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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin

But there was yet another factor that produced the triumph of irony—Ortega’s “dehumanization”—in modern art. Our best entrée to it will come through the visual arts rather than literature; and once again T. E. Hulme (who—now it can be told—perished in the trenches at Passchendaele in 1917, one of England’s unlucky million) can be our guide. In accounting for the death of naturalism in twentieth-century art (a death he enthusiastically hastened to abet), Hulme invoked a pair of terms that had first been introduced into art history by the German scholar Wilhelm Worringer in a book called Abstraktion und Einfühlung (“Abstraction and empathy”, 1908).

The terms are “vital” (whence “vitalism”) and “geometrical.” Worringer had posited them as the poles of an ever-swinging pendulum. The sentimental “slush” that had seeped into art (and politics) over the course of the long nineteenth century, Hulme argued, was due to an excess of vitalism, the view of art that equated its beauty with its power to evoke a pleasurable empathy. Any work of art that a vitalist finds beautiful can only be

an objectification of our own pleasure in activity, and our own vitality. The worth of a line or form consists in the value of the life which it contains for us. Putting the matter more simply we may say that in this art there is always a feeling of liking for, and pleasure in, the forms and movements to be found in nature.25

But when we lose our capacity to exult in the world and our place in the order of things—or in other words, when we lose our optimism—we shall incline toward the “geometrical” art, the kind which, Hulme clairvoyantly predicted, was going to gain ascendancy in the twentieth century. It was art that “most obviously exhibits no delight in nature and no striving after vitality. Its forms are always what can be described as stiff and lifeless.”26 Hulme associated such art with the “tendency to abstraction”—not the kind of fuzzy grandiloquent “abstractions” that Hemingway derided as false sentiment, but just the opposite, the kind of abstraction associated with geometrical archetypes: something realer than the real, superhumanly real. For “dehumanization,” make no mistake, aimed higher, not lower, than the human.

“What is the nature of this tendency?”27 Hulme asked, rhetorically. “What is the condition of mind of the people whose art is governed by it?” His beautifully lucid answer, in “Modern Art and Its Philosophy,” is indispensable to any understanding of the music that followed, and repudiated, the long nineteenth century. “While a naturalistic art,” Hulme wrote,

is the result of a happy pantheistic relation between man and the outside world, the tendency to abstraction, on the contrary, occurs in races whose attitude to the outside world is the exact contrary of this.

In art this state of mind results in a desire to create a certain abstract geometrical shape, which, being durable and permanent, shall be a refuge from the flux and impermanence of outside nature. The need which art satisfies here, is not the delight in the forms of nature, which is a characteristic of all vital arts, but the exact contrary. In the reproduction of natural objects there is an attempt to purify them of their characteristically living qualities in order to make them necessary and immovable. The changing is translated into something fixed and necessary. This leads to rigid lines and dead crystalline form, for pure geometrical regularity gives a certain pleasure to men troubled by the obscurity of outside appearance. The geometrical line is something absolutely distinct from the messiness, the confusion, and the accidental details of existing things.

That messiness and confusion were most apparent in music when it came to the expression of irrational subjective feeling, the very thing that romantic artists gloried in. So subjective expression (and freedom of expression) became the bête noire, the hated “black beast” of postwar esthetics, as already hinted in several extracts from the writings of the postwar Stravinsky. Hostility to the arbitrariness and unpredictability to which subjective expression gives rise, and the refuge that artists (and others) sought in the Necessary and the Immovable can be observed not only in music composition but also, possibly even more vividly, in musical performance.

A great change in the performance style of all European classical music, regardless of age or origin, followed the Great War. The ban on pathos was translated directly into a ban on two practices that symbolized pathos in musical performance: tempo rubato (spontaneous, unnotated variation in tempo) and similarly unnotated fluctuations in dynamics. Play with variable tempo and dynamics and you are playing “romantically.” That is how all music was played up until the 1920s, as early phonograph recordings testify. No music is played like that any more, not even romantic music. All music is played “as written,” within a hierarchical chain of command (composer to editor to performer, with an additional step when a conductor is employed) that takes all initiative away from the person actually producing the sounds.

Stravinsky can again be our witness. In his Harvard lectures of 1939, he drew a radical distinction between two kinds of performance, which he called “execution” and “interpretation.” Between them, he warned, “there exists a difference in make-up that is of an ethical rather than of an esthetic order.”28 Execution is “the strict putting into effect of an explicit will that contains nothing beyond what it specifically commands.” Interpretation is the expressive input from the performer that goes beyond what the text explicitly prescribes, and it is “at the root of all the errors, all the sins, all the misunderstandings that interpose themselves between the musical work and the listener and prevent a faithful transmission of its message.” Stravinsky heaps scorn on what in 1939 was not yet quite as bygone a performance style as it has since become:

The sin against the spirit of the work always begins with a sin against its letter and leads to the endless follies which an ever-flourishing literature in the worst taste [that is, “vitalist” music criticism] does its best to sanction. Thus it follows that a crescendo, as we all know, is always accompanied by a speeding up of movement, while a slowing down never fails to accompany a diminuendo. The superfluous is refined upon; a piano, piano pianissimo is delicately sought after; great pride is taken in perfecting useless nuances—a concern that usually goes hand in hand with inaccurate rhythm.29

The literalness on which Stravinsky is insisting, and (taking the long view a book like this encourages) which represents the ultimate triumph of the literate tradition over the oral (which is where pupils learn to make unnotated nuances by imitating their teachers), is the most durable and tangible result of the postwar triumph of dehumanization. In place of seemingly arbitrary decisions symbolizing the influence of emotion (which are not really arbitrary, of course, but which are maintained by oral tradition) one “takes refuge,” as Hulme would say, in what is Necessary and Immovable, namely the written text, which thus becomes even more of a sacrosanct and timeless monument than ever. What is written, in its relative permanence, becomes Holy Writ.


(25) Hulme, Speculations, p. 85.

(26) Ibid.

(27) Ibid., pp. 86–87.

(28) Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, p. 128.

(29) Ibid., p. 129.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008006.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008006.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008006.xml