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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

Partly following Rochberg's example, partly in response to a general turn away from utopian thinking that mounted through the 1980s toward a dramatic climax in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war in Europe, several other prominent and successful serialists (and a few avant-gardists of a different stripe) defected to “tonal” idioms that the master narrative had long since declared dead. The loosening of cold-war thinking allowed the reopening of many old and ostensibly settled questions, including the question whether commitment to historical progress was worth the sacrifice of the audience. No longer shadowed by the specter of totalitarianism, “accessibility” regained a measure of respectability. Where Rochberg described his acts and motives strictly in “poietic” (maker's) terms—his own need for freedom of choice and expressive scope—younger converts to tonality put things “esthesically,” in terms of the audience and its needs.

Two of the most prominent central European avant-gardists, György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, made spectacular neoromantic swerves in the 1970s. Penderecki's may have been stimulated by the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in Poland, an independent workers’ initiative that led ultimately to the fall of Communism there. Seeing social solidarity rather than social alienation as the most progressive political and social force is fatal to modernism. In any case, Penderecki began writing in a style that reminded Poles of the work of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz (1876–1909), a younger Polish contemporary of Mahler and Richard Strauss. Audiences abroad, unfamiliar with Karlowicz, tended to hear the music in terms of the latter's models in the New German School: one critic likened Penderecki's Second Symphony, composed for the New York Philharmonic in 1980 and reverently incorporating the familiar carol “Silent Night” as thematic material, to “Christmas at Wotan's.”44 Later, after the fall of Communism, Penderecki's style mutated again to a middle position resembling the later work of Shostakovich.

Ligeti's turnaround was stimulated by a lengthy stay in California in 1972, as composer-in-residence at Stanford University. There he heard the early minimalist works of Riley and Reich, and imitated them in Clocks and Clouds (1973) for women's chorus and orchestra. The second of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1976) is titled “Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the Background).” The opera Le grand macabre (1978) continued following the trend toward eclectic collage, now admitting rock. Finally, in his Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano, written in 1982 as a companion piece to Brahms's trio for the same combination of instruments, Ligeti put himself into a picture with Brahms himself, along with Bartók, by then regarded (especially in Hungary) not as a “modern” but as a “classic.” He frankly described the work as his regretful acknowledgment that the avant-garde had run out of steam, and that continued adherence to its ideals was a far more retrogressive stance than the “retro” styles that were taking its place.

The most prominent American defector after Rochberg was David Del Tredici (b. 1937), another alumnus (along with La Monte Young and Terry Riley) of Seymour Shifrin's composition seminar at the University of California at Berkeley. Unlike the others, Del Tredici went from Berkeley to Princeton and at first seemed destined for the career that such a move implied. His early works, beginning in 1958, were serial compositions that fastened, like Rochberg's, on the unifying possibilities of hexachordal combinatoriality, and also displayed a virtuosic flair for crafty counterpoint.

Syzygy (1966), his best-known work from this period, is one of several based on texts by James Joyce. A twenty-five-minute setting of two Joyce poems (“Ecce Puer” and “Nightpiece” from Pomes Penyeach) for a virtuoso soprano and chamber orchestra with French horn as co-soloist, it has a first movement, based entirely on palindromic motives, that plays its pitches back from the midpoint in transposed retrograde and with string and wind parts reversed (see Ex. 9-4a), and a second movement that contains a cadenza for the two soloists in which the soprano sings a canon by inversion with herself by splitting her line into two registers, each independently setting the same line of text (Ex. 9-4b).


fig. 9-4 David Del Tredici.


ex. 9-4a David Del Tredici, Syzygy, The midpoint of the palindrome in I


ex. 9-4b David Del Tredici, Syzygy, The canon by inversion in II

In both movements, the contrapuntal texture makes spectacular use of polyrhythms. Like Rochberg in his Second Quartet, Del Tredici was definitely keeping up with the Joneses (that is, with Elliott Carter). The title, an astronomical term meaning an alignment of heavenly bodies, refers to the arcane relationships—the palindromes and inversions—that so infest the composition. The composer remarked that he was always fascinated with the word and its queer spelling, which suggested that it was some other, nonexistent, word spelled backward.

Like many pieces by Princeton alumni, Syzygy was made for analysis, and received the full treatment in Perspectives of New Music, but it acquired a cult following not only among connoisseurs of serialism but also among connoisseurs of musical eccentricity as an adorably esoteric in-joke by a composer “with a fondness for strict procedures but with the rarer ability”—in the words of Oliver Knussen (b. 1952), a bright young English composer and conductor—“to see their bizarre side.”45 One bizarrerie that would not escape even the most casual observer is the use of a huge -octave carillon of tubular chimes requiring two players, which made performance of the piece, for all intents and purposes, fiscally prohibitive.

At this stage of his career, then, Del Tredici aimed at, and received, high professional esteem for exceedingly clever works composed in an esthetic vacuum. As far as the general public was concerned he did not exist; nor did it for him. No one would have predicted in 1966 that within ten years he would have forsaken serialism altogether, or that he would exercise his ingenuity in ways designed to tickle the fancy of subscription audiences in major concert halls. The catalyst was Lewis Carroll, whose poems (mainly drawn from Alice in Wonderland) would become for him a greater obsession, and a more fertile source of bizarre compositional scheming, than James Joyce had ever been.

Del Tredici's devotion to Carroll was even more consuming than Crumb's to Lorca. He has since acknowledged the programmatic (or even political) role that his identification with Carroll's “sexual secrets” played in channeling his composing activities, even though his own secrets (homosexual) were of a different order from Carroll's (pedophiliac). Between 1968 and 1996, he composed some dozen works on texts from Carroll's masterpiece (“some dozen” because various items were rescored, reused, reshuffled, and grouped into composites, and a definitive enumeration is impossible). Almost all of them are scored for a solo soprano voice amplified to compete with huge Straussian orchestras, plus in most cases a concertante “folk group” containing saxophones, banjo, mandolin, accordion, and (sometimes) electric guitars.

The first of them, called Pop-Pourri, was a typical “sixties” amalgamation of “high” and “vernacular” styles; when he composed it, Del Tredici thought of it as an isolated response to a transient historical moment. But then came a five-movement Alice Symphony (1969), followed by Adventures Underground (1971) and Vintage Alice (1972). By then, thinking enough was enough, he took his leave of Carroll with a sixty-five-minute epitome, pointedly titled Final Alice (1975), written in response to a commission from six major orchestras plus the National Endowment for the Arts in honor of the United States’ bicentennial. It is based on the final episode of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice observes, and finally upsets, the trial of the Knave of Hearts. The soloist must both narrate the tale and sing four interpolated arias.

Final Alice still contained a few twelve-tone passages to accompany magical transformations like Alice's fantastic growth. In context, the atonal music was an illustrative foil, in which the tone rows have the same distorting and disorienting effect as the accompanying glissandos for an amplified and reverberated theremin. They have become a sort of sound effect. The main musical matter, the four dazzling arias, are a virtuoso test both for the singer and for the composer, since they all amount to a huge set of variations on a single homely “Victorian”-sounding tune (Ex. 9-5a). The music appealed greatly to the kind of audience that relished, say, Strauss's Don Quixote (1897), another set of stunningly orchestrated, programmatic variations. The 1976 recording of Final Alice by its original performers (the soprano Barbara Hendricks and the Chicago Symphony under Sir Georg Solti, to whom the work is dedicated) was a classical “chart-topper” in the weeks following its release—a first for a contemporary composition.

But Final Alice was not the end. Its success brought in more commissions, and in 1980–1981 there followed the gargantuan Child Alice, another Alice Symphony—or better, perhaps, a composite cantata—that has hardly ever been performed in toto. The first of its four parts, In Memory of a Summer Day (commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and first performed in 1980), itself an hour long has three movements—“Simple Alice,” “Triumphant Alice,” and “Ecstatic Alice”—framed by an Introduction and a Postlude. The whole composition, like Final Alice, is a set of variations on another simple “Victorian” tune (Ex. 9-5b).


ex. 9-5a David Del Tredici, Final Alice, main tune


ex. 9-5b David Del Tredici, In Memory of a Summer Day, main tune

The palpable discrepancy between these homely materials and the prodigious structures to which they give rise, replete with Götterdämmerung-like culminations (marked “highpoint” and even, where necessary, “climax of climaxes” in the scores) and fantastically detailed, rhythmically intricate orchestral textures is in some sense the point of these pieces. In Final Alice the ironic incongruity between simple contents and inconceivably artful presentation seems quite explicit, as in Aria 3 (“Parody Variations”). But sometimes the artful textures and orchestration seem deliberately to recede from the forefront of the listener's attention, and at such moments the irony becomes precarious. It is when the composer seems to mean it that his music can become troubling. The fourth movement of Child Alice, called All in the Golden Afternoon, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1981, lasts almost another hour and consists of

  • a lush A♭-major setting (“Aria”) of the seven-stanza “Preface Poem” to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

  • an orchestral “Fantasia” in A major

  • a “Lullaby” set to the last two stanzas of the same poem

  • a “Cadenza” (five minutes’ worth of melismas on the single word “Alice”)

  • yet another setting (“against all reason”46 as the composer confesses or brags in a program note) of the last stanza of the title poem,

  • a coda, back in A♭ major, titled “In Conclusion (Sunset),” in which (quoting again from the program note) “steadily pulsing strings support a glowing texture, over which the soprano, as if from a great distance, floats, again and again, the poem's opening line—‘All in the golden afternoon.’” Again and again—and again and again

Del Tredici's Alice pieces are only nominally about Alice. What they are really all about is excess—glut, overindulgence, binging on voluptuous sonority and honeyed harmony. Their reception has belied the easy charge of pandering, since for every listener who has reveled along with the composer there was at least one who reacted as one might to a seven-course meal of cotton candy; and for every critic who hailed the composer's phenomenal mastery of variation technique and orchestration there were at least two who decried his “elephantine wallowing”47 (Porter) in Carroll's delicate whimsy or attributed the way in which the composer was squandering his ingenuity to some sort of morbid pathology (their dismissals occasionally couched in thinly veiled homophobic terms).

Child Alice, the most transgressively extravagant piece of all, was also the first of Del Tredici's Carroll-inspired orgies to dispense altogether with “distancing” atonalisms. Nor has there been any subsequent backsliding on his part into modernism. Any suspicion that the composer's intention was anything but provocative is dispelled by the title of the 1985 orchestral fantasy, March to Tonality, which touts the recovery of conventional harmony as, yes, progress. It is a paradox that Del Tredici loves to milk, telling an interviewer, for example, that “for me, tonality was actually a daring discovery. I grew up in a climate in which, for a composer, only dissonance and atonality were acceptable. Right now, tonality is exciting for me. I think I invented it. In a sense, I have.”48

But flouting (and in puncturing, exposing) the puritanism of the modernist “high church” is only part of the story. There is also the nostalgia for a happy childhood that Del Tredici habitually asserts in defense of his sincerity, to prove (curiously echoing the modernist line) that his turn toward tonality was conditioned by an inner necessity. In the same interview, he wittingly or unwittingly echoed (in a sort of retrograde inversion) Schoenberg's famous account of the irresistible forces that drew him kicking and screaming into atonality:

About halfway through Final Alice, I thought, “Oh my God, if I just leave it like this, my colleagues will think I'm crazy.” But then I thought, “What else can I do? If nothing else occurs to me, I can't go against my instincts.” But I was terrified my colleagues would think I was an idiot. People think now that I wanted to be tonal and have a big audience. But that was just not true. I didn't want to be tonal. My world was my colleagues—my composing friends. The success of Final Alice was very defining as to who my real friends were. I think many composers regard success as a threat. It's really better, they think, if nobody has any success, to be all in one boat.49

But immediately after this squeamish protest against suspicion of pandering came affirmation:

Composers now are beginning to realize that if a piece excites an audience, that doesn't mean it's terrible. For my generation, it is considered vulgar to have an audience really, really like a piece on a first hearing. But why are we writing music except to move people and to be expressive? To have what has moved us move somebody else? Everything is reversed today. If a piece appeals immediately, sensuously, if an audience likes it: all those are “bad things.” It is really very Alice in Wonderland.

Later, Del Tredici was able to tell a sympathetic younger composer that “I used to play the complete first draft of Final Alice just one time each day and then would consider my response: where was it dull, illogical, too much, too little? My immediate response was all I valued. I wanted to hear the piece as, eventually, the audience would—once through, without preparation.”50


(44) R. Taruskin, “Et in Arcadia Ego.”

(45) Oliver Knussen, “David Del Tredici and ‘Syzygy,’” Tempo no. 118 (1976): 15.

(46) Stagebill, New York Philharmonic, 2 June 1983, p. 20d.

(47) Andrew Porter, Musical Events, p. 468.

(48) Rockwell, All American Music, p. 77.

(49) Ibid., pp. 82–83.

(50) Paul Moravec, “An Interview with David Del Tredici,” Contemporary Music Review VI, part 2 (1992): 21.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009008.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009008.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009008.xml