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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace
Richard Taruskin

Such music, claimed one of its most articulate devotees, was the only contemporary music that “can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the history of music.”17 And, for that reason, its “aesthetic” (that is, the basis of its appeal) was “the only twentieth-century aesthetic in the Western world.” This was an ambitious and impressive claim indeed, proclaimed on behalf of a music that seemed to forswear ambition and eschew impressiveness, and offered with the deliberately paradoxical conviction that “the only healthy thing music can do in our century is to stop trying to be impressive.”

These words were written not by a Frenchman but by the composer-critic Virgil Thomson (1896–1989), whom we have already met casually (in chapter 9). A Harvard-educated Missourian who came to France as a soldier toward the end of the Great War, Thomson stayed on to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, and remained in Paris until the start of the next war. On his return to the United States in 1940 he was hired as a music critic by the New York Herald Tribune. He held the post until 1954, during which time the “interwar” Parisian “aesthetic,” as Thomson called it, had a very influential spokesman in frequent word and occasional musical deed.


fig. 10-3 Le Group des Six with Cocteau (left to right: Poulenc, Tailleferre, Durey, Cocteau, Milhaud, Honegger; Auric is present as a drawing on the wall, like Mozart’s mother in Fig. 30-4).

Thomson was one of many young American artists in all media who lived as expatriates in Europe, mainly in Paris, between the world wars. It was a good time to be an American in Paris. The French regarded America as their wartime savior. French artists and intellectuals like Cocteau, Satie, and the group of younger composers who gathered around the two of them, idolized and absorbed American popular culture. That group, called Les Six (“The Six”) on an analogy with the Russian “Five,” included Poulenc, Milhaud, and Auric, who (as we have already seen) readily incorporated what they called “jazz”—or, more properly, American dance-band music—as a component in their “lifestyle modernism.” The other three members of the group, which was somewhat artificially named by the critic Henri Collet on the basis of their chance appearance together in a concert program in 1920, were somewhat less inclined toward “Americanism” or lifestyle modernism. They included Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), a French-speaking Swiss who inclined, like his native country, to an amalgamation of French and German styles, and who won his chief fame on the strength of his five symphonies and his forceful sacred cantatas; Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983), whose career eventually foundered on the traditional prejudice against women composers; and Louis Durey (1888–1979), whose left-wing political convictions soon turned him passionately against what he saw as the frivolous values of lifestyle modernism, and to a degree against the values of modern concert music altogether. Durey’s music is decidedly obscure, but his lucky charter membership in the celebrated Group of Six (like the membership of the equally shadowy César Cui among the Russian Five) has obliged every subsequent textbook to drop his name, as this one has now done. (In later life Durey wrote workers’ choruses on texts by Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh.)

Having been casually christened by a critic, the Groupe des Six achieved a certain tenuous reality the next year when Cocteau finagled a commission for them (minus the dour Durey) from a Swedish company based in Paris for a collectively composed ballet on a scenario of Cocteau’s devising, called Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (“The wedding party on the Eiffel Tower”). As Parade’s direct and designated successor, the new ballet synthesized lifestyle modernism with surrealism.

The scenario portrays a perfectly ordinary middle-class wedding party, come to the lowest platform of the Eiffel Tower, where shops and restaurants abound, for a banquet and a group photo. The photographer’s “Watch the birdie”—in French, “Un oiseau va sortir” (“A bird is about to come out [of the camera]”)—is the signal for the surreal juxtapositions to begin. Among the creatures that emerge from the giant prop camera onstage are an ostrich, a lion, a dove, a bathing beauty, and a big fat boy who massacres the wedding party with ping-pong balls and steals their banquet food, some of which he proceeds to feed to the Tower itself. Of course the wedding party recovers from being murdered, and sells its group photo to an art dealer for a fantastic sum.

The special combination of impossible (surreal) and ordinary (lifestyle) components is cemented by a music similarly pervaded by everyday “lifestyle” genres and “surreal” polytonal harmonies. The camera from which animate objects materialize unpredictably was a device, Cocteau wrote, to “extricate objects and feelings from their veils and their mists, to show them suddenly, so naked and so alive that one can scarcely recognize them.”18 Tailleferre’s Quadrille, whose five tiny sections put five such sudden manifestations together in a collage, best matches its sounds to the effect described by Cocteau. An old-fashioned suite of ballroom dances, it accompanies the antics of a detachment of the Garde républicaine who show up after the massacre. They arrest the big boy not for murder but for feeding the Tower outside of feeding time. Then the ostrich is found sleeping in the elevator; the photographer puts a hat on its head, rendering it invisible, and pushes it back through the camera.

As for Virgil Thomson, his Paris years were devoted to translating this French musical surrealism, which incorporated so many faux-Americanisms, back into the authentic American vernacular. The expatriate cohort to which he belonged, a group that included such novelists as F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) and Ernest Hemingway (1899 –1961), and whose major theme was postwar disillusion (or the apathetic frivolity born of it), is often called the “lost generation.” The name was invented by Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), an American writer and arts patron who lived in Paris from 1903 until her death, and who maintained a celebrated salon at her home on the Rue des Fleurus that became the informal headquarters of the whole American expatriate arts community. Thomson and Stein, who had attended Radcliffe, Harvard’s women’s college, hit it off famously (“like Harvard men,”19 the composer recalled), and the two of them collaborated on an opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, that, in terms of its impact on contemporary audiences and their consciousness of modern art, has to be regarded as the principal or “classic” text of musical surrealism.


(17) Virgil Thomson, “French Music Here” (1941); A Virgil Thomson Reader, ed. John Rockwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), pp. 207–8.

(18) Jean Cocteau, Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1923); quoted in Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, p. 280.

(19) Virgil Thomson, Virgil Thomson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 89.

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. 16 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010007.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 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010007.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 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010007.xml