STM-Online vol. 3 (2000)
Joakim Tillman, Stockholm University

Writing Twentieth-Century Music History in Postmodern Times

Joakim Tillman, Stockholm University


Postmodernism has changed our view of twentieth-century music history and led to a critical examination of earlier ways of studying and writing it. Carl Dahlhaus, for instance, argued in 1985 that today when the 1950s have become history – and no longer form a living background to the present – it is high time for a critical examination of the view of the 50s as the decade of integral serialism.1

Why then did the 50s become the decade of integral serialism? According to Dahlhaus one main cause was the ideas of Theodor W. Adorno, which not only influenced critics and musicologists, but also the composers and thus governed not only writing about music, but the development of the music itself.2 Central to Adorno’s thought was the belief that there was one history and that this history developed with necessity according to certain laws. In music history the tendency of the material was the driving force. In the view of the young composers, the historical necessity after the Second World War was to resolve the conflict between the advanced pitch structures and the traditional elements in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music. The answer to this problem was integral serialism. Of course critics and composers in the field of integral serialism observed that other kinds of music were composed in the 50s. The important distinction, from their point of view, was that the music of integral serialism, through its historical necessity, was the only relevant part of music history and the only music that was aesthetically valuable.

In our pluralistic times, though, Dahlhaus questioned whether the idea of a main current in the development of compositional history was historiographically legitimate. Consequently he thought that it was about time for a revision of the music history of the 50s.3 However, it is not only the music history of the 50s that has been written from the perspective of modernism. The idea of progress as the most important driving force in history and as the criterion of aesthetic value and historical importance permeates almost all books on twentieth-century music. As a point of departure for the following considerations I will use one of the most recent handbooks on the music of this century, Robert P. Morgan’s Twentieth-Century Music,4 and Christopher A. Williams’s criticism of this book.5

[2] Williams versus Morgan

In his preface Morgan makes some decisions about the overall focus of his study of twentieth-century music history. Firstly, music history is “above all the study of music itself” (p. xii). Though stating that the larger context has not been ignored, it is obvious that “broader issues” like “music’s role in society, its reception by audiences, its relationship to other arts and to political and economic factors, its performance practice, and its theory and pedagogy” are of secondary importance to Morgan.

Secondly, he makes a decision about geographical compass (p. xiii). The subtitle indicates that the book is about twentieth-century music in Europe and America but, as Morgan admits, particular emphasis is placed on central Europe (especially Germany and France) and the United States. Morgan’s reason for the focus on Germany and France is the influence of those countries on Europe as a whole. He does not, however, say what this influence consists of, although one might suspect that it relates to these countries’ roles in the innovation and progress of musical modernism. The extensive treatment of the United States, though, is explicitly motivated by “this country’s particular role in nourishing the more experimental strains that form one of the century’s enduring and characteristic features” (p. xiii).

Thirdly, concerning the types of music to be included Morgan limits the scope almost entirely to Western art music. “[P]opular music, folk music, jazz, as well as non-Western musics of all types” are touched upon only “insofar as they have directly influenced concert music” (p. xiii).

Even within this “relatively circumscribed framework,” though, it is necessary for the historian to make a further decision as to which composers and works are to be included.

In this process of selection the more conservative composers tend to be neglected; although many attained positions of great prominence in their own day, they rarely exerted a significant long-range influence. This in itself reflects a point of great historical significance: musical modernism has defined itself more through emphasis on the new, on what was musically unprecedented and thus distinct from the older tradition, than through any other single attribute – an important reason for the concentration on technical issues in the study of twentieth-century music, and for the continuing use of the designation “modern” to refer to an extensive body of work now almost a century old (p. xiv).

It thus seems as if Morgan’s way of writing twentieth-century music history is governed by the idea of a main current where innovation and progress are the driving forces and the most important criteria of historical importance. And, as the quote above shows, this is also the reason for the first limitation of focusing on the music itself.

[3] According to Williams, Morgan is “unable to shake ingrained patterns of thinking about twentieth-century music – patterns with which we all have been raised and which replicate themselves in book after book” (p. 37). In order to analyse Morgan’s view of history it is necessary to confront “the particular self-perpetuating historiographic framework from which it and so many other efforts to write contemporary music history have sprung” (p. 37). “The chief element in this framework,” continues Williams, is an insistence on a narrow idea of historical progress “according to which value judgements tend to be conditioned by abstract, measurable standards of technical progress, standards which may not be germane to an artwork’s cultural significance.” Williams terms the philosophical underpinnings of this historical framework “techno-essentialism” (p. 42).

Throughout his article Williams accuses Morgan of adhering to this model. Morgan, for instance, “validates the familiar prejudices of avant-garde aesthetics which favor technical sophistication,” (p. 33) his “rejection of these concepts as outmoded Romantic notions provides the kernel of his sympathy with the technocratic currents in postwar music and of his tendency to prioritize precompositional theory over stylistic result,” (p. 59) and he “has room only for styles that draw their vitality from sophisticated techniques of systematization, like total serialism” (p. 59).

One of Williams’s major concerns is the narrowness of the techno-essentialist canon of composers considered worthy of study. He argues that a critical examination of how we have arrived at this canon so far has been hindered by the “dominance of a historical model that privileges precompositional method over stylistic evolution, absolute music over dramatic or multimedia works, and pitch structure over other dimensions of musical texture” (p. 32). However, I believe that these are some of the very categories that lie behind the formation of the canon. I will return to this problem later in the paper.

Now, of course, Morgan doesn’t just write about the composers in the narrow canon. The problem, according to Williams, is how the ideal of technical progress affects the treatment and evaluation of composers outside the canon:

The styles of commonly acknowledged leaders of the avant-garde – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Boulez – are parsed, defined, and distinguished, while those of other figures are lumped together in an undifferentiated mass. The reader comes away with little sense of how a Shostakovich might differ from a Pfitzner, or a Reger from a Britten; all four simply are labeled “conservative,” a word used throughout the book as a synonym for “regressive” (p. 33).

[4] This criticism, though, is far from correct. Actually none of these four composers is “simply” labeled conservative by Morgan. The word conservative is not used at all in the section on Pfitzner. Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 132, is said to be a fascinating example of the composer’s peculiar blend of conservative and progressive elements (p. 40). This is far from simply labeling him conservative. In the Shostakovich chapter the First Symphony is described as a “conservatory graduation piece written with impressive assurance in an essentially conservative tonal style,” (p. 244), but the word is not used in the characterization of the later music. Discussing Peter Grimes, Morgan does write that “the opera’s modal-diatonic style and solidly triadic harmonic foundation bespeak Britten’s essential conservatism,” (p. 276, my italics). But this characterization is not used to dismiss the opera and the composer as regressive and uninteresting. Morgan also writes that Peter Grimes is “remarkably complex,” that the subject is “decidedly modern in flavor,” and that only “a composer of uncommon dramatic and compositional instincts could have so effectively brought off the range of musical moods demanded by the opera’s plot” (p. 276).

I also disagree with Williams’s statement that these four composers “are lumped together in an undifferentiated mass.” Williams is certainly right in arguing that the short entry on Pfitzner is weak and that the half page devoted to applying empty labels could have been more effectively and informatively used (pp. 57-58). The entry on Reger, though, is about thrice as long as the one on Pfitzner, and the Britten and Shostakovich sections are about six and seven pages long, respectively. The discussions of these composers also contain much more consideration of individual works and technical and stylistic characteristics. Of course, this is far from the space devoted to Schoenberg or Stravinsky, but it is not an undifferentiated lumping together of composers outside the canon.

Williams complains that ideologically slanted jargon is used throughout the book to enforce aesthetic segregation:

Terms associated with nineteenth-century aesthetics are consistently transformed into pejoratives. The word “traditional” – like “German,” “Romantic,” “tonal,” “conservative,” and “Wagnerian” – is used almost exclusively to explain why a style should be uninteresting from a modernist perspective (p. 58f).

Again I think Williams is given to exaggeration, but there is some truth in his complaint. Although not all composer’s associated with the word “tonal” are considered uninteresting by Morgan, you get the feeling that they are interesting in spite of the fact that they write tonal music. Interesting tonal composers are also associated with words like “progressive” and “complex” in Morgan’s book.

The problems concerning the treatment of composers outside the canon also are apparent in the chapter titled “The New Pluralism”. Williams thinks that Morgan renders the term “pluralism” useless by intermingling many contradictory definitions. The inclusion of different composers in this chapter, “rather than in the context of the particular stylistic currents” to which they have contributed, thus “is especially disturbing, since it perpetuates a binary model of ‘mainstream’ music and its ‘Other,’ paying shallow courtesy to the concept of a pluralistic society” (p. 52f).

The dominance of the idea of technical progress, though, doesn’t just result in a distorted treatment of composers outside the canon, but also leads to a limited view of the composers in the canon. “By dropping all mention of Ives’s personal, inimitable stylistic voice for the last page of the section,” writes Williams, “Morgan leaves the reader with the impression that Ives should be valued primarily for his introduction of new technical devices” (p. 50). Another case is total serialism, where Williams objects that “it is debatable whether the serial dimension per se is the most salient stylistic characteristic of the music” (p. 60).

Another of Williams’s major concerns is the importance of context and cultural meaning. Morgan’s first limitation, the focus on the music itself, therefore is under constant attack in Williams’s article. Though Morgan does provide background accounts of individual works or composers, Williams thinks that these are superficial:

Texted works are never discussed in terms of their poetic message or the role of this message in defining their cultural meaning, even when this cultural meaning is a primary motivation for the work’s creation (p. 55).

Moreover, when Morgan does discuss context, he “focuses upon background currents that validate his own teleological historiography instead of trying to let each epoch speak for itself” (p. 55). According to Williams this neglect of cultural and textual issues leads to serious distortions in the account of musical works (p. 56f). Morgan’s brand of historiography thus “prizes rhetorical coherence over historical accuracy” (p. 68). The alternative task of historiography, as Williams sees it, is “the reconstruction of the particular conditions (social, historical, and immanent) that led to the production of artworks and fueled the dynamics of their reception” (p. 68).

[5] How, then, should the history of twentieth century art music be written? Williams mentions Hermann Danuser’s Die Musik des 20.Jahrhunderts as an existing model for a contextualizing view of twentieth-century music (p. 67). Morgan points out that we now may be “at the beginning of an extended period of musical pluralism,” with no single style “assuming a position of dominance” (p. xvi). If this should be the case, the history of future music, according to Morgan, “may well require a new kind of historian, equipped with entirely new ways of thinking about historical connections” (p. xvi). However, he doesn’t seem to think that this could, or should, be of consequence for the historian of today and the history of the recent past.

Danuser, though, makes it clear in his introduction that the reactions against modernism and the avant-garde in the 70s have to be considered in a history of twentieth-century music.6 Instead of clinging to the historicist illusion of objectivity, reflection about the present context may elucidate the historiographical possibilities and problems for such a history. On the one hand, such reflection can counteract the tendency to write twentieth-century music history from the absolute position of the avant-garde and to disregard all phenomena that don’t fit in with the development of the new music.7 Therefore, according to Danuser, Adorno’ categories cannot be a historiographical fundament today, but have to be seen as objects for historical investigation themselves. On the other hand, adopting the perspective of today could be a danger if it leads to a revision of history that just treats the epoch as a prehistory of postmodernism, where the categories of novelty and progress lose the importance they no doubt have had in the twentieth century. The main historiographical problem, then, is to write a history of twentieth-century music that is largely a history of new music without being just this.

[6] Historicism, selection and canons

There is a problem of selection in all history writing. The infinite variety of reality makes it impossible to describe everything. The historian has to make a selection. The problem is to find criteria for this selection that aren’t completely arbitrary. One answer to the dilemma was given by the historicism of the nineteenth century. The past should not be judged by the standards of the present. Every epoch should be seen in its own terms. It is possible to find traces of this view in Danuser’s, Morgan’s and Williams’s texts.

Danuser’s criticism of the application of traditional historiography in books on twentieth-century music is that the music of this century has distinctive features and therefore requires a special historiography. Furthermore, his reason for not disregarding the categories of novelty and progress in the study of twentieth-century music is the importance these categories actually have had during this century. Of course, Danuser is not a historicist and, as we have seen above, he explicitly rejects historicism.

Morgan’s reason for focusing on the United States also has historicist overtones, when he states that this country has nourished the more experimental strains that form one of this century’s most characteristic features. His reason is not altogether historicist, though, because he also says that experimantalism is one of the most enduring features (p. xiii). Likewise there are some historicist notions involved in Williams’s criticism of Morgan. For instance Williams accuses Morgan of focusing “upon background currents that validate his own teleological historiography instead of trying to let each epoch speak for itself” (p. 55, my italics). Both Morgan and Williams thus seem to agree that the historian has to consider the qualities and the values of the epoch he studies, but they disagree on what those qualities and values are.

Historicism was a nineteenth-century movement, and it has not played a significant role in the historiography of this century. Of greater importance in, for instance, Dahlhaus’s and Danuser’s historiographical reflections are Max Weber and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Weber’s solution of the selectivity problem was to use values as a point of departure.8 The historian, as in a historicist approach, begins by investigating the values that were relevant for the people of the age he is studying. This is just the first step, though, because the values should also be relevant from the historian’s own perspective. Weber does not make any normative claims that the historian has to embrace the values he uses as his starting-point. The historian just has to be convinced that the phenomena considered important in the culture he studies also are considered important enough to study from the perspective of his own time. Thus, Weber makes a distinction between what he calls value-relations and values. In the writing of history, then, we have to consider both the past and the present, or rather the meeting of past and present. In musicology this opinion has been embraced by Leo Treitler, who, paraphrasing Gadamer, writes that understanding “takes place in the fusion of the horizons of present and past.”9

In Nineteenth-Century Music Dahlhaus criticizes the historicist view:

Historians with antiquarian proclivities will inevitably tend to emphasize contemporary judgments without realizing that this is no less “metaphysical” than the common, if tacit, practice of deciding whether a work does or does not belong to history by seeing whether it has or has not survived in the present-day repertoire. Strictly speaking, all we can conclude “empirically” is that opinions, assessments, and repertoires have changed.10

Rather than adopting principles, though, “historians are almost always eclectic,” Dahlhaus argues and continues:

They place stress variously on the prestige a work enjoyed among contemporary listeners, on the accumulation of later judgments that make up a “tradition,” on the influence it had on later works, its steadfastness in remaining in the repertoire, and finally its documentary value to the history of culture and its rating by aesthetic and compositional standards that happen to apply today.11

[7] But, as Dahlhaus points out in Foundations of Music History, the historians don’t have to start from scratch.12 There is a canon of composers and musical works that has been transmitted by tradition: “historians do not compile it so much as encounter it” (p. 97). This means that the canon “had already been established before historians began to reflect upon its significance as a framework for music history” (p. 96). The historian, though, doesn’t have to blindly accept the canon. Firstly, “he can analyse the nature of, and the reasons for, the formation of the canon” (p. 98). Secondly, “it would be a useful and practicable undertaking to draw attention to the categories, criteria and modes of thought÷which, whether implicitly or explicitly, underlie the surviving aesthetic canon, and to contrast them with each other and arrange them in a pattern that would be no less valuable for being incomplete” (p. 99). Thirdly, “history can influence and alter a canon of aesthetic norms either by proposing alternative norms or by unearthing historical facts that obstruct or undermine the premises of that canon” (p. 99).

Is there a canon of composers and musical works in the history of twentieth-century music? According to Danuser the answer is no.13 The formation of the twentieth-century canon is still going on and is subject to great fluctuations, though the contours are beginning to appear regarding the first half of the century. However, no reader of literature dealing with twentieth-century music would find her or himself in any doubt as to which composers belong to the history of music after 1945. In the 50s the stars are Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen in Europe and Cage in the United States. In the 60s composers such as Ligeti, Berio and a handful of others are added to the aforementioned. Of course this is not a canon that has withstood the test of time in a longer perspective. Still it has been reproduced in book after book for almost forty years. What then are the causes for the formation of this canon? Williams, as we have seen, thinks that the main cause is the dominance of the techno-essentialist historiographical framework, where technical innovations and progress are the criteria of value and historical significance. I believe there is another important cause. In his article “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out,” Joseph Kerman writes:

From the standpoint of the ruling ideology, analysis exists for the purpose of demonstrating organicism, and organicism exists for the purpose of validating a certain body of works of art [the instrumental music of the great German tradition]14.

In the same way, the methods we use analyzing the music of the twentieth-century seem to validate a certain body of works. The post-tonal theories of Milton Babbitt and Alan Forte for instance were developed to explain the atonal music of the Second Viennese School. Thus there is a dialectic between the music we consider worthy of study and the methods we use studying this music.

[8] Williams and the widening of the canon

Williams argues for a widening of the canon of twentieth-century music. In his call for of a revision of the modernistic picture, he mentions four categories that he thinks should be included: Weltanschaungsmusik.15 Janácek, Opera and The Nordic-Slavic symphonic tradition. What reasons does Williams give for the inclusion of these areas in the canon of twentieth-century music?

1. Weltanschaungsmusik In the case of Weltanschaungsmusik the importance is that knowledge of these works is a prerequisite for historical understanding:

Detaching atonal music from the context of pre-War culture has prevented us from seeing how contemporary philosophical preoccupations may have conditioned harmonic experimentation (p. 61).

2 Janácek Williams observes that Janácek is a problematic composer for most historical surveys, as he conforms neither to the Schoenbergian nor to the neoclassical model of musical modernism (p. 62). Morgan has two reasons for his valuation of Janácek. The first is based on the fact that he was less influenced by the progressive elements in twentieth-century music. The second is an appeal to a value-relation: it was Bartók who came to be considered as the dominant compositional voice of Eastern Europe during the first half of the century. Williams thinks the assumption “that there should be but a single, dominating voice of Eastern Europe is condescending and culturally untenable” (p. 63). However, this is a rather straightforward empirical question: what was the relative importance of Janácek and Bartók in the view of their contemporaries? The problem is what role the answer should play in the selection process. Williams points out that the extraordinary success of Janácek’s music on the British and American stages is hardly a sign that he is merely Czech in his appeal. Thus, no matter the contemporary judgements, survival in the repertoire and today’s values should give him a place in the canon of twentieth-century music.

3. Opera Morgan’s explicit reason for the narrow treatment of opera is not the dominance of absolute music over dramatic works (though of course it can be an implicit category). In his discussion of Janácek, as Williams points out, Morgan writes that opera has lost its central position in this century and later in the section on Britten he writes that opera is a genre “that has by and large been confined to a secondary position during the twentieth century” (p. 277). Again there is a historicist appeal to a past value. Morgan, though, doesn’t define what he means by central position. Williams writes that Morgan’s notion is true from the standpoint of bourgeois theatrical history. Operas by groundbreaking composers “disappeared from mainstream opera houses” and are not part of a living repertoire. But Morgan’s statement is bizarre if it means that opera has not been a central concern of twentieth-century composers. Thus, the reason for including opera in the canon is the values of the composers themselves, and Williams argues that:

The idea of opera, in short, became equated with the idea of the magnum opus; few composers who have written operas in this century have failed to regard these works as their greatest creations (p. 64).

4 The Nordic-Slavic Symphonic Tradition This is one area where indifference to serialism and other progressive techniques “risks distortion of the real historical value” of the symphonic repertory produced by composers in Britain, East Europe and Scandinavia (p. 65). Williams does not, however, make entirely clear what this “real historical value” is. In the case of Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony it seems to be the “the intensely modernistic qualities” of the work and the “flippant, almost postmodern irony,” which “foreshadows the aesthetics of a much later generation” (p. 66).

Williams thus uses different criteria in his reshaping of the canon: prerequisite for historical understanding, survival in the repertoire and today’s values, the values of the composers themselves. In other parts of his article he just writes that we cannot afford to overlook styles “which have equal claims to artistic seriousness,” (p. 33) and that for a “history to stake a legitimate claim to contemporaneity, it must first of all identify and acknowledge the historical importance of styles which hitherto have been downplayed to fit the prescriptive notions of techno-essentialism” (p. 70). Furthermore, he warns us not to replace one essentialism with another. The various strands of music history should “coexist in a more accurate approximation of their actual significance” (p. 70).

[9] Historical importance and the construction of history

Now, a problem that Williams never discusses is what historical importance is and what we should do to decide which music is historically important. Which criteria can we use in approximating the “actual significance” of the various strands of music history?

Dahlhaus stresses that historical importance is an ambiguous and misleading concept:16

It can refer either to effects in space and time which can be measured, or at least estimated, or to the fact that particular works or other historical facts have been endowed with symptomatic significance within a structural context or Ideal Type devised by the historian.17

Thus, “[w]hether or not a piece of music proves to be of historical significance depends in large part, if not exclusively, on the point of view chosen by the historian and on the problems he is trying to solve.”18 This, however, does not solve the problem, because how should we decide which points of view and which problems are relevant or irrelevant? According to Dahlhaus “this pronouncement is, in the final analysis, normative, though tempered in scholarly practice by empirical factors.”19

You could argue that this conclusion leads to total relativism, but I don’t think this is the case. Dahlhaus’s reflections have many similarities with Richard J. Evans’s attempt at navigating a safe course between the grounds of traditional, neoconservative and postmodern historiography. In discussing whether the selection of past facts is determined by the narratives and structures that occur in the past itself or is imposed by the historian, Evans comes to the following conclusion:

Most historical narratives consist of a mixture of revealed, reworked, constructed and deconstructed narratives from the historical past and from the historian’s own mind. We start with a rough-hewn block of stone, and chisel away at it until we have a statue. The statue was not waiting there to be discovered, we made it ourselves, and it would have been perfectly possible for us to have made a different statue from the one we finally created. On the other hand, we are constrained not only by the size and shape of the original stone, but also by the kind of stone it is; an incompetent sculptor not only runs the risk of producing an unconvincing statue that does not much resemble anything, but also of hammering or chiselling too hard, or the wrong way, and shattering the stone altogether.

We have to work with the limitations of the material. And these limitations are strict and severe.20

So, the question is whether Morgan is an incompetent sculptor, who has produced an unconvincing statue, or whether Morgan and Williams are just making two different, but equally plausible statues from the same stone. If understanding “takes place in the fusion of the horizons of present and past”21, we have, as Dahlhaus points out, to consider both contemporary prestige and the accumulation of later judgements as well as past and present points of view and problems.22 Since the present is always pushing ahead, new judgements, points of views, problems, theories and methods are constantly evolving. This means that a definitive history can never be written. Every generation has to research and write their own version of history. However, following Evans, I don’t believe in the postmodern idea of history as just a construction. Every age doesn’t have to start from scratch, we can build on the work of previous historians.

[10] Twentieth-century music and popular music

Now, what happened to popular music, folk music, jazz and non-Western music? Williams thinks that Morgan is to be lauded for recognizing the legitimate claims of these kinds of musics (pp. 48-49). Although Morgan limits his scope to western art music Williams considers him to be justified in doing so because it is a methodological limitation rather than a value judgement. However, Williams does not consider the problem discussed in the previous paragraph: If selection is determined by the problems and methods chosen by the historian, on what grounds do we chose the problems and methods?

Morgan also portrays the omission of the more conservative composers as a methodological limitation. He argues that a selective treatment of individuals is necessary “since the more one attempts to give a broad picture of compositional activity, including as many composers as possible, the more difficult it becomes to devote adequate discussion to the musical issues themselves” (p. xiv). Thus, the selection of composers is conditioned by the chosen perspective and not by a value judgement. Indeed, Morgan writes that many of the omitted composers might be of equal or even greater importance if viewed from a different perspective (p. xiv).

The problem, then, is not whether the limitations are based on methodological concerns or on value judgements. The question seems to be which methodological limitations that are acceptable. You could argue that today the choice of modernism as the governing perspective is antiquated in a general history of twentieth-century music. But is the omission of popular music also unacceptable? Of course, if you call a book Twentieth-Century Music it seems old-fashioned to omit other kinds of music than art music. But if the book more adequately is titled Twentieth-Century Art Music, is it acceptable to write such a book today? I think it is. Just because different kinds of musics exist side by side at the same time it is not necessary to write about all of them in the same book. The strongest reason for writing a twentieth-century music history that includes different kinds of musics would be that there are important connections between them. But are there such strong connections that they justify such a study?

[11] Canon formation and institutional power

The canon is not as fixed as is sometimes suggested. New judgements constantly change the canon. For instance the revaluation of Mahler and Ives in the 60s, and of Korngold, Schreker and Zemlinsky in the 70s and 80s, has changed the canon, both in the concert hall and in academic studies. It also possible to see a revaluation of composers like Britten and Shostakovich in recent time. You could ask why Morgan writes about these composers in the second section of his book (on music between the wars), when many of their most significant works are from the 50s, 60s and 70s. In the perspective of the contemporaries the first part of the eighteenth century was the time of for instance Hasse and Vinci. Today it is the time of Bach and Handel. Perhaps what in the history books of today is the age of Boulez and Stockhausen, tomorrow will be the age of Britten and Shostakovich. So, let me return to the initial question – why did the 50s become the age of total serialism? – and once again contrast Morgan and Williams with each other.

When Morgan, according to Williams, “claims a universality for serialism,” (p. 53) it is with an appeal to a past value-relation. Serialism not only “dominated contemporary Western composition,” but it had a special historical position as “the last compositional development shared by enough composers of different stylistic persuasions and nationalities to have represented a sort of common, if not ‘universal’ musical language” (p. 407). In questioning this Williams opts for the third of Dahlhaus’s strategies in adapting the canon (see above). He tries to undermine the premises of Morgan’s argument by showing that serialism did not have the contemporary impact that Morgan claims for it (p. 54). One of the problems with using contemporary judgements as a point of departure in the selection process, is of course that many different values coexist in most ages. Whose values should count: the values of the composers, the critics or the audiences? And even within these groups there are many different values, for instance between composers in different schools or different countries.

Danuser writes that modernistic composers and their theoreticians have tried to give modernism the status of the only relevant musical culture in the twentieth century.23 Today, in our postmodern age, though, we can see that modernism never was more than a “partial culture” (Teilkultur) and that it never reached the position of a main culture. However, as Danuser writes, the terms modernism and postmodernism are not neutral, descriptive terms, but they are connected to values that in the concrete historical situation are coupled to questions of institutional power. When we use the concept of modernism to characterize the 50s and the 60s, Danuser considers we are justified in doing so because the exponents of modernism (including serialism) managed to get the most power in publicity matters and institutions compared to other part cultures of the time. So even if Williams is right in his argument that serialism didn’t dominate in a quantitative way, Morgan and Danuser could say that it was dominant in terms of the power it exerted.

However, one can argue that it is not necessary to use the values of those in power as a norm. The view that history is about the dominant group or groups is, as Evans writes, a kind of history that “has been increasingly in the minority, and it has been precisely the poor and the unknown, the losers and, indeed, the female, who have attracted the greatest number of historians and been the subject of the greatest number of books.”24 This trend has also manifested itself in the field of musicology – although it has far from resulted in the greatest number of studies – as is shown by the recent interest in Entartete Musik, women composers and outsider composers like George Antheil, Rued Langgaard and, in Sweden, Claude Loyola Allgén.

[12] Dispositions and divisions

According to Danuser (1984) most of the authors writing about the music of this century follow the traditional ideals of music history writing and divide their books into composers, countries, genres or styles (or mixtures of those four categories) without considering the specific features of twentieth-century music (p. 2). For instance, Twentieth-century music has an international tendency making a division into countries inadequate in general history of music (p. 2). Neither can a model based on genre be a foundation for the historiography of twentieth-century music, as the genre has lost its importance as a category during this century (p. 3). However, Danuser continues, the transformations of the genre category – its dissolution in expressionism and its restoration in neoclassicism – are one of the most important trends in the music history of this century.

Danuser’s solution to these problems is a structural history that takes as its point of departure the most important trends in the history of composition and aesthetic ideas (p. 3). Aspects of social, reception and institutional history are considered when they have something important to contribute to the understanding of these two main categories. Williams, therefore, is not quite correct when he claims that the categories Danuser develops “focus on the evolution of genres and the development of musical and artistic institutions” (p. 68). In theory Danuser’s limitation in this respect is not so different from Morgan’s. Regarding practice, however, Williams is correct when he writes:

At all times, the emergence of new techniques is situated within cultural context, allowing more discussion of individual works, fresher insights, and the drawing of more interdisciplinary connection than any of his American colleagues (p. 68).

Morgan’s book is, at the highest level, divided into three main parts. This is done from chronological considerations, “each part corresponding to a major historical phase” (p. xiv). At the next level the contents are focused primarily by the major strands of musical development within each phase” (p. xiv). The third level is “devoted to the composers principally responsible for defining these developments” (p. xiv).

On the second level the principle of division varies. In Part II, for instance, the chapters are: Neo-classicism, The Twelve-Tone System, The Influence of Politics, Other Europeans, England after World War I, The United States, Latin America. The first is an aesthetic/stylistic trend, the second a compositional technique, and the third concerns the relation between music and the external world. The last four chapters are geographically organized.

This disposition raises several questions. For instance, why is Krenek placed in the chapter Other Europeans? Aspects of his career and music are of great interest in all the first three chapters: Neo-classicism, The Twelve-Tone System, and The Influence of Politics. In the third part, on music from World War II Morgan does indeed treat several composers in different chapters. In the first two main parts, though, the book is more like a series of dictionary entries on different composers organized on thematic and geographical grounds, rather than in alphabetical order.

In Danuser’s book the disposition is altogether thematic and composers are considered in relation to these themes, which means that discussions of most of them are divided between several chapters. Schoenberg, for instance is not only discussed in the chapters on early atonality and twelve-tone music, but also in the chapters on metaphysical conceptions, the operatic situation 1907-20, the institutions of new music in the interwar period, “Bekenntnis-Oper”, and more briefly in several other chapters. Danuser’s disposition makes a lot more connections visible, points to interesting parallels between phenomena, and, as Williams points out, also puts the music in context all the time.

One obvious instance where Morgan could have benefited from Danuser’s model is in his treatment of Les Six. Morgan writes that the combined historical significance of Les Six “clearly exceeds that of their individual attainments” (p. 167). But if they are more important as a group, why not consider them as a group? A thematic disposition where relevant musical passages were used to exemplify important trends in their music, as in the Schoenberg and Stravinsky sections, would make far more interesting reading. A comparative approach would not only bring out their similarities, but also sharpen the individual profile of each composer much better than in Morgan’s present treatment of the subject.

[13] The context issue

Williams argues for a more contextualizing approach to twentieth-century music. Of course, the claim that the context is of central importance for our understanding of music is nothing new. In the last decades we have witnessed a veritable crusade against the notion of musical autonomy. Without doubt, it has been conclusively proven that musical autonomy is a historical construction and that music never is completely autonomous. A problem, though, is which contexts we should consider. The Swedish professor of literature Anders Palm points out that in literary studies today there are many competing trends: Marxism, feminism, reception history, historicism, psychoanalysis, literary sociology, deconstructivism. They all claim that the context is of great relevance but they disagree on which contexts are most important.25 Another problem, granting that music never is autonomous, is whether we always have to consider the context and, if this is the case, to what extent? Dahlhaus, for instance, writes:

Yet the actual hermeneutic problem that has dogged the context rule from the outset lies in finding a rational basis for deciding, in each particular case, just where to set the limits of its context so as to allow for a satisfactory understanding, satisfactory in respect both of the object to be interpreted and of the end the interpretation is meant to serve.26

Understanding is a key word in the musicological discussions of why we have to consider the context of the music we study. But what is understanding? Monroe C. Beardsley makes a distinction between three different kinds of understanding music.27 The first he calls causal (or genetic) understanding. This “consists in knowing under what conditions and in what way the object had to become what it is” (p. 55). So, what contextual information is necessary to answer the questions that lead to this kind of understanding? This depends on the theoretical outlook of the musicologist in question. Is the composer a jumping-jack whose music primarily is a result of social, economic and political structures, or is the musical work rather the free invention of a creative genius who transcends the social and cultural boundaries of his time? These are the extreme positions and as Dahlhaus argues in his criticism of Marxist historiography we are well advised to avoid dogmatism and sensibly decide from case to case which factors are the most important.

Beardsley calls the second kind of understanding configurational understanding. This “consists in knowing how the details, the elements and subordinate parts, of an object fit into a pattern or structure that characterizes the whole” (p. 56). Whereas some kind of contextual information is a necessary prerequisite for causal understanding the question whether this also is the case regarding configurational understanding is more problematical. A central thesis in René Wellek’s and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature, one of the central documents of the New criticism of the 50s, is that what they call the extrinsic approach to the study of literature, is of no relevance and importance for the understanding of the works themselves. To put it mildly, this is hardly a fashionable view today.

The third kind of understanding Beardsley labels semantic understanding, and it “consists in knowing what something signifies (taking this term in a comprehensive sense)” (p. 56). Here the controversy is not so much if semantic understanding demands knowledge of context, but whether music has meaning at all. Jenefer Robins writes of two attitudes toward music concerning this issue. The first “holds that music can be expressive of the profoundest human concerns,” while the second “stresses the musical work as an autonomous entity divorced from the extramusical world, a structure of forms that can be studied in an objective, quasi-scientific way.”28 Thus there seems to be a connection between each of these two attitudes and a certain view concerning context, where the first considers context important and the second considers it irrelevant. But if meaning always is context-bound, as Derrida puts it, “context is boundless.”29

[14] Conclusion

In our postmodern times, where all metanarratives have been abandoned, you could argue that we should be free to study whatever kind of music we want to study and use the methods and theories we like to use. If someone wants to analyze atonal music using set-theoretical methods he/she should be allowed to do so as long as he/she does not claim that this is the only relevant music and method. And if someone wants to write a handbook on modernism in twentieth-century art music, let him/her do so.

So why should not Morgan be permitted to give his version of twentieth-century music history? The problem, as Williams points out (p. 32), is that the book is intended to be – and is – used as an authoritative textbook in the teaching of twentieth-century music in universities and conservatoires. It thus shapes students’ opinions of which music is valuable and which perspectives and methods are important in the study of this music. Therefore, it has consequences for the choice of subjects for dissertations and post-doctoral research, for the values of musicians, music critics and musical life in general and so on.

My conclusion, then, is that Williams is right when he argues for a widening of the canon of twentieth-century music and a more contextualized view of this music. However, I don’t think that he, in a satisfactory way, discusses the difficult problems involved in the selection of composers and works to be studied. In fact, his appeal to actual historical significance often just seems to be a return to historicism, which stands in opposition to his initial claim that the continuously evolving theories of history reshape “our perception of things past” (p. 31). Neither does he discuss the difficult problems concerning choice of contexts and scope of context.

What then are we to do? I believe that the best solution is to cultivate critical awareness among our students. The teaching should present different perspectives. In the department of musicology at Stockholm University, Morgan’s book is the official textbook in the courses on twentieth century art music. Although in agreement with much of Williams’s criticism, I still think many of the chapters in Morgan’s book are excellent, even if they do not add up to a convincing whole. In my own teaching of the subject I let my students read Williams’s text as a counterpoint to Morgan, and in the lectures I combine these two writers’ presentations with a lot of ideas and perspectives from Danuser and other studies on twentieth-century art music, as well as books on the art, literature, history, etc. of the last century. Thus, the best solution in today’s pluralistic musical culture perhaps is the eclectic approach:

Obviously, the eclectic approach is fraught with difficulties and contradictions; for the moment, however, it is all we have.30


A shorter version of this paper was presented at the colloquium “Musicology Beyond 1999: For Whom, About What, by Which Methods and to What End?” in Gothenburg, August 12-15 1999. I would like to thank Greger Andersson, Per-Erik Brolinson, Nicholas Cook, Olle Edström, Richard Leppert, Lars Liljestam, and Richard Middleton for their comments. I am also grateful to Owe Ander, Jacob Derkert, Andreas Engström, and Johanna Ethnersson at the Department of Musicology, Stockholm University. Thanks above all to Per F. Broman for his valuable suggestions and support. I wish to express thanks to Nora Engebretsen, Mary and Harry Perkins, and Karin Tillman for checking and correcting my English.

1 Carl Dahlhaus, “Vorbemerkung,” in Die Musik der fünfziger Jahre (Mainz 1985), 7. [Back]

2 Carl Dahlhaus, “Geschichte und Geschichten,” in Die Musik der fünfziger Jahre (Mainz 1985), 9-10. [Back]

3 Carl Dahlhaus, “Vorbemerkung,” 7. [Back]

4 Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: Norton, 1991). [Back]

5 Chistopher A. Williams, “Of Canons and Context: Toward a Historiography of Twentieth-Century Music,” repercussions 2, no. 1 (Spring 1993), 31-74. [Back]

6 Hermann Danuser, “Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts,” Neues Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft, Vol. 7 (Laaber, 1984), 1. [Back]

7 Danuser, following Peter Bürger, makes a distinction between modernism and avant-garde. “New music” is a collective term that includes both these phenomena. [Back]

8 Sven Eliæson, Bilden av Max Weber (Stockholm, 1982), 94-96. [Back]

9 See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. and rev. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York 1998, second revised edition), 306, and Leo Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination (Harvard, 1989), 49. [Back]

10 Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989), 3. [Back]

11 Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, 3. [Back]

12 Carl Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Cambridge, 1983), 97. [Back]

13 Hermann Danuser, “Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts,” 5. [Back]

14 Joseph Kerman, “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out,” Critical Inquiry 7 (1980), 315. [Back]

15 Williams borrows the term Weltanschaungsmusik from Danuser who uses it to designate large-scale music which, following the idea of music as religion, expresses a personal, philosophical-religious content (Hermann Danuser, “Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts,” 24-34). [Back]

16 I’m aware of the fact that it can seem like Dahlhaus functions as a kind of referee in a Williams versus Morgan fight, who intervenes to tell them (and us) the rules of the game. However, I refer to Dahlhaus more to point out problems than to provide solutions. Dahlhaus’s view of the canon is full of contradictions and obscurities, and I’m not sure he has understood Weber’s distinction between value-relations and values. [Back]

17 Carl Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History, 93. I believe that Dahlhaus’s concept of historical importance is a more narrow category than Williams’s notion of historical importance. Williams’s use of the expression shows that he includes past aesthetic judgements as one aspect of historical importance, whereas Dahlhaus makes a distinction between historical and aesthetic significance. However, Dahlhaus writes that the latter concerns the inherent value of a work (p. 93), so it is not entirely clear if judgements of the past belong to the historical or the aesthetic category. [Back]

18 Carl Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History, 94. [Back]

19 Carl Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History, 94. [Back]

20 Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997), 147. [Back]

21 Leo Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination, 49. [Back]

22 Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, 3. [Back]

23 Hermann Danuser, “Zur Kritik der musikalischen Postmoderne,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 149 (1988), 5. [Back]

24 Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History, 212. [Back]

25 Anders Palm, “Kontext,” in Tolv begrepp inom de estetiska vetenskaperna, ed. by Hans-Olof Boström (Stockholm, 2000), 264. [Back]

26 Carl Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History, 124. [Back]

27 Monroe C. Beardsley, “Understanding Music,” in On Criticizing Music; Five Philosphical Perspectives, ed. by Kingsley Price (Baltimore and London, 1981), 55-56. I will not propose that Beardsley’s kinds of musical understanding are the only possible ones. My purpose is just to use them to give some preliminary idea of the kinds of contextual considerations that could be of relevance in understanding music. [Back]

28 Jenefer Robinson, “Introduction: New Ways of Thinking about Musical Meaning,” in Music and Meaning, ed. by Jenefer Robinson (Ithaca and London, 1997), 2. [Back]

29 Jacques Derrida, “Living On: Border Lines,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, ed. by Harold Bloom (New York, 1979), 81. [Back]

30 Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, 3. [Back]

©Joakim Tillman, Stockholm University, 2000

STM-Online vol. 3 (2000)


ISSN: 1403-5715