The End of Music History

September 8, 2013

By Kyle Gann

Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?

Because really good teaching is not about seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call counterintuitive, but to the teacher simply means being honest.

- Mark Edmundson, Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, p. 181

At the request of my department chair - and he so rarely asks me for anything, I could hardly have turned him down - I am teaching a 20th-century music history survey course, or rather, music since 1910. I've been dreading it, and my fears are so far confirmed. First of all, I have long been convinced that you can't do the entire 20th century in a survey course. To me, third-semester music history should be 1900-1960, and the fourth semester should take over after that. Not only is there way too much material, there's no unifying idea to the first and second halves of the century. The year 1976 seems to remain a popular stopping point for many professors and textbooks, and I wonder if anyone (besides me) has ever taught a 20th-century class in which the last three decades got as much attention as the first three.

Secondly, while it's always easy to know where to start, and has always been tricky knowing where to end, these days ending is impossible. Forty years ago, when I took this course at Oberlin, you could begin with Stravinsky and Schoenberg and work your way up, decade by decade, through the various movements and major figures. It was assumed that the language of music was evolving, and that that evolution could be traced, with a few detours and parallel streams. But of course, now we know what happens: past 1970 the idea of a mainstream evaporates, and - as musicologist Leonard Meyer so shrewdly predicted - we entered a kind of stasis in which many, many styles compete and continue. Everything is permissible; a million things have been done, anything we can imagine will be done eventually, and many things that had been done get done all over again. I suppose if you're a hard-core traditionalist it's easier to draw your boundaries, but the Downtown music I like to focus on blends into jazz and pop around the edges. I have to argue with students for the right to teach Laurie Anderson, Pamela Z, and Mikel Rouse as postclassical music. Just deciding what music to include within the definitions of the course requires a whole separate section on the philosophy of music.

And I am finding that the philosophical difficulties extend into the past retroactively. I know perfectly well what I'm supposed to teach, and in fact, I am quite lucky in my mandated choice of textbook: the new Taruskin/Gibbs Oxford History of Western Music. The book itself has revisionist leanings and casts its own sly suspicions on orthodox pedagogy, and so is more in sync with me than any other textbook I could use. The best thing I can say about it is that its pronouncements never make me wince, which I consider high praise in this context. We use it for the entire music history sequence because its quality is so high; the fact that Professor Gibbs is on our faculty is, of course, entirely coincidental (as is the fact that I am heavily quoted in the final chapter).

But given the sequence of the textbook, I have to start out with Schoenberg, and for me, to start with Schoenberg already puts everything on the wrong track. (If this offends you, read further at your own risk, because it's only downhill from here.) The assumption of Schoenberg's importance, given the continuing unpopularity of his music, is founded on the further assumption that what we're teaching is the evolution of the musical language. In fact, the very title of our music history sequence, The Literature and Language of Music ("lit'n'lang" in departmental parlance, reminding me of "live 'n' learn") presupposes that there is a language of music evolving through its canonical examples. If you want to trace a certain absolutist attitude toward atonality, and the development of the 12-tone row as a technical device, Schoenberg is of course essential to the sequence of events. But does his music, therefore, deserve pride of place in the literature?

I consider it the most important thing I can teach my students, assuming I ever succeed in getting it across, that a lot of music that seems nonsensical or off-putting at first is well worth putting the effort into assimilating. Nothing irks me more than the reflexive resistance they put up against music they don't "like" on first listening. When I was their age, any piece I didn't understand represented a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to my musical intelligence. There was not going to be any piece I couldn't fathom. (Many fine "conservative" pieces I could superficially comprehend, I now realize I dismissed rather too easily.) And yet, there is now tons and tons of difficult, complicated, obscure music, and after 45 years of deciphering it I am aware that not all of it eventually repays the effort. I was determined to master the intricacies of the Concord Sonata, Le Sacre du Printemps, Pli selon pli, Turangalila, Mantra, Philomel, and I love them all, I'm devoted to them, thrilled to introduce students to them. Other works that I committed many, many listening and analytical hours to - almost all of Schoenberg, everything by Berg except Wozzeck, all but a few pieces of Elliott Carter - simply bore me today. I know that Op. 31 Orchestra Variations and that damn "Es ist genug" violin concerto inside and out, but they strike me as awkward and pedantic. I listen to them with acute understanding of how they're made, but never admiringly. A lot of that music I feel I was brainwashed into taking very seriously, and the effects of my youthful brainwashing are largely worn off.

So, of the music I cannot honestly advocate to students on account of what I perceive as its inherent virtues, by what criterion do I urge it on them? If historical importance is the guideline, then one needs to climb the ladder of influences, but it turns out that that ladder frays into a maze at the top. And actually, looking back from 1970, any sense of a mainstream had pretty much died as soon as neoclassicism was pitted against dodecaphony. The moment Scriabin, Ives, Stravinsky, Varese all separately agreed to use sonorities never heard in music before, everything really became permissible instantly - it just took a few generations to realize the implications. People today still write neoclassic music, still write 12-tone music. Partch leaped into just intonation only 15 years after The Rite of Spring, seven years after the first 12-tone row, and that's the course I'm still on. 4'33" is closer in time to Pierrot Lunaire than it is to the present. If we've had a hundred years of multi-subcultural stasis, how much does it really matter who did something first? My students get a much bigger kick out of Gruppen and Sinfonia than they do from Webern, and since I agree with them, why not simply detail the pedigree of the 12-tone idea as part of a discussion of serialism? Why play the first 12-tone music instead of the most rewarding?

In fact, to present 12-tone music as a major movement at all, I have to attempt to explain why certain composers considered it so crucial to have some universal new system to replace tonality. And the truth is, I don't understand why they felt that way. I'm so much more in sympathy with what Ives wrote: "Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good, I can't see. Why it should always be present, I can't see." Tonality is so widely evident in much well-regarded music of recent decades that my students and I share the same incomprehension on this point. It sounds like an episode that belongs in the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Some people in my position would make a countercharge about minimalism, but they would have to contend with the Steve Reich and Arvo Part fans among my students; and minimalism never tried to corner the market. (I'm also teaching my minimalism seminar this semester, and the students in there are passionate about the subject, so well-informed that they've brought up more obscure pieces than I had planned to address.)

The upshot is that I can no longer teach the canon of early/mid-20th-century music, as it was taught to me, in very good faith. The only criterion I could defend, if challenged, is how much fulfillment I still get from the music today, with some scholarly lip service granted to what pieces posed an influence on the composer's contemporaries. Certain composers who don't get much academic attention - Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Busoni, Wolpe, Sorabji, James P. Johnson, Vermeulen, Blomdahl, Rochberg - seem to me infinitely more appealing to present than some of the usual suspects. After all, we've already gone through this revisionist process for 19th-century music: if we hadn't, we'd still have to be putting Hummel and Spohr on the listening tests. At the other end, I have only the flimsiest of rationales for teaching all the wonderful array of postclassical music I love while still excluding jazz and pop, the ultimate one being my faulty or nonexistent expertise in those latter fields. I resorted to describing the history of my idiosyncratic career as justification for my particular view of recent history, and while I'm happy for student input, I hardly want to surrender my hard-earned historical understanding to the chaos of 22 variously-informed student perspectives.

So it's a mess, and an enforced experiment with few visible guideposts. I'm afraid I know the last hundred years of music so well that I no longer know what the history of it is.


Virginia Anderson says: Weird having Music since 1910. Ah, well. I've taught courses called 'Twentieth-Century Topics', 'Twentieth-Century Problems' 'Twentieth-Century Literature', 'The Evolution of Music in Europe', and so on. They're all pretty much the same, despite the differences in titles -- meaning the course will mean what you intend it to mean. (Leo Treitler once taught a course called Rhythm and Notation after 1600. When we complained that it was all about rhythm, nothing about notation or anything after the mid-19th century, he said, 'Well, I was going to call it Rhythm and Blues...').
Don't try for a survey course. Instead, give them the best of what you know and think to be important in the time they have. Pick out key thoughts and techniques and focus on them in your lectures and seminars, with a few allusions to other techniques, ideas, pieces. If you have seminars, give them scores, of course, but also landmark contemporary readings, like bits of Essays Before a Sonata or Silence, and have them discuss the implications for the music that the writings present. Lecture topics might include serialism, minimalism, rhythm and meter, experimentalism (early and late), sonic resources, and so on -- whatever you think they should go away with. You can order the students to read the assigned text for context, with the understanding that they'll be responsible for all of it on the test, using the knowledge you'll gives them on the principles. Then limit what they can do for essays and ban whatever they think is easy. Normally this means Britten's War Requiem and pretty much anything by Debussy or John Adams. (For that reason I ban Citizen Kane and Star Wars in film class and Sgt Pepper in pop music). If you have a midterm test, do something like the Rite of Spring -- keeps them from merely spitting back the copious commentary -- or another ultra-famous piece, to give you an idea of what they are doing (the first time I tried this I was shocked to see how many of them could not identify the Dance of the Adolescents after my very detailed, analytical lecture) and to make them realise what they need to do to pass. Good luck.

kea says: an interesting point about schoenberg--his music is, in fact, relatively popular, and has enjoyed continued popularity. but we're not talking about the twelve-tone pieces here, we're talking about his big late-romantic works (verklarte nacht, pelleas, gurre-lieder, etc). (personally i find them to be rather dreadful, in common with most of the other austrian & german late-romantics of the fin-de-si├Ęcle, mahler and karg-elert and so forth, but that's neither here nor there.) one would thus be totally justified in talking about schoenberg via the influence his music had on erich wolfgang korngold, expressionism in film music and so forth, and only mentioning the twelve-tone system in passing as something he invented "and we'll hear more about it in lecture five, 'serialism'" (where you'll play a short audio excerpt of a schoenberg piano piece and then move on to the more interesting composers). his atonal stuff was anyway just late-romantic music straitjacketed into a twelve-tone matrix (he himself once harmonised the main melody of the variations for orchestra with syrupy tonal chords, iirc), which is perhaps why a lot of people don't warm to it--it's all "forced", never directly inspired, just something he felt religiously obliged to write.
that would be an interesting way to design a 20th century music course actually--lecture one schoenberg, puccini, rachmaninoff and korngold--lecture two film music and the persistence of common-practice tonality throughout the 20th century--lecture three start moving on to the "canonical" stuff. probably superior to the 20th century music course at my university anyway (where the lecturer spent the first 3/4 of the course outlining various trends up until 1945, then declared that everything that had happened after 1945 was just repeats of stuff that had happened before, except for minimalism which was of course cynical commercialism with no redeeming value. with the last lecture being devoted to what *he* thought was the future, which i think was "musical scholarship" or something--reconstructing lost works or inventing ones that had never existed, e.g. beethoven's eleventh, mozart's forty-second--i've honestly blocked most of that course from my memory)

Steve Hicken says: Thanks for this, Kyle. It gives me a lot to think about.

Jeff Harrington says: Beautiful!! The future re-writes the past until the past becomes more interesting...

Russ Gershon says: Fascinating. Thanks.

Tawnie O says: I envy your students! Even if it is a mess, as you say, your course still sounds like a glorious one to me.
ill Ruth Crawford make it into your course? I rather like teaching her music next to the early atonal works of the 2nd Viennese School.
KG replies: Yes, that's exactly where I put her. In fact, I'm trying to change my approach to Crawford. I've always taught her early Two Movements for Small Orchestra because I like the Scriabin-y side of her early music, but it's not a terribly mature piece, and I'm switching to the String Quartet. Hope I learn to like it as well.

Tawnie O says: Ah, that's fantastic! You know, it may not be the best piece for your course, but I'm very partial to the first Diaphonic Suite (for oboe); it's short and not too difficult for students to wrap their minds around, but I think it's very elegantly structured.

Ian Stewart says: A really perceptive post which has helped me identify my own views.
Maybe that Schoenberg invented/evolved the twelve tone system could be considered in the same way as whoever invented the Alberti Bass. I doubt anyone would say they were as good a composer as Beethoven who used it extensively.
Mark Anthony Turnage said in a recent interview that students are not interested in exploring the great post war composers in the way he was. However I believe each generation of composers has to find its own route through the eons of music written. Recently I have heard two works by young composers, one influenced by a Sonny Rollins track (although it was not jazz) and one by The Unanswered Question. When I was a student, the major European composers seemed obsessed with proving their links with the European tradition, and some condemned outright any music that did not use total serialist techniques. Now things have changed, younger composers seem to take what they are interested in an ignore the rest. I am sure they will explore these composers sometime in their careers but not necessarily at the beginning.

Howard Whitaker says: Thanks. One of the rewards of longevity is the observation of evolving perspectives. A couple of thoughts:
I've often wondered how things might have been different if somebody like, say, Milhaud had invented serialism, rather than the rather gloomy Schoenberg.
Seeing a recent (sizzling!) performance of Pierrot Lunaire by Eighth Blackbird (with lighting, memorized music, movement around the stage, compelling virtuosity, etc.) reminded me once again of the significance of performers in this whole process.
KG replies: Good point. If they want to, performers can make almost anything sound great.

Arthur says: It seems to me that the entire project of attending to or teaching some kind of "History" of music, art, literature is reductive and false if the approach has to do with sorting out some kind of linearity of influence or lists of major minor figures or periodization or selective assessment of style or, worst of all, the 'greatest hits' of the past or recent present. It simplifies the very idea of music/art, creativity and and the complexity of the lives of artists, culture and historical forces. It privileges critical history over exploration of work by artists. I would also argue that the notion of anthologizing "works" also sets up a hierarchical system that winds up commodifying artwork, not to mention such exclusionary practices as separating women, minorities, popular foams 'artists' and the economic/industrial forces that ARE inseparable from the arts and art making.
When it comes to the arts, we want our students to be literate and knowledgeable, but, exactly, about what? All of music history? A bunch of great works? Theory or aesthetics? If they are going to be artists, shouldn't the goal be to provide a sense of how creativity and music is bound as much to personal psychological choices as to time, place, history, gender, beliefs, even politics? Schoenberg's music and writing and painting and opera is Vienna then Europe through two world wars and, later, sunny America. It is Jewish and it is mysticism. The incidental work illuminates the major pieces and the arc of his life.
How about if consider an approach that teaches artists' lives and the corpus of work they produce as the object of study? I actually teach a course called "The Critical Artist" in which students chose one artist to study for the entire semester. They are instructed to find out everything, read, listen, immerse themselves. When at the end, everyone presents their research, the question of the meaning of an artist's work as a whole and their life and relationship to culture supersedes ranking of works.
I advocate this also because it is also training in how to think about and live with the arts and artists of your own time. After all, we rarely experience the work of living artists purely on the basis of merely hearing there work...Certainly not in the age of the Internet.

mclaren says: Batten down the hatches, Kyle. Strap on your kevlar vest and make sure the ceramic ballistic impact plate is firmly inserted in the front pocket.
You have stepped outside the groupthink and the consequences will prove severe.
As for using the Taruskin text, the solution seems simple. Just skip over the Viennese Kook and his unindicted co-conspirators, strip out the "Explain nothing" chapter about the Geriatic Kook, and fill the space with significant 20th century composers like Ralph Vaughn Williams, whom Taruskin inexplicably never even mentions. (Since Vaughn Williams remains the tributary from which all subsequent 20th century neoclassicism flows, this omissions remains as perverse as it is bizarre.) The detonation of the historical narrative of a 20th century mainstream post-1976 due to the brisance of audible reality also runs backward into the past. The detcord full of guerilla scholarship in the eighties that blew up the post-1976 mainstream also blew apart the pre-1976 historical narrative along with its carefully confected fairytale of alleged musical "evolution" from 1900 through the 1950s.
You only get a "mainstream" with so-called 'evolution' from 1900-1960 if you drop most of the best composers and the most compelling musical trends into an Orwellian memory hole. Low-grade propagandists like Paul Griffiths tried that particular game of three-card monte, but it failed permanently by around 1980 because the cards they shuffled around just weren't big enough to cover up all the excellent 20th century composers they tried to marginalize.
Here are 3 alternative musical-historical narratives from 1900-1976:
[1] Start with the intonarumori guys like Russolo and the 1928 Bell Labs voder and the Thereminvox to show the radical developments in timbre around the start of the 20th century. Russolo's graphic score to Risveglio di una Citta also shows the sharp break in graphical scores with the musical past.
Use Charles Ives' Calcium Light (1915) to show the re-emergence of rhythmic complexity from the dark ages of the classical era. Crucial highlights? Charles Seeger's 1929 Tradition and Experiment in (the New) Music, Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources (1930), with musical examples Cowell's 1915 Quartet Romantic 1917 Quartet Euphometric and Johanna Beyer's 1933 Percussion Suite.
Stravinsky's 1913 Rite of Spring proves useful in bridging the two realms -- new timbres + polyrhythms. Haul in Amadeo Roldan's Ritmicas (1930) for percussion along with Edgard Varese's Hyperprism (1930), along with Johanna Beyer's Music of the Spheres (1938) and Olivier Messaien's Oraison (1937) and Cowell's Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra (1935) to give a taste of the explosion of new timbres, and of the polyrhythms unheard since Ars Subtilis in the late 14th century. Anyone who fails to hear a direct line connecting Beyer's Music of the Spheres in 1938 with Russolo's Risveglia di una Citta in 1913, or Cowell's The Tides of Manauanaun (1912) with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913) needs to see an audiologist.
For pitch explorations, start with Jacques Halevy's 1943 quartertone opera Promethee Enchaine and move on the "Generation Z" Russian xenharmonic composers of the period 1910-1930, including Leon Theremin, Arseny Avraamov, Leonid Sabaneev, Peter Zimin, Nikolai Bernstein, Pavel Leiberg, Boris Krasin, Emily Rosenov, Mikhail Gnesin, Nikolai Garbuzov's harmonic series harmonium, Sergei Rzevkin's cathode valve radio-harmonium of the 1920s, and so on. Then drag in Percy Grainger's Free Music No. 1 and 2, preferably mentioning his Butterfly Piano, his bank of Solovoxes tuned 1/3 tone apart, his Reed-Box Tone Tool tuned in eighth tones, and his Hills and Dales machine built with the help of Australian physicist Brunett Cross. (Nary a mention of any of this in Taruskin, by the way. The Ministry of Truth works overtime for 20th century music...)
From these foundations you could zigzag through Bartok and Partch, early Conlon Nancarrow and Gyorgi Rimsky-Korsakov's quartertone electronic instruments of the 1920s, and Ruth Crawford Seeger's Piano Study In Mixed Accents (1932) along with her dissonant counterpoint pieces with departures for the folk music composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams (never mentioned in Taruskin, but clearly the most important composer of the persion 1910-1945) and Bela Bartok and the industrial brutalists like Alexandr Moslov's Zovod - the Iron Foundry (1928) and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 2 (1924) whose Symphony No. 1 ("Classical") (1916) neatly encapsulates the twin impulses twixt modernity and classicism which defined the period 1910-1945. Ralph Vaughn Williams' Symphony 3 and 9 provide a similar contrast, as do Stravinsky's Pulcinella or Petroushka as opposed to Rite of Spring (1913) and Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914), or Bartok's String Quartet No. 6 compared with his String Quartet No. 4.
The American and European neoclassical tonal composers all come out of Vaughn Williams, from David Diamond and Howard Hanson to Charles Griffiths' The Cairn of Ceridwen (a superb piece of 1915 American music so fantastically obscure that it does not even appear on the internet, and my CD of it appears to be a mirage because it's not listed on to Aaron Copland and Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.
From this point the alternate narrative becomes clear, with the timbral guys diverging into the electronic tape composers, the French musique concrete cadre, the computer composers, the big orchestral extended technique guys (early Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, Krzysztof Penedercki), the French spectralist school, Laurie Spiegel, Tod Dockstader, and so on. The rhythm ninjas like Beyer and Nancarrow proliferate into the contemporary neorhythmic (you call 'em totalist) crowd like Mikel Rouse and Michael Gordon and Emannuel Ghent and the rest. The xenharmonic crowd diverges into the current microtonal crew with the usual suspects. The neoclassicists proliferate into the current New Romantic guys like Aaron Jay Kernis and Henk Badings and Joan Tower and Alberto Ginastera and Christopher Rouse on the one hand, the cooler more classical composers like Scriabin and Britten and Colin McPhee (Tabu Tabuhan (1936) and Balinese Ceremonial Music and the later Henry Cowell, with pieces like Ongaku) which leads to the minimalists and postminimalists (Reich, Glass, Young, Ellen Fullman, Janice Giteck, John Luther Adams, Louis Andriessen, William Duckworth, Eliane Radigue, et al.) and eclectic world music composers like David Lang and Evan Ziporyn as a third stream.
[2] You could instead tell the story of the 20th century from the way technology spurred changes in musical style. Invention of the phonograph, vacuum tube, rhythmic devices like Lev Termin's rhythmicon, the way early recording turntables and later magnetic tape produced musique concrete, the influence of computers on rhythm and timbre, the way player piano mechanisms led to modern digital sequencers, the liberation of pitch courtesy of first analog and then digital electronics, the influence of digital workstations and DAW programs like Pro Tools on the practices of current composers in constructing "layered" compositions, and so on.
[3] You could adapt Harold Bloom's literary theory of writers arguing with previous generations to generate new work (essentially Hegel's analysis/antithesis/synthesis scheme applied to literature) by applying it to 20th century music. Vaughn Williams comes out of his quarrel with the monumentalist maximalist symphonists like Mahler, Bartok and Stravinsky come out of their quarrel with the "unity uber alles" Germanomanic symphonists like Reger, Copland and Prokofiev come out of their quarrel with the hyperabstract "art for art's sake" composers, the electronic composers like Ussachevsky & Luening come out of their quarrel with the "music must be corporeal" all-acoustic guys like Partch, the microtonalists come out of their quarrel with the "only 12 and always 12" crowd who fetishized that particular number of pitches, the minimalists came out of their quarrel with the post-competent (misnamed "post tonal") crowd, the postminimalists come out of their quarrels with early highly systematized "pure" minimalism, the eclectic composers who mix 'n match many different styles come out of their quarrels with the way music gets taught and criticized in contemporary America as a single style for each composers "evolving" (code for "getting more complex") over time, and so on.
None of these narratives has any recognizable relation with Taruskin's. Each of these narratives mentions a lot of composers Taruskin never bothered to discuss. And each of these three narratives of 20th century offers a perspective on the development and variegation of 20th century music at least as valid as Taruskin's but entirely orthogonal and largely contravariant to the issues he raises.
After all, just because the department chair assigns a textbook doesn't mean you have to genuflect to it.
KG replies: Brian, I wish I could take *your* 20th-century course.

David Kulma says: This is brilliant.

John Kline says: A great post as always. I wish there were more like you doing regular posting about music, teaching it in college, thinking about it, etc. Academic and informed - yet accessible and dealing with real issues
KG replies: Thanks!

Susan Scheid says: Kyle: I second John Kline. Your voice is so necessary. I hope one day you'll consider offering a course like this to a wider audience, though designed as you would like. What you wrote here came to mind again when I saw the syllabus for an online course in which I have enrolled. Admittedly, the course is a short survey of a very long period, and doesn't pretend to be comprehensive, but even so, I wonder about the reasoning behind selecting Schoenberg as one of the only two 20th C choices. I don't want to prejudge, and I'll be interested to hear the presentations, but I'll have to confess, it made me wistful for the Gann perspective.

Jim Fogle says: Thanks for this post and the comments it inspires (or provokes). I had a long-winded comment in mind but decided to cut it short. As a teacher of 20th-century music for many years at a small urban college, the factor that made the biggest difference for my students was having living, breathing composers and performers come to the class. I even had students "mime" such works as Pierrot Lunaire (excerpts). Whether they could actually sing or play the instrument they were miming was irrelevant. They did have to practice and study the scores to make the mime as convincing as possible. (I remember a particularly engaging -- and disturbing -- mime of "Nacht".) Anything that brought them into as much direct contact with the music as possible gave them a profoundly different perspective. I'll never forget a brilliant pre-performance lecture (and in-and-out-of-phase duet and performance (a real performance of Reich's Piano Phase) given by two students. Although I am no longer teaching, I would love to hear about activities that moved students from viewing much of this music as the stuff of some imaginary place that they had never been to a place they had been to, if even for a few fleeting minutes.

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