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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 3 The Apex

Babbitt and Cold War Serialism

CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


One effect of the postwar avant-garde, in both its “total serial” and its “indeterminate” phases, was to put the more moderate techniques of prewar twelve-tone music much nearer the middle of the stylistic road, making those who resisted them seem all the more embarrassably conservative. During the 1950s and 1960s nearly everyone experimented with twelve-tone methods, partly out of curiosity, partly in response to the constant pressure to keep stylistically abreast as mandated by the historicist ideology to which practically everyone, regardless of stylistic orientation or one's other artistic convictions, tacitly assented at the middle of the twentieth century.

Paul Hindemith, for example, had inveighed fiercely against the “unnaturalness” of Schoenberg's methods in The Craft of Musical Composition, a prewar textbook that was issued in English translation in 1942. “Nowhere,” he asserted,

does Nature give us any indication that it would be desirable to play off a certain number of tones against one another in a given duration and pitch-range. Arbitrarily conceived rules of that sort can be devised in quantities and if styles of composition were to be based upon them, I can conceive of far more comprehensive and more interesting ones. To limit oneself to home-made tonal systems of this sort seems to me a more doctrinaire proceeding than to follow the strictest diatonic rules of the most dried-up old academic…. But already a decline is noticeable in the interest manifested in this music based on rules dictated by fashion and contrary to nature.1

This was a common enough view in 1937, when Hindemith set it down. By 1955, however, even Hindemith was sketching fully chromatic twelve-tone themes or tone rows for use in a sonata for tuba and piano. As Ex. 3-1 shows, by the time the sonata was fully composed, Hindemith had worked the twelve-tone bug out of his system; the theme eventually chosen no longer exactly coincided with a tone row, even if it did contain representatives of all twelve pitch classes. And yet his fleeting susceptibility shows (all the more clearly, perhaps, for his fighting it off) that Soviet composers were not the only ones who felt pressure to conform to a decreed official style. Even Poulenc, surely the unlikeliest of prospects, gave in to it in his Elégie (1957) for horn and piano.

Chapter 3 The Apex

ex. 3-1a Paul Hindemith, twelve-tone theme in Tuba Sonata, sketch

Chapter 3 The Apex

ex. 3-1b Paul Hindemith, twelve-tone theme in Tuba Sonata, sketch

Chapter 3 The Apex

ex. 3-1c Paul Hindemith, twelve-tone theme in Tuba Sonata, sketch

Chapter 3 The Apex

ex. 3-1d Paul Hindemith, twelve-tone theme in Tuba Sonata, sketch

Chapter 3 The Apex

ex. 3-1e Paul Hindemith, Tuba Sonata, opening theme as eventually worked out

Beginning in 1956, the year in which the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, launched a “de-Stalinization” campaign, young Soviet composers also wrote (clandestine) twelve-tone music. For them it was an act of symbolic nonconformism; for Poulenc it was nearer the opposite. (But nonconformism can itself become a form of conformist pressure when practiced by an elite group.) By the late 1960s, twelve-tone rows—or, to put it neutrally, successions of twelve nonrepeating pitch classes—had even surfaced in the work of Dmitriy Shostakovich, by then the dean of Soviet composers, as the opening of his Twelfth Quartet (1968) will illustrate (Ex. 3-2). Nor, occurring as they did in the plainly “tonal” context of D♭ major, did they occasion censure. The gesture, becoming commonplace, was losing its shock value.

Several composers, however, underwent more thorough and lasting—and historically significant—conversions to dodecaphonic techniques. One was Aaron Copland, the most prominent representative of the Americanist “populist” style, for whom the adoption of twelve-tone methods was more than a technical advance. It was also a calculated retreat from explicit Americanism and from populism, both of which had paradoxically become politically suspect in the tense early years of the cold war. Copland's unexpected turn to the elite and reputedly forbidding twelve-tone idiom paralleled Stefan Wolpe's, described in chapter 1. It represented the further progress, so to speak, of the cold feet that had led Copland to moderate the ending of his Third Symphony, as described in the same chapter.

Chapter 3 The Apex

ex. 3-2 Dmitriy Shostakovich, Quartet no. 12, Op. 133, I, opening

Beginning in 1947, the American government, acting through the Committee on Un-American Activities of the U.S. House of Representatives, perpetrated a little “Zhdanovshchina” of its own—public hearings at which artists were politically disgraced (the musicians among them actually a little ahead of their Soviet counterparts). The first musical quarry was Hanns Eisler, who had fled Germany for his life in 1933 and had lived continuously in the United States (chiefly in Hollywood) since 1942. He appeared before the Committee in September 1947 and was deported in March 1948 for being, in the words of the Committee's chief counsel, “the Karl Marx of Communism in the musical field.”2 In the course of presenting evidence against Eisler, the chief counsel read excerpts from interviews the composer had given the Soviet press during a visit to Moscow in 1935. One of them called attention to Copland's mass song, “Into the Streets May First”. Another reported “a considerable shift to the left among American artists,” and added

I do not believe it would be an exaggeration to say that the best people in the musical world of America (with very few exceptions) share at present extremely progressive ideas. Their names? They are Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, the outstanding musical theoretician Charles Seeger, the greatest specialist on modern music Nicolas Slonimsky, and finally the brightest star on the American musical horizon, the great conductor, Leopold Stokowski.3

Chapter 3 The Apex

fig. 3-1 Hanns Eisler and his wife, Louise, boarding a plane for Vienna in 1948 after the composer's subpoenaed appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Copland's name had been named, to use the expression current at the time, in what had become a highly invidious context. More bad publicity followed the so-called Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1949, where Copland, there as a member of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, a remnant of the wartime alliance, was photographed with the recently disgraced Shostakovich (now traveling as a Soviet cultural ambassador at Stalin's behest). Copland's picture was printed in Life Magazine under the headline “Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts.”

That embarrassment was followed by more sinister events the next year, when Copland's close friend Clifford Odets, a famous playwright, was called to testify before the House Committee. In March of 1950, Copland was denounced by the American Legion, a veterans organization. In June, he was blacklisted in a notorious publication called Red Channels: The Reports of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, albeit without serious consequences to his income, which did not come by way of the entertainment industry. His reaction to the Red Channels listing was nevertheless nervous: he withdrew from the NCASF that very month and, over the course of the next few years, severed virtually all his connections with political organizations.

Political pressure on Copland reached its peak in 1953. A Lincoln Portrait, a much-promoted product of wartime patriotism, was scheduled for performance by the British-born film star Walter Pidgeon with the National Symphony Orchestra at a Washington concert to celebrate the inauguration of the newly elected President, Dwight David Eisenhower, formerly the Supreme Commander of the Allied military forces that had won the war. Fred Busbey, an Illinois congressman, assailed the choice of Copland's music in a speech delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives on 3 January:

There are many patriotic composers available without the long record of questionable affiliations of Copland. The Republican Party would have been ridiculed from one end of the United States to the other if Copland's music had been played at the inaugural of a President elected to fight communism, along with other things.4

Chapter 3 The Apex

fig. 3-2 President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural parade, 20 January 1953. Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait was scheduled for, but later scratched from, a commemorative concert that evening. Copland testified before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations four months later.

The performance was canceled. The League of Composers, a promotional organization of which Copland had been the executive director from 1948 to 1950, sent a telegram protesting the ban to the New York Times, which reported it. Paul Hume, the music critic of the Washington Post, went further, defending Copland in an article that appeared under the title “Music Censorship Reveals New Peril,” and ending his review of the sanitized concert (which now contained no American music at all) by taunting “the idea that music by various American-born composers is to be banned if Congressmen protest.”5 The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter of protest to the inaugural committee, and the historian Bruce Catton published an essay that ridiculed the folly of exercising political censorship in the ostensible name of freedom.

The publicity had on the whole been favorable to Copland; but the little scandal had brought artistic matters to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose dreaded Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had assumed the leading role in exposing and punishing Americans for their “questionable affiliations.” Copland's music, along with that of a long list of other American composers against whom “derogatory” allegations had been made, was excluded at Senator McCarthy's urging from promotion by the U.S. Information Agency or from the lending collections at the libraries maintained abroad by the U.S. State Department. Finally, Copland received a telegram summoning him to testify in person before Senator McCarthy's committee on 25 May 1953.

He actually appeared on 26 May, having been granted a day's extension to secure legal representation. He was required to comment on a long list of affiliations to organizations identified by the subcommittee as “Communist fronts,” and in particular, to account for his participation in the notorious “Waldorf Conference” in 1949. He was also asked for the names of others with whom he had consorted in the course of his political activities. On the advice of counsel, Copland was a cooperative witness; on the delicate matter of “naming names,” particularly of those participating in the Peace Conference, he prepared a statement attesting that, having reread newspaper accounts of the event, “I do not personally remember having seen anyone at the conference who is not listed in those published reports.” He kept hidden his indignation (which he confided to his diary) at having, even for the sake of expediency or tactics, to make such admissions when “in a free America I had a right to affiliate openly with whom I pleased; to sign protests, statements, appeals, open letters, petitions, sponsor events, etc., and no one had the right to question those affiliations.”6

It was during this stressful time that Copland turned to twelve-tone composition. On the one hand, it seemed an unexpected and (to many) even an incomprehensible withdrawal from the large audience that he had won against such heavy odds. Copland had become something of an emblem for that possibility of success (or, depending on how one looked at it, of compromise). In 1948, his commitment to audience appeal had led him into a rather uncomprehending (or even, depending on how one looked at it, a heartless) response to the plight of the Soviet composers under Zhdanov's attack. “They were rebuked,” a reporter quoted him as saying, “for failing to realize that their musical audience had expanded enormously in the last several years (you have only to pass a record or radio shop to see that), and that composers can no longer continue to write only for a few initiates.”7 At the 1949 Peace Conference, however, he made a speech, “The Effect of the Cold War on the Artist in the U.S.,” that may shed some light on his seemingly paradoxical course of action in the years to come. “Lately,” he told the audience,

I've been thinking that the cold war is almost worse for art than the real thing—for it permeates the atmosphere with fear and anxiety. An artist can function at his best only in a vital and healthy environment for the simple reason that the very act of creation is an affirmative gesture. An artist fighting in a war for a cause he holds just has something affirmative he can believe in. That artist, if he can stay alive, can create art. But throw him into a mood of suspicion, ill-will and dread that typifies the cold war attitude and he'll create nothing.8

The status of art as “affirmative gesture” became equivocal at a time when governments demanded conformism. That was the tiny kernel of justice in the otherwise preposterously prosecutorial case that the once-persecuted Leibowitz had mounted against Bartók's “compromises.” For T. W. Adorno, the word “affirmative” had become almost tantamount to “fascist.” It took the tensions of the cold war to drive the point home to American artists who had never before entertained the possibility that their government might adopt a comparable attitude, let alone try to control or influence their work except by giving them opportunities to receive payment for it.

Works like A Lincoln Portrait that affirmed political commitments, even commitments as seemingly uncontroversial as patriotism or identification with one's nation or its greatest president, could easily become political footballs, as the American saying went, when political alignments changed. The nation to which Copland proclaimed his impassioned adherence in wartime was a nation then allied with the Soviet Union (“our gallant Russian allies,” as General Eisenhower himself had put it on D day). That all-too-easily forgotten fact tainted the sincere patriotism of many American artists in retrospect, and, as the cold war rewrote history, rendered their patriotic offerings politically ambiguous. At the very least, it was clear in retrospect that if Copland had not composed works with explicit patriotic or national themes, his music would not have been proposed for inclusion in the inaugural concert, and he would have been spared his frightening brush with censorship and possible repression. It was a tormenting dilemma.

While the ivory tower of “pure art” offered Soviet artists scant security, it could look like a haven to their American counterparts, accustomed not to the active support and promotion that totalitarian governments offered in return for cooperative service, but rather to an official attitude of laissez-faire (“leave them be,” otherwise known in English as “benign neglect”) toward artists, especially those involved in “high culture.” When one learns that Copland began sketching his Piano Quartet, the first of his twelve-tone compositions, in March 1950, the same month in which he was targeted by the American Legion, the coincidence of dates prompts the reflection that the composer may have been seeking refuge in the “universal” (and politically safe) truth of numbers, rather than the particular (and politically risky) reality of a national or popular manner.


(1) Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition, trans. Arthur Mendel (New York: Associated Music Publishers, 1942), p. 154.

(2) Robert E. Stripling, quoted in Nicolas Slonimsky, Music since 1900 (4th ed.; New York: Scribners, 1971), p. 1396.

(3) Hans Eisler, in Evening Moscow (Vechernyaya Moskva), 27 June 1936, read into the Congressional Record by Robert Stripling on 24 September 1947; Slonimsky, Music since 1900, p. 1399.

(4) Quoted in Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland since 1943 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), p. 185.

(5) Paul Hume, “Music Censorship Reveals New Peril,” Washington Post, 25 January 1953; Copland since 1943, p. 186.

(6) Quoted in Copland since 1943, p. 193.

(7) Copland, interviewed by Mildred Norton in the Los Angeles Daily News, 5 April 1948; quoted in Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1999), p. 283.

(8) Quoted in Pollack, Aaron Copland, p. 284.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 The Apex. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-003.xml