From One of the Horses’ Mouths

In 1999 Joseph N. Straus published an article in Musical Quarterly entitled “The Myth of Serial ‘Tyranny’ in the 1950s and 1960s.” In it he claimed that, contrary to the common belief, there had never been any pressure on young composers to use 12-tone technique in their music, that the 12-tone composers wielded no power in academia, and that 12-tone music was just a hunky-dory little movement that attracted scads of converts because it was just so damn fun. As I believe I’ve written about here, Anthony Tommasini took him neatly apart in a response in the Times for putting his thumb on the scales by limiting his statistics to pre-1970, the period in which the serialists were not yet firmly established in academia. Here’s another, more recent reaction:

Straus’ effort to remove the onus from serialism and serialists by insisting that neither had the “power to coerce and compel,” therefore, there could have been no “tyranny” except as “myth,” misses the crucial point: the real, lived-and-experienced atmosphere of the 50s and 60s was dominated psychologically, aesthetically, intellectually, and riven by the earlier emergence of a power-house of artistic presence in the persons of Arnold Schoenberg and his two satellite, equally strong artist-composers, Alban Berg and Anton Webern…. [T]he guileless, benign picture Straus tries to sell us fades before the reality he strives so hard and ineffectually to displace and deny. His tactics of detoxifying serialism and serialists, which remind me of efforts to denazify Hitler’s Germany or debolshevize Stalin’s Russia, simply do not convince.

Had he paid more attention to the palpable presence of the 12-tone, serialist dominated journals which set the tone of the period…, understood that American academic composers took readily to serialism, its logics, methodologies, magic squares, set theories because it now gave them something solid and intellectual that offered certainties where previously none had existed, then he would have been better able to comprehend why under-graduates and graduate students in particular felt frozen and intimidated – why they resented and feared their teachers and the ideas they promulgated which disclaimed any value attaching to works produced in any way other than the serial….

Above all, Straus fails to comprehend that primarily the greater majority of the American and European post-W.W. II generations of serialists found in serialism an escape from the necessity to be artists and make art, and could still call themselves composers even though what they produced were more demonstrations or illustrations of theoretical-analytical thought processes or thought experiments than they were attempts to say anything artistically meaningful in persuasive human terms.

Does this come from some former grad student still smarting from rejection by his teachers? No. Does it come from a rabid Downtowner who hates all 12-tone music? No. Does it come from some mid-career composer angry because he isn’t getting performed enough, or can’t get a teaching position? No. It comes from an elder statesman, someone who was a professor rather than student during the period in question, a famous composer at the end of a successful career of orchestral performances. It comes from someone who had mastered the 12-tone language himself, and written many successful pieces using it. Thus spake George Rochberg.