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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch

Music in the Aftermath of World War II: Zhdanovshchina, Darmstadt

CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


I can't go on. I'll go on.”

Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953)

The Second World War ended with a bang the likes of which the world had never seen. The atomic bombs dropped by the United States Army Air Forces on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 instantly reduced them to rubble. Between them they ended some 114,000 lives in seconds. Those who justified the bombing cited the far greater number of casualties that would have inevitably followed upon an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands; those who condemned it held that balancing military casualties against civilian ones was a barbarian calculation that wiped out the moral superiority of the Allied cause.

What everyone had to recognize, and somehow cope with, was the fact that the history of humanity had entered a new and potentially terminal phase. People living in the atomic age could no longer believe in the permanence of anything human. Individual human lives and destinies were irrevocably marked as fragile, and as expendable. Living with the constant threat of annihilation was the war's lasting legacy. It cast a long shadow over the second half of the twentieth century. It was that period's dominant fact of life. No aspect of human existence or activity could possibly escape its impact.

Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch

fig. 1-1 Nuclear bomb test, three weeks before the bomb was dropped.

The nervous strain of mid-twentieth-century existence in the shadow of the bomb is perhaps best summarized in the harsh but highly influential philosophy of existentialism put forth by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) and other French writers in the aftermath of the war, according to which man's freedom is a curse from which there can no longer be any refuge in faith. Cut adrift from all moral certainty in an amoral and indifferent universe, man is nevertheless morally responsible; but one's choices, however dreadful (like the decision to drop the bomb), can be justified only on the basis of one's voluntary, fallible, and constantly threatened personal principles, principles in which one can have no a priori faith. We have no choice but to choose.

One can never invoke external legal or ethical standards that absolve oneself from the onus of personal responsibility (as many who served the Nazis tried to do). One cannot look to others for validation, for they, too, are fallible and corruptible. Only by shouldering the risks of choice can one hope (against hope) to achieve essence: authentic, rather than merely contingent, being. A pitiless and puritanical philosophy, it offered some small comfort in the face of perceived helplessness, but only at the price of all moral security and easy pleasure. No wonder, as the title of the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm's best-selling existentialist primer proclaimed, people sought “Escape from Freedom.”

These shattering perceptions and the ensuing malaise were somewhat delayed, especially on the victorious side, by the immediate exhilaration of triumph. The triumph, moreover, was of a novel character. For it was not force of arms per se that finally decided the outcome of the war in the Pacific; it was superior technology. Science had won the war and saved mankind from the fascist threat. J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–67), the American physicist who directed the atomic energy research project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where over the years 1942–45 the bombs that would vanquish Japan were designed and produced, was widely regarded as a war hero, and thereafter as a culture-hero. His later political disgrace, over issues of national security, fairly epitomizes the neurotic suspicions that eventually came to the fore as the ghastly price of victory was realized; but in the immediate postwar period, science and technology enjoyed an unprecedented prestige.

Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch

fig. 1-2 Albert Einstein.

That prestige was symbolized by the figure of Albert Einstein (1879–1955), the outstanding German physicist whose presence in the United States as a refugee from the Nazis was seen as indirectly responsible for the Allied victory, since it was his letter to President Roosevelt that first brought the military potential of atomic power to the attention of the government. Einstein became a household name, synonymous with intellect, and his grand-fatherly, bushy-haired, walrus-mustached countenance became a household icon. His status, and that of science itself, was symbolized and enhanced by the folk saying, “In all the world only twelve men understand Einstein.” The reconditeness of “advanced” modern science was taken as an implicit proof of its value; the winning of the war on the basis of arcane formulas like E = mc2 (which also, in its way, became a folk saying) was more tangible proof.

The contradictory or “dialectical” themes broached in these introductory paragraphs—triumph vs. insecurity, responsibility vs. escape, science-as-savior vs. science-as-destroyer, esotericism vs. utility, intellect vs. barbarism, faith in progress vs. omnibus suspicion—will be the cantus firmi of the next several chapters, along with the all-pervading image of rubble and waste, and the paralyzing (or inspiring) prospect of rebuilding. All of the bizarre and contradictory musical events and phenomena to be recounted must be understood as counterpoints against these intractable and irresolvable dilemmas that unbalanced the world's mind.

A foretaste of the ambivalences to come can be read in the story of Aaron Copland's Third Symphony. Written between the summer of 1944, right after the American landing in Normandy (“D day”), and the summer of 1946, it was the Great American Symphony to end all great American symphonies. Third Symphonies by American composers had always inclined Beethovenishly toward the “heroic”; in Copland's case that tendency (already heightened, perhaps, by his rivalry with Roy Harris) was abetted by the mood of euphoria that accompanied the end of the war.

That mood is embodied in hymns and fanfares. The scherzo (second movement) is based on a marchlike idea Copland discarded on the way to the Fanfare for the Common Man, his 1942 contribution to wartime morale; and the finale is based on the Fanfare itself, developed in the coda into a grandiose peroration (Ex. 1-1) that some commentators have compared with the climax of the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven's Ninth. A huge orchestra with triple and quadruple winds, augmented by a piano, two harps, and a clangorous percussion section manned by six players, reaches full tilt with a sudden halving of the tempo in every way comparable to the climax that capped the first movement of Copland's Music for the Theater some twenty years before—in every way, that is, except context. For whereas the earlier climax had scandalized the Boston Symphony audience by evoking a sexy bump-and-grind, the new one brought the very same audience to its feet at the premiere (under Serge Koussevitzky, Copland's longstanding patron) on 18 October 1946. One critic immediately ranked it with Harris's Third as “the two finest works in the form by American composers.”1 Koussevitzky himself broke the tie by flatly declaring Copland's symphony the greatest.2 Virgil Thomson showed his envy in a mixed review titled, somewhat sardonically, “Copland as Great Man.”3

Chapter 1 Starting from ScratchChapter 1 Starting from Scratch

ex. 1-1 Aaron Copland, Symphony no. 3, IV climax (original version)

But something festered beneath the praise. Copland's composer friends were uncomfortable with the overly triumphant tone, or became so as the euphoric mood of 1946 gave way to a somewhat hung-over sobriety in 1947 (the year in which Sartre's L'existentialisme was published in English translation). Leonard Bernstein (1918–90), Koussevitzky's main conducting protégé, led the European premiere at the World Youth Festival in Prague on 25 May 1947; two days later he wrote to Copland, “Sweetie, the end is a sin.”4 Arthur Berger (1912–2003), another fellow composer, who was also Copland's first biographer, complained in a 1948 review of the finale's “pomp and overstatement.”5 Bernstein wrote again, from the newborn state of Israel in November 1948, to say that he now thought the work “quite magnificent,” but then confessed that he had “made a sizable cut near the end and believe me it makes a whale of a difference.”6

In fact he had taken out the first eight measures of Ex. 1-1. Copland was at first as miffed by Bernstein's “nervy”7 deed as one might have expected. “Being a careful and slow worker,” he told an interviewer, “I rarely felt it necessary to revise a composition after it was finished, and even more rarely after it was published.” But amazingly enough, he went on to say that “I came to agree with Lenny and several others about the advisability of shortening the ending,” and had the publisher remove the offending passage from subsequent printings of the score; it has never been recorded commercially. Even in its toned-down form, the finale is an effective memento of its euphoric time; but the squeamishness that so swiftly forced revision (little noticed or commented on at the time, since the publisher never announced the change and the small first printing was quickly sold out) is perhaps a more significant token.

By the end of 1946, victors’ euphoria had given way to mutual suspicion among the erstwhile Allies. The United States and Soviet Russia, united during the war by a common enemy, now saw their foreign policies diverge irreparably into antagonism. The Soviet Union, which had suffered betrayal and invasion in 1941, and sustained heavy losses in the war (as many as twenty million lives), had insisted at the Yalta Conference, held shortly before the German surrender, and the Potsdam Conference shortly afterward, on a buffer of friendly states (that is, Communist-dominated governments) along the length of its European frontiers.

The compromise reached at the conferences fell short of these demands, and the Soviets felt justified in sealing off the areas of the former German Reich that were occupied by the Red Army, and fomenting coups d’état in other Eastern European countries. As early as March 1946, less than seven months after the war's end, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could speak, in a speech delivered in the United States, of an “Iron Curtain” that had descended over Europe dividing East from West. The coining of this famous phrase was a defining moment. The Cold War had begun.


(1) Cyrus Durgin, Boston Daily Globe, 19 October 1946, quoted in Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland, p. 417.

(2) Time magazine, 28 October 1946; quoted in Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland since 1943 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), p. 68.

(3) New York Herald Tribune, 24 November 1946; this is one of the few Thomson reviews that was never collected for publication in book form.

(4) Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland, 27 May 1947; reproduced in facsimile in Copland since 1943, p. 70.

(5) Arthur Berger, “The Third Symphony of Aaron Copland,” Tempo, no. 9 (Autumn 1948): 25.

(6) Bernstein to Copland, 8 November 1948; quoted in Copland since 1943, p. 71.

(7) Copland since 1943, p. 71.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-001.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-001.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-001.xml