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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

All of this can be seen in the ultimate statement of the Stunde Null position: “Schoenberg est mort” (“Schoenberg is dead”), a manifesto published in February 1952, seven months after Schoenberg's death, by Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), a young French composer who had studied officially with Messiaen, and with Leibowitz on the side. The violence that Leibowitz had predicted certainly came to the fore in Boulez's frantically coercive and intolerant rhetoric. No one who has read the article has ever forgotten its frightening climax, expanded in a somewhat later squib into a battle cry: “Since the Viennese discoveries, any musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time.”24

Not even Zhdanov had ever voiced a judgment more categorical or intransigent (and indeed it is obvious that Boulez's rhetorical model was the Communist journalism of his day). There were Nazi resonances as well. Herbert Eimert (1897–1972), a once-persecuted member of the first generation of atonalists, declared a few years later, in response to a frequent complaint, that “if we say that only composers who follow Webern are worthy of the name, it is no new ‘totalitarian order’ but a simple statement of fact.” Nazi race theory, too, had once been a simple fact by similar decree. In any event, it was clear that, conventional “esthetic” opinion notwithstanding, musicians were not going to be exempt from the world's dire postwar polarization; on the contrary, like everyone else they were to be participants in it and contributors to it.

The most vivid early symptom of musical polarization was the fierce postwar controversy about Bartók, who had died in New York in September 1945, only a month after the end of the war. Over the next few years, Bartók's legacy, like Europe itself, was ruthlessly partitioned into Eastern and Western zones. In his native Hungary, as in the rest of the Soviet bloc, those of his works in which folklorism seemed to predominate over modernism were touted by the cultural politicians as obligatory models and the rest were banned from public performance or broadcast. Since Bartók's modernist peak came in the middle of his career, he became (for one often joked-about example) the composer of two quartets, the First and the Sixth.

The Western avant-garde, meanwhile, made virtual fetishes out of the banned works, particularly the Fourth Quartet, which some critics, including Leibowitz, tried to read as proto-serial. The rest they rancorously consigned to the dustbin of history, sometimes in very sinister terms, as when Leibowitz (writing in Les temps modernes, a journal edited by Jean-Paul Sartre himself) attacked Bartók in 1947 for having “compromised” himself during the war with stylistically accessible pieces like the popular Concerto for Orchestra.25 That was the undisguised language of political denunciation, a cruel insult to Bartók's principled antifascist commitment and the bitter sacrifices it had entailed.

Bartók's alleged moral failure was held against him in exactly the way that “passive collaborators” with the Nazis were blamed in the wake of the so-called Nuremberg trials. “The very fact that our purity or compromise in matters of composition depend only on our choice implies that it is our duty to create the one and avoid the other,” wrote Leibowitz.26 Bartók, looking for social approval rather than facing his lonely historical obligation, had not met this challenge, his stern posthumous accuser now asserted, very much in the spirit of the new existentialism.

But the most shocking provocation (and the most potent) remained Boulez's. For the violence that Leibowitz had somewhat smugly foreseen in the form of reaction had instead taken the form of a slander addressed to the new revolution's very figurehead. There was logic in the position: if all the past had to be rejected, then Schoenberg had to be rejected too. (Had he not advertised himself as an upholder of the great tradition?) But Boulez exaggerated the difference between Schoenberg and Webern into one of kind rather than degree, and this gave him a pretext to dismiss Leibowitz along with Schoenberg and displace him as the leader of the young serialists. Danton had given way to Robespierre.

“Schoenberg is open to bitter reproach for his exploration of the dodecaphonic realm,” Boulez alleged, “for it went off in the wrong direction so persistently that it would be hard to find an equally mistaken perspective in the entire history of music.”27 The great mistake had been the effort to reconcile the new means of tonal organization with traditional “classic” forms and traditional “expressive” rhetoric: “all those endless anticipations with expressive accent on the harmony note, those fake appoggiaturas, those arpeggios, tremolandos and note repetitions that sound so terribly hollow.”28 Thus Schoenberg was lumped together with the other neoclassicists of the interwar period as a practitioner of what Adorno called the “gemässigte Moderne,” or “moderate modernism,”29 and tainted with the dishonor of the “moderate liberals” who could not stave off the rise of Nazism. It was Webern who pointed the way, in works like his Symphony and his Piano Variations to actual “serial structures” based on “serial functions.” Forgetting Schoenberg, Boulez advised,

we might, like this Webern, investigate the musical evidence arising from the attempt at generating structure from material. Perhaps we might enlarge the serial domain with intervals other than the semitone: micro-intervals, irregular intervals, noises. Perhaps we might generalize the serial principle to the four constituents of sound: pitch, duration, dynamics/attack, and timbre. Perhaps…perhaps…30


(24) Pierre Boulez, “Eventuellement…,” in Stock-takings from an Apprenticeship, trans. (as “Possibly…”) by Stephen Walsh (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 113.

(25) René Leibowitz, “Béla Bartók ou la possibilité de compromis dans la musique contemporaine,” Temps modernes III (1947–48): 705–34; trans. Michael Dixon, as “Béla Bartók, or the Possibility of Compromise in Twentieth-Century Music,” Transitions 1948 (Paris) no. 3 (1948): 92–122.

(26) Leibowitz, “Bartók,” Transitions 1948, no. 3, p. 120.

(27) Boulez, “Schoenberg Is Dead,” in Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, p. 211.

(28) Ibid., p. 213

(29) Adorno, “Das Altern der neuen Musik” (1954), trans. Susan H. Gillespie (as “The Aging of the New Music”), in T. W. Adorno, ed., Essays on Music, Richard H. Leppert (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 197–98.

(30) “Schoenberg Is Dead,” p. 214.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001007.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 1 Dec. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001007.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 1 Dec. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001007.xml