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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin

Ortega was writing in 1925, two years after Stravinsky brought forth his Octet, when the big change in sensibility that he was describing was (or seemed) a fait accompli. In 1912, it did not yet look that way. Pierrot lunaire, as the quotation above from Wellesz already implied, seemed an exceptional work within Schoenberg’s output, even a somewhat deviant one. It had been commissioned from an outside party, after all; it did not arise “spontaneously” out of his own artistic imagination. And, at the time, its commitment to irony was not as obvious as it may appear today.

Stravinsky, who attended one of its “first run” performances as Schoenberg’s guest, had mixed feelings about Pierrot. On the one hand he admired the instrumental writing enormously, and even imitated it a bit in his next work (three songs on Japanese poems accompanied by a small chamber ensemble with piano like the one in Pierrot.) But on the other hand he thought it esthetically outmoded, comparing its wallowing in the macabre with what he called the “Beardsley cult,”8 implying that Schoenberg was still under the influence of the paintings and drawings of the British “decadent” artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872–98), whose most famous work was a set of gruesome illustrations to Wilde’s Salomé, on which Strauss based his most overtly “decadent” opera (see Fig. 1-6).

What as of 1912 was a widely resisted “call”—that modern artists give unambiguous preference to irony over sincerity—had by 1925 become the order of the day, to resist which could seem downright backward. This was a much more significant rupture than the one created by maximalism, which however it impressed audiences with its radical means, nevertheless remained faithful to its (and their) immediate esthetic heritage. The ironic break meant—for the first time—the rejection of the immediate past, a true break with tradition. Artists were now against something as well as for something. The break created divisions and dissension among artists as well as between artists and audience. If we insist on maintaining the fiction that a new century is a new age, then the triumph of the “ban on all pathos,” as Ortega called it, was the true beginning of the twentieth century for art.

One of the clearest and most eloquent spokesmen for the ban was the English poet and critic Thomas Ernest (or T. E.) Hulme (1883–1917). In a series of articles published near the end of his short life, he articulated better than anyone else what the new movement was against, and why. In one, called “Romanticism and Classicism,” he put things in bluntly political terms: “It was romanticism that made the revolution; they who hate the revolution hate romanticism.”9 In another, “Modern Art and Its Philosophy,” he brought up matters of religion. Romanticism, he argued, was the culminating phase of humanism, the fatal hubris “which is the opposite of the doctrine of original sin: the belief that man as a part of nature was after all something satisfactory.” He went on:

The change which Copernicus is supposed to have brought about is the exact contrary of the fact. Before Copernicus, man was not the center of the world; after Copernicus he was. You get a change from a certain profundity and intensity to that flat and insipid optimism which, passing through its first stage of decay in Rousseau, has finally culminated in the state of slush in which we have the misfortune to live.10

In place of the decadent moral flabbiness Hulme saw in romanticism, which valued exactly what seemed to him least valuable in humanity (namely, its transient and irrational feelings), he called for a return to “the dry hardness which you get in the classics.”11 And one way of recapturing that was to emulate classical “stylization,” as Stravinsky seemed to do in his Octet. Even before he wrote that work, in fact, Stravinsky had been co-opted (as we would now say) by the increasingly antiromantic factions that were springing up in England and France, and made their involuntary standard bearer.

Perhaps the first to do this was the French critic Jacques Rivière (1886–1925), the editor of La nouvelle revue française, an artistically avant-garde but politically conservative and aggressively nationalistic literary forum. In his reviews of Stravinsky’s early ballets, Rivière promoted the composer from the status of mere musician to that of exemplary artist for France, where neoclassical sentiments merged inextricably with nationalistic ones. When everyone else was exclaiming at the orgiastic dissonance of The Rite of Spring, marveling at Stravinsky’s âme slave (“Slavic soul”) and the sublime terror his music evoked, Rivière called The Rite “the first masterpiece we may stack up against those of impressionism,” for the following reasons:

The great novelty of The Rite of Spring is its renunciation of “sauce.” Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Nothing is blurred, nothing is mitigated by shadows; no veils and no poetic sweeteners; not a trace of atmosphere. The work is whole and tough, its parts remain quite raw; they are served up without digestive aids; everything is crisp, intact, clear and crude. Never have we heard a music so magnificently limited. If Stravinsky has chosen those instruments that do not sigh, that say no more than they say, whose timbres are without expression and are like isolated words, it is because he wants to enunciate everything directly, explicitly, and concretely. His voice becomes the object’s proxy, consuming it, replacing it; instead of evoking it, he utters it. Thus Stravinsky, with unmatched flair and accomplishment, is bringing about in music the same revolution that is taking place more humbly and tortuously in literature: he has passed from the sung to the said, from invocation to statement, from poetry to reportage.12

What Rivière called for in these prescient articles of 1913, without yet actually naming it, was a new sort of neoclassicism that had little or nothing to do with the fairyland type the romantics had enjoyed. Rather than a “delicious” or a “culinary” pastiche, Rivière called for a “denuded” or “stripped-down style” (style dépouillé) of unprecedented plainness. The first critic who seriously applied the word “neoclassical” to a work of Stravinsky (or anyone else, for that matter) had this sort of “dry hardness” in mind, rather than a gratifying stylistic soufflé.

That critic, Boris de Schloezer (1881–1969), was like Stravinsky a Russian exile in Paris. The article in which he used the word was published in 1923, the year of the Octet, but nine months before its first performance. It concerned a different work, Stravinsky’s Symphonies d’instruments à vent (“Symphonies [or concords] of wind instruments”), a memorial to Debussy that had created a big stir in 1920 when its amazingly “stripped down” concluding section, arranged for piano, had been published in the appendix to a Debussy commemorative issue of a French music magazine (Ex. 8-8). What made the Symphonies “neoclassical” for Schloezer, thence for many others, was the assumption that it was

only a system of sounds, which follow one another and group themselves according to purely musical affinities; the thought of the artist places itself only in the musical plan without ever setting foot in the domain of psychology. Emotions, feelings, desires, aspirations—this is the terrain from which he had pushed his work. The art of Stravinsky is nevertheless strongly expressive; he moves us profoundly and his perception is never formularized; but there is one specific emotion, a musical emotion. This art does not pursue feeling or emotion; but it attains grace infallibly by its force and by its perfection.13

These words were arguably irrelevant to the poetic conception of the Symphonies d’instruments à vent as a memorial piece or tombeau for Debussy that demonstrably mimics the liturgical contents of a Russian Orthodox panikhida or funeral service, just as Rivière’s description of The Rite was arguably irrelevant to its original concept. Nevertheless, these writings about Stravinsky are of great historical moment, not only for what they tell us about the reception of Stravinsky’s music, but because they had an enormous impact on the composer himself. They “influenced” him decisively toward his own brand of neoclassicism, of which the Octet was probably the first fully conscious manifestation. Stravinsky immediately became an ardent propagandist for the new esthetic, giving it an especially strong expression in some famous fighting words uttered in the heat of esthetic battle during the 1920s and 1930s. In his autobiography, Chronicles of My Life (1936), he summed it all up by saying that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.,” and went on to claim that

expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention—in short, an aspect unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.14

Breaking With Tradition

ex. 8-8 Igor Stravinsky, Symphonies d’instruments à vent, final section as published in Revue Musicale

Three years later, lecturing at Harvard University, Stravinsky inveighed against Wagner and his Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art.” The Wagnerian system, he railed, despite all the claims made for it as the bearer of music’s historic destiny, “far from having raised the level of musical culture, has never ceased to undermine it and finally to debase it in the most paradoxical fashion.”15 And that is because Wagner, more than any other romantic composer, had yoked music, “a purely sensual delight,” to “the murky inanities of the Art-Religion.”

Stravinsky’s first pronouncements of this kind came almost immediately after Schloezer’s article about his Symphonies, and almost certainly in response to it. In a program note that accompanied performances of the Symphonies in the late 1920s and 1930s, Stravinsky described it as entirely formalist and transcendent—that is, without “extramusical” content of any kind. It was, he wrote, no more and no less than an arrangement of “tonal masses, sculptured in marble, to be regarded objectively by the ear.”16 Like any number of other modern artists, Stravinsky had been brought round, over the decade between 1913 (The Rite of Spring) and 1923 (the Octet) to a view of art that completely sacrificed sincerity to irony. Rivière and Schloezer had helped him get there. We are always influenced by those who praise us, especially when the praise is so intelligent, so hyperbolic—and so timely. Stravinsky did what was necessary to keep that praise coming.


(8) Stravinsky: An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), p. 67.

(9) “Romanticism and Classicism,” in T. E. Hulme, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Herbert Read (London: Routledge, 1924), p. 115.

(10) Hulme, “Modern Art and Its Philosophy,” Speculations, p. 80.

(11) Hulme, Speculations, pp. 126–27.

(12) Jacques Rivière, “Le Sacre du Printemps,” La Nouvelle Revue française, 1 November 1913; trans. adapted from Truman C. Bullard, “The First Performance of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps,” Vol. II (Ph.D. diss., Eastman School of Music, 1971), pp. 269–308.

(13) Boris de Schloezer, “La musique,” La Revue contemporaine, 1 February 1923; quoted in Scott Messing, Neoclassicism in Music from the Genesis of the Concept through the Schoenberg/Stravinsky Polemic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), p. 130.

(14) Stravinsky: An Autobiography, pp. 83–84.

(15) Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, trans. Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 62.

(16) Quoted in Deems Taylor, Of Men and Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937), pp. 89–90.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008004.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 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008004.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 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008004.xml