Requiem for the 20th Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

The second half of the 20th century, particularly in the years between 1945 and the fall of Communism in 1989, was preoccupied with a baffling and disturbing historical paradox. How was it that after a century of astounding industrial and scientific progress, accompanied by a remarkable extension of literacy and culture, the so-called civilized world beginning in 1914 (when the 19th century actually came to a close) became a theater of senseless violence and barbarism? An intolerable contradiction between the claims of civilization and culture and the political realities of the 20th century became obvious. The perhaps thoughtless expectation had been that progress, measured by education, culture, and the expansion of liberty through the abolition of slavery and serfdom and the extension of democracy, would lead to a politics of reason and tolerance, and thus the end of violent conflict. Instead, an unbroken cycle of carnage began in 1914 that peaked in 1945. That year the unambiguous revelation was made visible: that the “cultured” countries of Europe, led by Germany, had successfully exterminated well over 6 million civilians, Jews, and Roma and several ethnic and gendered minorities. A deep irony pervades the techniques used by the Nazis, which were consciously emblematic of the very progress that was supposed to lead humanity to a higher standard of civility: the spread of written language, the efficiency of bureaucracy, and the wonders of technology. During the same period, Communism, a movement committed to radical equality, became corrupted by Stalinism from within. Between the 1930s through the 1950s over 18 million Soviet citizens were eliminated. Despite its venerable culture, Japan devastated its Pacific neighbors from China to Hawaii. And China itself, under Mao, indulged in horrific purges again in the name of Communist equality. Japanese aggression and also fear of Communism led the United States to assert its dominance by deploying the most destructive device then known to humankind, sparking a nuclear contest that placed the fate of the entire species in jeopardy.

This paradox was not lost on the artists, writers, and composers who needed to confront the hypocrisy of a post-war “normalcy” after 1945. The only legitimate step toward the “normal” was the end of World War II. After its conclusion, the ethnic conflicts, the violence and inequality that festered beneath the surface for much of the 19th century, subsided briefly with attempts to resolve them. But they exploded again after 1989, as they had in the first half of the 20th century, and that legacy continues to this day. The most baffling questions facing 20th-century composers who wanted to continue to write, broadly speaking, in the cultural tradition of music of the 19th century, given the human and ethical catastrophe so starkly visible in 1945, were: how, for whom, and for what?

The venerable tradition of philosophical speculation since the 18th century that linked the beautiful to the good, aesthetics to ethics, seemed bankrupt and fraudulent. What then was the purpose of writing such music in the wake of the tragedies? For one thing, the beauty, symmetry, and harmony of classical and romantic music had been the preferred art of the oppressors and killers. Admiration of it and its practice clearly provided no insurance whatsoever for being good or at least better.

The three pieces on today’s program are brilliant examples of three very different attempts to grapple with the desperate and fundamental challenge to the vocation of music making after 1945, which was unknown to the composers who made up the canon of classical music from Bach to Mahler. The oldest work on the program, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was clearly inspired by this composer’s confrontation with World War II. Already in the 1930s, Vaughan Williams wrote a piece that can be considered a meditation on the darker forces of history: the Fourth Symphony (performed by the ASO in 2006 for a program about the impending Second World War). The First World War had a traumatic impact on Vaughan Williams, and the thought of another on the horizon was a devastating prospect. His next symphony, the pastoral, nostalgic Fifth, has been considered a bridge between his expression of fear of the future in the Fourth, and the grim realization of the return to violence in the Sixth Symphony, which we are performing in this program.

This symphony reveals a need shared by composers writing after 1945 to avoid any hint of the sentimental and the concession to easy listening. Since trivialized and commercialized attributes of beauty turned out to be collaborators with radical evil in modern times, the experience of music had to be arresting and challenging in a manner that could begin to redeem the power of musical art as a critical instrument of humanism.

The next work chronologically is Schnittke’s oratorio Nagasaki. If a legitimate debate surrounds the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, there is no comparable such question about the dropping of the second bomb: it strikes us as an entirely gratuitous act. Nagasaki was written at the height of the Cold War, a period of deep mutual suspicion between the Soviet Union and the United States, and at a moment in the 1950s when the fear of nuclear war was at its peak. Americans everywhere were building fallout shelters and school children were hiding under their desks; the prospect of an apocalypse hardly seemed remote. The mushroom cloud became the emblem of human fear, irrationality, and the instinct to self-destruct, as Stanley Kubrick so powerfully showed in Dr. Strangelove. Alfred Schnittke, arguably the greatest Russian composer after Shostakovich, created this powerful work just as he graduated from conservatory as a young man. The rebellious irony and obsession with history that characterizes Schnittke’s later and better known works suggest that in certain respects the young composer was not so far removed from the better-known mature composer, despite overt differences in style. Resistant to being anyone’s apparatchik, the young Schnittke was a natural born dissenter. Yet this oratorio also reflects the powerful idealism of a young artist eager to command the mimetic capacity of music, to capture the too easily repressed horror at the use of nuclear weapons.

The “newest” work on this program is also the most famous. György Ligeti’s Requiem became inadvertently immortalized when Stanley Kubrick (again) used it in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (along with another work from the 19th century that has, also because of this film, become ironically synonymous with images of human evolution: Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra). Schnittke’s oratorio was a product of the rather rigid and terrified 1950s. Ligeti’s music emerged from the more expansive and colorful 1960s when political utopianism and radicalism experienced a brief, intoxicating upsurge. Here is modernism at its best. Ligeti, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, understood that it was an ethical imperative to fashion music in a new way that would be adequate to contemporary life but at the same time reflective of the highest aspirations we associate with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Using the framework provided by the ritual confrontation with death and the pain not only of loss, but of survival, the Requiem is a masterpiece in which simplicity and complexity are reconciled with Ligeti’s unparalleled ear for sonorities. One has the immediate sense that Ligeti found a unique and distinctively modernist way of expressing a dimension of the human experience and condition that could only be achieved through music—and at that a music the character of which does not flinch from confronting both the horror and the hope embedded in the history of the 20th century.