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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin
Zero Hour

ex. 1-2 Stefan Wolpe, Quartet (1950), II, mm. 1–5

The tension and frustration inherent in Wolpe's position was characteristic of the time, and contributed to many a strange turn of events that could never have been predicted before the war's end. The most noteworthy was the unexpected resurgence of twelve-tone composition—or “serialism,” to use the postwar term—from what many considered to be a moribund, sectarian status into something that began to look like stylistic dominance among “serious” composers in Western Europe and America. (The word serious, now widely recognized as an invidious standard and an enforcer of conformity, is nevertheless the word to use in this context, for it was the word then used: it derived from German usage, in which the distinction between “classical” and “popular” music was couched as one between ernste Musik or “E-Musik”—that is, “serious music”—and Unterhaltungsmusik or “U-Musik,” meaning “entertainment music.”) For such a thing to happen, a complex and remarkable convergence of circumstances and personalities was required.

Perhaps the best place to begin surveying it would be with a book that appeared in Paris in 1946, bearing a most un-Parisian message. Schönberg et son école: L’état contemporaine du langage musical (Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage of the Language of Music), by René Leibowitz (1913–72), was the first extended treatment on the work of the Viennese atonalists to appear in a language other than German, and the first anywhere since the rise of Nazism. The author was a Polish-born musician—equally active and significant as composer, conductor, and teacher—who had lived in Paris since 1929 but claimed to have studied in the early 1930s with Schoenberg in Berlin and Webern in Vienna. He spent the war years hiding from the Nazis in unoccupied (Vichy) France. A widely admired figure, he had many pupils who went on to important careers.

Schönberg et son école was a militant reprise of the neo-Hegelian position first asserted ninety years before by the historian-spokesmen of the New German School. The subtitle already said it all, simply in the way it used the definite article. The language of music is a universal language that has undergone a single historical development, of which the most advanced contemporary stage is perforce the only historically valid and viable language at any given time. That stage, as of 1946, was the stage reached by the Schoenberg school; any music not at that level of historical evolution was of no historical account and consequently of no serious interest. As Leibowitz put it at the very outset, twelve-tone serial music was “the only genuine and inevitable expression of the musical art of our time.” Indeed, unless one has recognized this basic fact, he went so far as to allege, one had no right to call oneself a composer at all.

If the activity of composing or making music is carried on with the intention of solving those profound problems which have confronted the consciousness of the individual, that individual has a chance to become a composer, a true musician. In the case of the composer, this sudden consciousness comes at the moment when, in the work of a contemporary musician, he discovers what seems to him to be the language of his epoch, the language which he himself wants to speak. Up to that point, he may have assimilated, in more or less accurate fashion, the language of the past; he may have believed that he has profited from certain excursions into a style which seems to him to furnish fresh possibilities. But his real consciousness of being a composer cannot be foursquare and unshakable until some master of our time brings him the assurance, the irrefutable evidence of the necessity and authenticity of his personal language.16

Aaron Copland, asked to review Leibowitz's book on its publication in English translation in 1949, was shocked at its “dogmatic” and “fanatical”17 tone; indeed, the authoritarian subtext is palpable, and in stark contradiction to the lip service the text paid (in good existentialist fashion) to the responsible “individual.” Phrases like “master of our time” had disquieting resonances, to put it mildly, in a world just rid of Hitler, and one where Stalin's ascendancy was still encroaching. And yet the book's message was heard and widely obeyed—even by Copland, who only a year later, and against his own expectations, began sketching his first twelve-tone composition (see chapter 3 for details). Clearly, it was not just Leibowitz's authoritarianism that invested his words with authority.

There was also the fact that in territories under Nazi control, the work of Schoenberg and his school had been banned. That gave it not only the aura of forbidden fruit, but something more as well. Twelve-tone music became a symbol of resistance (embodied, too, in Leibowitz's wartime activities, which included the making of a clandestine recording of Schoenberg's Wind Quintet, an early twelve-tone piece), and, by extension, a symbol of creative freedom. As it happened, this last perception was based on a historical error: Schoenberg's music was banned by the Nazis because it was “Jewish,” not because it was twelve-tone. In fact, there had been an officially tolerated Nazi school of twelve-tone composers; nor were all twelve-tone composers anti-Nazi. But factual accuracy is never the decisive factor in the creation of a legend.

Serial music was also viewed by many as a symbol of incorruptible purity, precisely because it was (to use the Soviet term) so “formalist.” Because it seemed to deal only with “purely musical” relationships of structure rather than with “extramusical” considerations of expression, it was a music that seemed incapable of being commandeered for purposes of propaganda. Its only political stand seemed to be the rejection of politics and the affirmation of the right of the individual to turn away from the coercive public sphere. What Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno called its “dialectics of loneliness”18 made twelve-tone music seem an embodiment of Sartre's existentialism.

Adorno made his famous remark in Philosophie der neuen Musik (“Philosophy of new music”), a book he published in 1949, shortly after returning to Germany from his wartime exile in the United States. This book, which added an existentialist argument to the older doctrine of progress, proved even more influential than Leibowitz's. If, as the existentialists argued, authenticity can only be personal and justified from within, never collectively asserted or justified from without, then a music that by virtue of its difficulty shunned popularity had to be a more authentic music than one that potentially spoke for the many. Responding only to what Adorno called “the inherent tendency of musical material”19 rather to any call from the wider world, twelve-tone music seemed to embody a perfect artistic “autonomy.” That autonomy easily translated into personal and political autonomy—that is, individual integrity—in the minds of many who were emerging from decades of oppression, an oppression that was still going on in the East.

There was a telling difference between Adorno's idea of musical value and Leibowitz's. Adorno's ideal of “autonomy” clearly owed a lot to romanticism and its glorification of subjective feeling. He regarded the autonomy of Schoenberg's twelve-tone music as a sublimation of the composer's earlier Expressionism; that is why, despite its abstractness, it remained for Adorno the most humane of all contemporary musics. For Leibowitz, his sincere reverence for Schoenberg notwithstanding, the culmination was Webern. Indeed, his book was for most readers their first exposure to the work of a composer who during his lifetime had remained an obscure and esoteric name, and whose music was still, much of it, unpublished.

Leibowitz emphasized Webern's radicalism and his purity. Obviously, he had no idea (and neither did anyone else at the time) of Webern's actual political sympathies, which would have sorely disconcerted him and undermined his argument. Nor was he (or anyone else at the time) inclined to reflect on the relationship between radical artistic purisms and their political cousins. He was content to celebrate Webern's “projection of the Schoenbergian acquisitions into the future,” which made him “the incarnation of the most radical side of Schoenberg,”20 implying the rejection of what remained conservative in Schoenberg's outlook (particularly the useless “subjective” component). According to Leibowitz, Webern alone understood that the proper task of a composer was to “attack the most fundamental and radical problems of the evolution of music.” To understand Webern is to understand “the necessity of such purity,” and the “necessity of carrying an experience so far”21 that it cannot be carried further. It is on Webern, Leibowitz argued, that hopes of a “great renewal” of music must be pinned, although “it is evident that such a renewal cannot take place without a violent reaction.” The words are chilling; substitute politics for music, and they might have been written by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda.

But they chimed ideally with the dislocated, amnesiac mood of the times, particularly in Germany and the other parts of Western Europe, like Leibowitz's northern France, that had been occupied by the Nazis. Those who looked to the future in the defeated parts of Europe saw the present as a Stunde Null, a “zero hour,” meaning a time without a past. The necessity to start from scratch, to reject the past in its totality as something tainted if not actually destroyed in the Holocaust of World War II, was a watchword. “During those immediate postwar years,” wrote Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926), a leading German composer then just beginning his career,

no one believed how it could have been possible for a nation to have sunk so low—into a disgrace that centuries could not wash clean. We were assured by senior composers that music is abstract, not to be connected with everyday life, and that immeasurable and inalienable values are lodged in it (which is precisely why the Nazis censored those modern works which strove to achieve absolute freedom)….

Everything now had to be stylized and made abstract: music regarded as a glass-bead-game, a fossil of life. Discipline was the order of the day. Through discipline it was going to be possible to get music back on its feet again, though nobody asked what for. Discipline enabled form to come about; there were rules and parameters for everything. Expressionism and Surrealism were mystically remote; we were told that these movements were already obsolete before 1930, and had been surpassed. The new avant-garde would reaffirm this. The audience, at whom our music was supposed to be directed, would be made up of experts. The public would be excused from attending our concerts; in other words, our public would be the press and our protectors.22

Thus the “Webern cult” became the musical expression of an anxious age. “We realized,” wrote Henze, “that dodecaphony and serialism were the only viable new techniques: fresh, and able to generate new musical patterns”23 without recalling the dead disgraceful past. Willed amnesia, however, is not quite the same as amnesty, which implies contrition and forgiveness. It can be a dangerous game: it offers solace, but it can also offer cover. And repressed memory, not only psychoanalysts but countless playwrights and novelists have warned, is the breeding ground of phobias.


(16) René Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School, trans. Dika Newlin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), p. x.

(17) New York Times Book Review, 27 November 1949; quoted in Anne C. Shreffler, “Who Killed Neo-Classicism: The Paradigm Shift after 1945,” paper read at the Sixty-second Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Baltimore, 8 November 1996.

(18) Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), pp. 41–46.

(19) Philosophy of Modern Music, pp. 32–37.

(20) Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School, pp. 210–25.

(21) Ibid., p. 211.

(22) “German Music in the 1940s and 1950s,” in Hans Werner Henze, Music and Politics: Collected Writings 1953–81, trans. Peter Labanyi (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 40.

(23) Ibid., p. 36.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001006.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001006.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001006.xml