The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 4: The Early Twentieth Century

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 4: The Early Twentieth Century


Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times


Volume 4: the early twentieth century 826pp. ISBN 0 19 522273 3.

IN HIS ADMIRABLY lucia and socially responsive fourth volume of The new Oxford history of western music Richard Taruskin addresses the breakdown of the Enlightenment ideals of humanism and progress, and the rise of Soviet communism and European fascism. 'The worst century there has ever been', pronounced the late Russo-Jewish historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, with murderous unreason masking itself as reason. Thus we can hardly expect to find the overall sustained level of achievement attained by the classical and romantic eras, though the extraordinary constellation of early modernist masterpieces thrown up in the decade immediately before the Great War might well have been considered under the current notion of 'the long 19th century' (1789-1914). In fact, very few composers were so unworldly as to be entirely unaffected by the dehumanising, iconoclastic spirit of the postwar age - characterised by the political Scylla and Charybdis of democracy versus elitism, the aesthetically destructive vogue for scientism, and the fashionable debunking of high cultural values by such irreverent figures as Satie, Poulenc and Virgil Thomson. For all his seriousness of mind and firm values, Professor Taruskin himself has difficulties with the great 19th-century German tradition and its idealist conception of music and philosophy as transcending normal social and political life; Hegelianism, Marxism and their over-conceptualised ideas of historical inevitability are roundly condemned in favour of a contingent conception of human agency in the world as it really is.

He is therefore particularly disturbed that these intellectually remote positions were taken to extremes around 1907, when Schoenberg ceased any attempt to communicate his own psychological explorations with an uncomprehending and hostile general public, relying instead on his coterie of brilliant pupils and his short-lived 'anti-democratic' Society for Private Musical Performances. At this point, the vexed question of the 'private language argument' is briefly raised - 'Could one, truly recording one's "inner occurrences" and doing full justice to their uniqueness, utter anything but nonsense?' - but without any reference to Wittgenstein's celebrated treatment of the subject in Philosophical investigations (1953). Taruskin would certainly agree that language, verbal and musical, is meaningless other than as a shared, communal phenomenon; thus Ives, Bartok, Janâcek, artistically uncompromising figures who nevertheless recognised this, meet with his particular approval. Throughout this volume restricted musicological orthodoxies and its exclusive barriers are continually broken down, providing the most illuminating insights and bold new perspectives. In defiance of Adorno, the play of historic styles in Stravinsky's Octet and Oedipus rex is juxtaposed with Schoenberg's cabaretinspired Pierrot lunaire and the wittily classical 12note Suite op.25; Bartok's scientifically researched Hungarian folksong idiom with Janâcek's meticulously notated Moravian speech rhythms; the ironical defamiliarisation of tonality in Berg's Woyeck, and the socially motivated stylistic renunciation of Kurt WeilPs Der Dreigroschenoper, with the modern 'stile antico' of Korngold, Rachmaninov and Medtner.

Moreover, the hegemony of the Austro-German tradition is severely challenged by Taruskin's expert and rigorous examination of Russian musical culture, revealing far more intellectual substance than is often realised or admitted. The importance of Rimsky-Korsakov, so much more than a mere provincial oriental colourist, is seen as crucial to the stylistic formation both of his pupil Stravinsky and Ravel. Scriabin and early Stravinsky are among the modernists who effectively issued challenges to analysts - decades apparently lapsed before symmetrical interval cycles and octatonic harmonic constructs were perceived in the tonal mists of Scriabin's enigmatic Preludes, though Tovey in his Encyclopaedia Britannica articles was already aware that the strange novel harmonies characteristic of the mystic later works were really 'sophisticated ' dominant seventh chords. …

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