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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

Or as Igor Stravinsky put it to a Paris reporter, in response to what by 1952 had become an inevitable interviewer's question: “The twelve-tone system? Personally I have enough to do with seven tones. But the twelve-tone composers are the only ones who have a discipline I respect. Whatever else it may be, twelve-tone music is certainly pure music.”14

Like Copland, Stravinsky left out the most newsworthy part: that he himself had begun to appropriate the system he had long opposed (or, as some grumbled, to be appropriated by it). The “conversion” or “capitulation” of the most celebrated living composer to the serialist cause was an enormous boost not only to the prestige of serial music, but to the whole deterministic view of history that supported its resurgence. Until Stravinsky's death in 1971, that doctrine would be virtually unassailable in the places where history was written. Moreover, the path Stravinsky took to the twelve-tone method was remarkably gradual, incremental, and orderly from a technical point of view. It provided, as if in microcosm, a model of the historical process it was said to embody, and has therefore become one of the most frequently retold stories in the recent history of music.

Between December 1947 and April 1951 Stravinsky wrote by far the longest work of his career: a three-act opera called The Rake's Progress, after a set of paintings (later engravings) by the English artist William Hogarth (1687–1764) that depicted the moral and material decline of a rich young wastrel. On the basis of Hogarth's painted scenes, the English poet W. H. Auden (1907–73) had worked out a scenario in collaboration with the composer, and worked it up into a libretto in collaboration with a younger poet named Chester Kallman (1921–75). The libretto, all about free choice and its consequences, was a very timely primer of post–World War II existentialism, turned out in an elegant “period” style to match the opera's eighteenth-century setting.

Striving in his music for a similar ironic parallel between the modern implications of the drama and its period setting, Stravinsky produced what was on the surface his most literalistically “neoclassical” score, replete with harpsichord-accompanied recitatives, strophic songs, da capo arias, and formal ensembles, including a moralizing quintet at the end to draw explicit lessons from the foregoing action, obviously modeled on the sextet at the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Although composed to an English text, the work had its premiere in Venice, before a cosmopolitan festival audience at the famous eighteenth-century Teatro La Fenice (Phoenix Theater), on 11 September 1951.

The Rake's Progress is now a much admired repertory opera, but it had at first a very problematic reception. The high-society audience that heard it on its first night received it warmly. Among musicians, however, it was widely written off as a trifling, fashionable pastiche. And no wonder: its archly pretty, stylistically retrospective music jarred cacophonously with the bleak “zero-hour” mood, described in chapter 1, that reigned in Europe. Its obsessive stylistic self-consciousness, now easily understood as consciousness of art in crisis, seems just as much a response to its uncertain times as the work of the Darmstadt avant-garde. At the time, though, it seemed the product of a composer blissfully out of touch with the contemporary requirements of his art. For the first time in his life, Stravinsky found himself rejected by the younger generation of European musicians. The effect of this rejection on his self-esteem was traumatic.

We know about this after effect of the Rake premiere thanks to Robert Craft (b. 1923), an aspiring conductor who had made Stravinsky's acquaintance, and impressed him very favorably, at the very start of work on the opera. Their first meeting, in fact, took place on the very day in March 1948 when Auden delivered to Stravinsky the completed libretto of the first act. Stravinsky hired Craft to join him at his California home as an assistant for the summer. One of his jobs was to make a catalogue of Stravinsky's manuscripts, which had just arrived from safekeeping in Europe. Another was to read the Rake libretto aloud to Stravinsky so that the composer, for whom English was a fourth language, could hear it idiomatically pronounced. (Craft was at first disconcerted that the composer did not hesitate to set it “wrong”15 wherever he saw a musical advantage in doing so.) The young assistant never left, but remained a member of the composer's household until Stravinsky's death almost twenty-three years later.

Craft made himself indispensable to Stravinsky in any number of ways. He shared conducting duties on concert tours and rehearsed orchestras before recording sessions. He served as an interlocutor through whom Stravinsky published five volumes of memoirs in dialogue form. Craft's most important service to Stravinsky, however, was in enabling him to weather the post-Rake creative crisis by providing a conduit through which the seventy-year-old composer gained access to new modes of musical thinking and writing he had previously ignored, and even scorned. When Stravinsky suddenly felt the need to catch up, Craft (who knew the works of the Viennese atonalists, rehearsed and conducted them in Stravinsky's presence, and procured scores and even textbooks for his employer's instruction) stood ready to abet him. In so doing he made possible the last sixteen years of Stravinsky's active life as a composer.

Stravinsky's assimilation of serial technique, though orderly and eminently traceable, was actually (because it came so late in his career) quite idiosyncratic. In effect, he became a serial composer before becoming a twelve-tone one; indeed his example is what makes it possible to draw this very useful distinction. His first serial work was a “ricercar” for tenor and five accompanying instruments called “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” It was part of a Cantata on anonymous fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English lyrics, the very next piece Stravinsky composed after The Rake's Progress, in 1951–52.

The first item in the Cantata in order of composition, a ricercar called “The Maidens Came,” for mezzo-soprano and the same accompanying ensemble, was completed in July 1951, before the Rake premiere; the rest was written afterward. There is no premonition in “The Maidens Came” that other parts of the Cantata would use a serial technique (unless the eerie fact that Arnold Schoenberg, then Stravinsky's never-visited Los Angeles neighbor, happened to die while it was in progress counts as a premonition). But by the time it came to composing “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” Stravinsky had become fascinated with the “discipline” his old rival had pioneered—although on this maiden outing he was content to apply it (recalling his repartee with the Paris reporter) to a “seven-tone” or diatonic context.

Stravinsky selected a little A-minor phrase, seemingly at random, from “The Maidens Came,” transposed it to C major simply by substituting the bass clef for the treble, arbitrarily inserted a tiny chromatic inflection just for spice, and ended up with the eleven-note “row” shown in Ex. 3-7a. In terms of its contents it is very far from being a twelve-tone row, since it only contains eight different pitches, and two of the eight, C and E, are repeated in succession to give it a pronounced “tonal” focus. But Stravinsky's use of it is quite strictly “serial,” for he maintained its intervallic order as a given throughout the new ricercar, which actually consists of a series of canons in which the eleven-note subject is treated the same way Schoenberg treated a twelve-tone row: as originally notated, in reverse, in inversion, and in reversed inversion.

Example 3-7b reproduces a chart Stravinsky jotted down to guide him in composing his ricercar, in which he designated the “classical” serial operations using his own idiosyncratic terms. The subject is immediately followed by its “cancricans” or retrograde. Below it is the “riverse” or inversion, followed by its “cancricans.” The chart's most noteworthy aspect is the pitch level selected for the inversion, a downward transposition by a third that reproduces the opening pitches of the original subject in reversed order, thus insuring that the whole complex stays “in C” and makes its “final cadence” there.

The reason for the transposition is evident from Ex. 3-7c, a musical example that Stravinsky prepared for a program note distributed at the Cantata's premiere performance in the fall of 1952. It is the opening of the tenor part (or Cantus Firmus, as Stravinsky called it), encompassing the first three lines of the poem. The four “serial permutations” have been welded, by the use of overlapping pitches at the joins, into a single C-major melody. Stravinsky drew the brackets himself, to demonstrate the four permutations. What is more surprising, the published score contains similar brackets that call attention to the serial manipulations throughout the piece.

The Grand Prize

ex. 3-7a Igor Stravinsky, Cantata, Ricercar II (“Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”), derivation of the subject

The Grand Prize

ex. 3-7b Igor Stravinsky's table of serial permutations in Cantata, Ricercar II

The Grand Prize

ex. 3-7c Igor Stravinsky, Cantata, Ricercar II, beginning of the tenor part

In Ex. 3-8, which shows the fourth canon in the ricercar, these brackets are preserved, and labels have been added to assist the reader in identifying the “row forms” according to standard nomenclature: P for prime, R for retrograde, I for inversion, RI for retrograde inversion. Subscripts indicate transpositions, always “upward” by semitones: 1 = a semitone up, 11 = a major seventh [eleven semitones] up or one semitone down, and so forth. Stravinsky's relief at having managed, so late in the day, to assimilate an advanced compositional technique is evident in the pride with which he provided an analysis of the music to go along with the score. His 1952 program note, too, was wholly concerned with a technical description of how the music is made. Here is a sample, describing the music shown in Ex. 3-8:

In the fourth canon the first oboe follows the second at the interval of a second while the voice transposes the Cantus in inverted form down a minor third to A. In the three last bars, the cello, which has been accompanying with a new rhythmic figure, plays the Cantus in F, original form, while the voice and the first oboe play it in A, original form. The fifth canon is identical with the first. The sixth begins with the Cantus in the voice in original form…16

This way of describing the piece, solely in terms of its technical procedures, again chimes with Stravinsky's remark to the Paris reporter (“Whatever else it may be, twelve-tone music is certainly pure music”).

But is it quite fair to describe, or conceive of, the second ricercar from Stravinsky's Cantata as “pure music”? Can the fact (which Stravinsky never mentioned in his program note) that the piece has a text, and that the text poetically narrates the life of Christ, be considered irrelevant to an esthetic consideration of it? More uncomfortably yet, are the facts that the “fourth canon” (at 18) sets words reflective of an ancient libel against the Jews, and that the composer chose them for setting seven years after the Nazi Holocaust, likewise to be regarded as esthetically irrelevant (implying that to take offense at the act or its product was a philistine—or worse, a Zhdanovite—reaction to fine art)?

Going further yet, is there a correlation between the quest for musical purity that, Stravinsky said, motivated his recourse to the serial method, and the moral evasion at which all these uncomfortable questions seem to point? How shall we define or evaluate that relationship, and how does it compare with the political, social, and moral issues that motivated the adoption of serial technique by the young composers of Europe, as described in chapter 1? Was Stravinsky, too, practicing a willed amnesia? Was Copland? Under what circumstances do (or should) artists have the right to turn away from the cruel facts of life and attend only to “the inherent tendency of musical material”? Do they (or should they) always have social responsibilities?


(14) “Rencontre avec Stravinsky,” Preuves II, no. 16 (1952): 37.

(15) Robert Craft to Sylvia Marlowe, 4 October 1949 (by courtesy of Kenneth Cooper).

(16) As reprinted in Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966), p. 431.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003003.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 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003003.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 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003003.xml