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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

But did that consoling sense of order jibe with Berg’s avowed purpose, in Wozzeck, of exposing a social problem? Or was it just a palliative? And what is the point of exposing a social problem if not to do something about it? Otherwise, it could again be argued (and it certainly was argued), the exposure amounts to no more than voyeurism, no more socially useful than the titillation Puccini’s suffering heroines afforded the gawking men in the traditional opera theater. Indeed, such titillation was socially regressive, the argument went, because it was experienced (or rationalized) as pity, vice thus masquerading as virtue.

That is why Joseph Kerman, among others but especially eloquently, refused to be taken in by the famous “tonal” interlude in act III. His were the dismissive comments about it (“lachrymose waltz,” “parade of leitmotives”) quoted above, and he went on from there to reproach the composer for mistaking pity for self-pity, turning what might have been a call for social action into a voluptuous wallow in self-gratifying sentiment. Kerman, writing in the 1950s, was echoing a common complaint of the 1920s, when stimulating social action through art was one of the chief orders of the day, especially in the new republics of Germany and Austria, and the young Soviet Union, where political and social revolution were the chief facts of recent history.

One Soviet critic, Boris Asafyev, in a book about Stravinsky completed in 1926 and published in 1929, hailed his “neoclassical” phase not as a restoration of the past but as an awakening to contemporary reality. “Contemporary life,” he wrote, “demands discipline of the will and a steady concentration of all the faculties from those who wish to be in the mainstream of work and affairs and not be left standing on the bank.”16 And so does contemporary art. In contemporary music, as Asafyev described it, responses to these demands “can be seen in the striving for severity of construction, for clarity of writing, for concentration of the greatest tension within the shortest possible time, for the attainment of the greatest expression with the most economical expenditure of performing forces.”

That already sounds like Stravinsky’s Octet, which for Asafyev did not mark a return to Bach but on the contrary “asserts the dynamics of life.” And no matter how many stylistic allusions such music made to the preromantic “classics,” those gestures were always to be read as metaphors for postromantic reality, “the impetuous current of our lives with its springy rhythms, its flying tempi, and its obedience to the pulsations of work.” Moreover, Asafyev adds, such music “has not been able to escape the influences of contemporary city streets.” Think of the end of Stravinsky’s Octet, where Bach morphs unexpectedly but, in retrospect inevitably, into a Charleston, the dance rage of the twenties.

The legacy of romanticism, by contrast, was “hypnotic, sterile, hedonistic.” It encouraged passivity, whereas for Asafyev the goal of contemporary music was to bring the virtuosity formerly expended on casting hypnotic spells “out into the world of actuality,” which required a style “nearer to the street than to the salon, nearer to the life of public actuality than to that of philosophical seclusion.”17 Such a style exudes “energy, action, and actuality” rather than mere subjective “reflection,” which can only lead to paralysis of the will. It is “rooted in the sensations of contemporary life and culture and not merely in personal sentiments and emotions.” The reality it presents is a social, not an “inner,” reality.

The word Asafyev keeps coming back to—”actuality” (aktual’nost’ in Russian)—was an attempt to render an untranslatable German word, Sachlichkeit, of which a literal English translation might be something like “thinginess,” since the German root, Sache, means “thing.” It conveys concreteness, alertness, objectivity, sobriety, hard reality, matter-of-factness as opposed to romantic make-believe. Since 1923, when it was coined by Gustav Hartlaub, the director of a German museum, the phrase neue Sachlichkeit (“new actuality”) had been an artistic watchword in Germany, the esthetic emblem of the fragile Weimar Republic (so called because its constitution was drafted in the East German town of Weimar in 1919) that was set up to replace the fallen German Empire with an experiment in liberal democracy. It could be taken in retrospect as a “leftist” counterpart to Ortega’s “dehumanization.”

Until the composer flinched in act III, Wozzeck might have qualified as an example of neue Sachlichkeit. (Its literary prototype by Büchner, although it preceded the actual concept by about a hundred years, came closer to it.) But postwar Germany did not lack for unflinching composers, who in the spirit of neue Sachlichkeit invented a new kind of topical opera called Zeitoper, another untranslatable term that might be approximated as “opera of the times,” or even “now-opera.” A now-opera was an opera about things right now, rather than things eternal. It was not necessarily an opera about current events; indeed, some of the most conspicuous Zeitopern were cast as allegories. But the composer who wrote it was acting as a citizen commentator, not a priest of art whose kingdom was not of this world, and the work was valued for its contemporary relevance, not its timeless merit. It was inevitable that Zeitoper and neue Sachlichkeit, together with the related notion of Gebrauchsmusik (music for use rather than contemplation), should have arisen first in postwar Germany.

If, as we have seen, World War I looms as a great divide even in the historiography of the victor nations, how much more a cataclysm did it seem to the losers, for whom it brought immediate political upheaval and economic chaos, the palpable legacy of “decadence.” Gebrauchsmusik and neue Sachlichkeit were not just a reaction to romanticism, but a reaction to all the forces that were seen to have precipitated the war, forces that preeminently included nationalism. Having experienced ruin, German artists, the ostensible heirs of the “mainstream”, were more suspicious than anyone else of the lie of transcendence, any promise of immortality, permanence, lasting value. Hence the cult of the perishable, the ephemeral, the transient. Hence, too, the notion of an art that was not only to be used but to be used up. Obsolescence—blithely planned obsolescence, the considered rejection of “masterpiece culture”—was the price of true contemporaneity. The chief standard bearer for all these antiromantic notions was Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), a fabulously gifted all-round musician who was an internationally acclaimed viola soloist as well as Germany’s leading composer in the 1920s and 1930s. He had begun his career as the expressionist’s expressionist, with a pair of scandalous one-act operas—Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (“Murderer, the hope of womankind”, 1919), which glorified rape, and Sancta Susanna (“Saint Susanna”, 1922) about sexual hysteria in a convent—that made him famous when they were condemned from Lutheran pulpits and banned in Frankfurt. These operas maintained prewar “maximalist” styles (the first “post-Strauss,” the second “post-Debussy”). Another early opera, however, Das Nusch-Nuschi (1921), showed signs of postwar irreverence for high artistic values, holding up to ridicule one of the sublimest moments in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It, too, caused a scandal.

The planned-obsolescence factor first showed itself in Hindemith’s instrumental music. The last movement of his Kammermusik Nr. 1 (Chamber Music No. 1, actually a sort of symphony for chamber orchestra) was titled “Finale: 1921” and quoted a foxtrot popularized that year by a German dance band. The next year’s model, the Suite “1922” for piano, sported a “Shimmy” and a “Boston,” American dances similar to the Charleston. The composer’s own title-page cartoon (Fig. 9-3) shows a chance moment on a bustling thoroughfare (compare Asafyev’s emphasis on “the street” as inspiration).

Irony and Social Reality

fig. 9-3 Title page of Hindemith’s Suite “1922.”

Urbane antimetaphysics of another sort was embodied in the music Hindemith wrote for himself to perform, epitomized in another product of 1922, the Sonata for solo viola, op. 25, no. 1. This was Spielmusik (“player’s music”), unadulterated by any higher purpose than…well, than spieling it. The activity of performing it was its content. (Again compare Asafyev’s emphasis on “energy, action, actuality.”) “I composed the first and fifth movements in a buffet car between Frankfurt and Cologne and then went straight on to the platform and played the sonata,”18 the notoriously prolific Hindemith boasted in a footnote to his enormous catalogue of works. That was turning matter-of-factness into a high artistic principle, and so was Hindemith’s zeal to insulate his music from “tiresome rubato-playing and ‘expression’-art”19 by the use of sloganeering performance directions. The fourth movement of the solo viola sonata (Ex. 9-14), set at a palpably unplayable tempo of = 600 – 640, carries the rubric “Frantic tempo. Boisterous. Beauty of tone is unimportant.”

Irony and Social Reality

ex. 9-14 Paul Hindemith, Sonata for solo viola, Op. 25, no. 1, IV


(16) Boris Asafiev, A Book about Stravinsky, trans. Richard F. French (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 97.

(17) Asafiev, A Book about Stravinsky, p. 99.

(18) Quoted in Stephen Hinton, The Idea of Gebrauchsmusik: A Study of Musical Aesthetics in the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) with Particular Reference to the Works of Paul Hindemith (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1988), p. 181.

(19) Quoted in Hinton, The Idea of Gebrauchsmusik, p. 186.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009006.xml