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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin

But nobody’s words are ever as eloquent as events, and over that crucial decade events had completely transformed the world that European and American artists knew. The First World War, known simply as “The Great War” until there was a Second, was one of the most horrific watersheds in European history. It put a dismal end to what many historians in its wake have called “the long nineteenth century,” which had begun with another watershed event, the French Revolution, which Hulme, and modern neoclassicists in general, so abhorred. What had united the long nineteenth century were its optimism and its faith in progress, and these were the Great War’s first and most permanent casualties.

To call it a “world” war is of course a Eurocentric conceit, although its territory spread wider than that of any previous war, with battles fought in parts of Asia and Africa as well as Europe, and with the United States belatedly joining in (marking America’s first participation in a war fought on foreign soil). But a “great” war it surely was, indeed the greatest ever, if greatness is measured in terms of awful numbers. It smashed four empires: the ancient Austrian one, the recent German one, the far-flung Ottoman Turkish one, and the huge but contiguous Russian one (which however would soon be reconstituted as the Soviet Union). It was the first war to be fought not only on land and sea, but also in the air. It was the first war to witness the use of machine guns, tanks, aerial bombing, and poison gas. It was the first modern war to include episodes of genocide (particularly of Armenians at the hands of the Turks in 1915 on suspicion of conspiring with the Russians).

But even the “legitimate” military carnage was on a scale never before imaginable. Of the four most heavily engaged belligerents, the British lost a million men (out of an adult male population of some twenty million), the Russians and French 1,700,000 each, and the Germans and Austrians more than three million combined. The total war dead approached nine million. Measured against the puny proximate cause of the war—Austria’s avenging the assassination of the emperor’s nephew and heir by a Serbian nationalist—and the benefits it secured (despite all the rhetoric, none at all), these futile losses produced a desperate and irreparable disillusionment. “This is not war,” an Indian soldier conscripted to fight with the British wrote home after being wounded, “it is the ending of the world.”17 Another writer, even more chillingly, compared it to “the guillotining of a world.”18

The worst episode, the Battle of the Somme (July to November 1916), where 70,000 British soldiers were killed (20,000 in a single day) and 170,000 wounded, “marked the end,” in the words of John Keegan, the war’s most eminent historian, “of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.”19 That despond was by no means confined to the British; they, after all, were on the winning side. Last to lose their optimism, of course, were the politicians and generals who managed the struggle. As another historian, Tony Judt, comments, they “were in a war they had not expected and did not understand; but the insouciant enthusiasm with which they sent hundreds of thousands of young men to their death retains its power to shock and nauseate a century later.”20

The wave of shock and nausea produced by the Great War reverberated keenly but for the most part indirectly in the arts, chiefly in the form of irony, black humor, and cynicism. Indeed, irony has been the one indispensable ingredient in practically all European art ever since—and a lot of American art as well, although America’s late entrance in the Great War, its relatively light losses (some 114,000), and the prestige its soldiers and its president Wilson were accorded in the aftermath, spared its population and its artists the immediate slough of despond and allowed the persistence of an optimism that registered particularly, as we will see, in the 1920s.

The triumph of Ortega’s “ban on all pathos” is only understandable in the context of the encompassing disillusionment of Europe. It cast a retrospective pall over all the seriously spiritual and exalted art the previous century had produced. All rhetoric of hope and glory now seemed a lie. “The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness,” wrote Henry James,

is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.21

The only thing to do was laugh, or at least scoff. “The more revolting it was, the more we shouted with laughter,” wrote the war correspondent Sir Philip Gibbs in a book of 1920 pointedly titled Now It Can Be Told. That laughter was

the laughter of mortals at the trick that had been played on them by an ironical fate. They had been taught to believe that the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive, savage law of survival by tooth and claw and club and ax. All poetry, all religion had preached this gospel and this promise. Now that ideal was broken like a china vase dashed to the ground. The contrast between That and This was devastating. The wartime humor of the soul roared with mirth at the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled.22

Even after the sardonic laughter had died down, dignity and elegance, beauty and love, and especially progress to perfection remained under suspicion. They were now regarded, one and all, as lies. Hence the preference, keenly if as yet wishfully noted by Rivière in Stravinsky even before the war, for the matter-of-factly said over the rhapsodically sung, for fact over feeling, for reportage over “poetry.” As Ernest Hemingway put it in A Farewell to Arms (1929), “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”23 Surveying the language of poetry before and after the Great War, the literary critic Paul Fussell noted the unlamented demise of “high” diction, the kind in which—

A friend is a comrade

Friendship is comradeship, fellowship

A horse is a steed, or charger

The enemy is the foe, or the host

Danger is peril

To conquer is to vanquish

To attack is to assail

To be earnestly brave is to be gallant

To be cheerfully brave is to be plucky

To be stolidly brave is to be staunch

Bravery considered after the fact is valor

The dead on the battlefield are the fallen24

—and so on, in favor of the plain and “ugly” language of poets who can no longer muster belief in what Hemingway derided as the “abstract words.” (Fussell names T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land of 1922, “with its rats’ alleys, dull canals, and dead men who have lost their bones.”) The point holds true, maybe truer even, if one compares the grandiose work of the musical maximalists we know—Strauss, Mahler, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and perhaps especially Ives (who like other Americans carried prewar optimism into the postwar world, or tried to)—with the modernist music we shall be encountering from here on. The maximalists went into a profound eclipse: Mahler was banished from the active repertory (except in a few places particularly associated with him, like Vienna, New York, and Amsterdam) until the 1960s, when Ives, too, was rediscovered (or rather, wholly discovered for the first time). Scriabin has yet to make a full comeback. The contrast can best be observed, perhaps, in the work of composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, whose prime creative years straddled the divide. They became the harbingers of the great disillusion.


(17) Quoted in Tony Judt, “The End of the World,” New York Times Book Review, 27 June 1999, p. 12.

(18) David Lowe, “Bourbon County” (1973); quoted in Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 24.

(19) John Keegan, The First World War; quoted in Judt, “The End of the World,” p. 10.

(20) Judt, “The End of the World,” p. 10.

(21) Quoted in Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, p. 8.

(22) Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told (1920); quoted in Fussell, The Great War, p. 8.

(23) Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), p. 191.

(24) Fussell, The Great War in Modern Memory, pp. 21–22.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008005.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008005.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008005.xml