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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

These debates are worth pondering in detail, not so much for the sake of the issues they raised in their day, but simply as an indication of how seriously artworks were both meant and taken as political expressions in Weimar Germany. The vigor with which Der Jasager was discussed, and the frequency with which it was performed, are evidence in turn of a larger historical situation that now seems far more deserving of comment than it could possibly have seemed at the time. The operas and musical plays discussed in this chapter—by Prokofieff, by Berg, by Krenek, by Hindemith, and by Weill—were successful and popular in a way that almost no opera has been since 1933. For the thriving operatic economy of the Weimar Republic was the last truly thriving—that is, consumption-driven—economy in the history of opera.

These composers wrote for a ready market. Their work was in demand. They strove not for eventual immortality but for immediate success. Ephemerality, not immortality, was the order of the day. Sudden eclipse was actually part of the bargain. An opera had its place in the sun if it managed to earn one, and then it moved out of the way. Evanescence was not just the price of a booming operatic economy, it was also the proof; it implied a constant interest in the new. Producers could recoup their investment in new works and sometimes make hefty profits, and so they sought out new works to produce. Premieres were more noteworthy than revivals, and commanded the lively interest of the press.

But all of this came to an end in 1933, when the Nazi regime took power in Germany, and it has never been restored anywhere. In this chapter, that means, we have in effect witnessed the end of opera as a major contemporary genre. There will be operas to discuss in later chapters (and even a couple of important composers who specialized in the genre), but they will be few and far between, and almost none of them will have performance statistics to match any of the ones discussed in this chapter.

So what happened?

Most obviously and proximately, the Great Depression, the economic slump that began with the New York stock market crash in October 1929, and over the next few years encompassed the globe. Beginning in 1931, many theaters in Germany had to close, and even in the theaters that hung on impresarios had to flee the copyrighted contemporary repertory, where expensive royalties had to be paid, and seek refuge in the cheaper public domain. But whereas the spoken theater eventually regained and surpassed its previous artistic and economic levels, contemporary operatic culture was effectively killed, and not only in Germany but worldwide. What killed it?

“Talkies,” which were really singies, with or without songs. The movies did not only preempt the operatic audience. At a profound level, the movies became the operas of the mid- to late-twentieth century, leaving the actual opera houses with a closed-off museum repertoire, to which new additions have been exceedingly few, and with a specialized audience of aficionados—”opera buffs,” “canary fanciers”—rather than a general entertainment public hungry for sensation. With the advent of the sound film, opera found its preeminence as a union of the arts compromised, and its standing as the grandest of all spectacles usurped.

The kinds of subjects that had been opera’s chief preserve—myth and epic, historical costume drama, romance, fast-paced farce—suited the new medium even better. Actors and actresses on film were literally, not just metaphorically, larger than life. The mythic aura of the diva attached itself irrecoverably to them. Cinematic transport to distant times and climes was instantaneous. Evocative atmosphere, exotic or realistic, could be more potently conjured up on film than on the best-equipped operatic stage, and the narrative techniques of the movies were unprecedentedly flexible and compelling. Film, in short, could keep the promise of romanticism, and preserve its flame more effectively than opera, the romantic art par excellence, especially after opera had been invaded by neue Sachlichkeit.

To the extent that music gave opera a reason for being by enhancing scale, magnifying characters, providing imaginative transport and “framing” devices that went beyond those of the spoken theater, it now found itself trumped in turn. As to music’s hitherto unique powers as a delineator or inducer of moods, as emotional catharsis, as sheer sensuous presence, it turned out that a movie soundtrack could be remarkably like an opera in its function, if not precisely in its means. Both sound-film and opera have the effect of surrounding an action in a metaphorical sonic ambience that represents and objectifies feeling. Like operatic characters, cinematic characters do not hear, as characters, the sounds that attend their behavior. They live in the sounds and through them. When music is actually performed in the course of the action, which happens in almost every opera and every film, a fascinating and endlessly variable tension is set up in both media between two levels of musically represented reality, and the codes that represent them.

It is by no means stretching a point, therefore, to say that movies became the operas of the twentieth century. The creative energy that used to be invested in the opera business now goes into the movie industry, and so do the financial resources. The blockbuster emotional experiences that operas used to deliver are now far more dependably administered by the big screen. All that opera can uniquely claim (and of course it is a big thing) is the charismatic dramatic singer. But since the 1930s, charismatic opera singers have exercised their powers almost exclusively in the museum repertory, not the contemporary one. Most contemporary composers have not even called upon their services, having been convinced by a combination of academic theorizing and sour grapes that they should aim “above” the level of audience appeal.

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. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009011.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 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009011.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 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009011.xml