Twentieth-Century Music in Retrospect: Fulfilment or Betrayal?

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Twentieth-Century Music in Retrospect: Fulfilment or Betrayal?


Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times


On the eve of the new millennium ARNOLD WHITTALL looks to the past and future of musical modernism

IT IS SAFE to say that twentieth-century composers are not the first to have been conscious of tradition - that ineluctable circumstance whereby as Schoenberg once remarked, 'no new technique in the arts is created that has not had its roots in the past.'1 There is nevertheless considerable agreement that tradition has provided a greater challenge, and a more onerous burden, for twentieth-century composers than it did for their predecessors, and something of this special, twentieth-century sensibility seems to lie behind statements like this recent one from Alexander Goehr: 'composers find their subject-matter in the contemplation of other works of music, from whatever point of view, because such works of music contain within them all the preoccupations of past and greater composers, their hopes, dreams, successes and failures as well as, presumably, the indefinable subject-matter of music itself.'2 Goehr offers there the prospect of an inescapable inheritance about which new composers can scarcely have anything other than very mixed feelings. I would not use this evident truth to support the argument that contemplation of 'past and greater composers' inevitably produces that sorry state often known as 'the anxiety of influence'.3 Nevertheless, awareness of tradition can make life more complex for composers, and it can also leave commentators on composition in some difficulty, as they search constantly for the appropriate context in which to place the various sounds which are the primary concern of their thinking and writing.

The following discussion is intentionally locked into a semantic network that is both reductive and ambiguous. 'Betrayal' can indicate 'to show signs of' as well as deception, or breach of trust: but in apposition to 'fulfilment' - developing or realising the potential of something - 'betrayal' here signifies the rejection of something for reasons which can be, ultimately, positive -justified by the results. As a critical proposition, then, 'fulfilment or betrayal' embodies a rhetorical exaggeration, singling out the polar extremes of a continuum within which the engagement of composers with the past, and with other embodiments of otherness, takes place: and that figment of critical contrivance, the archetypal, mainstream twentieth-century composition, might well embody a dialogue between sliding scales which represent the fulfilment and betrayal of tradition alternately, or even simultaneously In making these points, I'm seeking to reflect Schoenberg's declaration from 1948 that 'a hand that dares to renounce so much of the achievements of our forefathers has to be exercised thoroughly in the techniques that are to be replaced by new methods.4 In other words: in looking back at the twentieth century I want to consider how a small number of cultivated composers and writers have looked at the whole topic of looking back.

Two of my chosen writers, Richard Taruskin and Roger Scruton, have each made a special point of giving priority to an evolutionary model of music in which tradition is held to underpin, validate - and constrain - specifically twentiethcentury innovation. In his study of Stravinsky, Taruskin creates a richly detailed portrait of 'a Russian who not only made a profound and unique synthesis of his country's musical traditions', but who did so in such as way as to inscribe the essential procedures of musical modernism -'discontinuity' and 'block juxtaposition' among them - at the heart of 'the whole world of twentieth-century concert musiC'.5 This summary of Taruskin's analysis excludes his strong moral reservations, about Stravinsky's enthusiasm for Mussolini, for example, which embody the hermeneutic counterpole to the technical encapsulation of modernism which I've just quoted.6 But the musical diagnosis in itself is unambiguous, and to reject it we would need to argue that Stravinsky's 'profound and unique synthesis' involved the betrayal rather than the fulfilment of implications central to the tradition from which that synthesis stems. …

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