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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned

Stravinsky and Neoclassicism

CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


On the evening of 18 October 1923, Aaron Copland, an American then finishing up a two-year stint as a composition student in Paris and about to turn twenty-three, happened in on a concert at which the latest work by Igor Stravinsky was to have its premiere. For thirteen years, since the unveiling of the Firebird ballet, and especially since the scandalous opening night of The Rite of Spring in 1913, Stravinsky’s name had been synonymous with “savage” Russian (read: semi-Asiatic) maximalism at its most exotic, obstreperous, even orgiastic. It had been only four months since the first performance of a new ballet, Svadebka (“The peasant wedding,” presented in Paris as Les noces villageoises), seemingly a starker, lither version of The Rite, in which the dancers were accompanied by vocal soloists and a chorus singing, sometimes shouting, fierce or bawdy ritual songs whose texts had been collected by folklorists, accompanied by a clangorous “orchestra” consisting of nothing but four pianos and a monster assemblage of percussion.

Like everyone else present that October night in Paris, Copland was in for a shock. Almost twenty years later, still marveling at it, he recalled “the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing”, of the new work, an octet for winds (flute, clarinet, and pairs of bassoons, trumpets, and trombones). “Here was Stravinsky,” he wrote,

having created a neoprimitive style all his own, based on native Russian sources —a style that everyone agreed was the most original in modern music—now suddenly, without any seeming explanation, making an about-face and presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified. Everyone was asking why Stravinsky should have exchanged his Russian heritage for what looked very much like a mess of eighteenth century mannerisms. The whole thing seemed like a bad joke that left an unpleasant aftereffect and gained Stravinsky the unanimous disapproval of the press.1

And yet, looking back in 1941, Copland could report an even bigger surprise:

No one could possibly have foreseen, first, that Stravinsky was to persist in this new manner of his or, second, that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world in bringing the latent objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the preromantic era.2

Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned

fig. 8-1 Stravinsky, Svadebka (Les Noces), Royal Ballet, London.

Indeed Copland, although he did not know it yet, was seeing his own future. Stravinsky’s Octet seemed to usher in a new creative period, not only for Stravinsky but for European and Euro-American “art music” generally. It is commonly called Stravinsky’s neoclassical phase; and though like most catchphrases it will require a lot of qualification and amendment, it contains enough truth to make it useful. Moreover, as Copland could already see in 1941, and as we can see much more easily now, while Stravinsky’s huge prestige made his sudden recourse to “eighteenth-century mannerisms” a more newsworthy event than anybody else’s could have been at the time, the move as such was far from unprecedented, either within Stravinsky’s own work or in the wider world of music. The musical manifestations, meanwhile, were symptoms in turn of a pronounced general swerve in the arts that reflected a yet greater one in the wider world of expressive culture.

The history of twentieth-century music as something esthetically distinct from that of the nineteenth century begins not at the fin de siècle, then, but here, in the 1920s. As with anything so big and brusque and sweeping, we will have to funnel in on it, returning to Stravinsky’s Octet, and to some other bearers of the new esthetic wind, only after we have taken some account of the wider cultural terrain. Copland’s evaluation of the Octet can serve as our guide to the issues, though. He associates the new manner with “objectivity,” and with the deliberate adoption of a “preromantic” stance, announced externally by the unexpected resurrection of “eighteenth-century mannerisms.” In the Octet, in short, three separate (or at least separable) tendencies in the culture of the early twentieth century suddenly came together in a “crux”—a compelling cluster or knot. Our first task will be to unpack it.


(1) Aaron Copland, The New Music 1900/60 (London: Macdonald, 1968), p. 72.

(2) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-008.xml