Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries and Anthology for Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, by Joseph Auner

June 8, 2015

Editor’s Note:

With the following review of Joseph Auner’s textbook and anthology, we have published reviews of all six volumes in W.W. Norton’s new Western Music in Context series. I would like to extend my gratitude to the reviewers of each volume who provided our readers not only with insights into each book and anthology, but also an awareness of the salient issues that surround the writing of music history in the twenty-first century.


TextBookAunerJuneAnthologyAunerJune Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Joseph Auner, W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-92920-1
Anthology for Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Joseph Auner, W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-92021-5
From the series Western Music in Context: A Norton History (New York and London: Norton, 2013).

In a recent Sunday strip of the comic Pearls Before Swine , Rat and Pig are talking to a young boy studying for a history exam. Pig inquires of him, “How come you have to know history?” Wally responds, “I guess so that when we’re older, we’ll know things.” Curious, Pig pushes on, “Like what?” “Like who wrote the Declaration of Independence and where Napoleon died and when man first walked on the moon,” Wally states. Rat, who has been quietly sitting throughout this exchange interjects, “Jefferson. St. Helena. 1969.” He then holds up his phone and answers Wally and Pig’s unspoken question, “It’s called ‘Google.’”1

Rat goes past the punch line in a later panel by stating, “I guess technically, I know everything.” But that line only rubs salt in the wound that is teaching history in the Information Age. Most of our students in the music history classroom carry in their pockets a quick portal to all the names and dates, the basic facts, they need; memorizing chronology and opus numbers is no longer the basis of music history pedagogy. It is to this change that Norton’s series Western Music in Context is addressed. Instead of following the tried and true method of focusing either on a succession of composers and works or on a period’s musical styles, the books in this series attempt to mine the social and cultural contexts in which music was produced to construct a history of a given musical period. As series editor Walter Frisch (Columbia University) explains in his introduction, “The contextual approach to music history offers limitless possibilities: an instructor, student, or general reader can extend the context as widely as he or she wishes” (xvi). These books are as much about a way of framing music history as they are a history themselves.

The series’ background brings us to the present volume, the final of six, Joseph Auner’s Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. In many ways, Auner, a professor at Tufts University, was a wise choice to write a text that spans from Mahler’s late Romanticism to 1950s-era electronic constructions and on to contemporary postmodern mélanges. Although his early work focused on Arnold Schoenberg’s music, Auner has not only published on all of these issues, but also edited a book series and a major academic journal. In other words, he has wide exposure to the issues surrounding music of the past 120 years and deep knowledge of the literature available. With that background, he brings to Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries a keen eye for overlooked connections among disparate musics and an ability to communicate complex concepts in lucid and engaging prose.

Anyone who approaches a history of music since 1900 must deal with the proliferation of musical styles and the globalization of musical thought that characterizes the period. Auner acknowledges this issue in the book’s second paragraph, writing “There has never been less agreement than there is today about how to draw boundaries between musical styles, how best to study music, and how to measure ideas such as historical importance, originality, and progress—or even whether such concepts still have validity” (xvii). Auner is obviously aware of and invested in the decentering of the canon that has characterized musicological scholarship of the past two decades, but in seeking to constrain an unwieldy narrative, he follows the well-worn path of the Western art music tradition. As a result, landmarks from Western history organize the book into four parts: 1900-WWI (3 chapters, 66 pages), WWI-WWII, (4 chapters, 90 pages), 1945-1960 (3 chapters, 63 pages), and 1960 – present (4 chapters, 71 pages). From this division, it is clear that the book is weighted toward the first half of the twentieth century. The century’s first seventeen years receive roughly the same amount of space as the last fifty years, while the twenty years between the world wars are allotted the most space. This weighting makes sense when you consider the direction and availability of musicological and theoretical scholarship on this era, but it is disappointing that a book titled Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries covers the last twenty-five years in only a few pages at the end of Chapters Twelve through Fourteen and a seven-page final chapter. The accompanying anthology likewise leans toward the interwar period with nine of the twenty-six pieces originating in the 1920s and 1930s, but the representation of music since 1990 is proportionally stronger with four works written in that time.2

As fascinating as these numbers are in describing the makeup of Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, they do little in relating the narrative Auner has constructed. In the book’s first chapter, he notes that “We must start from the realization that there is not just one story to be told, that the questions we ask will shape the answers we get, and that there will always be those possibilists saying ‘It could probably just as well be otherwise’” (11). From this statement, he could have gone one of two ways in leading the reader: He could have designed his story as a mansion with many rooms all existing in the same time and place. Each chapter would drop into a new room, and readers would move among those spaces at will to find their own connections. Or he could have found an overarching thread and made those connections obvious, so readers would have a clear story to follow. Although there are aspects of the mansion approach to this book, with fascinating hallways that lead to unexpected pieces of music, Auner chose a single-thread narrative, based on an idea he found in Robert Musil’s unfinished novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities). The idea is what Musil called the “possibilists,” a group of people he defines as realizing that nothing has to be the way that it is (5). Instead of using the common lens of modernism, Auner frames his story as one of musicians pushing at established boundaries and working to reinvent music’s accepted definition. This notion of “possibility” is a fruitful conceit as it not only shows the close connections between music and the other arts highlighted throughout the book, but also allows him to include composers as diverse as Webern, Weill, and Chen Yi in one narrative.

After an opening chapter that describes and forecasts how he intends to use the framework of possibility, Auner moves into three chapters covering the years prior to World War I. Chapter Two uses the Mahlers (both Gustav and Alma) and Claude Debussy to explore how composers dealt with the loss of cohesion in the world around them. Instead of focusing on revolts against the tonal system, Auner flips the paradigm to explore how the Mahlers and Debussy created musical systems to restore balance in an otherwise chaotic world. Chapter Three continues that story by exploring “why a significant number of composers working in quite different traditions and locales during these years came to feel that the existing musical languages were inadequate, and how they found new solutions for moving forward that have energized musical developments ever since” (36). To do so, Auner breaks the first two chapters’ emphasis on broad artistic movements to give us page-and-a-half vignettes on composers including Busoni, the Italian Futurists, Richard Strauss, and Scriabin, followed by a long discussion of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The final chapter of Part I uses the problematic idea of authenticity to folk sources to look at four composers who infused their music with those sources: Béla Bartók, Jean Sibelius, Charles E. Ives, and Igor Stravinsky. Although this grouping feels artificial as their reasons for and engagement with folk music vary drastically among the composers, the chapter does present the most in depth discussion of music in the book with Auner’s analysis of The Rite of Spring.

Part II encompasses four chapters exploring music between the world wars. Chapter Five uses the largely overlooked radio composition Der Lindberghflug by Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith as a lens through which to view the period’s embrace of objectivism, electronic and recorded sounds, new media, and the sounds of the city. The chapter sets the tone for Part II with its focus on the purpose of art and the artist above musical style. Chapter Six retreats from the kaleidoscopic view of the previous chapter by focusing on one musical movement – Neoclassicism – in one city – Paris. However, like Chapter Five, the sixth chapter uses one piece to explore its questions of high versus low art, older versus modern music, and tonality versus chromaticism: Erik Satie’s Parade. With its incorporation of American ragtime and Baroque formal models, the work allows for discussions of Stravinsky’s Symphonie de psaumes, Milhaud’s La création du monde, and Josephine Baker’s star vehicle La venue nègre. Chapter Seven turns its attention to new compositional systems developed to create order in music, from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method to Bartók’s palindromes. After focusing on France and Germany, the book shifts in Chapter Eight to the story of composers who “saw in the overturning of the old order the opportunity to create a place for themselves by constructing their own musical worlds” (148). It gives musical tours of Brazil, England, the United States (of both Anglo- and African-American traditions), and even what Auner terms Colin McPhee’s “imaginary homeland in Bali.”

Part III rightly presents the fifteen years following World War II as a rupture in musical history. Chapter Nine, perhaps the book’s most masterful chapter, compares the music and lives of Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich to show not only how the composers attempted “to rebuild a musical language amid the rubble of the past” (184), but also how their art was defined and confined by the Cold War. Chapter Ten continues the thread of Chapter Seven’s new musical systems by combining Boulez and Babbitt’s integral serialism with Cage’s indeterminacy. Chapter Eleven is a turning point in the book because it connects musical developments of the mid-twentieth century to those in more recent decades. Instead of focusing on a few years and a few pieces, Chapter Eleven takes the idea of electronically produced music from musique concrète and synthesizers all the way up to Guitar Hero. It is a virtuosic chapter that leads directly into Part IV.

Part IV continues the focus on trends by covering the last fifty years of music through intelligent groupings of musical styles. Chapter Twelve covers music that focuses on texture (such as György Ligeti’s micropolyphony), timbre (such as Harry Partch’s new instruments and scale), and layers (such as Elliott Carter’s proportional rhythmic constructions). Chapter Thirteen details the uneasy relationship composers have with past musical styles. Whether focusing on the postmodern juxtaposition of multiple musical styles, the embrace of a new Romanticism, or the merging of East and West, the chapter connects a variety of musical styles by demonstrating the ways in which they reject, embrace, or create history anew. Chapter Fourteen deviates from Part IV’s established format by covering a single musical style: minimalism. Starting with La Monte Young and moving through Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, the chapter begins with the standard narrative. But as it moves beyond the foundations of minimalism, it brings in modal jazz, world music traditions, and even advances in recording and sampling technologies to show the reach minimalism has had both in postminimalist styles and popular music. The final chapter returns to Musil’s “sense of possibility” by offering five page-length vignettes on musical ideas that seem to be moving toward the next development in concert music.

One of the greatest strengths of Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries is that instead of simply presenting chronology, Auner has identified themes for each of his four periods and uses them to create startling juxtapositions. Chapter Seven, “The Search for Order and Balance,” for example, begins with Arnold Schoenberg and his development of the twelve-tone method, followed logically by Anton Webern and Alban Berg’s use of the system. But suddenly, at its half point, the chapter segues into the search for new ways to order rhythm and texture by composers such as Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Joseph Schillinger, Bela Bartók, and Paul Hindemith. In addition to the surprising but welcome inclusion of the influential theorist Schillinger, this chapter brings together composers often taught as opposed to one another and demonstrates their commonalities, opening up students’ minds to, as Auner might have it, the sense of possibilities in rethinking music history. Each chapter is chock full of these insights, urging students to go beyond the cursory binaries so often presented in undergraduate history surveys to find the rich complexity of the period in question.

As a result of these aspects, Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries is an ideal book for either upper-level undergraduate courses in music since 1900 or graduate-level surveys, particularly those that focus on music up to 1960. Since it assumes a baseline of familiarity with the narrative of music from the past 120 years, I cannot recommend it for introducing students to the period, though individual chapters, particularly “Electronic Music from the Cold War to the Computer Age,” would add nuance to subjects often misunderstood by undergraduates. Unfortunately, as strong as the book is, its ancillary features do not live up to its promise. As previously mentioned, Norton produced the Anthology for Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries featuring roughly two works for every chapter. The selection of pieces seems to have been coordinated with the 7th edition of the Norton Anthology of Western Music for there is only one piece in common between the two books: Act III, scene 2 of Berg’s Wozzeck; other overlaps, such as with Webern’s op. 21 Symphony and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, feature different movements. Likewise, the layout and size of the accompanying commentary mirrors that of the Norton Anthology. But where the Norton Anthology features a robust fifty-seven works, Auner’s anthology only contains twenty-six compositions, leaving many styles and trends without an example. Furthermore, some of those works are provided scant coverage in the text (such as Pauline Oliveros’s Traveling Companions, which receives two sentences), while others that are extensively covered in the text (such as Satie’s Parade) do not appear at all. It must be difficult to balance copyright permissions with pedagogical goals when putting an anthology together, so Auner must be commended for curating a small, yet solid, collection. With the Internet offering so many opportunities for students to see and hear works highlighted in the text, links to online resources could have filled the holes in the anthology, making the accompanying website more disappointing. It is a difficult site to find, not referenced in the book’s text and hidden on Norton’s website as “Author Website,” instead of being listed along with Norton’s “StudySpace” under the “Resources” list. Last updated in September of 2013, the site is still labeled as “Under Construction” and features a study guide for each chapter as well as a smorgasbord of links. Unfortunately, the links are not well organized or clearly related to each chapter’s themes. As a result, there are several missed opportunities. If we look for Parade here, for example, we find a link to brief video excerpts, but why not the public domain score , the recording on Naxos, or the PBS documentary on Robert Joffrey’s reconstruction? The website is the perfect portal to fulfill the series’ mission to “extend the context as widely as he or she wishes,” and hopefully will in the future. For now it remains a site of unrealized potential.

Despite these issues, Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries is a fine book and a worthy final entry in Norton’s new music history series. It uses some of the latest trends in musicological scholarship to explore a diverse period while maintaining the contextual approach to Western musical history established by its predecessors. While I would have liked more discussion of trends outside the Western canon, particularly of popular musical styles, a greater coverage of musical developments of the past sixty years, and a more robust set of ancillary features, Auner’s book is a welcome addition to the options available to teachers and a worthy choice for any class on recent music.


1Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine, March 1, 2015.

2For those interested, the breakdown by decade of the pieces in the anthology is as follows: 1890s – 1, 1900s – 1, 1910s – 3, 1920s – 4, 1930s – 5, 1950s – 1, 1960s – 4, 1970s – 2, 1980s – 1, 1990s – 3, 2000s – 1.

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