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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

The new interest in supporting classical composition in traditional “audience” genres affected the concert hall as well as the opera house. The most spectacular case, perhaps, was that of John Corigliano's First Symphony (1989), first performed in 1990 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and later, internationally, by almost 100 others. Along with its lavish orchestration (including parts for virtuoso piano and cello soloists), its rhetorical intensity, and its at times poignant use of collage, the symphony's topicality contributed to its success. A memorial to victims of the AIDS epidemic, it had four movements each dedicated to the memory of a deceased friend, and gave public expression to the composer's “feelings of loss, anger, and frustration,” in alternation with “the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering.”

So if the composer John Adams's “impression,” voiced to an interviewer in November 2000, was a true one—namely, “that in terms of commissions there's never been a more bullish period in American history”83 than the 1990s—it is testimony to a new consensus among composers and their patrons that contemporary classical music can and should have the sort of topical relevance more usually found in popular culture, and that works relevant to the topical concerns of the contemporary cultural elite are the ones that will be (and should be) rewarded. John Adams was in a good position to know, having been among the most conspicuous beneficiaries of this dispensation. One of the moments that defined its emergence, in fact, took place in 1990, when the San Francisco opera rescinded a commission it had given to Hugo Weisgall for on opera on the “timeless” biblical story of Esther in favor of a topical opera by John Adams called The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the killing by Palestinian terrorists of an American Jew on board an Italian cruise ship in 1985.

A New Topicality

fig. 10-10 John Adams, 1991.

Klinghoffer was the second opera Adams had composed in collaboration with the poet Alice Goodman (b. 1959) and the director Peter Sellars (b. 1957). The first, Nixon in China (1987), was the work that originally stimulated the new wave of commissions. Largely on the strength of Sellars's reputation as an operatic enfant terrible (known for radical “updatings” of familiar operas, such as a Don Giovanni set in the New York slums and a Marriage of Figaro set in a luxury apartment building often assumed to be Trump Tower), and on the assumption that it would satirize one of America's most controversial political figures, the opera had been jointly commissioned by four houses: the Houston Grand Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Netherlands Opera. Its four premieres took place between October 1987 and June 1988.

A New Topicality

fig. 10-11 Scene from act I of the opera Nixon in China (Houston Grand Opera, 1987).

The work confounded expectations by being cast not as a farce but as a heroic opera that turned the title character, as well as the Chinese leaders Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, into mythical representatives of their countries—naively idealistic young America and ancient, visionary China. Adams's music, like that of Glass's Voyage, was set in what could be called a “postminimalist” style, in which the freely grouped and regrouped subtactile pulses and arpeggios of minimalism, and interesting textures obtained by pitting pulses at differing rates of speed in counterpoint, were reconciled with a fairly conventional harmonic idiom, naturalistic vocal declamation, a neat “numbers” format replete with entertaining choral and dance sequences, and frequent references to various styles of popular music. A fairly standard orchestra was given a late-twentieth-century, somewhat Steve-Reichian sonic edge by replacing the bassoons with a quartet of saxophones, and by adding a pair of pianos and a keyboard sampler to the percussion section.

Adams's harmonies move around circles of major and minor thirds as consistently as traditional harmony moves through circles of fifths, thus making the early-twentieth-century “Franco-Russian” idiom the foundation of his late-century style, and making the same sort of end run around the twentieth century's German and German-influenced music that the midcentury “neoclassicists” (especially the French-trained Americans of the “Boulangerie”) had made in their day around the Germanic music of the nineteenth century. But in Adams's work that idiom is “demaximalized,” domesticated, made comfortable. Chords that Stravinsky might have mixed into dissonant “polyharmonies” succeed one another in gleamingly consonant progressions.

To take one example, one of the score's most characteristic progressions puts in alternation the two triads that together had made up Stravinsky's so-called Petrushka-chord as early as 1911. (In Ex. 10-4a it is quoted from Chou En-lai's toast to the Nixon party near the end of act 1.) Later, as the toasting scene reaches its climax, Adams astutely allows the subtactile pulse to drop out, so that an irregular succession of halves and dotted halves, formerly controlled by a steady stream of quarters, can ring out as if spontaneously, achieving a true emotional climax. The harmonies here form a module, a chain of triads with roots related by thirds (cast, Philip Glass–like, in a textbook-defying voice leading that grants full rights of citizenship to the chord), which picks up extensions and interpolations as it repeats (Ex. 10-4b):

[C (+m3) E♭(−M3) B (+m3) D (−M3) B♭]

[C (+m3) E♭(−M3) B (+m3) D (−M3) B♭]

[C (+M3) E (−M3)]

[C (+m3) E♭(−M3) B (+m3) D (−M3) B♭]

[C (+M3) E (+M3) A♭(+M3) C]

A New TopicalityA New Topicality

ex. 10-4a John Adams, Nixon in China, Act I, Chou En-lai's toast

Nixon in China differed from most twentieth-century operas by reinvoking music's power of enchantment, surrounding historical characters with a “transcendent” aura that turned them into “timeless,” godlike figures. In particular, this characteristic set the opera off from the topical operas or Zeitopern (“now-operas”) of the 1920s and 1930s. Where in the disillusioned aftermath of World War I audiences enjoyed an operatic genre that debunked the myth of “timeless” art, in the super-affluent, triumphant post–cold war decade audiences sought through art the monumentalization of their own historical experience.

A New TopicalityA New Topicality

ex. 10-4b John Adams, Nixon in China, Act I, choral response

The operatic mythologizing of Richard M. Nixon's most impressive diplomatic coup displeased a minority who objected to the way it helped turn memory away from the domestic scandal that ended his presidency. It disturbed others who objected to the callow way it cast the bloody Chinese Communist dictatorship, fresh from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, in an uncritical, heroic light. But the critical consensus that formed over the remaining years of the twentieth century seemed to favor the aesthetic eclipse of “mere” history or politics. The critic Alex Ross went so far as to predict that “a century from now audiences will still be fascinated by this opera, and that some listeners will have to double-check the plot summary in order to remember who Richard Nixon was.”84 Its value, like that of all great art, the critic implied, was independent of its relationship to external reality, and that value was its capacity to create spiritual archetypes.

And yet that very evaluation, that very assignment of values, was the product of an external reality; and another external reality, that of Arab-Israeli conflict, prevented The Death of Klinghoffer from having a comparable success. The work was commissioned, on the coattails of Nixon’s success, by another international consortium that included the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie (Brussels, Belgium), the Opéra de Lyon (France), the San Francisco Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival (Scotland), and the Los Angeles Festival of the Arts (or rather, by their various corporate sponsors).

Adams modeled the work to a degree on the Bach Passions, with choral commentaries from mythologized communities of Jewish and Palestinian exiles (cast as the biblical offspring of Jacob and Ishmael) set in dramatic counterpoint against the bloody events of November 1985. As with Nixon in China, the subject matter sufficed to make the work controversial, and attracted attention (and audiences) to it. It was to many, moreover, a hopeful sign that “high” art was participating in an ongoing political and moral debate, and might therefore seem less marginal to contemporary society and culture. But this time, the stance of transcendence was widely read as an arrogant, or at least a complacent, evasion of moral judgment.

One critic, echoing the claims of the work's creators, wrote that “as the authors’ approach to this sensitive subject is classical, no ‘sides’ are taken,”85 a comment which elicited from another critic this perhaps overwrought rejoinder:

Bach, the ostensible model, who knew not “classical,” took sides, all right. Or should we prefer a “classical” Passion, in which Christ and his betrayers are treated “evenhandedly”? If such moral indifference is an accurate measure of what the “classical” has now become, then the “classical” deserves its fate. Its death may ultimately be judged a suicide.86

He went on to complain at the way “the forms of old sacred genres (in this instance, the Bach passions) are appropriated to cloak moral blankness and opportunism in a simulated religiosity,” and in so doing, may unwittingly have put a finger on the “external reality” that undergirded the seemingly sudden new viability of classical music. At a time of gross materialism and commercialism widely compared in America to the “Gilded Age” at the end of the previous century, classical music (Wagner then; Adams now) was being marketed for its powers of “uplift” to a guiltily affluent audience (“robber barons” then; “venture capitalists” now) eager to depict itself as humane.

Peter Sellars, the mastermind behind both Adams-Goodman operas, made the claim quite forthrightly. “I think in this age of television and Hollywood film, if classical music is going to stick around, there'd better be a very good reason,” he told an interviewer. Then, shifting oxymoronically into the language of commerce, he added, “We have to offer something that is not available otherwise. I think it is spiritual content, which is what's missing from the commercial culture that surrounds us.” This time, the subject under discussion was not an opera but a new collaboration by Sellars and Adams, and a more overtly religious one: a topically slanted nativity oratorio called El Niño, commissioned by another international consortium—Théâtre du Chatelet (Paris), the San Francisco Symphony, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (New York), the Barbican Centre (London), and the British Broadcasting Corporation—and performed according to the terms of the commission in Paris, San Francisco, Berlin, New York, and London between December 2000 and December 2001. It will make an apt final exhibit for this book.


(83) “In the Center of American Music” (interview with Frank J. Oteri conducted on 21 November 2000), New Music Box, no. 21 (II, no. 9): www.newmusicbox.org/first-person/jan01/5.html.

(84) Alex Ross, “The Harmonist,” The New Yorker, 8 January 2001, p. 46.

(85) Robert Commanday, “‘Klinghoffer’ Soars Into S.F.,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1 November 1992, Datebook, p. 42.

(86) R. Taruskin, “The Golden Age of Kitsch,” The New Republic, 21 March 1994, p. 38; rpt. in R. Taruskin, The Danger of Music, p.260

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010018.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010018.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010018.xml