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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

One of the ways one copes, of course, is to adapt. Since this book is a history of music in the literate or art tradition, “classical” adaptations and fusions with the popular will be the subject of a closer look in a separate chapter. They mainly originated in the English-speaking countries, the original breeding grounds of rock. But we can end this chapter with a look at a couple of continental European responses to the sixties and to its popular music. These took the form not of technical adaptation or stylistic appropriation, but of attitudinal conversion, the vaunted “revolution in the head.” One noteworthy response was Hans Werner Henze's. We last encountered Henze, in chapter 1, as a somewhat uneasy but obedient participant in the Darmstadt avant-garde. In despair over Germany's wartime descent into barbarism, and what he saw as the country's refusal to come to terms with the horrors of its past, Henze had emigrated in 1953 to Italy. There, without giving up commitment to his Schoenbergian technique (adopted as much in a spirit of political protest as of esthetic conviction), Henze strove for what his biographer Robert Henderson called “a fusion of the German and the Italian spirit, a projection of the north-German polyphonic temperament into the arioso south, with Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi appearing as important influences.”46 Not surprisingly, he became something of an opera specialist during this phase of his career, turning out six operas during his early Italian period.

The last of the six, The Bassarids (1965), was a long one-acter à la Salome or Elektra, set to a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the same team that had furnished the words for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress a decade and a half before. It is a retelling of Euripides's Bacchae, in which the calm domain of the abstemious and reasonable Pentheus, the King of Thebes, is invaded and destroyed by the wild followers of Dionysus, the god of wine. Despite the subject matter, Henze's opera is a rather cerebral work, its four big scenes cast (in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Wozzeck) as the four movements of a symphony.

As might be expected from someone who had made it his mission as an artist to warn against the return of Nazi irrationality—that “silly and self-regarding emotionalism, behind which it is impossible not to detect…something militantly nationalistic, something disagreeably heterosexual and Aryan”47 —Henze portrayed the Dionysian revels harshly, as a brutal and wholly destructive force. “The occasional late Romantic exuberance that is found in my works is not intended to be exuberance as such but its anachronistic opposite,”48 Henze wrote about The Bassarids. It is a perfect summary of the despairing irony that world war followed by cold war had produced.

The Bassarids, brilliantly staged, had a magnificent reception when it was unveiled at the Salzburg Festival, Europe's swankiest summer music venue; but after finishing the score, as he recounts in his autobiography, Henze felt a persistent malaise that rendered him emotionally numb through the whole autumn of 1965, preventing him from enjoying performances of his own music by others, or his own performances of his favorite music:

I remember conducting Mahler's First Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic and can still recall my inner emptiness, a kind of apathy that constantly plagued me, so that everything I touched or attempted to touch went wrong. It was a feeling that I was unable to shake off, not only on this pointless, dispiriting evening at the Philharmonic but also in my private dealings with my fellow human beings. Everything felt joyless and uninspired.49

And then he heard the Rolling Stones. The occasion was the band's Rome debut, on New Year's Eve, 31 December 1965, at the Piper's Club, a big barn of a building that had been outfitted and equipped for rock concerts. In a memoir, Henze describes his encounter with the Stones as an epiphany:

They made an enormous impression on me, and for weeks I tried to reproduce this impression in my own music, but without success. The technique is entirely different. For the time being we must accept this fact, but whether it will be so forever is another question. To me it seems important and desirable that Pop Music should be brought into contact with “our kind,” which is so much older and more difficult: the contact could be of value to both sides. One day the difference will be entirely done away with.50

In an essay written some time later Henze elaborated the point:

In the course of the development of music I can even see, or rather sense, possibilities that complex orchestral or symphonic music will move in a direction where it will all of a sudden come upon pop music. It could come about one day that the difference will disappear between musique savante and the music that young people enjoy so much.51

It is especially noteworthy that this sentence, so subversive of every modernist assumption, appeared in an article called “Musik ist nolens volens politisch”—Music Is Willy-Nilly Political (that is, political whether or not it wants to be). The initial reaction of pleasure, not far in spirit from Ned Rorem's eulogy to the Beatles, had metamorphosed with Henze into a discourse of radical egalitarian politics, paralleling the coming together of the counterculture and political activism. Henze was soon caught up in the leftist politics of the German student movement.

The overtly (and angrily) political music that he wrote during his period of friendship, beginning in 1967, with violent “new leftists” like Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the German Student Socialist League (a counterpart to the American organization Students for a Democratic Society), quickly regained the alienated and alienating—grating and ugly—edge associated with the modernist avant-garde. A truer memento of Henze's initial encounter with rock was a work called Musen Siziliens (“The muses of Sicily”), a “Concerto for chorus, two pianos, wind instruments and timpani on fragments from the Eclogues of Vergil,” composed in the early months of 1966 under the direct impact of the Rolling Stones.

Henze had received a commission for a work suitable for amateur choruses to sing. He connected that requirement with the new aims that rock had inspired in him. He went quite out on a limb for an elite modernist, “employing utterly simple formulas, with the music circling around single notes and tonal centers, so that it would be enjoyable to sing, even for amateur choirs, and the playing of the two solo piano parts should be fun both for pianists and audience.”52 Putting that simple gratification together with texts from classical poetry sounds like a prescription for just the sort of neoprimitivist music—Carl Orff's, for example—that had been shamelessly exploited by the Nazis, and that the postwar avant-garde had denounced for (it seemed) the best of reasons.

But somehow the Rolling Stones erased that sinister parallel, at least temporarily, from Henze's consciousness. The rock group had, ironically enough, the very same effect on him that the Bacchantes had on poor King Pentheus, according to the cautionary tale that Henze had just retold in The Bassarids. He did not go all the way to Orff for a model, but he did come up with a music reminiscent of some of Stravinsky's later neoclassical works, in particular a couple of lively pastoral pieces called Eclogues (one in the 1932 Duo concertante for violin and piano, the other the middle movement of his 1943 Ode for orchestra) that also evoked Virgilian poetry. These must have been among Henze's conscious models (along with Satie, whom, Henze wrote, “in making myself over into a beginner again I happened on as if on an old acquaintance”53).

The third movement of Musen Siziliens is called Silenus, after the leader of the satyrs, and sets a text from Vergil that depicts an antique version of the scene that Henze had witnessed, and been so thrilled by, on the night of 31 December 1965. “Then he began to sing,” the text begins:

and no more was said. And now a miracle—you might have seen the Fauns and the wild creatures dance lightly to the tune and stubborn oak-trees wave their heads.

Rocky Parnassus is not so deeply moved by the music of Apollo; Ismarus and Rhodope have never known such ecstasy when Orpheus sang.

Radical Chic

ex. 7-7 Hans Werner Henze, Musen Siziliens, III (Silenus), mm. 108–11

The music certainly lives up to Henze's description, reaching climaxes on C-major arpeggios (Ex. 7-7) and a blazing C-major conclusion that might have made Orff blush. This was modernist high treason, and Henze was excoriated for it in the modernist press. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt (1901–88), Schoenberg's first biographer, who was now a professor of music history at the Technical University of Berlin and the most authoritative critic in the city, muttered that the piece contained several passages “that could no longer be described as modern” in a review that carried the headline, “Henze Turns the Clock Back.”54 Thirty years later, Henze made this retort in his autobiography:

Did people really think me capable of such a strong-man act, I wondered? Which clock did Stuckenschmidt mean? And how late was it anyway? In the hearts of so many people at this time there still existed this esprit de corps that demanded that every deviation from the officially prescribed rules and regulations that were dictated by curiously structuralist progressive thinking and that were applied to both life and art with equal rigor had to be denounced and punished without a moment's delay. But who was in charge of this organization? Who set the standards? Pierre [Boulez]? Or the frightful Heinrich Strobel [the new-music impresario; see chapter 4]? A kangaroo court? A central committee, a shady academy somewhere, in Darmstadt perhaps? No, that really was inconceivable. But why, in heaven's name, did people not slowly get used to seeing and accepting artistic objects for what they are, namely, as independent creatures with lives of their own? That would at least have been a beginning.55

Ultimately, then, the encounter with rock had nudged Henze away from the view that placed artists and artworks in a determined historical sequence. He would henceforth see himself, and would try to get others to see themselves, as not just living in history. A passage from “Musik ist nolens volens politisch,” meanwhile, went the rest of the way and asserted that artworks and artists exist first, and most essentially, in a social network. Looking forward to “the liberation of art from its commercialization,” Henze made some Utopian predictions:

I visualize the disappearance of the musical elite and of globetrotting virtuosi; the overcoming of all this ideology of stardom in music, which I regard as a relic from the previous century and as a maladie de notre temps. It would mean that the composer is no longer a star, as today, but an uomo sociale [a social being], someone who learns and teaches. He would be someone who shows other people how to compose; I could envisage composing becoming something that all people can do, simply by taking away their inhibitions. I think there is no such thing as an unmusical person.56

These are the somewhat utopian ideas that in the 1970s and 1980s were often pigeonholed as “postmodernist,” and that received their most conspicuous summary in a tract by the French cultural theorist Jacques Attali called Bruits (1977; translated into English as Noise: The Political Economy of Music). Henze's was a remarkably early formulation, brought on by an unexpectedly overwhelming encounter with British rock in the mid-sixties. The final irony is that by the 1990s, when he wrote his autobiography, Henze suppressed (or repressed) that aspect of his esthetic odyssey; neither rock nor the Rolling Stones are mentioned in that book in connection with Musen Siziliens. (The quotations given above come from Henze's program note to the first recording, made when the piece was new). But these vagaries will be something to trace in the final chapters of this book.

Perhaps the emblematic response to the sixties on the part of what was by now becoming the senior generation of the European avant-garde was Sinfonia, a sprawling composition for eight amplified solo voices and orchestra in four movements (later expanded to five), composed in 1968, the “year of the barricades,” by Luciano Berio, whose bemused, somewhat patronizing tribute to rock and to “the liberating forces of eclecticism” that the new popular music had unleashed is already familiar to us. Sinfonia (to be pronounced, Berio has said, with the accent on the second syllable, rather than the third as in ordinary Italian) was one of a group of commissions issued by the New York Philharmonic in connection with its 125th anniversary in 1967; this explains why English is the dominating language of the texts.

The idea of “fusion” was embedded at Sinfonia’s core. The virtuoso voice parts were composed for the Swingle Singers, a vocal octet founded by the American conductor Ward Swingle (b. 1927) to perform a “crossover” repertoire that encompassed everything from Renaissance madrigals to arrangements of current pop songs. Their most successful recording, “Bach's Greatest Hits,” was a lively and impressively pitch-perfect recital of Bach keyboard pieces sung to the accompaniment of a jazz rhythm section (bass and traps) in the “scat” style popularized by jazz singers who vied with instrumentalists by improvising to meaningless syllables (or “vocables”). Especially in the fifth and last movement of the revised Sinfonia, Berio exploited their near-incredible agility and accuracy.

The texts enunciated in the previous movements already constituted a wildly eclectic collage. Much of the time the singers vocalized on vowels or other phonemes, in the fashion of much avant-garde music that explored the soft edge dividing (or connecting) music and language. Against this background of primal lingual soup the first movement pits readings from The Raw and the Cooked (1964), a treatise by the “structural anthropologist” Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), whose subversively “relativistic” theories on the correspondences between modern thought, including scientific and historical thought, and ancient or prehistoric myth had made him a hero of the sixties New Left. The readings Berio selected were from creation myths, and the mysterious opening thus stands in a Romantic line beginning with Haydn's oratorio The Creation, and extending through Beethoven's Ninth (quoted explicitly in Berio's third movement) and Wagner's Ring, on to the great twentieth-century torsos like Scriabin's Mysterium and Schoenberg's Jakobsleiter that had achieved mythic stature in the historiography of “Western music.”

That is ambitious company, and Berio intended a new commentary on the eternal question of the relation between the present and the past. The most explicit discussion comes in the third movement, the most famous one, in which the corresponding movement of Mahler's Second Symphony (which already contained semihidden, ironic allusions to works by Beethoven, Schumann, and Bruckner) unwinds virtually in its entirety as a background to a frantic projection of “graffiti,” some in the form of spoken words (many drawn from Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable, the bible of postwar existentialism from which the epigraph to chapter 1 in this book is also drawn), others in the form of whispered solmization syllables, still others in the form of allusions in the orchestra to a panoply of repertoire items from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms to Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky (not omitting Berio himself and other Darmstadt alumni). The orchestra also adds some startling dissonant clusters, perhaps in the spirit of revolutionary slogans scrawled on the walls of public buildings.

What was later widely identified as “postmodernist” commentary on the simultaneity of the past and the present thanks to media and memory, and the impossibility of innovation except through unexpected juxtaposition and collage, is foreshadowed here. But that is not all. The word graffiti (writing on walls) is especially apposite for this movement, since among the words muttered or shouted by the singers are slogans (“Forward!” “We shall overcome!”) that Berio took down from the walls of Paris during the 1968 student riots at the Sorbonne, which he had witnessed at first hand.

Among all the other things it can be construed as being, then, Berio's collage was a panorama of the moment of historical disruption and unrest that was “the sixties.” The idea of an overload of experience was conveyed in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the manner of a medieval motet: the texts are often fragmented by hockets and voice exchanges, and often compete simultaneously for the listener's attention, so that the overall effect, as Berio put it in a program note, was one of “not quite hearing”—an experience that was, he said, “essential to the nature of the musical process,” just as it was part of the experience of living through a turbulent time. Even the appropriation of Mahler as the soundtrack for Berio's sonic newsreel was a comment on the decade, since the sixties, which began with Mahler's birth centennial year, were the decade of Mahler's triumphant return (or rather his long-deferred admission) to the active symphonic repertoire, in which performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the Philharmonic's conductor and Sinfonia's dedicatee, had played a crucial role.

Also straddling the archaically ritualized and the ultratopical is the second movement of Sinfonia, “O King.” Its structure is like a modernized isorhythmic motet, with an abstractly conceived pitch ostinato interacting and overlapping with an abstractly conceived rhythmic ostinato. Interacting, meanwhile, with both of these is a series of vowel sounds enunciated by the singers, derived according to a similarly abstract plan from a structural typology of vowels developed before the war by the British linguist Daniel Jones. (Readers interested in the full details of these pitch, duration, and vowel “rows,” and in tracking their deployment, can find a detailed analysis in David Osmond-Smith's handbook, Playing on Words: A Guide to Luciano Berio's “Sinfonia” [London, 1985]; it requires seventeen pages to lay out all the ingenious details.)

Toward the end of the movement, these stately and impersonally interacting cycles give way to a more obviously manipulated passage that leads to a climax (Ex. 7-8) in which the vowels are permuted into a different order and equipped with consonants to articulate them, revealing for all to hear (or perhaps “not quite hear”) that they are the constituent vowels of the phrase “O Martin Luther King.” The movement is in fact a memorial to the slain civil-rights leader, and forms a kind of delta into which several other of Sinfonia's symbolic streams flow. The relationship of such a memorial to a panorama of the sixties is self-evident. Less obvious, perhaps, is the relationship to the Lévi-Strauss readings in the first movement, which had coalesced toward the end on the mythical idea of the héros tué, the “slain hero.” Berio had written “O King” in 1967 as a tribute, and decided, after King's martyrdom, to adapt the piece (originally scored for a single singer and a chamber ensemble) for the large forces of Sinfonia to serve as a commemoration, and (as he has told interviewers) as a rebuke to the Americans for their slow progress toward racial justice. To incorporate such sentiments into so ostentatious a technical tour de force, or to filter their expression through so arcane a medium of representation, raises some serious ancillary questions, however—questions that threaten to reopen some old misgivings about the relationship of elite art and civil society.

Radical Chic

ex. 7-8 Luciano Berio, Sinfonia, II (“O King”)

These questions were reformulated in the aftermath of the 1960s, by the journalist and social critic Tom Wolfe (b. 1931), under the rubric of “radical chic.” Wolfe coined the phrase in the title of a much discussed and debated magazine article that described a party given by Leonard Bernstein and his wife in their Park Avenue duplex penthouse apartment, in January 1970 (on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday), to raise money for the legal defense of the Black Panthers, one of the most radical activist organizations of the day on behalf of minority rights, and one of the most controversial owing to their recourse to confrontational and occasionally violent tactics—tactics (including openly anti-Semitic rhetoric) that were contributing to the sundering of the bonds of solidarity between blacks and white liberals that King had sought to strengthen, and undermining, perhaps permanently, the integrationist “melting-pot” ideal.

An invited guest, Wolfe subjected the occasion to a scathing satire born of his impression that the sentiments motivating the Bernsteins’ espousal of the Panthers’ controversial cause were less altruistic than narcissistic. The climax, of both outrage and hilarity, came when Wolfe quoted Bernstein as expressing his solidarity with the Black Panthers by citing his own “problem about being unwanted”57 as an artist in America, putting his own self-pity front and center. The implicit accusation was that pampered elites, whether social or intellectual or artistic, were incapable of any other response to social problems than a self-centered or frivolously self-regarding one, and that their acts of apparent (even subjectively sincere) social conscience amounted to nothing more than a means of self-congratulation.

It was a blunt and maliciously overstated attack, but many acknowledged its grain of truth. The taint of glamour was at odds with the claim of sincerity; solidarity was compromised by condescension. The same contradiction has dogged the reception of high artistic tributes to the causes of social underdogs and to the iconic embodiments of such causes, like Martin Luther King Jr. Who is the true hero of an ostentatious tour de force like Berio's “O King”? Is it the righteous man to whom it was dedicated, or is it the clever man who devised it? The former would in all likelihood not have recognized the tribute. Indeed, it is questionable whether anyone could get the point of the piece, or even notice the emergence of King's name, without consulting a program note or an analysis. It was another case, to recall Benjamin Britten's Aspen lecture (quoted in chapter 5), of being addressed (discourteously, Britten would have insisted) in a language one did not understand.

Why was such a language deemed necessary or appropriate for such a purpose? Could there be a sincere or effective tribute to the civil-rights movement on terms so esoteric? Or had the voice of reverent conscience become, in the gloomy words of the cultural historian A. N. Wilson, “inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging egomania called The Modern”58? Answers to these questions are not self-evident. But the questions persisted and nagged, and contributed to the erosion of faith in the sanctity of high art that found its watershed in the “postmodern” decades that followed the sixties.


(46) Robert Henderson, “Henze, Hans Werner,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. VIII (1980 ed.), p. 492.

(47) Hans Werner Henze, Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography, trans. Steward Spencer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 207.

(48) Ibid., p. 208.

(49) Ibid., p. 209.

(50) Hans Werner Henze, liner note to Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft 139 374 Stereo (ca. 1970).

(51) “Does Music Have to Be Political?” in Hans Werner Henze, Music and Politics: Collected Writings 1953–81, trans. Peter Laban (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 169–70.

(52) Henze, Deutsche Grammophon liner notes.

(53) Ibid.

(54) Henze, Bohemian Fifths, p. 212.

(55) Ibid., p. 194.

(56) Henze, Music and Politics, p. 171.

(57) Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic and Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1970), p. 71.

(58) A. N. Wilson, God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 12.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 The Sixties. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007008.xml