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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

But the first question remains: why evoke the styles of particular “masters” rather than use the language of tonality in a more generic way that might ultimately become one's own? Rochberg never answered this question, and some were therefore led to the conclusion that his motives were shallow. Pastiche composition (as opposed to actual quotation) had never before been used for any other purpose than instruction, or the formal demonstration of skill. To use it as a method for sincere expression of personal emotion seemed a contradiction in terms. But one of Rochberg's major contentions, in his essay on the Third Quartet, was that one's personal emotions are never only that, but are also part of the “physical-mental-spiritual web” that connects people.

Yet if true, that point would apply equally to the old masters, the composers Rochberg adopted as his models, who after all did manage to create the personal idioms that he was content to imitate. (And it would also apply, say, to Poulenc and Prokofieff, who wrote, and to Britten and Shostakovich, who were still writing, in personal tonal idioms even in the twentieth century.) To understand Rochberg's conviction that he had to speak in the recognizable voices of the past one needs to take a further step into specifically postmodernist terrain.

In the “Postscript” to his novel The Name of the Rose (1983), the Italian writer Umberto Eco described the dilemma of “belatedness,” the sense of coming after everything that mattered. Many artists and critics have identified that despairing sentiment as the distinguishing esthetic frame of the late-twentieth-century mind. Some have associated it with modernism, with its heavy sense of history's burden. But the typical modernist solution to the dilemma was to try to evade the burden through voracious innovation. Dubbed the “anxiety of influence” in 1973 by the literary critic Harold Bloom (often invoked by music historians in connection with Brahms, the first of the burdened moderns), that compulsion to allude to but also to distort and “misread” the past was interpreted, in Bloom's briefly influential theory, as the main engine driving the breakneck history of the arts. When that anxiety subsides into detached acquiescence, Eco argued, postmodernism begins. “I think of the postmodern attitude,” he wrote,

as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland [1901–2000, a famous romance novelist]. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated, both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony. But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.38

Eco (as if practicing the detachment that he preached) wrote lightheartedly about what many artists have experienced as a tragic state of affairs. The sincerity that so surprised and disconcerted critics and colleagues in Rochberg's resumption of a premodernist style, according to Eco's account of postmodernism, was bought at the price of a greater “global” irony. Rochberg expresses his own heartfelt emotion “as Beethoven (Mahler, Schoenberg) would put it,” for according to Eco, there is no other way of doing so at the fallen end of the twentieth century. Using an innocent language innocently—using tonality “in one's own way”—is no longer even an option. The choice is bleak: either renounce expression altogether or borrow a voice.

The implication is indeed depressing: just as we can communicate artistically only through the studied simulacra of styles that were once spontaneous, so our emotions themselves have become simulacra. Rochberg's quest to regain the full range of sincere emotional expression that had been available to artists (and other humans) before the horrors of the twentieth century is thus doomed to failure; but the failure is noble, because it faces the unhappy truth of contemporary life rather than retreating, as modernism had done, into a self-satisfied, self-induced (and socially isolating) delusion of freedom. “Postmodernism,” in this view, means resignation to (or making the best of) a state of diminished capacity.

Whether read at face value, as a brave and potentially fruitful undertaking to turn back the clock at the last minute, or in Eco's wry interpretation as a forlorn but necessary (and therefore still brave) coping with a hopeless reality, Rochberg's postmodernism was taken by many if not most of his fellow professionals as intolerable backsliding. It inspired a backlash; and as always, the backlash accomplished more than the original initiative had done toward publicizing and validating “new romanticism” as a timely creative option. As earlier, in the case of architecture, the fulminations did not do what they were supposed to do but instead helped turn postmodernism, or at least Rochberg's variety of it, into a media event. Within a few years, the New York Philharmonic commissioned its composer-in-residence, Jacob Druckman (1928–96), to organize a festival of recent music called “Horizons ’83: Since 1968, A New Romanticism?”

The loudest protests came from the most committed modernists. Among critics that meant Andrew Porter, who scoffed at the festival as a “swing to the right”39 comparable to Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency, which in music as much in politics meant “the repudiation of newly enlightened ways, the reinforcement of old prejudices, the championship of easy mediocrity, and self-indulgent nostalgia.” Porter saw his task, correctly, as first of all to defend the modernist view of history. “In theory,” he allowed of Rochberg's about-face, “there is no reason a modern composer shouldn't write a Monteverdian madrigal as good as any Monteverdi wrote (or an artist paint in Vermeer's manner a Christ at Emmaus as moving as if it had been painted by Vermeer himself).”40 But the allowance—especially the calculated reference to Vermeer—was in fact derogatory. Mentioning Vermeer brought to mind Hans van Meegeren, the artful forger whose “Vermeers” had made him rich. It was van Meegeren to whom Rochberg should be compared, Porter implied, because, he insisted, it doesn't ever happen in practice that a simulacrum is as good as an original.

But, comes the postmodernist retort, that is only because we know it is a simulacrum and judge it by irrelevant standards of authenticity. And it is only prejudice, such an answer might continue, that allows Porter to assert a priori that when Rochberg writes in the manner of Beethoven or Mahler, “it becomes apparent not only that he is not their peer but also that he has donned fancy dress.” But authenticity was not the only point to be raised in objection to the new postmodernist turn. When Rochberg came forward with an opera, The Confidence Man (after Melville), entirely composed in “pastiche” idioms, the critic was ready to make his political allegations explicit. “The effect of this music,” Porter warned,

can perhaps be pernicious. It was disturbing to hear one of our abler young violinists remark at a symposium that he would rather play good Amy Beach than bad Elliott Carter. (Is there any bad Elliott Carter?) Rochberg writes reactionary stuff—music whose appeal is to closed, unadventurous minds. I know nothing of his extramusical beliefs, but his works could become cultural fodder for the New Right: Down with progressive thought! Down with progressive music!41

That kind of critical hysteria is good press for any composer. And even though he distorted it with a dubious political analogy, Porter was correct to identify progress as the issue dividing modernists and postmodernists. Sometimes Rochberg's defenders have tried to justify him on the old grounds, by claiming (to quote his younger colleague Jay Reise) that his recontextualizations of “tonal” styles “have led to a highly progressive music,”42 since one hears common-practice tonality differently when it is presented neither as the unquestioned norm nor as an inert relic of the past, but as one among equally valid alternatives for composers of the present. “That George Rochberg's music directly involves the past—for the sake of reopening the entire question of what is expressively valid in a transhistorical sense—is what spurs the erroneous conclusion that his music is reactionary,” Reise concluded. “A careful and sensitive listening to Rochberg's recent music will clearly reveal, however, his exceptional role in the progress of music in our time.”43

By casting Rochberg's eclecticism as novel rather than nostalgic, Reise emphasized its kinship with what Charles Jencks called “double coding” in architecture. Juxtaposing historical references without respect for their chronology does alter one's apprehension of them. The objective in both cases is for styles formerly thought of as part of an inexorable historical progression (“decorative” to “functional” in architecture, “tonal” to “atonal” in music) to be regarded as expressive rather than historical categories, all equally available to artists of the present, whose “transhistorical” reach is for that reason richer in possibilities than that of any previous generation of artists. But that viewpoint is possible only if one renounces the idea of historical progress in the arts. To call it progress (or progressive) in its own right only creates a needless paradox.

Beginning with his Quartet no. 7 (1979), Rochberg's music settled into a distinctive idiom reminiscent of what in historical terms used to be viewed as a “transitional” style poised on the cusp of atonality—a style bridging or synthesizing late Mahler, say, and early Schoenberg. To use such a style as an entirely stable idiom, not “pregnant with the seeds of the future” or leading inexorably to something else—using it, that is, in a manner altogether foreign to the way confirmed historicists like Mahler or Schoenberg themselves regarded it—is another way of liberating music from the tyranny of history. In a “transhistorical” view there is no such thing as a transitional style. To achieve that perspective is the essential postmodernist project.


(38) Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), pp. 67–68.

(39) Andrew Porter, “Tumult of Mighty Harmonies,” The New Yorker, 20 June 1983; rpt. Porter, Musical Events: A Chronicle, 1980–1983 (New York: Summit Books, 1987), p. 466.

(40) Andrew Porter, “Questions,” p. 306.

(41) Andrew Porter, “A Frail Bark,” The New Yorker, 16 August 1982; Musical Events, p. 292.

(42) Reise, “Rochberg the Progressive,” p. 395.

(43) Ibid., p. 406.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009007.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 25 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009007.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 25 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009007.xml