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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace
Richard Taruskin

The watchword remained collage, in many dimensions: within the text, within the music, and in the relationship of text and music. Having worked at Harvard with the famous psychologist William James, who studied the unconscious mind, Stein was interested in aspects of what is sometimes, erroneously, called “automatic writing”—a style (or method) based on free association that violates norms of semantics, syntax, and grammar while relying on phonic and rhythmic play like puns and jingles to achieve emotional epiphanies (“moments of consciousness,”20 she called them) independent of time and memory.

This already recalls Thomson’s praise of contemporary French music (particularly Satie’s) as being music that can be fully understood and enjoyed without knowledge of history. It also recalls the “Surrealist Manifesto” (1924) by André Breton (1896–1966), a French writer who set himself up as the movement’s theorist, and who defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally or in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought; dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.”21

What a true surrealist strove for, Breton insisted, was irreducible and uninterpretable images that could not serve as metaphors, and impossible equations that could be formed by suppressing the word “like” in a simile. Thus, as Daniel Albright remarks, the phrase “breast of crystal”22 is surrealist only “until somebody comes along to decipher it as a carafe”; and while “a tomato is like a child’s balloon” could never qualify as surrealist, “tomato is balloon” does, excellently. “To exhaust the permutations of verbal propositions in the form x = y is to reduce the universe to its essential blobbiness”23 (or what William James called the “buzzing, blooming confusion”24 of unmediated reality), minus the illusions of order that our critical faculties insist on imposing on our consciousness.

Now compare Stein on the subject of Susie Asado, a flamenco dancer:

  • Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
  • Susie Asado.
  • Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
  • Susie Asado.
  • Susie Asado which is a told tray sure. A lean on the shoe this means
  • slips slips hers. When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller.
  • This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are
  • the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
  • Incy is short for incubus.
  • A pot. A pot is a beginning for a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the
  • old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shed and render
  • clean, render clean must. Drink pups.
  • Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink
  • has pins it shows a nail. What is a nail. A nail is unison.
  • Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.

Writing like this, with its purely sonic associations (there are the saids/these say the sets; clean must/Drink pups), its stutters (A pot A pot; trees. Trees; bobbles, bobbles; render clean, render clean; Drink pups. Drink pups drink pups), its puns (Sweet tea = sweetie) and its controlling rhythms (e.g., the flamenco hemiola pattern: A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers = ˘/˘˘˘˘˘˘/- - -/) is clearly borrowing a great deal of its “structure” from music, and letting that serve in place of the usual semantic meaning in evoking the imagery promised by the title. What can music add? Ex. 10-11 shows what Thomson thought it could. His first setting of words by Stein, it dates from 1926.

Finding Oneself

ex. 10-11 Virgil Thomson, Susie Asado, beginning

The voice part, meticulously modeled on the rhythms and cadences of conversational English, is little more than a medium for the words, or perhaps a kind of incantation or chant. Thomson, who was just as interested as Stein in the interplay of sound and meaning (or in possibilities arising from the substitution of the one for the other) thought this minimalist approach not only necessary but a heaven-sent opportunity to test his ideas. “My theory,” he wrote later,

was that if a text is set correctly for the sound of it, the meaning will take care of itself. And the Stein texts, for prosodizing in this way, were manna. With meanings already abstracted, or absent, or so multiplied that choice among them was impossible, there was no temptation toward tonal illustration, say of birdie babbling by the brook. You could make a setting for sound and syntax only, then add, if needed, an accompaniment equally functional.25

The remark about the birdie and the brook is reminiscent of the surrealist ban on metaphor and simile. Everything is itself only; and at the same time everything equals everything else with no comparison necessary. The music may pursue a semantically parallel rather than subservient path, and all will come out right in the end. Thus Thomson’s accompaniment is not merely “functional,” but a collage in its own right, a bag of basic musical elements—diatonic arpeggios and scales—that not only holds aloof from the meaning of the text (no flamenco rhythms!), but maintains a freedom of syntax just as daring, in its homely way, as Stein’s: the first combination of voice and piano is in blatant harmonic contradiction; the scales move in parallel sevenths or ninths; there is not a single “functional” harmony, or even a full triad. Did Thomson, writing it, think of Gertrude Stein’s disclosure that “I like to improvise on a piano I like to play sonatinas followed by another always on the white keys I do not like black keys and never two notes struck by the same hand at the same time because I do not like chords”?26

Thomson’s second Stein setting, Capital Capitals (1927), a little cantata for four men’s voices (two tenors, baritone, and bass) and piano, also avoids “harmony” like a plague. The voices take turns in dialogue; they are never once combined. The long text ostensibly consists of a conversation about and among the four capital cities (Aix, Arles, Avignon, and Les Beaux) of ancient Provence. Only four times in fifteen minutes are full triads heard; and when they are, they are deployed in the most hackneyed school-exercise fashion, to accompany (or rather mock) the occurrence of “affective” words like “tenderness.” Ex. 10-12a shows the first such passage, which comes on the fourteenth page of the thirty-four-page score.

Far more typical is the opening, a little prologue sung by the baritone before the dialogue as such begins (Ex. 10-12b). The monotonous note-repetitions give a whiff of plainchant, confirmed by the tonally impossible (but “modally” ordinary) cadence in the fourth bar. Thus, if Stravinsky’s “neoclassic” manner bracketed off the nineteenth century as a sort of historical wrong turn, Thomson’s “neomedieval” manner here brackets off almost the entire history of music, as if to confirm his remark about the possibility, and (one must infer) the desirability, proved by Satie, of composing a new music that required no historical knowledge for its full comprehension and enjoyment. Composing in defiance of history meant composing in defiance of Germany, the land not only of history but of “historicism” as well.

Finding Oneself

ex. 10-12a Virgil Thomson, Capital Capitals, “Cannot express can express tenderness”

Finding OneselfFinding Oneself

ex. 10-12b Virgil Thomson, Capital Capitals, opening baritone solo

The opera, on which Thomson began working in 1927 but did not orchestrate until its premiere had been arranged some six years later, actually had four acts, not three, and many more than four saints, although the main character is the great sixteenth-century mystic, Saint Theresa of Avila. When staged, the opera has action; but that is entirely the director’s business. For Stein, “anything that was not a story could be a play,” for a play dealt not with the narration of events, but with “the essence of what happened.”27 And that, she said, is why she chose saints as her subject: “A saint a real saint never does anything, a martyr does something but a really good saint does nothing, and so I wanted to have Four Saints who did nothing and I wrote the Four Saints in Three Acts and they did nothing and that was everything.”28 A play, she further explained (in a fashion that would have pleased André Breton), is a landscape.

That is not quite the paradox it seems. A landscape exists as a temporal constant, not a sequence or progression; so does heaven, where the saints live; and so does Four Saints in Three Acts. It has what the literary critic Joseph Frank christened “spatial form” in a famous essay of 1945, whereby “the time-flow of the narrative [or representation] is halted; attention is fixed on the interplay of relationships within the immobilized time-area.”29 Without using the word (for he is discussing literature rather than painting), he is nevertheless describing collage. Authors like James Joyce and Marcel Proust, in Frank’s interpretation, subverted the “linearity” of literature through what amounted to collage techniques. So did Gertrude Stein; and so, in his music, did Thomson.

Among the things “collaged” in Stein’s text were the cast of characters, the words (often unassigned to any character in particular), the stage directions, and the scene headings (often nonconsecutive or repetitive). Thomson had no choice but to set it all to music without discrimination, as one can see from the brief last act, “Saints in Heaven” (Ex. 10-13). His creative method, as he described it in his autobiography, was as “automatic” as Stein’s:

With the text on my piano’s music rack, I would sing and play, improvising melody to fit the words and harmony for underpinning them with shape. I did this every day, writing down nothing. When the first act would improvise itself every day in the same way, I knew it was set.30

Finding Oneself

fig. 10-4 Virgil Thomson and Gertude Stein with the score of Four Saints in Three Acts.

Finding OneselfFinding Oneself

ex. 10-13 Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, IV, intermezzo

The Intermezzo that precedes the act is like the accompaniment to Susie Asado without the words: a collage of chords, arpeggios, and scales; and also, at times, a collage of keys in the surrealist polydiatonic (“polytonal”) mode. The sung music continues in this vein, albeit with a few recurrent vocal phrases for Commère and Compère (Mom and Pop, “characters” invented by Thomson to act as masters of ceremonies) that give a semblance of thematic melody. John Cage, in a critical study of Thomson’s music, wisely pointed out that the best one could do by way of analyzing the score of Four Saints in Three Acts was to cite statistics. “There are 111 tonic-dominants, 178 scale passages, 632 sequences, 38 references to nursery tunes, and one to ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.’”31 This is noted in mock-sorrow, as evidence that “the materials of music, in contrast to those of poetry, are becoming impoverished.” More seriously critical, perhaps, is the observation that “where the text darts about in unpredictable directions, the accompaniment is merely repetitive, rarely more than linear, monophonic, and harmonic.”

But that is Thomson’s way, reminiscent of Poulenc’s, of offering the text an appropriate “countercollage.” Stein’s fantastic imagery is countered and anchored, given shape, by Thomson’s deliberately plain and unprepossessing music, so that (as Cage shrewdly notes) “the matter-of-fact and the irrational are one.” Indeed, Cage might have added (if perhaps still disapprovingly) that when the saints finally get singing, as they do in Ex. 10-13, the music refers openly—and ecstatically—to the idiom of American Protestant (Southern Baptist) hymns, the commonplace musical vernacular of the Kansas City–born composer’s own youthful environment. That finally insures that the idiom of the opera will strike listeners—American listeners, anyway—as genuinely sur-realistic. And it resonates poignantly with Thomson’s typically “lost generation” recollection that “I wrote in Paris music that was always, in one way or another, about Kansas City.”32

The ultimate effect of Thomson’s surrealism, then, was that of finding oneself, the reassurance any member of a lost generation craves. And that may be the ultimate message (or better, the ultimate massage) that surrealist collage offered the wounded psyches of postwar Europeans and Americans. “If there is one theme that dominates the history of modern culture since the last quarter of the nineteenth century,” wrote Joseph Frank with forgivable exaggeration at the end of another World War, “it is precisely that of insecurity, instability, the feeling of loss of control over the meaning and purpose of life amidst the continuing triumphs of science and technics.”33 In the face of reason run amok, the best consolation art could offer was that of irrational acceptance and faith, which, not at all coincidentally, is the only way one can make head or tail of a surrealist collage.

Virgil Thomson spelled it all out when he exhorted listeners, in a note accompanying the first recording of excerpts from Four Saints in Three Acts (1947), not “to construe the words of this opera literally or seek in it any abstruse symbolism.”34 Instead, he wrote, “If by means of the poet’s liberties with logic and the composer’s constant use of the simplest elements in our musical vernacular, something is here evoked of the childlike gaiety and mystical strength of lives devoted in common to a non-materialistic end, the authors will consider their message to have been communicated.”

To spell it out in the theater, Thomson cast the original production exclusively for African-American singers, even though, as he freely acknowledged, his work “had nothing whatever to do with Negro life,”35 and even though the audience to which the work was addressed was unequivocally white and affluent. The implied equation of a Black American sensibility with “childlike gaiety and mystical strength” obviously played into the audience’s racial prejudices; its contribution to the work’s chic success (a sixty-performance run in a Broadway theater in the season of 1934–1935, unprecedented and rarely paralleled thereafter in the annals of American opera), can only seem in retrospect a fairly cynical calculation, despite Thomson’s later protestation that he had chosen the singers “purely for beauty of voice, clarity of enunciation, and fine carriage.”36 But the commercial ploys that went into the casting were not a part of the work’s conception, as is evident from the musical style, which refers not to any African-American idiom, but to that of the composer’s own upbringing. The irony was that he had to go abroad to discover his American roots. He was not alone.


(20) The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.; New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 2710.

(21) André Breton, “Surrealist Manifesto” (1924), in André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 26.

(22) Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, p. 268.

(23) Ibid., p. 269.

(24) William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890).

(25) Thomson, Virgil Thomson, p. 90.

(26) Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography; quoted in Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, p. 322.

(27) Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), p. 119.

(28) Quoted in Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, p. 328.

(29) Joseph Frank, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” in J. Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991), p. 17.

(30) Thomson, Virgil Thomson, p. 104.

(31) Kathleen Hoover and John Cage, Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959), p. 157.

(32) Virgil Thomson, program note for The Seine at Night (1947); quoted in Kathleen Hoover and John Cage, Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959), p. 108.

(33) Frank, “Spatial Form,” p. 58.

(34) Liner note to RCA Victor DM-1244 (released 1948); quoting a radio talk given in 1942.

(35) Virgil Thomson, “About ‘Four Saints,’” liner note to Nonesuch Records 79035–1 X (1982).

(36) Ibid.

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 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010008.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 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010008.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 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010008.xml