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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

“In the arts an appetite for a new look is now a professional requirement, as in Russia to be accredited as a revolutionist is to qualify for privileges,”56 wrote Harold Rosenberg, a champion of avant-garde painting, in 1960. He was calling attention to some of the unintended ironies that resulted from the politics of the cold war, the chief one being the political and commercial exploitation of the very stance of apolitical and noncommercial unexploitability that was supposed to be the distinguishing feature of the “Western” side in the debate over the meaning and purpose of art.

If we wish to examine the musical side of this curious yet telling state of affairs, the focal figure for the 1950s would have to be György Ligeti (b. 1923), the Hungarian composer with whose widely heralded analysis of Structures we are already acquainted. The dynamics of his career will offer an ironic counterpoint, or perhaps provide an inverted mirror-reflection, to the tribulations that befell the legacy of his countryman Bartók around the same time.

Ligeti finished his musical education and began his composing career precisely at postwar Hungary's most stringently “Zhdanovite” moment. He graduated from the Liszt Conservatory in Budapest in 1949, the very year the Hungarian Communist Party gained absolute power and began regulating the arts in accord with its Soviet prototype's Resolution on Music. As a Jew, he had lived in terror and ultimately in hiding during the war, and greeted the arrival of the Soviet liberators in Hungary with joy. Like many formerly left-leaning Eastern European intellectuals, as he has told interviewers, he found that it took the experience of living under Soviet power to turn him into an anti-Communist. (“So many people believed in this utopia, and then they were so completely disappointed—more than disappointed.”57) It also turned his composing predilections, in a spirit of defiance, away from Bartók and Stravinsky and toward the avant-garde, which in the Hungarian context still meant Schoenberg.

There was no possibility of performance or publication of such music in Hungary at the time, so Ligeti began doing as some Soviet composers also did—writing utilitarian music (folksong arrangements and school choruses) for pay and “serious” works for the drawer. One of them, in the composer's words, was “completely twelve-tone and rhythmically machine-like.”58 Even behind the “iron curtain,” composers felt the paradoxical need to surrender their decision-making faculties to algorithms—in the name of freedom.

Ligeti seized his chance to leave Hungary in the wake of the failed 1956 rebellion, which briefly toppled the Communist regime before being crushed by the Soviet army. He crossed into Austria in December, and fetched up in Cologne in February 1957. He had been corresponding with Eimert and Stockhausen, and they arranged a stipend to pay his living expenses so that he could work at a new-music studio Eimert had set up at the state-supported radio station in that city. That year, too, Ligeti spent the first of seven summers at Darmstadt. The first item he produced in the West, however, was not a musical composition but the analysis of Structures, which his hosts, being the editors of Die Reihe, were eager to publish.

The ironies and ambivalences of the cold war situation—the simultaneous escape into and escape from freedom, about which existentialist philosophers and psychologists wrote interminably—is nowhere more poignantly summed up than in that essay, where the recent refugee from Soviet tyranny wrote happily about “choosing one's own prison according to one's wishes,” and being “free to act within those walls.” In an equally remarkable conclusion, the fugitive from the world of “historical materialism”—where the sacrifice of present happiness to future utopia was mandated by the state, and the independence of the “esthetic” and the “artistic” as autonomous categories was disputed in the name of social progress—called for just such a sacrifice in the name of technical progress.

Since in music a pure structure can only be achieved through time, composition at the serial level has become work with time. Thus composition ceases to be essentially “art-work”; to compose now takes on an additional character of research into the newly-discovered relationships of material. This attitude may strike people as negative, “inartistic”—but there is no other way for the composer of today, if he wants to get any further.59

Certainly Ligeti's first year in Germany had the character of research. “I soaked things up like a sponge,” he told an interviewer; “for several months I did nothing but listen to tapes and discs.”60 The Boulez analysis was in its way what in Germany is called a Habilitationsschrift or “inaugural thesis,” a formal demonstration of mastery and a ticket of admission to an academy. The first few musical pieces were of a similar kind, in which the newcomer from the “backward” or “retarded” East demonstrated that he was no bumpkin. The big one was Apparitions for orchestra, a maximalist effort in every way, requiring a score with sixty-three staves. It was specifically, and consciously, a maximalization of the most radical aspects of Bartók's music as they were then understood by Hungarian musicians, and an adaptation of that view of Bartók to the reigning ideologies and methodologies of Darmstadt.

In 1955 two important books on Bartók were published in Budapest, both by a single author, Erno Lendvai (1925–93), a musicologist who lectured on analysis at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where Ligeti also worked up to the time of his emigration.61 The books were systematic demonstrations of Lendvai's thesis that Bartók's works were formed according to what the architects of the Italian Renaissance called the Golden Section (or Divine Proportion), a ratio that supposedly governs the proportions of natural objects and is for that reason naturally pleasing to the mind.

(The two segments of a line divided according to the Golden Section will have the same ratio of length as the ratio between the larger segment and the whole line. Like “Pi,” the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle, the Golden Section cannot be exactly expressed in the decimal system, but only approximated, usually as 1.618. It is progressively approached by the ratios produced by pairs of numbers along a Fibonacci series, the sequence formed by adding two successive members to find the next member: for example 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc. In other words, the values of the ratios 1/2, 2/3, 3/5, 5/8, etc. approach the Golden ratio.)

Lendvai analyzed many works of Bartók to show that Bartók transferred the ratios of the Fibonacci series and the Golden Section to the temporal domain in order to govern the length of the component sections in his works and thus generate their form. His theory has not gained wide acceptance among musicologists, but in 1956 it became the basis for an entirely inappropriate political denunciation (on grounds of “formalism”) that led to Lendvai's dismissal from his position at the Academy. As a demonstration of solidarity with his former colleague, whose tribulations made the defense of a “formalist” view of Bartók seem more politically urgent than ever, Ligeti deliberately proportioned the first of the two movements in Apparitions on the Fibonacci series throughout, applying it as a typically Darmstadtian algorithm with far greater rigor than Lendvai ever suspected Bartók of doing (but, as it happened, in a way that another avant-garde musician, Iannis Xenakis, a Greek-born Parisian who had actually trained as an architect, was beginning to do).

The pitch material of the movement was developed from tone clusters, the harmonic effect that, as used in such works as the Fourth Quartet or the piano suite Szabadban (“Out of doors”), symbolized Bartók's radical extreme in another musical dimension. What was of greatest immediate importance was the way in which Ligeti developed the implications of Bartók's musical ideas, as he understood them, in a context completely devoid of folklore, siding decisively with those who wanted to see the great Hungarian composer as a universal modern master on a par (however difficult it might be for his German hosts to accept such an idea) with Schoenberg and Webern. In any event, it was a view that utterly opposed the image of Bartók that the Communist government was promoting back home, and was therefore a contribution in actual music to the ongoing debate about Bartók's legacy that was such a conspicuous aspect of the cold-war musical scene.

But the West, too, participated in cold-war image-making and promotions, and this was an important factor in Ligeti's own reception. In addition to Apparitions, during his first years in the “free world” Ligeti composed two short pieces in a new medium, “electronic music,” that had only existed since the war, and was therefore enormously attractive to musicians who saw themselves as re-creating the art of music from scratch. Eimert had set up a studio for electronic music—the first in Europe—at the Cologne Radio, and Stockhausen had been busy there since 1953.

The early history of electronic music will be sketched in chapter 4, but it will be worthwhile, in the present context, to say a few words in advance about Ligeti's electronic studies of 1957–58. The medium attracted him long before he came West, he has said, because the composer of electronic music realizes the actual sounding composition in the act of creating it, so that there is no need for performers, publishers, or any social mediation at all. That could make it seem the misanthrope's delight, perhaps, but from Ligeti's perspective (or that of any composer growing up in the Soviet bloc) it promised a way of making music beyond the reach of bureaucratic interference.

Ligeti's second electronic composition, Artikulation (1958), arose out of a preoccupation shared by several of the musicians and technicians working at the Cologne studio: the age-old question of the relationship between music and speech. They approached it in characteristically “atomistic” fashion, not in terms of sentences or words but in terms of phonology—that is, individual phonetic units—according to a classification system for “sound signals” worked out by the communications theorist Werner Meyer-Eppler, whose lectures at the University of Bonn had been an inspiration to Stockhausen. Ligeti's piece was a collage of “sound atoms” selected from a big Meyer-Epplerish menu according to a set of algorithms that grouped forty-four sound-types into ten categories or “texts,” thence modified into “words,” thence into “languages,” thence into “sentences” with intonational contours reminiscent of speech. Another set of algorithms divided the music among four antiphonal recorded tracks. The results were further mixed down to two stereophonic channels to enable publication in the form of a recording.

There was no score (and no possibility, therefore, for analysis of the result), for the composer had worked by ear on the basis of rough charts. There was no need for a prescriptive notation since electronic music, once fixed on tape, required no performers at all, just playback equipment. One of the most significant if initially unsuspected aspects of electronic music, it eventually dawned, was that it produced the first fundamental alteration of the relationship between composition and notation in a thousand years, pointing the way (not that anyone was looking for it then) toward musical “postliteracy.” This will be a big theme, in fact the biggest, in the closing chapters of this book.

And yet a dozen years later, in 1970, the German publishing house of Schott, the most powerful firm in Europe, celebrated its “acquisition” of Ligeti by commissioning from a technician named Rainer Wehinger what it was pleased to call a “Hörpartitur” or “aural score” of Artikulation. Like any score, it could be followed while listening to the piece, but it served no other practical purpose—not even for analysis, since the sounds were not represented with enough specificity as to their exact frequency or duration. Instead, they were rendered impressionistically, by fancifully executed shapes of arbitrary design that corresponded with various timbres and attack characteristics.

These shapes appear from left to right in the order in which the little sounds in Artikulation are heard, their spatial frequency coordinated with a grid that marks elapsing seconds. The antiphonal effects are indicated by the little circles above the “score,” which are divided into quadrants that stand for the four stereophonic tracks. Perhaps deliberately, Wehinger's shapes are reminiscent of the unidentified objects one might see in a modern painting, say by the Spanish painter Joan Miró (1893–1983), whose quirky surrealistic images Ligeti had in mind (according to his biographer Richard Toop) while composing the piece.62 In that case, the peculiarly named “Hörpartitur” (which isn't actually required for hearing anything) is more a sort of parallel objet d'art—an impression that becomes all the stronger when one learns that, in addition to the conventionally bound score, Schott also published the Hörpartitur of Artikulation in the form of a large poster in bright colors, suitable for hanging on the wall. It was in effect a work of visual art founded on, or determined by, a piece of music.

Poster Boy

fig. 1-6 Page from the “Hörpartitur” by Rainer Wehinger for Ligeti's Artikulation (Mainz: B. Schott's Söhne, 1970).

Thus the score serves a decorative or celebratory purpose rather than a practical one. It is a “production value” meant to enhance the status of the work and its author, and reflect prestige on the publisher, evidence that Ligeti had become the focus of a “cult of personality” of a kind far more common in the marketing of commercial pop music than in the “serious” “classical” sphere. His emblematic status derived in large part from the dramatic circumstances of his career, with its spectacular move from East to West. To put it very crudely, Ligeti's fame had turned him into a sort of cold-war trophy or poster boy, a status that then fed back into his fame. And with that, we arrive back at our starting point, the political polarization of the cold war now yielding exploitable goods.

Ligeti could not have achieved such a position had he not joined forces with the Western avant-garde. Andrzej Panufnik (1914–91), a composer and conductor who made a comparable defection to the West from the Soviet bloc around the same time, sank like a stone. A much-honored figure in his native Poland, he sought asylum from the Communist regime in England during a 1954 concert tour, and, as he put it ruefully in retrospect, “leapt from my Polish position of Number One to no one at all in England.”63

Compared with the Darmstadt avant-garde, Panufnik's music could be described as “gemässigte Moderne.” Cast for the most part in traditional forms—overtures, symphonies, and the like—that had been anathematized at Darmstadt but not at home, it lacked propaganda value. By the 1970s, the cold war waning, Panufnik found some champions, most notably the veteran conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) who in 1973, after a long career in the United States, moved back to his native England. In 1991, near the end of his life, Panufnik was honored by his adopted country with a knighthood. But without the cachet of stylistic as well as political “dissidence,” an Eastern European composer could not attract much sympathetic attention during the years of political stress.

Stockhausen, the most flamboyant of the Darmstadt avant-gardists, was the other charismatic figure of the age. His publisher, Universal Edition, gave him the same sort of star treatment as Schott gave Ligeti, posters and all, and he eventually became a minor cult figure in the pop world. His Klavierstück XI (1956), whose many component fragments could be played in many different orders, had to be custom-printed on a gigantic piece of heavy paper to eliminate the need for page turns. Not only did the publishing house accommodate with a beautifully engraved score packaged as a roll inside a cardboard cylinder, it also provided a custom-designed folding music-stand with clips that would hold the unwieldy thing in place atop the piano.

No other “serious” composers of the period could expect that kind of aggressive promotion from commercial publishers. It testified impressively to Stockhausen's and Ligeti's standing as culture heroes and to the publishers’ willingness to take a loss for prestige purposes. But all that prestige, and the attendant “commodification” of the pieces so lavishly produced, did rather alter the status of the “Darmstadt school” as an avant-garde. When capitalist enterprises began engaging in cold-war cultural politics alongside governments, the cultural message could not remain unaffected. By the 1980s, Darmstadt had become a sleek establishment indeed; a book published in 1991 listed the sponsors of the famous summer courses as including “music publishers, automobile manufacturers, radio and television stations, and an impressive number of state and city officials.” That co-opting of the enterprise will be something to keep in mind when it comes time to assess the inevitable reaction against it, widely billed as the “death of the avant-garde.” Its demise was already implicit in the nature of its success.


(56) Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 9.

(57) Quoted in Paul Griffiths, György Ligeti (London: Robson Books, 1983), p. 11.

(58) Ibid. p. 14.

(59) Ligeti, “Pierre Boulez: Entscheidung und Automatik in der Structure Ia,” p. 63.

(60) Quoted in Griffiths, György Ligeti, p. 22.

(61) Ernő Lendvai, Bevezetés a Bartók-müvek elemzésébe (Introduction to the analysis of Bartók's works); Bartók stílusa (Bartók's style) (both Budapest: Zenemukiadö, 1955).

(62) See Richard Toop, György Ligeti (London: Phaidon, 1999), p. 57.

(63) Quoted in Adrian Thomas, “Panufnik, Sir Andrzej,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XIX (2nd ed.; New York: Grove, 2001), p. 46.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001014.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 8 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001014.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 8 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001014.xml