Everyone will probably agree that no great musician has been as frequently accused of bad taste as Liszt. And everyone will probably also agree that these accusations have had no effect on his stature as a great musician, even among the accusers. So what is bad taste, then, if it is so easily separable from artistic stature? It is a concept that has been poorly historicized or contextualized, if at all. This paper is an attempt to start the process, using Liszt as bellwether.
When Musorgsky revised his opera Boris Godunov in 1871–1872 as a condition for its eventual performance in 1874, he made many changes that went far beyond what the Imperial Theaters demanded of him. Among these changes was the composition of a crowd scene outside Moscow, in which the rebellious populace hails the Pretender, to replace a crowd scene at Red Square in which a submissive, hungry crowd beg Boris for bread. The original scene came, like the rest of the libretto, directly from Pushkin’s eponymous play. The new scene reflected a new view of the historical events, and Musorgsky wrote his own text for it. The two scenes are ideologically at odds, particularly as regards their view of the Russian nation in relation to the Russian people. Moreover, the two scenes share the episode of the Holy Fool and the thieving boys, which Musorgsky transferred from the one score to the other. Obviously, Musorgsky regarded them as incompatible within a single production and thought he had made conflating them impossible. And yet, at the Bolshoy Theater in 1939, the two scenes were indeed played that way, inconsistencies and redundancies be damned. The Bolshoy production (which became widely known through recordings and film) might be written off, the way we tend to write off the art of the Stalinist era, as a politically motivated anomaly. But other productions, including one in San Francisco in 1992, and one that was mounted in 2010 at the Teatro Regio in Torino, have included both scenes without any such evident motivation, possibly because the Bolshoy production is now regarded by some as canonical. Is the historiographical contradiction involving our theme of Opera and Nation to be regarded as a blemish? If not, what considerations can be seen to outweigh it? Can Musorgsky’s political ideas be deduced from the work in which we assume they are embodied? And if they can be, should they be regarded as an aspect of the work that performers need respect?
The astonishing omission of Bartók - inadvertent, but justified by the editor ex post facto - from the recent Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music prompts reflection on why Bartók is such an indispensable figure in any adequate account of the music of this time - and after. All the more indispensable has he become, paradoxically enough, now that musicology is at last turning away from the “poetic fallacy,” according to which composers are the only historically significant agents in music history,, and giving due weight to meditation and reception. To imagine “Life without Bartók” will be among this paper's thought experiments. Another, perhaps inevitably, will be a comparison of Bartók and Stravinsky,, not only as composers but also as forces in cultural life, both in their time and in ours.
The program note I want to gloss concerns the Symphony in Three Movements, which was composed over the years 1942 to 1945 and first performed, on 24 January 1946, by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s baton. In 1963 Stravinsky seemed to have had a change of heart that rendered him willing to admit what he had formerly denied, even if he still needed to cloak the admission in paradox. Is it evidence that (to recall a book of outdated centennial essays) Stravinsky the musician never really meant what Stravinsky the modernist averred? We’ll never know. Meanwhile, we’ll go on performing and interpreting Stravinsky’s music the way not he but we need to hear it. As long as we do that, his work will live.
In his inaugural lecture to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Béla Bartók proposed dividing the works of Liszt into two unequally valued portions: the valuable works that showed Liszt as an artistic innovator, and the undesirable ones that adopted a false “Hungarian” style that pleased unsophisticated listeners but corrupted their taste. In sum, he asserted a radical pseudo-aesthetic dichotomy in the interests of a political agenda. Only a dozen years later, Bartók’s own legacy was dichotomized in a very similar way by musicians and politicians, on both sides of the Cold War divide, who were acting according to a political agenda that no one even tried to disguise as aesthetic. The crypto-political pseudo-aesthetics of the twentieth century, whether practiced in the name of pure national traditions, in the name of social justice, or in the name of aesthetic autonomy, has corrupted both the production and the reception of art music and has played a part in its devaluation, all too evident in twenty-first-century society. The many errors of evaluation enumerated in this essay have contributed to that melancholy history.
In his autobiography, Goldmark boasted that he had employed four distinct orientalist idioms in his works: one in Sakuntala and three in Die Königin von Saba. Actually, his deployment of orientalist signifiers was a lot more varied and subtle than that. None of them, moreover, was based on actual ethnographic models. All were purely imaginary and conventional – and for that reason legible and effective. This essay surveys and classifies them, analyzes their motivation and effect, and compares them with the practice of contemporaries such as Anton Rubinstein and Camille Saint-Saëns.
In a memorable letter of 18 March 1926, brought to the attention of Anglophone scholars by David Schneider, Bartók’s second wife Ditta Pásztory described her reaction (obviously also reflecting that of her husband’s) to Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto just after listening to its Budapest premiere with the composer at the piano as being attracted to the machine music but missing in it what she called her “homeland.” In the present article I should like to show that the machine music described as intimidating is no more threatening than a sewing machine, because the inspiration for it was 192Os-style performances of Bach. Furthermore, despite his notorious rhetoric, Stravinsky too aimed at exaltation and catharsis. Parallels between the climaxes in Bartók’s First Piano Concerto and those in Stravinsky’s (especially in the first movement) might reveal the real kinship between the two works. At the same time, Bartók’s obviously different approach to Bach, testified in his few fragmentary recordings, may help us understand the differences of aesthetics between the two composers in their respective neoclassical style showcased in the most important genre for a concertizing pianist.