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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

The reader has perhaps already noticed that Babbitt achieved these impressive feats of logical construction a bit earlier than the monuments of Darmstadt “total serialism” described in chapter 1. They were all on paper before Messiaen wrote his Mode de valeurs, to say nothing of Boulez's Structures or Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel. But with the exception of the Composition for Four Instruments, issued in 1949 in manuscript facsimile by New Music Edition, a shoestring, composer-staffed periodical (founded by Henry Cowell in 1925 and edited at the time by Elliott Carter), Babbitt's breakthrough compositions languished for years, along with his dissertation, in obscurity. Neither his music nor his theoretical writings became generally available for discussion—and potential influence—until the mid-1950s or later. The Three Compositions for Piano, historically the earliest work to serialize durations, did not see the light of day until 1957, a full decade after they were written. Babbitt had to stand by and see himself “scooped” by composers he regarded as his intellectual inferiors—a hard fate for a musician dedicated to modernism in its strongest ideological form, with its perpetual race to the patent office.

It is not surprising, then, that when Babbitt finally gained access to public media, his resentments colored the tone of his discourse, adding greatly to the atmosphere of contention and factionalism that characterized the postwar avant-garde. His public debut, so to speak, came in 1955, when he was invited by the editors of The Score, a new British periodical devoted to modern music, to contribute a description of his serial practices. The important article he sent in, modestly titled “Some Aspects of Twelve-Tone Composition” and based on his unpublished dissertation, introduced most of the concepts mentioned thus far to a public readership, notably combinatoriality (illustrated by some passages from Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet) and derivation (illustrated by the row in Webern's Concerto), both “generalized and extended far beyond their immediate functions”23 by reconceptualizing twelve-tone rows as mathematical sets.

The conceptualization of intervallic inversion as complementation mod. 12 is proposed, along with the application of the same procedure to durations or any other musical parameter that could be specified in terms of a scale of quantities. The article ends with a ringingly optimistic affirmation of new horizons, not only for compositional technique, but for the whole concept of an esthetically autonomous music. “Even this extremely incomplete presentation,” Babbitt wrote, “should indicate the possibility of twelve-tone music, organized linearly, harmonically in the small and in the large, rhythmically—indeed, in all dimensions—in terms of the essential assumptions of the system.”24

The article begins, however, with a fierce blast of righteous indignation at the European avant-garde, whom Babbitt (provoked, no doubt, by their “Schoenberg Is Dead” posturings) despised as feckless enfants terribles. Casting the story in impersonal terms, whether out of modesty or to portray it as more than the one-man show it had in fact been, Babbitt let his European readers know that in the United States “the specific bases for achieving a total twelve-tone work were arrived at by the end of the war.” And when,

a short time later, there were reports of a group of young French, Italian and German composers who apparently shared like aims, their work was eagerly awaited. However, their music and technical writings eventually revealed so very different an attitude toward the means, and even so very different means, that the apparent agreement with regard to ends lost its entire significance. The most striking points of divergence can be summarized in terms of the following apparent attributes of the music and the theory associated with it. Mathematics—or, more correctly, arithmetic—is used, not as a means of characterizing or discovering general systematic pre-compositional relationships, but as a compositional device, resulting in the most literal sort of “program music,” whose course is determined by a numerical, rather than by a narrative or descriptive “program.” The alleged “total organization” is achieved by applying dissimilar, essentially unrelated criteria of organization to each of the components, criteria often derived from outside the system, so that—for example—the rhythm is independent of and thus separable from the pitch structure; this is described and justified as a “polyphony” of components, though polyphony is customarily understood to involve, among many other things, a principle of organized simultaneity, while here the mere fact of simultaneity is termed “polyphony.” The most crucial problems of twelve-tone music are resolved by being defined out of existence; harmonic structure in all dimensions is proclaimed to be irrelevant, unnecessary, and, perhaps, undesirable in any event; so a principle, or non-principle, of harmony by fortuity reigns. Finally, the music of the past—and virtually all of that of the present, as well—is repudiated for what it is not, rather than examined—if not celebrated—for what it is; admittedly, this is a convenient method for evading confrontation by a multitude of challenging possibilities, including—perhaps—a few necessaries.25

The Europeans, for their part, were happy to dismiss Babbitt in return. Il a l'air d'un musicologue, wrote Cage, reassuringly, to Boulez—“he has the air of a musicologist”—thus casting Babbitt into the outer darkness reserved for academics.26 But Babbitt reveled in his academicism, portraying himself in this regard as a singularly legitimate heir to Schoenberg, another great composer-teacher with a high awareness of his intellectual responsibilities, and if anything an even more pressing historical conscience. What Babbitt valued in his own art was what academic artists have always valued, namely the demonstration of mastery and technical control. Unlike the European avant-garde, Babbitt sought anything but “automatism,” the abject extinction of the self, in extending the purview of serialism. Rather, he sought in his own domain the joyous triumph of technology, and the heady attendant sense of “self-infinitization”27 (to quote the sociologist Daniel Bell), that contemporary science now promised its practitioners and beneficiaries.

Like Schoenberg before him, Babbitt saw the self-evident merit of the twelve-tone system in its unique capacity to unify a vast complex of objectively defined relationships. By extending the range of the system, he was extending the power of the composer's sovereign control. By loading his compositions with demonstrable relations far past the perceptual saturation point (as he was the first to admit), he demonstrated that limitless power, which he associated not merely with the power of the mind, but with the power of absolute truth, and with the freedom to express it.


(23) Milton Babbitt, “Some Aspects of Twelve-Tone Composition,” The Score, no. 12 (June 1955): 56.

(24) Ibid. p. 61.

(25) Ibid. p. 53–54.

(26) John Cage to Pierre Boulez, 17 January 1950; Nattiez, ed., The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, p. 48.

(27) Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), in Patrick Murray, ed., Reflections on Commercial Life: An Anthology of Classic Texts from Plato to the Present (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 435.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003009.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 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003009.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 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003009.xml