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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace
Richard Taruskin
From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”

ex. 10-7 Francis Poulenc, Les mamelles de Tirésias, Prologue, 4 to 6

Milhaud’s version of surrealism, unlike Poulenc’s, sought to penetrate the sound-substance of his music and become in itself an attribute of style. For that reason, Milhaud’s achievement is often taken more seriously than Poulenc’s both by historians in the tradition of the New German School, who place the highest premium on technical innovation, and by neoclassicists who insist on musical “purity.” Inspired by some famous passages in the music of Stravinsky (the C/F♯ fanfares in Petrushka) and Richard Strauss (the necrophiliac kiss in Salome, the ending of Also sprach Zarathustra), Milhaud was impelled to devise a systematic theory of “polytonality,” which could be described as a technique for creating collages of keys. He gave the theory a thorough, even somewhat pedantic exposition in an article, “Polytonalité et atonalité,” which he published in La Revue Musicale, the leading French musicological journal, in 1923. Putting his theory in apposition—hence in competition—with Schoenberg’s, Milhaud distinguished them by asserting that “between polytonality and atonality there are the same essential differences as between diatonicism and chromaticism.”15 Polytonality is thus diatonicism multiplied. Milhaud justified it, in time-honored fashion, by tracing it back to Bach (or rather, to strict or “real” counterpoints at intervals other than the octave). But the lineage thus claimed is not convincing: tonal counterpoint is always ready to make adjustments (e.g., “tonal answers”) to insure the perceptual ascendancy of a single tonic. At the opposite logical extreme, the mixture of all twelve diatonic tone centers in one stew, polytonality arrives at the same maximum (or meets the same limit) as atonality; to quote Milhaud’s article, it “encroaches on the domain of atonality.” In Milhaud’s actual compositions, however, this never comes close to happening, because, unlike Schoenberg, Milhaud was uninterested in technical maximalism. Instead, as a little survey of Milhaud’s polytonal practices will reveal, polytonality made it possible to construct unheard-of harmonies by juxtaposing simple melodies and chords in novel combinations that acquired their piquancy precisely from the recognizability of their homely sources. It was another case of a calculated incongruity that replaced everyday reality with an alternative or magical sur-reality by building fancifully on the real listening experience of real audiences. Rather than polytonality, a term that still offends many theorists who believe (not unreasonably) that combined chords still have single roots, Milhaud’s technique might more accurately have been called “polydiatonicism.” But the term “polytonality” is probably here to stay, one of the many misnomers that conventional practice has adopted and ensconced in use beyond hope of correction. We have been coping more or less successfully with “Gregorian chant” for a thousand years, so there is no need to complain.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010006.xml
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