The Anxiety of Influence: Music as Historical Legacy

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Anxiety of Influence: Music as Historical Legacy, performed on Nov 19, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

On the surface of things, the concept of influence seems straightforward. An artist trying to define a space for himself or herself under the weight of tradition is inspired by precursors. She or he selects elements that are useful or admired, interpolates them with implicit commentary of his or her own, and arrives at an “original” production that nevertheless grasps what has gone before. Influence is pervasive and inescapable, even if the artist is a revolutionary and acknowledges the past only to condemn it. In this way history in the arts makes progress.

In 1973, the literary theorist Harold Bloom published a study which questioned this commonsense formulation. In The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Bloom explored the psychology of influence, and concluded that it was conflict of Oedipal dimensions between the poet and his or her literary forbearers. It is the struggle of the artist, Bloom argued, to find his or her own voice through an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden relation precisely with those precursors whom they most admire. Through creative misinterpretations of these shadowy figures, the artist, in the very act of holding up certain past artists as admired precursors, also imagines them as incomplete, failing for all their genius, and falling short of the mark that only the present artist is capable of reaching. If the present artist did not believe that, what would be left for him or her to accomplish? Admiration therefore necessarily becomes accusation, and the present artist only discovers his or her own power by distorting, demonizing, and then devouring those influences that he or she loves so much. Originality is achieved in the misinterpretation of the precursor as incomplete, which allows one to write the past according to one’s own agenda, that is, to influence (in imagination) one’s precursors instead of letting them influence one. One unconsciously takes credit for their work and completes their failed intentions in one’s own work. History progresses in the arts if only in the anxious unconscious of the artist.

Bloom’s analysis became enormously influential (indeed a Laius to an entire generation of critics), and has been widely applied not only to literature but many other artistic disciplines including music. A sociological aspect may be added to the theory (not that I am trying to complete it) if the anxiety of influence is also understood as a basically modern phenomenon, for it presumes that slavish imitation and deference to authority are not forced on modern poets and composers. The dilemma faced by Palestrina, for example, in adjusting his style to church authority is different from that encountered by most composers living in the early modern and modern ages, with the obvious exception of those living under dictatorial constraint, as is the case in two of our concerts this season which focus on music composed in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany. For the composer with fewer restrictions on the making of art, the abiding motivation since the mid-eighteenth century has been originality, and the oppressive regime has been embodied in those very figures from whom they learned all they know. Today it sometimes seems as though this quest for originality has deteriorated into an addiction simply to what is new. Many composers seem reduced to searching for the most superficial marks of distinctiveness in their desire to do something never done before. It is shallow achievement, however, to substitute novelty for art. As the eminent theorist Leonard B. Meyer points out, many of the greatest composers in the canon of music–Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn among others–were not fundamental innovators of style.

In today’s concert, perhaps the most classic case of the dynamics of the anxiety of influence in both stylistic and psychological terms is in the music of Ernst Krenek. As Matthias Schmidt points out, the young Krenek had the explicit intention of answering Mahler. Krenek exemplifies all six of Bloom’s stages of anxiety: clinamen, or the “correction” of Mahler; tessera, the “completion” of Mahler’s intentions; kenosis, the “emptying” of Krenek’s own egoistic ambition and hence Mahler’s; demonization, the suggestion that Mahler’s work only faintly reflects an artistry that was actually beyond Mahler; askesis, the “diminishment” of Mahler and of Krenek himself; and finally, apophredes, called the return of the dead, in which admiration for Mahler returns in a complete appropriation of his achievement. Can we really hear all this in Krenek’s music? Arguably yes, and if there is any doubt still that Krenek had a complex, personal response to Mahler, we may also consider the psychological implications inherent in the fact that, in addition to his intent to produce a legitimate successor and improvement on Mahler’s symphonic achievement, he also married Mahler’s daughter.

Eventually Krenek became one the most prolific and chameleonesque composers of the twentieth century. He was one of those great figures to whom homage is regularly paid verbally, but who is underrepresented in performance. His output was immense and he took on a striking variety of styles in his dynamic involvement with the influences of the past. In this sense he was much like Picasso, with numerous, distinct periods. But his music reveals that it was not originality in its superficial sense that motivated him, but complex distinctiveness in relation to established systems. In this symphony, notice the Mahlerian elements, and observe their magnificent distortions.

Krenek also wrote a splendid opera, Karl V (1933) as well as one of the most difficult yet outstanding works of choral music of this century, the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1941). He was born and worked in Vienna and spent time in Berlin. He was influenced by many figures ranging from Schreker and Busoni to Schoenberg. Perhaps his most famous moment in music history was his opera Jonny spielt auf (1926), a mixture of verismo and jazz in the German style. It was a sensation and became, to his credit, an emblem of the kind of degenerate music fascists did not appreciate. Krenek later emigrated to America and traveled about, teaching some of that time at Vassar College and Hamline University. He finally settled in Palm Springs, California after marrying the composer Gladys Nordenstrom in 1950. He lived to the venerable age of 91. In his later years, his longevity turned him into the last of the original central European proponents of the avant-garde. In addition to his huge compositional output, he was also a brilliant prose writer. His autobiography (written in English but strangely only available in German), his book on Okeghem, and his trenchant 1949 account of music in America, Music in the Golden West, are a few instances of the genius and versatility of an individual who rightfully became a legend in his own time. Ernst Krenek’s name and place in history are already assured, but we hope his music may come to be more fully appreciated by future generations. To this end we are pleased to participate in his centenary celebration with our chamber and orchestral performances.

The remainder of our program is devoted to two world premieres. It adds a special complication to the theory of the anxiety of influence when works are heard that have never been performed before. We have asked each of the composers to write a few words and by so doing we have tried to let them place their work in a context they consider helpful. Harold Farberman is a composer just celebrating his seventieth birthday, who came of age in the context of a variety of decisive influences. These influences are represented not only by the composers he admires, but by entire cultures, since these composers were very much focused on separating a distinctly American musical tradition from its European precursors. Born into a family of Klezmer musicians, Farberman became one of America’s most precocious and brilliant percussionists. Like Krenek he became a conductor, performer, and teacher. Through his experience as a member of the Boston Symphony, he came to know intimately the Russian and French music of the twentieth century. As a percussionist, however, he was never far from a profound affinity for indigenous American popular music and jazz, much like Copland and Bernstein. And like Bernstein and Gunther Schuller, he was one of the first Americans to embrace the music of Charles Ives, as is apparent in his use of explicit quotations in this work. Also like Bernstein, Farberman was an early proponent of Mahler. His reissued Mahler and Ives recordings have once again been embraced by aficionados as some of the most valuable readings available in the recorded archives. In today’s concert, his presence extends the anxiety of influence to performance as well as composition, since as one of America’s leading pedagogues of conducting, he has profoundly influenced many performers, including myself.

Our concert’s finale is a premiere by Philip Glass, arguably the best know if not the most celebrated American composer of his generation. Glass represents one of the most telling examples of the anxiety of influence in Bloom’s sense. A pioneer of a new style called minimalism, Glass’s most famous works seem to have nothing to do with the complex serial atonal work in which he was trained and produced early in his career. But Glass’s revolution may have been less revolutionary than its surface implies. His apparent departure from the legacy of Schoenberg and Webern may not be a renunciation as much as a fulfillment of their ideals. Schoenberg and Webern were after all ardent neo-classicists. They considered their music to have attained a classical simplicity, a clarity uncluttered by Romantic pretensions. Glass’s own responsive subversion of their techniques eventually led Glass to his own expressive form, the very essence of which is a lucid purity that subverts post-Wagnerian Romanticism. In this purity, one hears many precursors from Bach to the present, transfigured by distilled sounds and structures.

I can perhaps best illustrate the impact of Glass’s shift during the mid-1970s and early 1980s from the predicted trajectory of twentieth century composition and his attainment of his own “strength,” as Bloom calls the transcendence over precursors, with a personal anecdote. During my college years, having decided to become a performer, I vowed never to write music criticism. But in 1981, in a period of depression after the loss of my eight-year-old daughter Abigail, I was persuaded by a friend to begin work again by writing a piece for The New Republic on Glass’s opera Satyagraha. So scandalized was I by what I thought was some inexplicable, incomprehensible distortion of treasured modernist paradigms, that I wrote a vitriolic, defensive, and ultimately envious review. Once it was printed, I realized what I had written was not only embarrassing about what it said about me, but gratuitously unkind in its reactionary response to what was clearly an original and significant occasion in music. My subsequent mortification prevented me from taking advantage of any opportunity to break the awkward silence that persisted during the next few years. Then, as luck would have it, late one evening I had to rush from Caramoor to catch a flight to Europe. When I arrived at the airport, I entered the lounge to discover that the only other occupant of the room was Philip Glass. With characteristic courage and grace, he introduced himself to me with an expression of admiration for several ASO concerts that season. I was only too happy finally to apologize for my unkind and arrogant misrepresentation of his work. The incident reveals how easy it is to misconstrue and even resent the positive originality that results from the artist’s interaction with the past. Some time later, he contributed a setting of Psalm 126 for an ASO benefit concert for the Jerusalem Foundation. Tonight through the good offices and enthusiasm of Jonathan Haas, the American Symphony Orchestra is privileged to premiere Philip Glass’s Double Timpani Concerto.

The question I struggled with prejudicially in that review was the question of what kind of music Philip Glass should have written. The real issue for criticism was whether this new music–the turn in his style–was born of an authentic encounter between the historical moment and a person of talent and conviction–the best possible outcome of the anxiety of influence. The answer in the case of Philip Glass is clearly yes. In today’s performance, we express our belief that he and the other composers represented here will generate considerable anxiety for many generations of composers to come.