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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

The most direct evidence of a postmodernist turn in music came right alongside the Green challenge to the idea of progress. The big story of the 1950s, we may recall, had been the “conversion” to serialism of figures like Copland and Stravinsky—a story that paid the highest tribute to, and considerably strengthened, the master narrative. Two decades later, the big story and the most convincing evidence that the master narrative was losing its grip were the almost equally conspicuous conversions that took place in the opposite direction.

That story begins (or we can begin effectively to tell it) with the first performance, on 15 May 1972, of the String Quartet no. 3 by George Rochberg (1918–2005). Until then, Rochberg had seemed an untroubled academic modernist—and a distinguished one whose works had been honored with many coveted awards. He was not only a prominent exponent of serial composition, but a noted theorist of serialism as well. In 1955 he published a small book called The Hexachord and Its Relation to the Twelve-Tone Row. Based on a thorough study of some of the late works of Schoenberg, it was a pioneering investigation of the technique that Milton Babbitt would later christen “combinatoriality”. Like Babbitt, Rochberg applied his theoretical inquiries directly to his compositions, for example in a much-played and much-studied Duo concertante for violin and cello (1953), a work whose performance medium was particularly well suited (and probably chosen) to display the contrapuntal possibilities of hexachordal combinatoriality. The composer of such a work was obviously, and fruitfully, committed to the ideal of perpetual technical advance. That commitment found reflection in Rochberg's appointment in 1960 as the chairman of a major American music department, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rochberg's String Quartet no. 2 (1961) attracted wide attention precisely on account of its advanced technique. Like Schoenberg's Quartet no. 2, which evidently inspired it, Rochberg's quartet incorporated a part for a soprano soloist in addition to the four strings. She sings (in English translation) the opening and closing stanzas of one of the “Duino Elegies” by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). The poem is a meditation on the passage of time and the transience of life, in response to which Rochberg devised a complex scheme of superimposed tempos to call attention, as the poem is sung, to the temporal matters it treats. Rochberg named Ives as the progenitor of his technique of “tempo simultaneity”; but of course the most conspicuous recent embodiment of the idea had been Elliott Carter's String Quartet no. 1 (which, as it happens, had been issued on a recording in 1958, the year before Rochberg started work on his Quartet no. 2). It is hard not to see Rochberg's Quartet as vying with Carter's, applying the most advanced contemporary rhythmic style to an equally advanced hexachordal-combinatorial organization of pitch.

In any case, Rochberg identified himself through this work as a composer interested in exploring and extending the latest techniques of his craft, thinking that to be the best way of achieving a truly contemporary intensity of expression. In a program note he wrote to accompany the first recording of the Quartet no. 2, Rochberg justified his rather detailed description of his innovative technique with the comment that “it is impossible to separate the ‘what’ of a work from its ‘how.’ ”16 That could stand as a singularly concise précis of modernist principles.

In the decade that followed the Second Quartet, possibly again inspired by Ives, Rochberg experimented with collage techniques. In Contra mortem et tempus (1965)—a quartet for violin, flute, clarinet, and piano, whose title (Against Death and Time) again evokes Rilke — he wove a densely expressionistic contrapuntal fabric out of lines extracted from various atonal or twelve-tone works by Ives, Alban Berg, Edgard Varèse, Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, and himself. In keeping with so much modernist music, the collage was a “secret structure.” The works on which it drew were unlikely to be recognized by most listeners, especially as the reweaving emphasized (to quote a critique by the musicologist Alexander Ringer, a friend of the composer) “the fundamental sameness of so many pitch successions in panchromatic music.”17 Rochberg's next collage piece, Music for the Magic Theater (also composed in 1965), took a somewhat more daring step, juxtaposing source material distinguished not by “fundamental sameness” but by extravagant dissimilarity: a divertimento by Mozart; a symphony by Mahler; the “Cavatina” from Beethoven's Quartet in B♭, op. 130; the famous beginning of Webern's Concerto, op. 24; Stockhausen's Zeitmässe for wind quintet (itself a famous study in rhythmic and textural complexity); Varèse's Déserts; “Stella by Starlight” (a transcribed Miles Davis recording); and several works by Rochberg himself, including the String Quartet no. 2. What all of these source-works had in common was a descending chromatic motif that gave the work a hidden unity — another “secret structure.”

The title of the composition is a reference to the final section of Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf (1927), one of many modern novels to explore the theme, derived from Nietzsche by way of Freud, of contradiction between the demands of social harmony and the untamed beast of man's inner spirit. In the Magic Theater (i.e., the mirror of the mind), the title character—outwardly an ordinary middle-class citizen named Harry Haller, but on the inside a raging wolf of the steppes—comes face to face with Mozart, the paragon of benign detachment and spiritual wholeness: in other words, everything that modern man lacks.

Mozart, at first unrecognizable in modern dress and wigless, leads Haller to a primitive “wireless receiver” (radio), which is playing a Concerto Grosso by Handel. The music comes through the static woefully distorted. Haller protests, but Mozart cautions that it does not matter. Here is an excerpt from his sermon:

You hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by wireless, is, all the same, in this most ghastly of disguises still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life. When you listen to wireless you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine. Exactly, my dear sir, as the wireless for ten minutes together projects the most lovely music without regard into the most impossible places, into snug drawing-rooms and attics and into the midst of chattering, guzzling, yawning and sleeping listeners, and exactly as it strips this music of its sensuous beauty, spoils and scratches and beslimes it and yet cannot altogether destroy its spirit, just so does life, the so-called reality, deal with the sublime picture-play of the world and make a hurley-burley of it. It makes its unappetizing tone-slime of the most magic orchestral music. Everywhere it obtrudes its mechanism, its activity, its dreary exigencies and vanity between the ideal and the real, between orchestra and ear. All life is so, my child, and we must let it be so; and, if we are not asses, laugh at it. It little becomes people like you to be critics of wireless or of life either. Better learn to listen first! Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.18

Just so, the middle section (act II) of Rochberg's Music for the Magic Theater subjects the “sublime, divine” Adagio movement from Mozart's Divertimento, K. 287, to the hurly-burly of modernity. At first, Mozart's music is merely rescored from the original string quartet to an ensemble of fifteen players (roughly the “orchestra” of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, op. 9). The piano, in a concertante role, sometimes takes over the original inner parts, at other times adds “graffiti” of its own in a Mozartean style. The first violin part is transposed up an octave, where it acquires an ethereal tone color that sounds (according to the composer's program note) “as though it were coming from a great distance.”

At the close, Mozart indicates a cadenza by placing a fermata over the last chord. At this point, all sorts of music composed since Mozart's time come piling on, “besliming” its sensuous beauty according to Hesse's prescription (Ex. 9-1). The chord is never resolved. But the last movement (act III) enacts the acceptance of modernity that Hesse's Mozart recommends: as the work continues, Mozart's music becomes less a contrasting ground, but is instead drawn into dialogue and eventual harmony with the modern “graffiti” until the interrupted cadence from the previous movement is resumed and completed. As Ringer puts it, the jarring interjections eventually “manage to make music with Mozart.”19

There is always a strict demarcation in Music for the Magic Theater between “then” and “now.” The chasm between past and present is not really bridged, since “tonality” is still marked as meaning “the past,” which (according to an epigraph in the score) “haunts us with its nostalgic beauty.” Ultimately, then, Rochberg's quotation of “tonal” music alongside “atonal” in Music for the Magic Theater does not (yet) imply rejection of modernism. Symbolically acknowledging the distance between past and present affirms our sense of living in a contemporary world that is marked off by a barrier from what has gone before, thus affirming the essential “truth” of modernism.


(16) Liner note to Composers Recordings CRI 164 (1964).

(17) Alexander Ringer, “The Music of George Rochberg,” Musical Quarterly LII (1966): 424.

(18) Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf, trans. Basil Creighton (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1957), pp. 301–2.

(19) Ringer, “The Music of George Rochberg,” p. 426.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." 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-div1-009003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. 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-div1-009003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." 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-div1-009003.xml