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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

El Niño was one of a number of works of flamboyant “spiritual content” commissioned and performed under prestigious auspices to solemnize the new millennium. Another, Philip Glass's Fifth Symphony (1999), was (like several of Mahler's symphonies, or the finale of Beethoven's Ninth) an oratorio in all but name, scored for five vocal soloists, mixed chorus, children's choir, and orchestra. Its subtitle, “Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya,” pits the Latin title of the service for the dead (representing the world's past) against the Tibetan word for “in between” (as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead—Bardo Thodol—which describes the soul's journey after death) and the Sanskrit Mahayana Buddhist term for rebirth or bodily transformation (representing mankind's hoped-for future). The text draws on “a broad spectrum of many of the world's great ‘wisdom’ traditions,”87 as the composer put it in a program note, translated from Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Hawaiian, Zuñi, Mayan, Bantu, and Bulu scriptures. The symphony was commissioned by the ASCII Corporation, a computer software company, for performance at the Salzburger Festspiele, Europe's most exclusive summer music festival.

Another example was the cycle of four Passions—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—that the German choral conductor Helmut Rilling, with the support of the city of Stuttgart and the publisher Hänssler Musikverlag, commissioned from a quartet of composers, one a German and three with conspicuously “multicultural” backgrounds, for premiere performances in Rilling's home city to be followed by world tours. Luke went to Wolfgang Rihm (b.1952), a neo-Expressionist representing the Germanic “mainstream.” Mark went to Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960), an Argentinian-born Jew residing in the United States (where he studied with George Crumb), who composed a lavish collage of Latin American, Afro-Cuban, and Jewish cantorial idioms and stole the show.

Matthew was assigned to Tan Dun (b. 1957), a Chinese composer trained at the Beijing Conservatory and Columbia University, who had demonstrated his suitability for the Passions project with a work entitled Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind) for orchestra, children's chorus, an ensemble of Chinese temple bells, and a solo cello part written for Yo-Yo Ma, a Paris-born American cellist of Chinese descent who had been making a specialty of “crossover” undertakings involving repertoires as diverse as jazz, Brazilian pop, Appalachian folklore, and the classical music of Central Asia.

John, finally, went to Sofia Gubaidulina, the post-Soviet composer of actual Central Asian (“Tatar” or Mongolian) descent then living in Germany, whose predilection for religious subject matter had been considered a mark of political dissidence in the waning years of Soviet authority. Yet the fact that two of the composers chosen for the Passion project were not Christian—Golijov, for one, cheerfully admitting that it was only after receiving the commission that he looked into the New Testament for the first time—suggests that the impulse behind it was something other than religious in the customary or doctrinal sense of the word.

The Adams-Sellars oratorio was also of distinctly “multicultural” content. Its texts were drawn from the New Testament, the Aprocrypha, the old English Wakefield Mystery Plays, and a Latin Hymn by Hildegarde von Bingen (the twelfth-century German abbess whose own music had achieved an improbable popularity in the late twentieth century via recordings, supplemented by modern poems by several Latin Americans, including Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–95), Rubén Dario (1867–1916), Gabriela Mistral (1899–1957), and, most prominently, Rosario Castellanos (1925–74), who combined an artistic career with a diplomatic one, serving at the end of her life as the Mexican ambassador to Israel.

One of the oratorio's most striking moments was the juxtaposition, near the end, of the terse biblical account of the Slaughter of the Innocents (Herod's massacre of all the male children younger than two years of age in Bethlehem to ensure that the infant Jesus would not survive) with Memorial de Tlatelolco (“Memorandum on Tlatelolco”), a long poem by Castellanos sung by the soprano soloist with choral support, that furiously protests the violent police repression of a student demonstration that took place on 2 October 1968 at Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City, which more than 400 years earlier had been the site of the last bloody confrontation between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernando Cortez (13 August 1521).

The poem bears witness to a crime that went unreported at the time by the government-controlled Mexican press. Its inclusion in the oratorio text draws explicit parallels between religious observance, acts of political conscience or resistance, and the role of artists as keepers of public memory and conscience. Adams's setting reaches, within the limits of the composer's openly avowed commitment to an ingratiating idiom, a pitch of intensity reminiscent of Expressionism in its use of wide intervals to distort the lyric line.

The oratorio's final number balances the vehemence of the Memorial de Tlatelolco by juxtaposing an Apocryphal account of the infant Jesus's first miracle, in which he commanded a palm tree to bend down so that his mother could gather its dates, with a consoling poem by Castellanos that pays respects to an Israeli palm tree for inspiring a moment of peaceful reflection amid the turbulence of the contemporary Middle East. Here Adams underscores the message of solace and chastened optimism by, as it were, resurrecting the Innocents in a children's chorus that gets to sing the oratorio's last word—“Poesia” (poetry)—accompanied by a pair of Spanish guitars.

There is something satisfyingly symmetrical, perhaps, in drawing on a work with a religious (and specifically Christian) subject to end a historical narrative that begins with the liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church. But that symmetry is illusory, as is any hint of closure. There is a world of difference between actual service music and an entertainment that alludes to sacred tales, and that difference reflects the fundamental trajectory of art—“high” art, at any rate—within Western culture over the past millennium.

The symmetry is fortuitous as well. The narrative begins with sacred music only because it was the first music to be written down—a distinction that came about only partly because it was sacred. And it is ending with a sacred entertainment only because at the moment of writing that sort of work seems to be the most marketable and profitable music the literate tradition can boast at a time when its end has become foreseeable.

The sacred as marketable, as profitable: it seems a paradoxical notion, even a blasphemous one. But it is not unprecedented. Nearly 300 years ago, Handel's oratorios made similarly opportunistic—and similarly successful—use of sacred subject matter to exploit the market. And just as we now resolve the paradox in Handel's case by reading through the sacred metaphor to what we take to be the Handelian oratorio's “real” (i.e., nationalistic) appeal, it may not be too early to attempt a similar reading of the “multicultural” religiosity that found such impressively widespread musical expression at the end of the twentieth century.

Historians agree that Handel's oratorios achieved their amazing success not only by dint of their musical caliber, but also by flattering their elite English audience—a mixture of nobility and high bourgeoisie (comprising “the first Quality of the Nation,” to quote a noteworthy review that greeted Handel's Israel in Egypt in 1739)—with comparisons to the biblical Hebrews, God's chosen people. The audience that patronizes the work of the successful sliver at the top of today's seething heap of struggling classical composers is a new social elite. It has been identified by the social critic David Brooks, the author ofBobos in Paradise, an amusing but penetrating study published in 2000, as “bourgeois Bohemians” (Bobos)—the highly educated nouveaux riches of the Information Age, who live comfortably and fashionably but retain a sentimental attachment to the “sixties” concerns of their youth, and who are most effectively flattered by art that reflects their ethical self-image. “The people who thrive in this period are the ones who can turn ideas and emotions into products,” writes Brooks. And that, among other things, is what composers do.

The cherished Bobo self-image is one of personal authenticity, constructed not in terms of a wholly original worldview but in terms of eclecticism—an individual selection from among the unlimited choices on the global cultural and spiritual menu. The greatest challenge the new establishment faces, according to Brooks, is “how to navigate the shoals between their affluence and their self-respect; how to reconcile their success with their spirituality, their elite status with their egalitarian ideals.”88 Their task, in constructing their identity, is to reconcile values that had been traditionally at odds: bourgeois values of ambition, social stability, and material comfort on the one hand, and on the other, bohemian values that identified with the victims of the bourgeois order: the poor, the criminal, the ethnic and racial outcast. The essential dilemma is that of reconciling the need for spirituality with the even more pressing need for personal autonomy and unlimited choice, since “real” religion imposes obligations and demands sacrifices.

It is not too difficult to see how the spiritualized classical music of the turn-of-millennium catered to these needs and predicaments. Audiences looking for purifying experiences are easily beguiled by symbols of innocence, hence the ubiquitous children's choirs in the works described above. (But that is nothing new: children's voices have long been exploited as an insurance policy by traders in romantic nostalgia: Mahler's Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies all feature real or metaphorical child-performers, as did the work of Soviet composers at times of particularly intense political pressure.) The success of “Holy Minimalists” like Pärt, Gorecki, and Tavener in the 1980s was more specifically related to the coming Bobo phenomenon. It already bespoke the desire for a way to return “aesthetically” or “appreciatively” to a world of “spiritual wholeness” without assuming the burdens of an actual religious commitment.

The added attraction of “multiculturalism”— eclecticism writ large — in the works of the 1990s completes the parallel with the Bobo mentality, which places the highest premium on “personal” pastiche. A Princeton University study of contemporary religious practices, cited by David Brooks, turned up an extreme but characteristic example: a twenty-six-year-old disabilities counselor, the daughter of a Methodist minister, who described herself to her interviewer as a “Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jew.”89 Philip Glass's post-minimalist Fifth Symphony was made for her, indeed of her.

The Adams-Sellars El Niño tapped into another time-honored trope of innocent authenticity, especially as it was performed during its initial run, with dancers interpreting the content of the words alongside the singers, and with a simultaneous film by Sellars adding yet another level of commentary. The film paralleled the unfolding story of the Nativity with footage showing the unaffected lives of anonymous members of Los Angeles's Hispanic community: a Chicano couple stood in for Joseph and Mary, their baby for Jesus, some rookie policemen for the shepherds, some local fortune-tellers for the Magi, and so on. Audience members and critics alike exclaimed at the beauty of the film, of the nameless actors, and of their emotional lives.

One of the most scathing passages in Brooks's study is devoted to precisely this sort of updating of the old myth of neoprimitivism. The immediate subject is travel:

The Bobo, as always, is looking for stillness, for a place where people set down roots and repeat the simple rituals. In other words, Bobo travelers are generally looking to get away from their affluent, ascending selves into a spiritually superior world, a world that hasn't been influenced much by the global meritocracy …. Therefore, Bobos are suckers for darkly garbed peasants, aged farmers, hardy fishermen, remote craftsmen, weather-beaten pensioners, heavyset regional cooks—anybody who is likely to have never possessed or heard of frequent flier miles. So the Bobos flock to or read about the various folk locales where such “simple” people live in abundance—the hills of Provence, Tuscany, Greece, or the hamlets of the Andes or Nepal. These are places where the natives don't have credit card debts and relatively few people wear Michael Jordan T-shirts. Lives therefore seem connected to ancient patterns and age-old wisdom. Next to us, these natives seem serene. They are poorer people whose lives seem richer than our own.90

But as Adams and Sellars showed, you don't have to travel so far to ogle “indigenous peoples” or “noble savages.” Any urban ghetto can supply them in quantity. Nor is it clear that displaying an estheticized, romanticized fantasy image of the poor for the edification or titillation of the affluent really furthers egalitarian ideals. Will imagining the poor as leading lives richer than one's own inspire social action on their behalf? Or will such a notion foster complacency? Will it inspire a true reconciliation between material comfort and social conscience? Or will it allow the comfortable to congratulate themselves on their benevolence and silence the nagging voice within?

Is the new spirituality, then, just another screen behind which high art engages in its traditional business of reinforcing social division by creating elite occasions? The old questions that bedeviled modernism have not gone away with the advent of postmodernity—which is another reason, perhaps, to doubt whether postmodernism is anything more than the latest modernist phase. Or are such moralizing concerns of dubious benefit to art or to artists, whose task of creating beauty is a constant imperative, transcending the politics (or the “political correctness”) of the moment? The debate goes on.

And so we must take our leave of it without resolution. We have observed at least three coexisting if not contending strands of literate musical composition at the end of the twentieth century. There is a thinning faction of traditional modernists, mostly aging but not without younger recruits, who maintain the literate tradition at its most essentially and exigently literate. There is a vastly overpopulated stratum of composers, as yet virtually without a nonprofessional audience, who avail themselves of new technologies that presage the dilution and eventual demise of the literate tradition. And there is a small elite of commercially successful caterers to the needs of a newly ascendant class of patrons who currently control the fortunes of the mainstream performance and dissemination media, insofar as these remain open to elite art. All three are energetically active, productive, endowed with genuine talent. Which will prevail in the long run?

In the long run, it has been wisely observed, we are all dead.91 That long a run is of no concern to the historian. At present, things remain in motion. That is all we can ask for. The future is anybody's guess. Our story ends, as it must, in the middle of things.


(87) Philip Glass, “A Bridge Between the Past, the Present, and the Future,” booklet essay accompanying Glass, Symphony No. 5: Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya, Nonesuch Records 79618-2 (2000).

(88) David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), p. 40.

(89) Ibid., p. 242.

(90) Ibid., pp. 206–7.

(91) John Maynard Keynes, Tract on Monetary Reform (1923).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010019.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010019.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010019.xml