They put you down, they say I’m wrong

Over at Dial “M,” Phil picks up the coveted “Getting Dissed by Robert Christgau” Webelos pin. I’m hot and cold on “I was there, man” testimony—a valuable source of emotional evidence, but usually insufferable as an argument-killer. As an adolescent of the 80s, I find it especially eye-rolling coming from representatives of the 60s: you’re patronizing me on behalf of a cohort that ended up contributing to a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan? I’ll let you know when I start to envy that intellectual journey.

The thing is, I’m fascinated by the upheavals of the 60s, but more as a window into the human capacity for optimistic folly rather than a narrative of youthful triumph. (One could argue that the revolutionaries of the 60s might have made more of a lasting impact if they had considered the history of their 19th-century predecessors as the rueful comedy it was rather than the heroic tragedy they wanted it to be.) And one particular aspect of the 60s has really jazzed me ever since I first read one of my favorite “popular” histories, David Halberstam’s deceptively breezy survey The Fifties. Halberstam’s argument was that much, if not all, of the intellectual cast of the 60s actually began percolating in that previous decade. The caricature of the 60s is that the revolutionary movement was forged in the crucible of the Vietnam War, but what if the war was merely the peg around which all of those already existing currents coalesced? The intellectual tail wagging the historical dog, as it were? Unwittingly, perhaps—although anyone who knew their Lenin would have seen the parallel with his seizure of the Great War’s opportunity.

I was thinking about this yesterday, after the following question popped into my head: when did the idea of composing tonal music as an act of rebellion first originate? I’ve had a vague sense of this trope resurfacing in the past few weeks, the attitude that writing triadic “classical” music is somehow sticking it to the atonal/academic man. I’ve never subscribed to that motivation, although I have sympathy for it—an awful lot of my favorite composers wrote great music because they had something to prove. But what’s interesting to me is that such a stance almost certainly developed in the 1960s; it was only then that atonality would have acquired anywhere near the institutional and establishment credentials to make it worth rebelling against.

My gut reaction would be that it originated with the minimalists, but that seems too easy, especially in light of the genre’s 1950s precursors (Young, Nancarrow, Partch, Cage, &c., and yes, to use Phil’s term, I’m lumping and not splitting, but my sense is that the minimalist movement drew energy and inspiration from all those exemplars)—those composers were far more interested in forging independent paths than confronting the status quo head-on. It’s also important to remember that plenty of establishment composers continued on writing tonal music as atonality took root in America—Barber, Shapero, Ward, to name a few—perhaps the more radically experimental aspects of minimalism lent the accompanying tonality revolutionary credentials. Or again, maybe it was just a historical opportunity, that anything novel in the late 60s could easily claim the countercultural mantle, that it wasn’t a motivation at all, but just a post hoc political-historical framework for music that was going to be created anyway.

Just to be clear, I don’t know which, if any, of those scenarios might be more or less likely—this is something that’s taken up residence on my research-to-do list, and for now, I’m just spouting impressions off the top of my head, because, well, I’m a blogger, and we do have a certain irresponsible reputation to maintain, don’t we? But I’m going to start that research not with the minimalists, but with another, early signpost of bad-boy tonality—Leonard Bernstein’s October 24, 1965 rhymed New York Times justification for the composition of Chichester Psalms, as he put it, “Certain to sicken a stout John Cager/With its tonics and triads in E-flat major.” Sicken? Probably not. But, of course, that was an integral part of Bernstein’s artistic personality: considering everything he did to be some sort of radical break with something. In the process, Bernstein pushed the origin of “the 60s” back even further; it was 1967 when he pronounced that Mahler’s time had, indeed, come. The 60s did have their origin in the 50s—the 1850s. (Give or take a couple of decades.) Nobody left to make an “I was there” objection to that theory.


  1. My understanding has been that George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1972) was one of, if not the, first pieces written by an academic as a direct affront to academic serialism. Rochberg’s son died in 1963, and he apparently felt that serialism was an inadequate language with which to express the emotions he felt about it, calling it “meaningless.” I believe the piece was quite controversial at the time in those circles for that reason. So you’re right, there was plenty of tonal music being written all throughout the 20th century in various contexts, but the attack on serialism and atonality from within American academia didn’t really begin until the ’70s I think.

  2. Of course the Man is corporate these days and not academic. I think that the backlash against the tonal man has been brewing: I’ve thought of John Adams as the “Viacom composer” par exellance for a long time now, and composers that are younger than me (i.e. in their early 20s) seem even more put off by that music than I was. I was recently chided by one young composer I know for even attending a Joseph Schwantner concert (he said something like “I don’t know if he has totally sold out, but it’s certainly not… exciting music. What are you doing there?”). Schwanter these days is relatively less corporate (i.e. not as down with the Man-agement) than Adams (huge Ford Corporation sell-out-award excepted…. ). Anyway, at this very moment, the dart board pictures of the young may be switching from Milton to John…?

  3. I keep forgetting how young you people are, and that’s a compliment.And “northumbrian monk” is onto something. I adore John Adams’ music but when I asked a young composer working with The Other Minds Festival in San Francisco if he was going to the “A Flowering Tree” premiere concerts at the local symphony, he wrinkled his nose. “I’m not really into that,” and when I asked him who he was into, the reply was “Alvin Lucier, a few others…”By the way, good use of “Webelos.”

  4. There is some serious revisionism going about: even in the heyday when sparks were flying among the figures we now recognize as having major music-historical importance, the vast majority of music being made and taught-to-make in most institutions from the Ivies and Conservatories all the way down to Podunk Community College was in some conservative, traditional tonal idiom. Consider choral music of the 1960’s, for example. It’s startling both how the repertoire on a recording like the Odyssey “Extended Voices” set (Lucier/Brandeis Chamber Choir) remains fresh and radical, but was so totally isolated from the mainstream. Oliveros’s Sound Patterns and the Feldman pieces have become repertoire items, in spite of being completely off the official choral music radar. But then again, who’s singing Halsey Stevens these days?Or band/wind ensemble music: the entire avant garde was basically shut out by the wind ensemble establishment; there are simply no uptown serial bebop band pieces, no indeterminant band pieces, and no classical minimalist band pieces, but plenty of new music was commissioned, written, published and performed during this period.

  5. Actually I’ve been hearing that the wind ensemble arena is starting to attract the avant-garde again, if only for the fact that they have the rehearsal time to put together something complicated.I knew someone was going to beat me to Rochberg 3. I have been <>sleeping on the job<>.

  6. I like to think of atonality as the exception and tonality as the norm, actually. There were a lot of composers active in Vienna the 1920s and 1930s who never took to atonality–like Kauder and Mittler. They had somewhat “underground” compositional lives in America (where they went to escape the Nazis), but were overshadowed by the popularity of Schoenberg and all that he represented. I am happy to be constantly challenged by the newly-recorded music I encounter by tonal composers from the middle decades of the 20th century. Maybe the ultimate rebellion during the 20th century was simply not to buy into what was deemed the future of music. Maybe the ultimate rebellion now is to make musical decisions for personal reasons and not for reasons of wanting to go along with what is considered “current.”

  7. I’ve never been able to make sense of that story that after Rochberg’s son died he realized he could no longer write twelve-tone music. I don’t understand how that’s different from saying, “after his death I can longer write in e minor.” It does say something about how people seemed to think about it then (and now, I guess), but it still doesn’t make sense. Speaking only for myself, I was very relieved when I heard a twelve-tone piece of Rochberg’s and I disliked it just as much as I disliked his tonal stuff. Also, incidentally, Shapero had pretty much stopped writing music by the 60’s and didn’t really resume much until he bought a computer about twenty years ago. Barber pretty much ground to a half after Anthony and Cleopatra; I have a sense that he was winding down before that, though (although that may just be my imagination–the quality of what he was writing certainly was on the decline–at least that’s what I think–consider the piano concerto, which is really a pretty lame piece–especially if you compare it to Knoxville, say, or any of the versions of Medea, or even the Capricorn Concerto) The person who really defiantly kept writing tonal music all that time was Ned Rorem. The question of when writing tonal music as an act of defiance is a really interesting one, though. I wonder if it’s connected at all with the rise of Ives.

  8. For what it’s worth, I remember reading an interview with Rochberg a few years ago in which he said the story of his son’s death and his move to tonality had been distorted, or that at least too much had been made of it. He’d been leaning toward a new mode of expression for some time, and the two events happened to coincide, which may or may not contradict/clarify earlier statements he made on the subject. If I find the source, I’ll quote directly, but that was the gist of it, if memory serves.

  9. I agree with Rodney and Matthew—I never really bought into the Rochberg story, either. There’s some collage pieces from the 60s that clearly hint at the Mahleresque turn he would take. That said, I think the “rebellious tonality” meme predates the 3rd quartet.Rodney: Barber’s slowdown after <>Antony<> was well-documented, but having once heard the CSO perform “The Lovers,” I would say that reports of his artistic demise were somewhat exaggerated. The last couple song cycles—”Despite and Still” and the Three Songs from 1972—are sharp and polished and surprisingly playful. (If you like Barber, which I do.)I sense the anti-tonality backlash, too, but how much of it is just the usual generational conflict I can’t tell.

  10. Probably the Rochberg story was made significant by people who were looking for yet another way to bash twelve-tone music (whatever that is). They could have evoked Bax, quoted in the Lexicon of Musical Invective to the effect that twelve tone music was very good at depicting negative things like murder, but was incapable of anything to do with wholesome ones, such as young love and the coming of spring. I do like Barber–selectively. I was crazy about his music when I was in high school. The latest piece which I really like is Adromache’s Farewell, which I heard the Longwood Symphony do about a year ago and was relieved to find still seemed really good to me. (The translation he sets is really absolutely first class, but the music’s wonderful as well–well, maybe except for the ending.)

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