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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin
A New Stile Antico?A New Stile Antico?

ex. 9-21 Erich Korngold, Violin Concerto, beginning of first movement

A New Stile Antico?

fig. 9-6 Serge Rachmaninoff, caricature by Alfred Bendiner.

Hollywood, it might seem, had provided a haven for a musical style that had become outmoded in the concert hall and opera house. The phenomenon could be interpreted in two ways. One could argue that the older style, having lost its contemporaneity (and therefore its authenticity), could only serve in a functional or auxiliary capacity, as an adjunct to the movies, administering emotional stimulation to audiences whose minds were elsewhere. That is how theorists in the tradition of the New German School interpreted it. But one could also argue that the “serious” arts, having fallen victim to the false assumptions of modernism, which measured aesthetic value only in terms of technical innovation, had lost their ability to communicate with any but snob audiences, hence were no longer viable or legitimate. The widening gap between the ordinary concert repertory and the predilections of modernist composers could be cited as evidence for either position: either that audiences were no longer paying due attention, or that modern music was no longer viable.

Both positions had fanatical and prestigious advocates. The most effective antimodernist standard bearer was Rachmaninoff, the virtuoso composer-performer mentioned toward the beginning of this chapter in conjunction with Prokofieff. His position in the public eye and his excellent reputation as an interpreter of the “museum repertory” (not to mention his box-office popularity) allowed Rachmaninoff’s very conservative music to join that museum repertory at a time when audiences and concert promoters were often actively resistant to modernist music. There were many, during the 1920s and 1930s, who regarded him as the greatest living composer, precisely because he was the only one who seemed capable of successfully maintaining the familiar and prestigious style of the nineteenth-century “classics” into the twentieth century. The fact that he was in fact capable of doing so, moreover, and that his style was as distinctive as any contemporary’s, could be used to refute the modernist argument that traditional styles had been exhausted.

Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, particularly the Second (1901) and the Third (1909), were repertory items at a time when the works of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and all the other modernists were considered specialty items at best; and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra (1934), a set of variations on the theme of Paganini’s Twenty-Fourth Caprice—which had already served Liszt and Brahms as a basis for virtuoso variations—might be called the very latest contribution to the standard (as opposed to the “modern”) concert repertory. Modernists derided him: Virgil Thomson, the American composer who in the 1940s was the country’s most influential music critic, called Rachmaninoff’s music “mainly an evocation of adolescence,” and “no part of our intellectual life.”29 But Rachmaninoff’s stature was commanding, and his reputation was not only undamaged but, in the eyes of his admirers, even enhanced by modernist abuse.

He could afford to remain largely aloof from the captious criticism he attracted, but one of the variations in the Paganini Rhapsody seems to have been a joke at his critics’ expense. The eighteenth variation (Ex. 9-22), which has an independent fame, is the most unabashedly and “anachronistically” romantic of the lot in its expressive gestures. “I wrote it for my manager,” the composer (an inveterate jester behind his trademark scowl) sardonically confessed; and indeed, it recalled the manner, if not the style, of Chaikovsky, Rachmaninoff’s early mentor, who had died more than forty years previously (and of Chopin’s century-old Nocturnes behind Chaikovsky). But it is also the most intellectually and “modernistically” contrived. It uses the device of melodic inversion, which was not only a stock resource of academic counterpoint, but also a mainstay of Schoenberg’s “atonal” motivic processes. Perhaps needless to say, though, Rachmaninoff’s dissonances were entirely unemancipated.

A New Stile Antico?

ex. 9-22 Serge Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, 18th variation

Yet if Rachmaninoff’s eminence and success insulated him from debate, his rather small output during his years of exile after 1917 may reflect discouragement after all at the reception his music was receiving from connoisseurs, as well as the limits his concert career placed on his composing time. Other traditionalists adopted a more embattled and polemical stance. A curious counterpart to Rachmaninoff was his close friend and fellow émigré Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951), another brilliant piano virtuoso whose composing career, however, lacked the luster—or at least the publicity—of Rachmaninoff’s.

While in Russia, Medtner was, as one admirer put it, “Moscow’s recognized composer,”30 especially after the deaths of Chaikovsky and Sergey Taneyev, Medtner’s teacher, who was known as the “Russian Brahms.” But having left Russia after the revolution, he found himself without an audience. His first destination was Germany; but the Germany he found in 1921 was not the Germany of Brahms or even the Germany of Mahler. It was the Germany of Weill and Hindemith and Schoenberg, and Medtner fled—to Paris. But the Paris he fled to was the Diaghilevized Paris where his countrymen Stravinsky and Prokofieff reigned supreme, and where Medtner for ten years suffered an agony of neglect.

In 1935 he moved again, to England, whose then somewhat provincial musical climate offered him a more congenial environment. He once again became the center of a small but fairly influential coterie cult of fanatical admirers, who gave Medtner’s music more exposure on London’s concert stages than it ever had in Berlin or Paris. In London, too, he found a somewhat unlikely patron: the Maharajah of Mysore, the rich ruler of an Indian feudal state, who established “The Medtner Society” to subsidize a grandiose project to record the composer’s complete works in his own performances. Medtner lived to complete three big sets of 78 RPM discs before his death.

With every move, Medtner found himself further on the margins of Europe’s musical life; and his final triumph with the assistance of an eccentric maharajah only underscored that marginality. He was painfully right to see his marginalism in social as well as artistic terms. In Paris, where he suffered most acutely from neglect, what particularly galled him was Stravinsky’s snob appeal. He attended the 1924 concert at which Stravinsky unveiled his “neoclassical” Concerto for Piano and Winds, and wrote to Rachmaninoff about it in a rage. The first item on the program was Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. Medtner found, to his surprise, that he liked it:

But then the composer appeared with his new concerto and gave me such a box on the ear for my silly sentimentality that I couldn’t bear to stay until the end of The Rite of Spring, the more so as it showed its stuff right from the start. I walked out. But the public, who had filled the Paris Grand Opera to overflowing, this public who takes it as an insult if someone should appear in its midst in anything but tails or a smoking jacket (for which reason I had to hide myself and my little grey coat in the highest loges)—this public steadfastly withstood every slap in the face and every humiliation, and what is more, rewarded the author with deafening applause. What is all this?!31

What it was, of course, was irony, something for which neither Medtner nor Rachmaninoff could muster a proper sympathy, which is why they—and all “sincere” romantics—had to suffer after the Great War. Medtner fought back with a book called Muse and Fashion (Muza i moda, 1935), in which he thunderously defined “modernism” as

The fashion for fashion. “Modernism” is the tacit accord of a whole generation to expel the Muse, the former inspirer and teacher of poets and musicians, and install Fashion in her place, as autocratic ruler and judge. But since only what has been begotten by Fashion can go out of fashion, modernists are eternally the victims of her caprices and changes, victims that are constantly doomed by her to “epigonism” [epigone, from Greek = latecoming mediocrity]. The fear of this “epigonism” compels the cowardly artist to run after Fashion, but she, the artful wench, does not stop in her flight, and always leaves him behind.32

But since the book was written in Medtner’s native Russian, and found no translator until the year of the author’s death (and then into English, not French), it was even easier to ignore than his music. But the music was not negligible. It merits sampling here as much for its intrinsic interest and distinction as for its illustrative value. What it illustrates is what long seemed a musical world irrevocably divided between those who wrote “audience music” and those who wrote “composers’ music,” those who placed their art at the service of its consumers and those who placed it, so to speak, at the service of its history. It was a situation in some ways reminiscent of the seventeenth century, when the old polyphonic style that Monteverdi called the prima prattica hung on (as the stile antico) into the age of the basso continuo—a “Renaissance” idiom coexisting with the “Baroque” in seeming violation of the “law of stylistic succession.”

But of course that “law” was only written in the nineteenth century, and the coexistence of diverse practices in the seventeenth century was peaceful because there was a consensus as to what style served what function. (The “old style” was used exclusively for utilitarian church music.) In the twentieth century coexistence was not peaceful. Those who upheld the “law” and its attendant ideology, and those (like Korngold, Rachmaninoff, and Medtner) who resisted or defied it were factions vying for legitimacy. The upholders always have an edge in the history books, even in this one, because historiography, if it is to be interesting, has to give preference to change over stasis.

But the stasis, it should be emphasized in fairness, was only relative. Even within recognizably “old” styles there was room for freshness and originality as long as imaginative composers were drawn to them; and as long as that was the case, the styles could not be declared dead except as propaganda. Among Medtner’s most distinguished pieces was a series of compositions for piano he called Skazki, “Tales.” It was a time-honored romantic genre, related to the ballade, and practiced particularly by Schumann, who wrote sets of chamber pieces with “Märchen” in their titles (Märchenbilder, “Pictures from a book of tales,” for viola and piano; Märchenerzählungen, “Tale-Tellings,” for piano, clarinet, and viola). The tale itself was never specified; it was the atmosphere of “telling” that romantic composers liked to evoke.

Medtner’s eleven sets of skazki were composed between 1905 and 1928, a span of years that encompassed the heydays of both “maximalism” and “neoclassicism.” They give no evidence of awareness of either tendency, however, preserving instead the kind of careful miniaturist workmanship and intimate expressivity associated with Chopin, or with the late piano music of Brahms. The set of four skazki, op. 26, were written in 1912, contemporaneously with The Rite of Spring. The third of them, in F minor, is sampled in Ex. 9-23. It will make a jarring contrast with the rest of the music discussed in this chapter and the last (excepting Korngold’s and Rachmaninoff’s, of course), and that is part—but only part—of the reason for showing it here.

Looked at superficially or impatiently, or otherwise “from afar,” the music may seem stylistically undistinguished, since the limits within which the composer chose to work were familiar—indeed, long-familiar—ones. But a close look, sensitive to particulars, uncovers details of surprising interest. Compare Ex. 9-23a, the opening “perfectly ordinary” 16-measure theme, for example, with Ex. 9-23b, its recapitulation at “Tempo I.” The modulation back to the original key, delayed until the theme is more than half over, is handled with a subtlety and aplomb that would have done any composer proud in 1882, and would have earned its author then a reputation for harmonic ingenuity. Is the harmony any less ingenious or the idea any less original because the music was composed thirty years later? Does the music accomplish less, or mean something different, because it comes later? To such questions there can be no simple or categorical answer. They stand here as a symbolic gateway to debate—the most pervasive musical debate of the twentieth century, with ramifications at every level from the most narrowly stylistic to the most broadly political or sociological.

A New Stile Antico?

ex. 9-23a Nikolai Medtner, Skazka, Op. 26, no. 3, mm. 1-16

To end the chapter with one last ironic fillip, we may observe that the twentieth-century stile antico, represented here by Korngold, Rachmaninoff, and Medtner, did conform after all, in certain respects, to its seventeenth-century “functional” or “utilitarian” prototype. As already suggested by Korngold’s career in the movies, the style could function as an emotional illustrator, available to composers, themselves without any personal stylistic commitment, who were adept at manipulating a great range of styles for “semiotic” or signaling purposes in various commercial undertakings from ‘B’ movies to advertising.

A New Stile Antico?

ex. 9-23b Nikolai Medtner, Skazka, Op. 26, no. 3, recapitulation

Thus the “Rachmaninoff concerto” style ended up in Hollywood anyway—or, to be more exact, in Ealing, Hollywood’s British counterpart. Lots of British movies of the 1940s used the heroic piano concerto idiom as a suitably turbulent device for “underscoring” passionate romantic dialogue. And in one film, Dangerous Moonlight (1941), an ersatz Rachmaninoff concerto functions as a major plot element. The main character is a Polish concert pianist in exile, modeled on Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860–1941), both a great virtuoso and a Polish patriot, who served from 1919 to 1921 as the first prime minister of independent Poland. The movie character uses his concert travels to perform espionage services for the Allies in the early days of World War II. His signature piece, both performed as such in the movie and used as underscoring material, was a six-minute concerto movement composed by Richard Addinsell (1904–77), England’s most prominent film composer of the period. Under the title “Warsaw Concerto” it even became a “pops concert” repertory item (Ex. 9-24).

A New Stile Antico?

ex. 9-24 Richard Addinsell, second theme from “Warsaw Concerto”

Theodor W. Adorno, the most vigilant critic of utilitarian music (whether avant-garde Gebrauchsmusik or Hollywood romanticism) seized upon what he saw as the generic “devolution” of nineteenth-century styles from the autonomous and absolute artworks of “authentic” romanticism to the commercial and functional soundtracks of capitalist exploitation to support his contention that the styles themselves had become “commodified”—that is, turned from avenues of possibly sincere and spontaneous human expression to mercantile fetishes that manipulate listeners, rob them of emotional authenticity, and reduce them to automatons. Romantic styles, he argued, once co-opted by the movies, could only produce the effects of movie-music, drugging and paralyzing listeners with sensuous pleasure. Such a style was therefore obsolete as art, available only as entertainment, which for Adorno was socially regressive by definition. This was the strongest invective ever mustered on behalf of the “law of stylistic succession.”

But the joke turned out to be on Adorno, since(as already hinted above in connection with Wozzeck), the modernist styles he regarded as most artistically viable—that is, those least amenable to commercial exploitation because least sensuously appealing to passive consumers—have also long since been annexed by the movies as emotional illustrators, albeit for the opposite sorts of emotions. In 1942, Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, by then both refugees from Hitler living in Los Angeles, collaborated on Hangmen Also Die, a Hollywood filme noir directed by Fritz Lang, another émigré, about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the officer in charge of the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands. Eisler’s score contains many atonal passages to illustrate German brutality and Czech suffering. The earliest twelve-tone movie score was composed in 1955 by Leonard Rosenman, who had studied with Schoenberg at UCLA, for The Cobweb, a movie set in an insane asylum. There seems to be nothing inherently more or less exploitable about idioms as such. Nor, given the high premium placed on social function by many disillusioned modernists after the Great War, can one maintain that autonomy was any more an inherent feature of modernism than it had once been of romanticism. As we have seen repeatedly, in many contexts, what looks like inherence within one “discourse” or mode of articulated thought can be easily shown (within another) to be an aspect of use.


(29) Virgil Thomson, “On Being Discovered” (1965); A Virgil Thomson Reader, ed. John Rockwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 410.

(30) Leonid Sabaneyeff, Modern Russian Composers (New York: International Publishers, 1927), p. 135.

(31) Nikolai Medtner to Sergei Rachmaninoff, 28 May 1924; N. K. Medtner, Pis’ma, ed. Z. A. Apetyan (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1973), p. 271.

(32) Nicolas Medtner, The Muse and the Fashion, trans. Alfred J. Swan (Haverford, Pa.: Haverford College Bookstore, 1951), p. 100.

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. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009013.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009013.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009013.xml