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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Standoff (II)
Richard Taruskin

As the excerpts quoted from Virgil Thomson's review have already shown, Carter's quartet enjoyed a remarkable succès d'estime, or “reputation success.” It taught him a lesson, as he has put it, “about my relationship with performers and audiences.” For

as I wrote, an increasing number of musical difficulties arose for prospective performers and listeners, which the musical conception seemed to demand. I often wondered whether the quartet would ever have any performers or listeners. Yet within a few years of its composition it won an important prize and was played (always with a great deal of rehearsal) more than any work I had written up to that time. It even received praise from admired colleagues.28

The paradox not only taught him that he had been wrong to feel it his “professional and social responsibility to write interesting, direct, easily understood music;” it impelled or emboldened him to assert that any composer who followed such a mandate was wrong. On the contrary, he now maintained, “there is every reason to assume that if a composer has been well taught and has had experience (as was true of me in 1950), then his private judgment of comprehensibility and quality is what he must rely on if he is to communicate importantly.”

The last word is of course the key, for it is the one that carries implications about value. Carter had indeed communicated importantly. A closer look at the reception his work has enjoyed will shed more light on what it was that made it seem so important just then, and to whom. At first, things went more or less as he expected. He had to wait more than a year before an ensemble—the Walden Quartet of the University of Illinois, to whom the work was eventually dedicated—signaled its willingness to tackle the score. The premiere took place on 26 February 1953 at Columbia University, during a festival of American music sponsored in part by the local public radio station, WNYC. The academic affiliation of the performing group, the academic venue, and the subsidized occasion were all indicative of the kind of marginal public existence an “advanced” composition could count on.

The prize to which Carter refers in the extract above was awarded later in 1953 by the jury of the Councours international de quatuor (International quartet-writing competition), held in Liège, Belgium, to which Carter had submitted the work (under the contest pseudonym Chronometros, “time-keeper”). The award guaranteed a performance by the Paris-based Parrenin Quartet, one of Europe's most prestigious ensembles specializing in contemporary music. Their performance, Carter's European debut, took place in Rome, in April 1954, at a music festival presented under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It was greeted with a euphoric review in Encounter, the Congress's English-language organ, by the British critic and publisher William Glock, who ran a sort of mini-Darmstadt for British musicians in the village of Dartington, where Carter was a frequent lecturer. (Later, as the powerful controller of music at the BBC, Glock would be one of Carter's most active promoters.) The performance and the review, as David Schiff observes, “immediately established Carter's European reputation.”29

They did more than that. They plugged Carter's new direction into the politics of the cold war. The Congress for Cultural Freedom was established in West Berlin in 1950, at the instigation of Ernst Reuter, the city's mayor, and with financial backing from the American Military Government (arranged by Melvin Lasky, an American trade unionist serving as a cultural attaché with the Army of Occupation and editor of its German-language monthly Der Monat). The organization's Secretary General or director was the composer Nicolas Nabokov (1903–78), a cousin of the more famous writer Vladimir Nabokov, and an old acquaintance of Carter's. (In 1940–41 they had between them made up the music staff at St. John's College, Annapolis.) Similar in origin to the Darmstadt Summer Courses, but with a wider purview and a far more glamorous cast of characters, the Congress was set up to showcase the arts and sciences of the “free world,” especially undertakings of a modernist, individualist variety that totalitarian powers rejected and harassed.

Unlike Darmstadt, the Congress had an overt and militant political agenda. Its fundamental purpose, in the words of the American philosopher Sidney Hook, one of its founding members, was to combat “the virus of neutralism that was spiritually disarming the West against Communist aggression.”30 Its first major undertaking was a festival, Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century, a comprehensive exposition of music, painting, sculpture, and literature held in Paris in 1952, with Stravinsky as the guest of honor and nominal spokesman. The main musical tactic was the programming, in an effort to embarrass the Soviets, of several major works of Prokofieff and Shostakovich that were then under a post-Zhdanov ban in their own country. Their promotion as masterpieces, and their reception (by audiences, by some critics, and certainly by Stravinsky), had as much a political as an esthetic motivation.

The Congress was not very successful in its chief mission, that of containing the spread of Communist thinking among European intellectuals in the first decades of the cold war. And it was thoroughly discredited in the mid-1960s when it became known that it had been surreptitiously funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, the notorious bureau of the United States Government for espionage that had been created in 1947 as an instrument of cold-war policy. Sidney Hook complained that Nabokov's arts festivals, the Congress's most conspicuous achievements, were a waste of resources — mere “extravaganzas” and “junkets” without “the slightest perceptible effect in altering the climate of political opinion in Europe, especially in France,”31 where (as in Italy) the Communist Party was strong in the early 1950s.

The arts, he even went on to assert, can never have such an impact. “Since art has flourished even under political tyrannies,” he wrote of the 1952 exposition, “there was nothing the festival presented that could not have been offered to the world under the aegis of an enlightened despotism.”32 The fine arts, in his widely shared opinion, and especially the modern arts with their congenital tinge of elitism, were a poor advertisement for democracy. But if the Congress arts festivals, and their attendant publicity machine, had a negligible effect on cold-war politics as such, they nevertheless did have an important impact on the politics of the art world and on the fortunes of artists.

The Rome festival of 1954, at which Carter's quartet was unveiled to European acclaim, had a slightly different focus from its Paris predecessor. Limited to music, it was (in the words of the English art critic Herbert Read) “not a complacent look at the past, but a confident look into the future.”33 Its purpose was to nominate, through showcase concerts and a series of prize competitions, a corps of standard-bearers for the Congress's highly politicized notion of cultural freedom, which in reality boiled down to sponsorship of the avant-garde, the type of art most obviously uncongenial to totalitarian taste.

That it was also uncongenial to “free world” public taste, and even to the personal taste of the festival organizers, was no object to its promotion. Nabokov, a disciple of the “neoclassical” Stravinsky (which made him a conservative figure in the postwar musical alignment), was nevertheless keenly aware of the propaganda value of promoting atonal and serial music, “which announced itself as doing away with natural hierarchies, as a liberation from previous laws about music's inner logic.”34 Stravinsky, paid $5,000 to attend, was once again the central figure, doubly valuable as a showpiece because of his recent “conversion” to serialism. His presence in Rome “signalled a major moment in the convergence of modernist tributaries in the ‘serialist orthodoxy,’ ” in the words of Frances Stonor Saunders, the Congress for Cultural Freedom's leading chronicler. It was there that Stravinsky and Carter, who had met previously when Carter was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, renewed their acquaintance, but now as colleagues engaged in a modernist resurgence.

Carter, not a serialist but often taken for one, was a major beneficiary of the pattern of patronage established by the Congress festivals. (At the 1960 Fromm-sponsored Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies, Carter was coy about his relationship to serialism; when asked whether he used the twelve-tone system he replied, “Some critics have said that I do, but since I have never analyzed my works from this point of view, I cannot say.”35) That pattern spread to corporate and institutional America through the decade of the 1950s, at first primarily through the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (both of which had been strong financial backers of the Congress for Cultural Freedom), creating an unprecedented infrastructure of prestige to support and encourage advanced art and its creators.

Institutional, critical, and corporate support made it possible for such artists (especially those blessed like Carter with independent sources of income) to have outstandingly successful public careers in the virtual absence of an audience: a unique and perhaps never to be repeated phenomenon. Indeed in some cases, notably Carter's, the degree of professional and media recognition approached an inverse proportion to the size of the audience; as the latter shrank, performances, recordings, publicity, and prizes mounted. Commissions mounted, too, since a Carter premiere guaranteed wide and auspicious coverage. But it was not just the confluence of money and snobbery (to recall Britten's strictures) that brought this development about. There was a strong component of politics as well—a politics with which few artists in the West were then inclined to differ.


(28) Ibid.

(29) Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (1983), p. 152.

(30) Sidney Hook, Out of Step (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1988), p. 440.

(31) Ibid., p. 445.

(32) Ibid., p. 446.

(33) Quoted in Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 2000), p. 221.

(34) Saunders, The Cultural Cold War, p. 223.

(35) Elliott Carter, “Shop Talk by an American Composer,” in Problems of Modern Music, ed. P. H. Lang (New York: Norton, 1962), p. 58.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Standoff (II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006005.xml