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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)

Music in Society: Britten

CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Art remains outside the line of human conduct, with an end, rules, and values which are not those of the man but of the work to be produced. Hence the despotic and all-absorbing power of art, as also its astonishing power of soothing: it frees from every human care, it establishes the artifex, artist or artisan, in a world apart, cloistered, defined, and absolute, in which to devote all the strength and intelligence of his manhood to the service of the thing which he is making.1

Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism (1920)

A relationship of opposites had come into being; art had become a critical mirror, showing the irreconcilable nature of the aesthetic and the social worlds.2

Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity—An Incomplete Project” (1981)

Art is neither a mirror nor a substitute for the world. It is an addition to that universal reality which contains natural man and shows the infinite varieties of ways that man can be.3

George Rochberg, Reflections on the Renewal of Music” (1972)

Scientists are infatuated with the idea of revolution.4

Richard Lewontin, Darwin's Revolution (1983)

Before plunging into the home stretch of the “relative present,” the historically undistanced recent past, it is time, in this chapter and the next, for a stocktaking. The essential question of modern art, as it was understood by modern artists during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, and the essential debate, was whether artists lived in history or in society. Posed literalistically, of course, the question is absurd. Everybody, artists included, obviously lives in both, and society (like everything else human) is a product of history. But as a metaphor for values and loyalties, the question crystallizes the dilemma of a period in which the values and loyalties of artists had become polarized to the point of crisis. In the minds of many, one served one's art or one's society, and loyalty to the one precluded loyalty to the other. One had to choose.

The choice was baldly and memorably crystallized in the art critic Clement Greenberg's article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which appeared in 1939 and may well have been the most influential twentieth-century essay on esthetics and the arts. The title stated categorical alternatives. One could be avant-garde, or one could produce kitsch, mere pseudo-art. There was no middle ground, because “a superior consciousness of history” had led those who created “art and literature of a high order” to form a united faction that had “succeeded in ‘detaching’ itself from society,” and, in so doing, had managed “to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving.”5

Important artists, Greenberg contended, “derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in,” from which it followed that “content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself” and “subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague.”6 It was inevitable, therefore, that at the late point in history that was the twentieth century, the best artists should be “artists’ artists,” the best poets “poets’ poets,”7 and that the truly valid art of the period “has estranged a great many of those who were capable formerly of enjoying and appreciating ambitious art and literature, but who are now unwilling or unable to acquire an initiation into their craft secrets.” That social estrangement, Greenberg strongly implied, was in itself a criterion of artistic validity.

As we know, these questions were sorely aggravated by mid-twentieth-century politics. The one choice, service to society, had been tainted in one part of the world by the ugly demands of totalitarian dictatorships that dealt harshly with dissidents, and in another by the degrading pressures of capitalist commercialism, at which Greenberg had mainly been railing. The other choice, “disinterested” loyalty to the demands of art and to maintaining the historical evolution of its material, had led to a degree of professional specialization that, even as it offered political consolations, threatened institutional isolation and condemned artists to a social irrelevance that, ironically enough, had no historical precedent.

But of course the split was fraught, as real-life dichotomies always tend to be, with irony. Political authorities who demanded social commitment from artists justified their demands (and certainly their repressions) by appealing to the “mandates of history.” Greenberg himself had argued that the “superior consciousness of history” that led the avant-garde into social withdrawal had been in reality “a new kind of criticism of society, an historical criticism.”8 (Putting things this way allowed Greenberg to believe that his esthetics had a Marxist base.) Within the world of music, moreover, the concepts that drove theorizing on the mandates of history and the autonomous development of style were founded on developments that had taken place mainly within the most public (hence socially oriented) musical genres, opera and symphony.

The ideologies that drove the practice of the arts to its unprecedented twentieth-century crisis had historical precedents, and we are familiar with them. Both opposing tendencies can be traced back to the nineteenth century. In music, the antisocial extreme had its origins in the historicism of the New German School, while its opposite originated in the populism and social activism of Romantic opera. We have seen how both sides claimed legitimizing descent from Beethoven—or rather, from aspects of Beethoven's posthumous reception (the “Beethoven myth”). Later, both sides could also claim descent from Wagner, who like Beethoven qualified both as a technical innovator and as a champion of social issues who broadened the social base of artistic appeal.

Since Wagner's time, however, few if any figures seemed able to combine these roles. In the twentieth century they tended, increasingly, to point in opposite directions. Commitment entailed renunciation. If perpetual technical innovation tended to lessen audience appeal, those committed to it could claim to be making a heroic sacrifice. But by the same token, social commitment placed constraints on technical innovation; that too could be regarded as a sacrifice. The only possible exceptions to the great rift were in the realm of opera, with Berg's Wozzeck, as ostentatiously innovative in technique as it was gripping in the theater, furnishing the outstanding example. But it was an isolated example, unlikely to be repeated; for since Berg's time, as we have seen, the place of opera, both as popular culture and as a site of high technology, had been usurped by the movies.

The coming polarization of art music into “social” and “elite” categories had already been sensed by many nineteenth-century musicians. Chaikovsky expressed it vividly in letters to his patron, Mme von Meck. As the product of a conservatory education, he had been schooled to regard “absolute music” as the highest form not only of music, but of all art. “Symphonic and chamber varieties of music,” he wrote accordingly, “stand much higher than the operatic.”9 And yet he persisted in writing operas notwithstanding, and ultimately came to regard himself primarily as an operatic composer. For, as he put it in a passage that was naturally exploited to the hilt by the Soviet musical establishment, “opera and only opera brings you close to people, allies you with a real public, makes you the property not merely of separate little circles but—with luck—of the whole nation.”10

“To restrain oneself from writing operas is a form of heroism,” Chaikovsky went so far as to assert. And, he continued, “in our time there is such a hero,” namely Brahms, a composer Chaikovsky otherwise despised. For this reason, if for no other,

Brahms is worthy of respect and admiration. Unfortunately, his creative gift is meager and does not measure up to the scope of his aspirations. Nevertheless, he is a hero. I lack that heroism, and the stage, with all its tawdriness, attracts me in spite of everything.11

Of course Chaikovsky's tongue was in his cheek when he wrote that; but his irony was effective precisely because it pretended agreement with a widespread opinion even as it gave real assent to the opposite view (just as widely held). These were the positions that became ever more hardened and antagonistic as the twentieth century approached and passed its ideologically fraught middle, to the point where Pierre Boulez could actually call (heroically? terroristically? literally? tongue in cheek?) for the destruction of the world's opera houses, so that the mandates of music history might sooner be fulfilled without the irrelevant competing claims of society.12

We can best take the measure of that crux by focusing on two outstanding composers whose careers are often viewed as antithetical. They were, in a sense, stand-ins for Chaikovsky and Brahms, as Chaikovsky framed the split. Both were hailed as heros by their admirers, and perhaps overpraised at times; and both were dismissed as superfluous by their detractors. Each embraced one side of the century's esthetic dichotomy with an extremity that turned them into symbols. Their followings tended to be mutually exclusive, further intensifying the split that defined musical life in the century's “middle third.”

But neither was institutionally constrained to espouse the position that he came to symbolize. Both lived in countries whose governments adopted a laissez-faire policy toward the arts, and neither was permanently affiliated with the academy. Thus the commitment of the one to social utility could not be attributed (as, for example, Shostakovich's often was) to totalitarian pressure; and the commitment of the other to the posing and solving of technical problems and to maximum complexity of utterance could not be attributed (as Babbitt's often was) to academic careerism.

Benjamin Britten (1913–76) was a specialist in opera. He was the only major composer who could be called that in the mid-to-late twentieth century, and he knew it; he even described himself to his friend and fellow composer Michael Tippett (1905–98) as “possibly an anachronism”13 for that reason. (The midcentury avant-garde would have of course agreed.) But he was uniquely successful in his chosen domain—so successful that it was arguably Britten's example that kept the genre viable through the leanest years of its existence, and prevented its lapsing into an exclusively “museum” status.

Just as Chaikovsky in a sense foretold, the accomplishment made Britten the musical darling (as well as the homonym) of his nation, Britain, which had not produced a composer of comparable international standing—and surely none of comparable achievement in opera—since the seventeenth century. He sought and achieved unprecedented social recognition. He was given the honor of a royal commission for an opera to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and near the end of his life was elevated beyond knighthood to a “life peerage” or noble title, becoming Lord Britten of Aldeburgh. Britten always explicitly avowed that his commitment to opera stemmed (again echoing Chaikovsky) from a larger view of his calling as public service. He further sought, just as explicitly, to reconcile that calling with a fully modern, if eclectic, musical manner, which (in a sense belying his reputation as a “national” figure) drew extensively on nearly the full range of contemporary European styles, as well as on a number of Asian musics. We shall have a chance, in this chapter, to compare his preaching with his practice on all fronts.

The American composer Elliott Carter (b. 1908), by extreme contrast, spent most of his career as heroically spurning the stage as had Brahms. Only as he neared the age of ninety did he (perhaps emulating the aged Verdi) unexpectedly begin work on an opera, What's Next?, a one-act comedy (first performed in 1999) that did not so much involve adapting his musical practice to a new medium as it did contriving a stage action that allegorized (possibly even genially satirizing) that musical practice, famous for its daunting intricacy. It was an anomaly among his works, a jeu d'esprit or witticism, and was frankly presented and received as such.

Carter's chief medium was abstractly titled instrumental music; the string quartet was as central to his output as opera was to Britten's (although Britten did write three quartets). His favored approach was reminiscent of the formal ideals of New Criticism: the expression of an underlying unity through an extreme surface diversity—maximum complexity under maximum control. He strenuously opposed stylistic eclecticism, and deliberately rejected a national (or “Americanist”) creative identity in favor of a “universal” (that is, generically Eurocentric) one. As with Britten, we have Carter's own testimony on the social implications of his conscious career choices and his stylistic trajectory, and we will explore them in the next chapter.


(1) Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism (1920), trans. J. F. Scanlan (New York: Scribners, 1930), Chap. III (“Making and Doing”).

(2) Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Incomplete Project,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983), p. 10.

(3) George Rochberg, “Reflections on the Renewal of Music” (1972), in Rochberg, The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer's View of Twentieth-Century Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984), p. 235.

(4) Richard Lewontin, “Darwin's Revolution,” New York Review of Books XXX, no. 10 (16 June 1983).

(5) Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), in Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 7–8.

(6) Ibid. pp. 8–9.

(7) Ibid. p. 10.

(8) Ibid. p. 7.

(9) P. I. Chaikovsky to N. F. von Meck (1879); A. A. Orlova, ed., Chaikovskiy o muzïke, o zhizni, o sebe (Leningrad: Muzïka, 1976), p. 117.

(10) Chaikovsky to von Meck, 27 September 1885; Chaikovsky, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy: Literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska, Vol. XIII (Moscow: Muzïka, 1971), p. 159.

(11) Chaikovsky to von Meck, 11 October 1885; Ibid. p. 171.

(12) Jan Buzga, “Interview mit Pierre Boulez in Prag,” Melos XXXIV (1967): 162.

(13) Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (New York: Scribners, 1992), p. 193.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Standoff (I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-005.xml