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Music in the Late Twentieth Century



Many believe that all history is about the present, in that our present dilemmas are what impel our interest in the past. I would not necessarily go that far. I see no need to insist that no one studies the past—especially the remote past—for its own sake. When I lived to perform medieval and Renaissance music, I was not conscious of any ulterior purpose (other than wealth, fame and power). But when my interests began to turn toward the more recent past, I was very much aware that I was motivated by my discontent with the present and my wish to understand its sources as a first step toward amelioration.

If one accepts the premise that the more recent the past, the less disinterested our curiosity about it, then one has an additional explanation for a phenomenon with which all teachers of music history must contend. At the front end of the narrative, everyone seems to teach the same material, but by the time one reaches the twentieth century, and particularly the later twentieth century, one has to cut one's own swath through the jungle, and no two treatments of the period ever duplicate one another's choice of topics or examples. This situation is usually attributed to the increasing, eventually bewildering, abundance of sources as one moves through time or to the relative stability of consensus about the early phases. But, in fact, consensus has been significantly destabilized in recent years, even for the early periods, and noting the proliferation of sources does nothing to account for the swath one has chosen to cut through them.

The theme governing this volume's coverage is the cold war and its as yet insufficiently acknowledged (not to say tendentiously minimized) impact on the arts. The cold war was a period of political and cultural polarization—a polarization that is all too readily apparent in terms of musical style, but one that is rarely explained in any way other than by appealing to what Leonard B. Meyer called “fluctuating stasis” or “delight in diversity.” Yet even as pluralism took hold, significant evolution continued, and the late-twentieth-century diversity was not generally experienced as delightful. No period was ever more contentious, be it the late nineteenth century, with its Brahms versus Wagner brawling, or the early twentieth, with its Schoenberg–Stravinsky rows. The contention has by no means abated even now, which turns any attempt to treat the last fifty years of music history into a polemic or at the very least something that will attract polemical responses. The reception of The Oxford History, following its original (2005) publication in six volumes, is sufficient evidence of that.

Among the factors that made for contention was the emphasis—the willfully exaggerated emphasis, in the eyes of British and Western European reviewers—on events in America and their musical repercussions. I, of course, acknowledge the obvious prominence of matters American in this account, but it is hardly exaggerated. The United States unquestionably inherited musical leadership during this period from Europe—at first by default, as a gift from Adolf Hitler, thanks to whom Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Krenek, Korngold, Milhaud, and many others had, by 1945, joined Rachmaninoff, Varese, and Bloch in America, many of them remaining and becoming citizens. The conditions that stimulated the rise of the postwar European avant-garde were largely created by the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS), the American occupying force that, for one particularly telling example, financed and at first administered the Darmstädter Ferienkurse, at which total serialism, European-style, was born—in far more direct response to Soviet arts policy than has ever been publicly admitted. Thereafter, it was the music of the American avant-garde, chiefly represented by John Cage and Morton Feldman, and enthusiastically propagated by lavishly subsidized West German radio stations (which, in the words of Björn Heile, “competed for prestige but not for resources”), that set the tone for European experimentation. (This unprecedented, much vaunted public support for avant-garde music lasted, of course, only—and exactly—as long as the cold war; it came to an abrupt end with German reunification.) Still later, minimalism became the first style of literate music making originating in America to have the same transformative impact on European musicians that earlier European innovations had previously had on Americans, especially those studying abroad. Even here, there was a significant postwar cross-current, with many European composers coming to the United States for training as well as employment. The main impetus, moreover, for the countervailing trends toward eclecticism, postmodernism, and rapprochement with commercial genres came likewise from the United States, having originated in American youth culture and the social turbulence of the 1960s, which spread from America to Europe rather than the other way round. My emphases have been predictably ascribed to chauvinism by Europeans, but I am sooner inclined to see chauvinism in their resistance, for their accusations have not been accompanied by rebuttals or counterexamples.

American leadership in directions musicians in the West have regarded as progressive (and therefore worthy of claiming by others) is offset, of course, by Soviet leadership in directions the same musicians tend to stigmatize as reactionary. But the very use of such terminology is the best proof that esthetic judgments during the period of the cold war had been tacitly politicized. It is one of the missions of the present account to make that politicization explicit, to force it into consciousness as a necessary prelude to exorcism. That the national protagonists of this account should, in fact, turn out to be the postwar superpowers, rather than the older musical leader nations left fatigued and impoverished at war's end, only confirms the truer correspondence of this account to historical realities.

Thus, the present account is offered not in a spirit of contention, but rather one of corrective. That, of course, is the most contentious claim of all.

R. T.

November 2008

Citation (MLA):
"." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-miscMatter-011008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
(n.d.). . In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-miscMatter-011008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
"." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-miscMatter-011008.xml