Taruskin, vol.5, page 220

Edit (1 October 2009): the following comments apply only to the original hardback edition of The Oxford History of Western Music. Several points raised in this post have been addressed in the recently published paperback edition, for which I respectfully thank Professor Taruskin.

This has been knocking around on my hard drive for a couple weeks, written in a rush (and lightly polished today) on the train. Felt I owed the world a proper post on, y’know, musicology an’ tha’, so here you go:

I’ve just recently, and belatedly, started leafing through Richard Taruskin’s monumental History of Western Music, one of the musicological banner publications of 2005. Now, I’ve been an occasional fan of Taruskin’s work – his Grove article on Nationalism is flawed, but significant, and Defining Russia Musically was an inspirational book for me. But really, if what I’ve seen of volume 5 of HWM is anything to go by, this is not in the same realm.

There’s far too much to go into here about what winds me up about this book (how about the laughable Europhobia, in which European music after 1950 is merely a Cold War sideshow, and after 1960 non-existent), much of which will have been said elsewhere, but I just wanted to get my reaction to one page in particular off my chest. This is page 220 of volume 5, on which Taruskin is discussing (speculating on) the Cold War implications of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. I fear, as an example of the lazy thought and downright falsehoods of this book, it may not be unique.

First of all, Taruskin makes the connection (as he does elsewhere, reiterating a popular New Musicological theme of ‘avant garde prestige’) between the elaborate notation of Threnody and the expensive promotional outlays made on scores “by Stockhausen and, especially, Ligeti in Western Europe”. No doubt Threnody, Klavierstücke XI and Atmosphères were expensive to produce, but they’re hardly unique examples of their type, and reflect, more likely, the artistic utopianism of the 60s as much as anything else (the same utopianism that was funding electronic studios in Cologne, Warsaw, Paris and Columbia), a phenomenon that simply can’t be compared like for like with present day circumstances. Threnody in particular was not an unusual product of PWM’s seemingly bottomless resources for the typesetting of new music, and it certainly wasn’t the first, or even the least conventional. Nor was the situation unique to Poland, as a brief familiarity with Czech graphic scores of the period will tell you. There is an interesting question to be asked about the immense resources of publishers like PWM to produce such scores, but I don’t think Taruskin is asking it: using Cold War binarism to explain a ‘Western’ economy of prestige in scores that are funded by the Communist State, composed by composer who by this stage were already rejecting the musical obsessions of the Western avant garde in forging their own identities – well, you can see how it starts to get problematic.

Taruskin draws a connection between the expense of the score (in Penderecki’s case, funded by the state-run publishing house PWM) and the display of “a commitment to creative freedom”. That such a commitment coming from both Universal Edition in Vienna (Ligeti) and PWM in Warsaw (Penderecki) might be somewhat different is not explored by Taruskin: if it does represent a commitment to creative freedom, under whose definition? He does, however, confuse the matter of Threnody’s place within the political-economic matrix of Cold War relationships by stating that “Calling attention to the United States Army’s deadly attack on Japanese civilians, the most destructive single military act in history, was of propagandistic benefit to the Soviet Bloc, the Hiroshima bombing being cited as a symbol of the American militarism, not to say savagery, that contributed to the breakup of the old wartime alliance against fascism. It made the performance of Penderecki’s avant-garde music in Poland a politically correct exercise.” There might be something in this, except that it still doesn’t account for the dozens of similar scores that received extensive promotion from the State and achieved substantial success both at home and abroad. Threnody’s Polish performance history is unremarkable in comparison to other works of the period, so it is hard to draw many conclusions from that. (I haven’t looked in detail at the Polish reception history of the piece, so this may tell a different story. Suffice to say that none of the retrospective surveys of Penderecki’s music that I am aware of voice Taruskin’s point.)

But Taruskin has another card up his sleeve: “After the fall of the Communist regime in Poland, Penderecki let it be known that the piece published as the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima had originally borne a more neutral ’sonorist’ title, and had been rejected by the publishing house as too expensive for printing. He gave it (he now said) the politically fraught title ex post facto to make an attractive commodity for promotion by the Communist government.” You shouldn’t trust too much to what composer’s say, though. You see, it was well known at least as early as 1975, with the publication of Ludwik Erhardt’s Spotkanie z Krzysztofem Pendereckim, that the piece had originally been titled 8′37″ (in perhaps an oblique homage to Cage), and was changed on the suggestion of the director of Polish Radio to the more emotive Threnody in order to enhance its impact at the forthcoming UNESCO Prize of the International Composers’ Jury in Paris. And again, in 1979 (Eng. trans. 1989), Wolfram Schwinger’s widely read life and works study of the composer notes the same shift of title. So you can stop with the implications of “after the fall of the Communist regime”; at the very least provide a source for Penderecki’s remarks. And the accusation that PWM were reluctant, for reasons of expense, to publish the score, doesn’t square with the fact that they did plenty of others – including Penderecki’s Anaklasis a year earlier, a work not short of a notational quirk or two – and that by the time of the name change, Threnody had already won third prize at a composer’s competition in Katowice (1960) and been performed the following year by Jan Krenz and the PRSO. Even without the name change it had a pretty decent pedigree; but it was after Krenz’s performance that the work was rechristened. The tape of Krenz’s performance was sent to Paris, where Penderecki duly won; if it wasn’t worth publishing now, then when? There may be more to this story to uncover, but Taruskin hasn’t nearly presented enough to support his own ideological arguments here.

Taruskin questions whether this makes Penderecki a careerist. Well, join the queue! In the end he can only observe that in the case of Ligeti and Penderecki, “not even the avant garde, which by virtual definition (or by defined purpose) resists commercial or ideological exploitation, has been able to resist it as the twentieth century, that most commercial and ideological of all centuries, ran its course.” This is, however, a straw man argument. Taruskin is right about his definition of the avant garde, but by his own preceding comments, it is clear that calling either Penderecki or Ligeti avant garde by this definition is fraught with difficulty. Most people don’t do so for either composer any more: even Penderecki’s Anaklasis has been described as ‘a sheep in wolf’s clothing’ (Uwe Mertins), and Martin Zenck long ago made the claim that the description of avant garde may, in Ligeti’s case, be extended to his Apparitions, but very little else besides. If you’re still calling them avant garde, can you be surprised if they don’t meet your definition?

7 thoughts on “Taruskin, vol.5, page 220

  1. This is a horribly late comment, but wow, where did you get all that information from? I’m doing this essay on Threnody and it seems all the books I have have been plagarized off of each other….

    Lots of good info here, but I don’t believe my professor will consider this a reliable source. Thaks for the info anyway!

  2. David – a lot of the information comes from the Ludwik Erhardt book I mention, but that’s only available in Polish (although I think there are some other articles by Erhardt in German). Wolfram Schwinger’s book is still the best source in English, although it’s far from perfect. There’s also some useful info in Adrian Thomas’s Polish Music Since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005).

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