if it does not have the characteristic two-quarter pickup that was the actual eighteenth-century gavotte’s most distinctive feature. It ends with a blazing reprise of the fugue subject from the first movement, a mixture of genres that could never have occurred in the eighteenth century, but which epitomizes the “culinary” aspect of nineteenth-century pastiche, for which stylistic or generic traits were so many “ingredients” for subtle blends and striking juxtapositions.

Chaikovsky’s Fourth Suite, op. 61 (1887), brought things full circle. Subtitled Mozartiana, it consisted of orchestrations of four items by Mozart (one of them, the sacred chorus Ave verum corpus, K. 618, mediated through Liszt’s keyboard transcription). The opening movement is none other than the Gigue for piano, quoted in Ex. 8-2, which was already a pastiche. Chaikovsky’s orchestral treatment, which matched the piquanterie of Mozart’s own harmonization, was a compliment from one master chef to another, and a commemoration of a Mozart (rather different from the one normally worshipped by the romantics) who shared Chaikovsky’s taste and gift for delectable, often retrospective parody.

Pastiche As MetaphorPastiche As Metaphor

ex. 8-4 Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Gavotte from Suite no. 1, mm. 35–54

In its way, Chaikovsky’s Mozartiana was a harbinger of the so-called silver age of Russian culture, a massive resurgence of aristocratic taste that began in the 1890s and lasted until the 1917 revolution. It valued above all what was fantastic, decorative, and life-(or lifestyle-)enhancing in art, rather than what was personally expressive or “sincere” or “true to life” (those ideals being the vulgar hallmarks of the bourgeoisie). For all of this, too, an assumed eighteenth-century style (what Russian artists then called the “Versailles” style) was the prime esthetic metaphor. Russia was its natural home because Russia, as the last surviving autocratic or “absolutist” empire in Europe, was in effect the last great eighteenth-century state. The Russian silver age was in effect the last great flowering of European court art.

Chaikovsky’s major contributions to the Versailles style (or “Imperial” style, as cultural historians call it now) were his next-to-last opera and his next-to-last ballet, both performed for the first time in 1890. The opera, Pikovaya dama (“The queen of spades”), was a fantastic, surrealistic retelling of a famous ghost story by Pushkin, in which the setting was deliberately pushed back to the eighteenth century to enable the composer to write a pastiche divertissement. (One of its ingredients, a Sarabande in a deliberately “incorrect” four-quarter time, combined both metaphors—the delectable and the disquietingly unreal—in a single ironic gesture.) The ballet, Spyashchaya krasavitsa (“The sleeping beauty”), was based on a “Mother Goose” tale by the French fabulist Charles Perrault (1628–1703), an authentic “Versailles” author, and set a standard for opulence and sensuous beauty that Sergey Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who first presented Stravinsky to an astonished Paris, strove all his life to equal.


(3) Chaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck, 25 August 1878; P. I. Chaikovsky, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, Vol. I (Moscow: Academia, 1934), p. 421.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 1 Jun. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 1 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 1 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008002.xml