Music of the 1960s

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Since the eighteenth century, it has been customary for scholars and critics to try to understand history in terms of discrete periods about which large generalizations may be made– the Age of Enlightenment, the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, etc. Such periodization is a dangerous enterprise. The telling details of the past are often subsumed, and the complexities and cross-currents of life are obscured by the reductive effort to render the chaotic coherent. Too often, we characterize the past in general terms which are germane to our attempt to explain our own times. As the German writer Friedrich Schlegel aptly observed, historians are often prophets in retrospect.

When we look back at the 1960s from our present perspective at the end of the century, we tend to explain that turbulent decade using evidence which we believe was decisive to the historical participants of the time. We instantly envision, as David Schiff rightly points out, a limited number of scenes from what time has judged to be the most memorable phenomena: student protest, the Viet Nam war, the civil rights movement, generation gaps, sexual liberation, the Beatles, the counter-culture. The 1960s, especially for those who actually lived through them, seems to have been an utterly unprecedented historical era–a watershed comprised of pivotal moments of social change and revolution. But how do we judge this watershed? Among the most important assessments at the time was a tract called The Greening of America (1970) by Charles Reich, a utopian mishmash of predictions, none of which have turned out to be accurate and which are now buried as mere memory as is the book itself. This is not to say that the decade’s euphoria and enthusiasms did not leave their permanent residue on manners, mores, and beliefs. But a confident belief in the positive revolutionary consequences of 1960s’ culture is no more convincing than the tiresome neo-conservative argument of a perfect world in the 1950’s, ruined by the subsequent decade. The modern agenda of cultural conservatism is very much driven by the tacit acceptance of the view that the 1960s were indeed a transformative decade whose influence must be reversed in order to restore American culture to health.

As the distinctiveness (or lack thereof) and legacy (if there is one) of the 1960s continues to be debated as myth and as history, there is little doubt that whatever revision takes place, the visual and musical symbols of that decade are fixed in our memories. But as the meaning of these symbols are contested by accounts that now search for continuities from the 1950s to the 1960s, and as we currently struggle over values, religion, and politics, we may do well to ask what the concert music of that period can tell us . If indeed there is a consistency that lies below the surface of all this apparent revolution, what does the orchestral music of that era reveal that the dominant popular culture, or journalism, or emblematic clichés and video clips can not?

Our first instinct might be to say that the music on this program represents how marginal concert music became at that time, when it was eclipsed by popular music and culture. The 1960s, however, was a remarkably vibrant time for concert music. It saw the triumph of American artists such as Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern, who were in their prime, while at the same time, the older pre-war generation of European masters were still active. The long-playing record and new stereophonic technology captured a larger mass-audience than ever before. No doubt there were rumblings about the obsolescence of the orchestra and acoustic concerts as old-fashioned, but the debate about the future of music was a debate about something vital and ongoing–not a nostalgic or conservative quarrel about a dying art form in need of resuscitation.

The composers on today’s program believed that writing concert music in the high art tradition was an important task with clear political and cultural overtones. All of these composers lived through the debates over modernism in music of the mid-twentieth century, when lines were sharply drawn. For them, disciplined modernism was an unequivocal resistance to fascism and tyranny. Today, some revisionists would like us to see hidden affinities between Schoenberg (and his advocates) and autocracy, rigidity, and inhuman abstraction. But during the 1960s, the complex and revolutionary sounding modernism evident in much of today’s music, was highly regarded and respected. Even Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky found themselves drawn to a more aggressive modernism during this decade. For them, modernist music embodied a progressive, triumphant reply to the charges of degeneracy and disfigurement of beauty articulated at length by followers of Hitler and Stalin. The 1960s, after all, were close in time (indeed, closer than we are to the 1960s) to the 1948 Zhdanov decrees (Stalin’s condemnation of modernism) and the cultural politics of Nazi Germany. The historical memories of this afternoon’s composers encompassed an earlier, very different time from the decade in which they produced their greatest works. This is especially true of Luigi Dallapiccola, who witnessed the close collaboration of conservative Italian composers with Mussolini.

In Europe, the political and aesthetic radicalism of post-1945 clearly expressed a desire to cleanse Europe of its past evils, the mass destruction of World War II. In America, this link between politics and art was not as clear and convincing. One reason that modernism–even as represented by Elliott Carter–seems stronger in Europe than in the United States is because American audiences did not necessarily hear in twentieth-century modernism the same echoes of liberation and spiritual freedom. They did not as urgently perceive the necessity for a break from the tempting and dangerous connotations of post-Wagnerian Romanticism. Modernism to American ears seemed arbitrary, obscure, and alienating in its highbrow complexity and incomprehensibility. American audiences’ response to 1960s concert music revealed that the historically powerful connection between progressive art and progressive politics was in the American consciousness tenuous at best. In contrast, for Witold Lutoslawski, modernism was a sign of the victory of Polish national identity over Stalinist domination. Modernism in Polish music flourished after the successful confrontation between Gomulka and the Soviets in 1956. Poland became the scene of the most progressive art-making in the visual and performing arts within the Soviet block and a powerful link between east and west. His music may have struck some American hearers as cerebral and abstract, but for him detachment was hardly the point.

The turning of the tide which marks the end of modernism’s moment in the center stage of the twentieth century is audible in Luciano Berio’s self-conscious Sinfonia, even though it is entirely contemporaneous with Elliott Carter’s magisterial revelation of the power of modernism in his Concerto. All these works are not just about music, but explicitly about politics and history. Far from being abstract or cerebral, they have an intense commitment, and it is precisely the emotional intensity, economy, and elegance of the music that can be appreciated without anxiety thirty years later. A conventional bit of wisdom inherited from Samuel Johnson–that artistic greatness is a test of the ages–is perhaps most true for music which in its own time was acknowledged, respected, but not entirely loved. What the music on this program tells us about the 1960s, which rock music, television shows, political events, and the familiar icons do not, is the enormous and ironic debt the 1960s had to the very past it was trying to wipe out, to the power of historical continuities as opposed to ephemeral surface changes. All the innovations we are prone to recall about the 1960s were dependent on and played out within a context of powerful and convincing modernist enthusiasm, not only in music but in painting, literature, poetry, and architecture. History is not about victors but about the restoration of memory.

Future generations may, when they write about the 1960s, begin to recognize the traditions audible in today’s concert as characteristic of a decade whose revolution was founded on the knowledge that the inventive imagination can offer a critical response to the past that does not descend into nostalgia. The 1960s were about the confidence to change, destroy, build anew–to clean house so to speak. Whether that actually happened or not is irrelevant. But the confidence is diametrically opposed to the nostalgia and insecurity that marks our current adulation of idealized moments in the past, rife with sentiments which suggest that the past is better than the present and that the future will be worse, and that the best we can do particularly in music is be pale imitators of glorious days gone by. The composers of this program fought the politics of the past through the notion that the art associated with it needed to be set aside and a more just present needed to be created which possessed its own unique aesthetic signature. They believed that the musicians of their own day were in a position to improve on past traditions. Our current sensibilities seem strikingly different and quite the reverse. At the end of the century, culture seems more than comfortable with evocative sentimentality. The modernist composers on today’s program struggled to replace sentimental reflection with action, and offer their listeners the sense of elation that accompanies a transcendence of familiar expectations and complacency.