Friday, April 29, 2011

Music and the Cold War

Music and the Cold War

April 7, 2011

Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books

My friends let me know that Professor Richard Taruskin has written an article entitled “Afterword: Nicht Blutbefleckt?” (Not Blood-Stained?) in The Journal of Musicology,1 partially devoted to answering my review of his Oxford History of Western Music in The New York Review.2 In this answer he declares himself “one who regards Rosen’s literary output—all of it—as Cold War propaganda.”

This seems sufficiently extreme and provocative to warrant a few observations. For the most part, Taruskin maintains that whatever success and prestige in music and painting American modernism has achieved are mainly due to the efforts of promotion by the CIA and the US State Department in order to counter Soviet propaganda during the cold war years.

The claim that the prestige of American modernism is basically due to the programs of the CIA and the American government is simply a warmed-up version of a French theory of some years ago that the success of American Abstract Expressionism was due to a conspiracy of art dealers, aided by official American propaganda. This was inspired by indignant patriotic panic at the replacement of Paris by New York for a few years as the major center of artistic innovation and interest. The principal expression of the attack was a book by Serge Guilbaut; the title is sufficiently explanatory and indicates the level of the argument as well: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (1983).

This thesis has recently become fashionable among a small group of American musicologists largely hostile to modernism, and Taruskin seems to have decided to ride along with them. He acts as a prosecutor, determined to corner the criminals and convict them. He writes:

But the guilt and blood a critic like [Louis] Menand will admit into a discussion of [Jackson] Pollock is presumably only guilt over booze and fornication, and the blood shed in a fatal car crash…. But Pollock was an entirely knowing beneficiary of Cold War promotion, and so were John Cage, Morton Feldman, and any number of others of whom it is still conventional to say that they were far better appreciated in Europe than at home. The role of Cold War policy in their histories is part of our history, and we must report it.

It would appear that Jackson Pollock was stained with blood by having allowed his paintings to be exhibited in a show arranged by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. That is the same accusation that Taruskin levels against Elliott Carter. He dates what he calls Carter’s “superlative prestige” precisely from the European performance of Carter’s First Quartet at the 1954 Rome festival of contemporary music, an event sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom—the cultural organization on the Western side of the cold war that became notorious thanks to its subsequently disclosed CIA secret financing and support.

Nevertheless, Professor Anne C. Schreffler, the most distinguished and brilliant of all the musical scholars on whom Taruskin relies for evidence on the subject of the effect of cold war propaganda, makes it clear that he is wrong on this point. In this festival, she says: “Carter’s quartet received wide exposure but mixed reviews…. The recording by the Walden Quartet probably did even more than these early performances to make the work known.”3 In any case, before the festival, the quartet had won the first prize in the International Competition for the Composition of String Quartets at Liège.

It is evident that the success of this quartet—which, to Carter’s surprise, was soon in the repertory of a number of ensembles in spite of its length and difficulty (at the competition at Liège, the players broke down trying to perform it)—was not due principally to the CIA-sponsored performance at the Rome 1954 festival of contemporary music but to admiration for the work and recognition of its quality. This is grudgingly admitted by Taruskin as he writes:
I did little else [in The Oxford History of Western Music] but quote rapturous comments—from Stravinsky, William Glock, Joseph Kerman, Andrew Porter, Bayan Northcott, and Rosen himself, among others—testifying to their belief in Carter’s eloquence and allure (an enthusiasm that in the case of the First Quartet, among other works, I fully share, although the Oxford History was not the proper place for me to say so). [my italics]
But he wants to claim that these responses are not “wholly innocent and spontaneous,” and he does not believe that a historian should be an advocate. The quoted testimonials he boasts of repeating, however, are not criticism, and are only a facile substitute for historical explanation. The responsibility that a historian owes his readers, particularly in a textbook for college students, is not a list of advocates, but a critical explanation of how the “eloquence and allure” work.

However, the role that Taruskin has laid out for himself is simply that of a whistleblower. He finds it scandalous, as many of us do, that the financing of the Congress for Cultural Freedom by the CIA was clandestine, unavowed, and publicly denied. After the war the intellectual prestige of the Communist parties in France and Italy was very great, as they had been among the principal organizations of the resistance to Mussolini and to the German occupation of France. The intent of the CIA was to enhance the intellectual reputation of America with exhibitions and concerts and the literary magazines Encounter and Tempo Presente in Britain and Italy. The few performances and exhibitions arranged by the Congress for Cultural Freedom did not establish prestige, but presented musicians and artists who had already achieved some success.

There is no evidence at all that the CIA was interested in twelve-tone music or even simply in difficult and dissonant modernism. Taruskin says nothing about the fact that works of Samuel Barber, hardly a representative figure of the modernist school, were also played at the very same festival in Rome at which Carter’s First Quartet was introduced to a European public, including a song cycle sung by Leontyne Price and the Capricorn Concerto. It is not clear why Barber should not be tainted by the blood-guilt smeared on the figures of Jackson Pollock and Elliott Carter.

That works of avant-garde music and painting attracted more attention in Europe at that time than the neoromantic and neoclassical styles is understandable if one thinks of the European work in those fields after the war, with Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Nor does Taruskin even mention the US State Department’s international promotion at this time of African-American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong. Maybe he felt that calling attention to this would be politically incorrect, or perhaps he just wishes to imply that any prestige that attached to their work was well deserved, or that it is all right for the government to promote popular music.

In his History Taruskin maintains that “both [Carter and Rosen] were beneficiaries of the prestige machine in which both were willing partners.” It is agreeable to benefit from prestige, but it is obviously wicked to receive it from a “machine.” Any success whatever in the arts is always due to some kind of promotion, whether the beneficiary be the Beatles or Jackson Pollock or Richard Taruskin. But the implication of the phrase “willing partners”—that Carter knew that the CIA was paying for the performance of his quartet—is a boldfaced misrepresentation.

The appearance of the name of William Glock, head of music at the BBC, among the advocates of modernist works, with little mention of him elsewhere, reveals the essential poverty and irrelevance of Taruskin’s account of the success of modernism. He has made no serious attempt to explore how the music was actually promoted and who was fundamentally interested in the promotion; he simply wants to yoke modernism with an organization secretly financed by the CIA, as if that is an adequate comment on the music and art.

The really efficient work to make musical modernism better known and acceptable came from the public radio stations in Europe, above all the BBC. Taruskin mentions only the German stations, and then simply to claim that their financing of modernist music ceased with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the cold war, and the reunification of Germany. He fails to observe that the reunification nearly bankrupted the German state by the granting of parity between the relatively worthless East German mark and the mark of the West. Support for all forms of culture diminished, not just for modernism.

Considerable promotion for the avant-garde was also offered by the Italian radio system. The French held back, and the major representative of French modernism, Pierre Boulez, was systematically refused access to official channels in the 1950s, although he was financed as the resident composer by the German radio station at Baden-Baden, run by Heinrich Strobel, who had also engaged Hans Rosbaud, the greatest contemporary interpreter of the modernist orchestral repertory.

The most important promotion of musical modernism came above all from the BBC when William Glock became Controller of Music. He hardly needed any stimulus from cold war ideology, as he had been for many years the editor of The Score magazine, the foremost voice for avant-garde music in the world at the time. Upon taking over the BBC, Glock’s first action was to transform the Promenade Concerts, which took place every summer in the Albert Hall, the largest concert space in London. These had become largely popular middlebrow concerts with works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Before starting his reign at the BBC, Glock said to me, “We get three thousand people every night at the Proms, and we don’t know why they come, so we are going to change the programs and see what happens.” He programmed Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras in his first season—only 2,500 people came, but that seemed a success—and continued with unusual works like the Berlioz Requiem, Mozart’s unfinished opera Zaïde, as well as music from the standard repertory. There was a huge injection of the modernist tradition that caused an outcry in Parliament, with protests at “Gauleiter Glock,” who was inflicting subversive foreign art upon innocent concertgoers. The Prom Concerts under Glock gained a reputation for a number of years as the most distinguished and exciting music festival in the world. For chamber music, the Thursday Invitation Concerts were created as broadcasts with an invited audience (the public could request free tickets) that mixed adventurous recent scores with music of the past.

Glock had hired Pierre Boulez as principal conductor of the BBC Symphony (along with Antal Dorati, who lasted only two years but helped to raise the technical level of the orchestra), and sent it on tour to America playing four programs of difficult twentieth-century music in two weeks in New York’s Carnegie Hall (a project that few orchestras could have matched at the time). The two concerts directed by Boulez were a revelation and a critical sensation, creating on the spot his international fame as a conductor. He received a contract from Columbia Masterworks (first from the British outlet and then the American, where Goddard Lieberson—who had already done a good deal for the promotion of difficult new music, Stravinsky above all—was head of artists and repertory). Boulez’s contract gave him carte blanche for repertory and a guarantee of a recording of all his own works. He immediately elected to do a complete set of Anton von Webern, although Columbia already had one that Lieberson had authorized.

A year or so later Glock said to me, “Pierre is going to break his contract with me and go to the New York Philharmonic. Do you think I should sue?”

“Would it do any good?” I asked.

“None at all,” he replied.

In his New York years, Boulez presented a small amount of difficult contemporary music, the largest part of it not on the main subscription concerts but in small events in Greenwich Village. He steadfastly refused to perform his own works with the Philharmonic, claiming that there was not enough time for rehearsal. After a few years in New York he had become one of the highest-paid conductors in the world, and France set about enticing him back with the promise of a lavishly subsidized modern sound laboratory and a highly paid chamber orchestra.

Taruskin remarks with a certain undignified satisfaction that American modernist composers were and are better known in Europe than in their native country, and explains this by the machinations of the CIA and the State Department, which is absurd. All contemporary music is better known in Europe, since almost all the countries there had a public radio system with some stations devoted entirely to classical music, and the musicians’ unions had enforced regulations that strictly limited the use of commercial recordings, requiring that most of the music must be either live or recorded by the stations. Many of the stations have their own orchestra. Their budgets far exceed that of any of the few classical music stations in America.

The relative, or even absolute, lack of success at home of the modernist American composers is not due to the absence of brainwashing propaganda, but to the fact that a great deal of modernist art (including painting, poetry, and novels) is rebarbative and challenging at first encounter and generally requires several experiences of it to be appreciated. This has, in fact, been true of most innovative music since the time of Mozart. Even modernist works that were, because of a dazzling display of different sonorities, great successes at their premieres, like Boulez’s Pli selon pli or Carter’s Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord, are, at the same time, initially disconcerting as well.

The lack of a public radio system in the United States that presents live performances regularly and has staff musicians means that there are many music-lovers in America who have never heard even one piece by Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, or Carter; or Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, or Bohuslav Martinu˚, etc.; and the possibility of hearing any piece more than once is very dim. Of course, in addition, many of the performances are likely to be inadequate. Of Elliott Carter’s works, for example, I heard the song cycle Syringa based on poetry by John Ashbery three times and disliked it before enjoying it a year or two later on a fourth hearing.

I remember that my first experience of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet in 1944 caused a feeling of nausea. And when I first brought the Schoenberg Suite op. 25 to a lesson taught by Hedwig Kanner-Rosenthal, she said, “It sounds terrible: perhaps if you played it like Chopin, it would be better.” She was half right: played like Brahms, it improved, as she helped me to do with a few lessons. Curiously, she had studied harmony with Schoenberg, but like most Viennese musicians, had never heard any of his music. However, after the last lesson, she remarked, “It’s distressing. After this piece, when my other students bring me Mozart and Schumann, they sound too tame and simple.” The surest way of getting hooked on modernism is to try to make it sound significant and beautiful.

Taruskin begins his article with the figure of the composer Milton Babbitt and oddly ascribes to the cold war the formation of the Ph.D. program in musical composition at Princeton University, where Babbitt taught. As Taruskin puts it:

Babbitt’s composing and theorizing have always been symbiotic…; and for a while that symbiosis of music and analysis was powerfully institutionalized in the pioneering Princeton Ph.D. Program in composition and in its clones, the countless other degree programs that Princeton’s made not just possible but necessary…. That Princeton degree program, inaugurated in 1962, was a major trophy of the Cold War. The call for it had come in 1958, the year after Sputnik, in Babbitt’s celebrated if generally misunderstood manifesto “Who Cares If You Listen?”
Taruskin is surely too intelligent to claim seriously that Sputnik was an actual cause of the creation of the Ph.D. program, but he strategically places the phrase “the year after Sputnik” in the hope that his readers will be stupid enough to believe it.

Nevertheless, a Ph.D. in musical composition was created for reasons that Taruskin either does not know or does not wish to know but had nothing to do with international politics. In the 1950s, American universities were rated by the number of Ph.D.s on their faculties (although many prestigious professors did not then have a Ph.D., including the distinguished literary critic R..P. Blackmur, who did not even have a BA—he left Harvard in the middle of his undergraduate work, because, as he said, it interfered with his reading). Nevertheless, a Ph.D. became necessary to a job applicant. Graduate students in musical composition were awarded only a Doctorate of Music, while the prestigious Ph.D. was reserved for musicologists. This meant that when a post in a university music department for teaching harmony, counterpoint, and composition became open, it generally went to a young musicologist—a composer, as a mere D.Music was shut out of the job market.

This leads Taruskin to an attack, which has some justification, on the pretensions of artists to be uninfluenced by political considerations. It is true that we are all sometimes unaware of how politics impinges not only on our aesthetics but on our view of life and morals in general as well. Taruskin is inspired to affirm:

Equally squeamish—and equally strategic—is Charles Rosen’s phobic reaction to reception studies, by now the most widely practiced and uncontroversial aspect of contextualization.

This effectively confuses two issues. Contextualization treats the conditions, social and economic, of the moment in which the music was created. Reception studies, however, deal with the later history of the music, its influence, and its performance. I have, on the contrary, always insisted on the importance of reception studies, merely remarking from time to time that they do not totally replace the understanding that comes from listening to the music, and are not a substitute for an assessment of the inner workings, individuality, and effectiveness of the music.

Nor am I an enemy of contextualization, only of the cut-rate version that Taruskin is selling, which downgrades all serious studies by determining the ideology or significance of a work of music or art solely and simple-mindedly by the ideology of the social class of the individual patrons who paid for the work. (Since Professor Taruskin teaches at Berkeley, a traditional center of interest in the avant-garde, applying his variety of contextualization would identify the ideology of his crusade against difficult modernism with the policy of a state close to bankruptcy.)

In the end, this kind of historical criticism based upon a facile identification with class interest is what used to be stigmatized as “vulgar Marxism,” and it is astonishing to see its reappearance on the stage of postmodernist theory. Such criticism is only a novel way of avoiding any serious engagement with a work or a style that one happens not to like, a way of indulging one’s prejudices without admitting them, a way, in fact, of giving the impression of objectivity—exactly what I have charged Taruskin with in his writing on the twentieth century. Contextualization is an important tool of the historian, but it is never by itself a complete account of artistic success. Politics will inevitably influence some of our judgments, but to imply that all the favorable reactions quoted to Carter’s First Quartet were due entirely to political propaganda is not only ungenerous, but historically irresponsible—and it does not explain why the prestige of Carter’s work has endured for half a century.

Taruskin was admittedly psychologically troubled by the atmosphere of the cold war, much more so, I think, than most Americans, as he writes:
I believe it is fair to say that the Cold War gave Americans a far greater scare than any of our actual wars our armies fought overseas…. How could anyone’s psychic equilibrium remain undisturbed? (Mine was definitely unbalanced. I could never take seriously plans or promises that had to do with anything that lay more than a few days in the future.)
For me, on the contrary, the cold war years were a time of hope and looking forward. I got a Ph.D., made my first recordings and my New York debut, and obtained a two-year Fulbright fellowship to work in Paris. The 1950s were the time when I found stronger ties to modernism, which already interested me. But I was never a dodecaphonic fanatic, finding, as Elliott Carter did, that Schoenberg’s system was too constraining. On one occasion, however, I was indeed guilty of being promoted by the State Department. I had played a recital in New York, which received a favorable review in Time magazine with a two-column picture. The American embassy in Paris, when I returned to finish my Fulbright, was so impressed by the magazine’s attention that I had to repeat the concert in the embassy concert hall for an invited audience, although I had included no American music on my program.

I also confess that in 1953–1954 I played concertos with the symphony orchestra of the occupying 7th Army of the US stationed in Stuttgart, all young soldiers drafted from Juilliard, Curtis, and other music schools, and we toured Germany, Austria, France, and Denmark, performing the Schumann, Beethoven no. 4, and Brahms no. 2, promoting goodwill between the occupying forces and the local populace. I even persuaded the army radio to broadcast a performance by three members of the orchestra and myself of the Trio Sonata from the Musical Offering of J.S. Bach. As far as I know this was how I benefited from a “prestige machine” run by the US government.

(1) The Journal of Musicology , Vol. 26, Issue 2 (2009), pp. 274–284. ↩

(2) February 23 and March 9, 2006 .

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