The mini-discussion about Copland spurred me to move the topic to the–as it were–front page, with some rambling thoughts. It is an interesting question, exactly what was it about twelve-tone music and why did, if not everybody, then an awful lot of them, decide to dabble with it in the 50’s and 60’s. The predominant narrative seems to be the twelve-tone-music-is-just-like-the-Soviet-Union-Evil-Empire one, which has it that all the terrible mean old people in the music schools terrorized their poor little students into writing it.

I don’t buy that. I was around for some of the end of that period, and I simply didn’t get that from some people who were supposed to be extremely doctrinaire about it–Donald Martino, Gunther Schuller, and Arthur Berger, for instance. I don’t doubt that some of that went on and that some teachers did bully their students, but it just doesn’t seem to me to be enough of an explanation for what was so widespread. (And never having been a particularly good student myself, I’ve never had much time for good students who do what their teachers tell them to do. I have a feeling that peer pressure was probably a lot more effective that teacher pressure, anyway.)

Taruskin offers some of that idea and adds to that the theories that for Copland it was a means of using abstraction to escape from his political traumas and for Stravinsky it was just a matter of always remaining new, progressive, and, above all, chic (that’s maybe a little simplified–but not much). Most of the current explanations take as their starting point the conviction that nobody could possibly like anything that sounds like that, so there must be some reason other than its being what anybody might have wanted to hear.

If one considers that the general idea of what twelve-tone music was, how it operated, and why anybody might want to do it was as crude and dumb as Bernstein’s explanation of it in The Joy of Music, I suppose one might be tempted to agree with them. (That’s ignoring the fact that “twelve-tone” music covers musics as different as Dallapiccola, Babbitt, Boulez, Martino, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern.) Although I suppose if somebody thinks all that music sounds alike, they could find just about any justification for it plausible). I think it’s important to keep in mind that for a bunch of people the sound of the music and the ability of “the system” to help them arrive at what they wanted to write anyway was important.

My sense is that although none of those reasons are completely wrong, exactly, none of them by itself is it. I’m sure that many people were dazzled by Babbitt’s brilliance and personal charm (both of which are considerable) and influenced by it, and I’m sure that there’s some way in which it seemed smart and intellectual and fitted into an increased association of “serious” music with academe. But I think it’s a matter of what might be called a kind of group hysteria. As far as I can see it just began to seem to everybody to be the thing to do, and just about everybody felt obligated to go for it, whether they like the idea or not. So that in the US, whereas a sort of neo-classicism was they thing before the second world war, all of a sudden twelve-tone seemed to be the thing.

It’s striking to me that just about everybody fooled around with it, or something like it, including Virgil Thomson (whose idea really had to do with using twelve-note chords, and collections of triads that made up aggregates–in, for instance, the Three Pictures for Orchestra, A Solemn Music, some of the ‘cello concerto, the prelude to the dream sequence in The Mother of Us All, and some of the Requiem), Bernstein (in The Age of Axiety), and Britten (who used “twelve-tone rows” in The Turn of the Screw, Cantata Academica, and parts of Death In Venice–probably some other pieces as well).

Apparently Copland at Tangelwood in the 50’s was eager to point to the Piano Variations as proof that he had, earlier on, been interested in serialism. Etc., Etc., Everybody seemed fascinated by it; some were also repulsed, but still they struggled manfully on. There were some people who completely ran aground on it, though–the most noticeable to me being Harold Shapero. I think Irving Fine had just about taken it in stride, but then he died, so who knows what he might have done.

It’s very striking to me that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of them that they didn’t have to do it if they didn’t want to. That’s maybe a function of the fact that it was a much more unitary culture which assumed that all serious music fitted into a fairly narrow stylistic range, so that when the style changed for some reason, everybody needed to change with it. The kind of pluralism which I guess is more the order the present day (although just try to find a twelve-toner nowadays) coincides with a greater availibilty of musics from all kinds of times and places, so it’s harder to even conceive of a unified culture, much less try to impose it. (I sometimes think, though, that the anti-modernist are making pretty good go at it–much more than the nasty old twelve-tone modernists ever did in their heyday. )

So, my idea of what happened can be summed up in a statement by Virgil (about something else): “There’s no question of anybody influencing anybody. We all sat in the same draft and we all caught the same cold.”

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