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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

It was still possible to shock, however, and Rochberg proved it. Nothing in the work of previous collageurs, including Rochberg himself, prepared audiences or critics for his Third Quartet, even though its continuity with his previous works is obvious in retrospect. Its first movement, marked Allegro fantastico; violente; furioso, raised no eyebrows. Fantastic violence and fury were the modernist stock in trade, and the music was based on harmonies that, while suitably dissonant, were altogether familiar: every chord in Ex. 9-3a is a composite “atonal triad” plus inversion, a harmony of stacked fourths and tritones that had been in widespread use since the early years of the century, and the melodic motive is an arpeggiation of the same harmony, equalizing the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions in a manner long associated with Schoenberg and Bartók. This was a time-tested, everyday—hence conservative—“new music” gambit.


ex. 9-3a George Rochberg, Quartet no. 3, I, beginning


ex. 9-3b George Rochberg, Quartet no. 3, III, mm. 1-32

The shock of the new came in the third movement, a set of variations marked Adagio sereno, molto espressivo e tranquillo; pure (Ex. 9-3b). Its three-sharp key signature means what it says: this is a work in a fully functional A major, confined to a style that (according to one baffled critic) “César Franck would have deemed harmonically unadventurous.”29 So he would; for the style (not only as regards harmony but as regards the treatment of the instruments) is identifiably that of Beethoven's late quartets, and in affect the movement alludes specifically to the Cavatina from op. 130 and the “Heilige Dankgesang” (“Hymn of Thanksgiving”) from op. 132.

Coming as it does after two movements in unspectacular (and anonymous) but nevertheless solidly identifiable twentieth-century style, the stylistic contrast is obviously related to the collage techniques Rochberg had been employing for nearly a decade. But for its duration, the Adagio was not a collage but a pastiche—something that had no modernist credentials at all. (Later, Rochberg extracted it from its original context and reissued it in an arrangement for string orchestra called “Transcendental Variations,” in which ingenuous pastiche completely supplants ironic collage.) It actually sounded like Beethoven, and—as the author of this book can attest—the 1973 Nonesuch recording by the Concord Quartet (the group that had commissioned the piece) quickly became a favorite item for “guess the composer” games.

A composition like this broke all the rules. There was little or no “distancing.” The impression was one not of sophisticated irony, but (as with Crumb) of disconcerting sincerity. Unlike the neoclassicism of the 1920s, in which aspects of the morphology and phonology of obsolete styles were revived amid a syntax that was wholly contemporary, Rochberg's Adagio revived the syntax as well, treating Beethoven's style as if it were not obsolete at all. To write in an obsolete style as if it were not obsolete was to challenge the whole idea of stylistic obsolescence. And to challenge that idea was to put in question the “necessity” of the twentieth century's stylistic revolutions—the most sacred of all modernist dogmas.

Of course there were many composers, especially in America, who had come of age in Stravinsky's “neoclassical” (or Copland's “Americanist”) orbit, and who wrote in more or less conventional “tonal” idioms all through the period of stylistic revolution. They included celebrities like the charismatic, photogenic Leonard Bernstein, one of the most prominent conductors of the period, who led the New York Philharmonic from 1957 to 1969 (and was thereafter “conductor laureate” for life). Television had made him by the 1960s probably the most famous classical musician in the world. Nearly a decade before Rochberg made headlines with his Third Quartet, Bernstein wrote Chichester Psalms (1965), a euphonious choral composition in B♭ major that rode the coattails of his personal fame to a popularity that, it is safe to say, no other classical composition of the decade ever approached. But it was not perceived as making (or challenging) history; quite the contrary.


fig. 9-3 Leonard Bernstein, photographed by Al Ravenna in 1955.

Ned Rorem, another American traditionalist, familiar to us for his showy tribute to the Beatles (chapter 7), wryly observed of the stir that Rochberg's Quartet was making that people who quit smoking gain a sort of praise that people who never smoked at all never get, even though the latter are the more virtuous. And while it was not exactly praise that Rochberg was getting (although traditional antimodernists and other lapsed or lapsing modernists did greet the Third Quartet with some enthusiasm), the point hit home. Within the view of history that supported modernism, “tonal” composers in the twentieth century, no matter how famous or successful, were historically insignificant—and the relative lack of attention that they are paid in narrative histories, even this one, shows how influential the modernist “master narrative” has been on historical writing.

But nobody could write Rochberg off that way. “Once one of the foremost serial composers”30 (in the words of a younger colleague), he had done the unthinkable: he had been at the vanguard and quit. His significance as an academic modernist had been universally acknowledged, so he could not now be ignored. Regarded as an apostate, he was hailed and reviled in equal measure for the act he had committed rather than the music he produced. In similar fashion, when three years later a “neotonal” piece (Sonata for Solo Violin by Hans Jürgen von Bose) was finally performed at Darmstadt, the audience erupted in protests and catcalls reminiscent of the Rite of Spring premiere sixty years before. Unlike the latter, however, the performance was literally drowned out and the performer was forced to stop. Because it took place in Germany, where artists had been regularly shouted down by politicians within living memory, the protest begot more protests.

Whether in New York or Darmstadt, the initial reaction was provoked entirely by the style of the music rather than its specific content or expressive effect, which only corroborated the pattern of reception that had always attended twentieth-century music, The Rite and all. But rather than glorying in a succès de scandale, which would have confirmed him (however perversely) as a modernist, Rochberg decried the pattern and set out to demolish it. No other century had been as style-conscious as the twentieth, he complained. In no other century did each and every composer feel such a compulsion to “view his situation in terms of where he's been, where he is now, and where he must go.”31 These were the bedrock tenets of modernism, so deeply ingrained that most composers were not even aware of alternatives.

In part Rochberg himself was responsible for the polarized way in which his quartet was received, for he did everything he could to provoke it. In a program note that accompanied the 1973 recording, he preempted the debate he knew was coming with a searching discussion that must count among the earliest self-conscious proclamations of a postmodern sensibility in—and for—music. (It was the first of many increasingly acid musicopolitical polemics that he would write over the next two decades.) The quotation in the preceding paragraph about twentieth-century composers’ need to, so to speak, take their historical temperature comes from this essay. Rochberg strongly implied that this compulsion, in which he had shared as much as anyone, amounted to a neurosis, and that the place to attack the disease and cure it—its root cause, so to speak—was the modern Western unidirectional concept of time itself. “Current biological research,” he declared,

corroborates Darwin: we bear the past in us. We do not, cannot begin all over again in each generation, because the past is indelibly printed on our central nervous systems. Each of us is part of a vast physical-mental-spiritual web of previous lives, existences, modes of thought, behavior, and perception; of actions and feelings reaching much further back than what we call “history.” We are filaments of a universal mind, we dream each others’ dreams and those of our ancestors. Time, thus, is not linear, but radial.32

The scientific “evidence” the composer adduced may be written off as puffing; but the belief it supported was real, and there for all to hear in the music. It was born, Rochberg said, of an honest reappraisal of the old paradox that bedeviled all composers in the twentieth century: “the music of the ‘old masters’ was a living presence; its spiritual values had not been displaced or destroyed by the new music.”33 There was an inherent and unhealthy contradiction in a philosophy of history that compelled one to reject earlier styles, when the persistence of those same styles was a fact of every musician's daily life. Rochberg began to suspect that he, like every other committed modernist composer, had cut himself off from the expressive possibilities that enabled the older music to survive. That renunciation, he feared, probably doomed his music and that of his contemporaries to oblivion.

Rejecting the modernist imperative, Rochberg wrote, was something he could not do “without great discomfort and difficulty, because I had acquired it, along with a number of similar notions, as a seemingly inevitable condition of the twentieth-century culture in which I had grown up.”34 Virtually every aspect of his unconscious heritage had to be brought to consciousness and jettisoned (a process that sounds very much like Freud's description of psychoanalysis) if he was to compose a movement like the Third Quartet's Adagio and mean it:

I have had to abandon the notion of “originality,” in which the personal style of the artist and his ego are the supreme values; the pursuit of the one-idea, uni-dimensional work and gesture which seems to have dominated the esthetics of art in the 20th century; and the received idea that it is necessary to divorce oneself from the past, to eschew the taint of association with those great masters who not only preceded us but (let it not be forgotten) created the art of music itself. In these ways I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with reactivated powers of melodic thought, rhythmic pulse, and large-scale structure.35

It was the last of these considerations, large-scale structure, that made the return to tonality necessary in Rochberg's view, because only tonality (with its power of forecasting and delaying cadences) gave music the dynamic momentum that made possible the genuinely coherent and expressively meaningful articulation of long temporal spans. What Rochberg's essay did not explain, however, was why it was desirable or even necessary to evoke the styles of particular “old masters.” (In the finale of the Third Quartet, Mahler is just as recognizably evoked as Beethoven had been in the Adagio; and toward the middle of the Adagio, the fast cross-string arpeggios are reminiscent—surely deliberately—of the luminous ending of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, an emblem of consolation.) That was the hardest aspect of Rochberg's changed manner for colleagues and critics to accept. Another question worth asking is why Rochberg should have come to his impasse, and then his turning point, exactly when he did. The essay does not really explain that, either.

Only later did Rochberg divulge the answer to the second question. It turned out that his postmodernist revolt did not happen as spontaneously as he had formerly implied, nor were the reasons for it as theoretical as his discussion of them had been. His last serial work was a trio for piano, violin, and cello, completed in 1963. The next year the composer experienced a personal tragedy, when his twenty-year-old son Paul, a poet, succumbed to cancer. He found he had no vocabulary with which to mourn his loss or seek solace from it. “It became crystal clear to me that I could not continue writing so-called ‘serial’ music,” the composer told an interviewer. “It was finished, hollow, meaningless.”36 Having made this admission, Rochberg went on to confess that his objective in reverting to “tonality” was less to debate theories of history than simply to recapture a lost expressive range. “The over-intense manner of serialism and its tendency to inhibit physical pulse and rhythm led me to question a style which made it virtually impossible to express serenity, tranquillity, grace, wit, energy.”37


(29) Andrew Porter, “Questions,” The New Yorker, 12 February 1979; rpt. in A. Porter, Music of Three More Seasons (New York: Knopf, 1981), p. 305.

(30) Jay Reise, “Rochberg the Progressive,” Perspectives of New Music XIX (1980/81): 396.

(31) Liner note to Nonesuch Records H-71283 (1973).

(32) Ibid.

(33) Ibid.

(34) “On the Third String Quartet,” in Rochberg, The Aesthetics of Survival (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), p. 240.

(35) Liner note to Nonesuch H-71283.

(36) Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982), p. 340.

(37) Liner note to Nonesuch H-71283.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009006.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009006.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009006.xml