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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin

The authoritarian control thus vested in the text (and behind the text, in the composer) has obvious political parallels, and there is no evading its relationship to the rise of totalitarianism in postwar Europe. That relationship was not a direct or causal one. Neither brought about the other, nor does an antiromantic compositional style or performance practice necessarily commit a musician to totalitarian politics. To cite a famous counterexample, one of the most influential literalists among twentieth-century performers, the conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), who so famously exhorted the musicians he led to play Com’è scritto (“Just as written”), was famous for his opposition to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and later to the German dictator Adolf Hitler. Conversely, some totalitarian regimes, notably the Soviet dictatorship in Russia, would support the production of “vitalist” or neoromantic music as a palliative influence on the population.

And yet T. E. Hulme did state it as a general axiom that “they who hate the revolution hate romanticism”; and the general level of correlation between “neoclassical” esthetics and totalitarian politics is high enough to suggest that both were, at least in considerable part, responses to a common stimulus in the destructive chaos of the Great War and its immediate aftermath. Ortega y Gasset, the great theorist of dehumanization, was also one of the architects of Spanish fascism and a sworn enemy of democracy. His most famous book, The Revolt of the Masses (1929), argued that an intellectual minority must always be in a position to exercise control over the uneducated majority so as to preserve civil order. Merely to note this much, of course, would be to imply guilt by association, a tactic as unreliable as it is unfair. But Ortega himself drew the connection between his esthetics and his politics in the very essay from which all our previous quotes from him have come.

Modern art is hated, he argued in “The Dehumanization of Art,” because it is socially divisive. But where a humanitarian like Tolstoy would curse it for that reason, Ortega blesses it:

Through its mere presence, the art of the young compels the average citizen to realize that he is just this—the average citizen, a creature incapable of receiving the sacrament of art, blind and deaf to pure beauty. But such a thing cannot be done after a hundred years of adulation of the masses and apotheosis of the people. Accustomed to ruling supreme, the masses feel that the new art, which is the art of a privileged aristocracy of finer senses, endangers their rights as men. Whenever the new Muses present themselves, the masses bristle.

For a century and a half the masses have claimed to be the whole of society. Stravinsky’s music or the plays of [Luigi] Pirandello [1867–1936, another apostle of the new irony] have the sociological effect of compelling the people to recognize itself for what it is: a component among others of the social structure, inert matter of the historical process, a secondary factor in the cosmos of spiritual life. On the other hand, the new art also helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many.

A time must come in which society, from politics to art, reorganizes itself into two orders or ranks: the illustrious and the vulgar. That chaotic, shapeless, and undifferentiated state without discipline and social structure in which Europe has lived these hundred and fifty years cannot go on. Behind all contemporary life lurks the provoking and profound injustice of the assumption that men are actually equal. Each move among men so obviously reveals the opposite that each move results in a painful clash.

If this subject were broached in politics the passions aroused would run too high to make oneself understood. Fortunately the unity of spirit within a historical epoch allows us to point out serenely and with perfect clarity in the germinating art of our time the same symptoms and signals of a moral revision that in politics present themselves obscured by low passions.30

These are fighting words on behalf of the most barefaced elitism we’ve encountered yet—an elitism that, many would argue, has been thoroughly discredited by the subsequent historical record—a record that includes previously unimaginable atrocities carried out by powerful elites against the powerless. The question that remains unresolved is whether art that was once so promoted can be divorced from the politics and subsequently enjoyed in a “purely” esthetic way, or whether (as Ortega actually implies) art is always, or inevitably, the “stalking horse”—the benign cover or concealment—of politics.

Those who would argue that art, inhabiting a realm of its own, is politically neutral and innocent, must contend with Stravinsky’s assertion that questions of musical performance are “of an ethical, rather than of an esthetic order.” For ethics, unlike esthetics, is not so easily detached from politics—that is, from the actual or symbolic ordering of society. And given that much, can one fully separate Stravinsky the musician from the man who gave the following statement to a reporter from a Rome newspaper, right before an audience with Il Duce (“The Leader”) himself in 1930?

I don’t believe that anyone venerates Mussolini more than I. To me, he is the one man who counts nowadays in the whole world. I have traveled a great deal: I know many exalted personages, and my artist’s mind does not shrink from political and social issues. Well, after having seen so many events and so many more or less representative men, I have an overpowering urge to render homage to your Duce. He is the savior of Italy and—let us hope—the world.31

Many extenuating circumstances could be mentioned: Stravinsky, a Russian aristocrat by birth, had been uprooted and disinherited by the Bolshevik revolution and (like Schoenberg, as quoted in the previous chapter) sought the protection of a prince who now, through no fault of Stravinsky’s, suffers history’s contempt for deeds as yet undreamt of when Stravinsky gave his interview. Does Stravinsky now deserve to share in that contempt? Are artists who enjoyed the patronage of this century’s bloodsoaked dictators stained with the blood that soaked them? If so, what about the tyrants of the past and the artists whom they patronized? Shall we hold Louis XIV’s misdeeds against Lully? Louis XV’s against Rameau? Is Michelangelo answerable to the Lutherans for the policies of the popes who commissioned his idolatrous images?

But of course Stravinsky could have chased or chosen other patrons, and his enthusiasm for Mussolini’s authoritarian politics seems to have been at the time sincere. Does that mean, as embarrassed biographers sometimes write, that he was politically “naive”? Or is naïveté simply the name we give retrospectively to the backing of losers? One writer has “excused” Stravinsky for his attraction to Mussolini (which led him, in other press interviews, to profess personal loyalty to the Duce and even call himself a fascist32) by suggesting that anybody might have been “bamboozled” by the sort of flattering attention Mussolini paid the composer. But of course by the 1920s Stravinsky was the most famous composer alive; flattering attention was paid him everywhere.

In back of all these questions is the most troubling and durable one of all: how is artistic excellence, which always comes at a high price, to be reconciled with ideals of political and social equality? Who is to pay for “the art of the few,” when the few who used to pay are no longer able to do so, and when the many wield unprecedented political and economic power? Many have argued that “high art” has been living, since the First World War, on borrowed time. It is not hard to find evidence to back this argument up, and we will certainly be sifting it in the chapters to come (along with counterarguments and counterevidence).

If the argument is true, though, then it follows that the art, specifically the musical works, that will henceforth supply the subject matter of this book are engaged in a holding or rearguard action against an inexorable historical tide that can only be reversed if the progress of democracy is reversed. Putting it this way puts the cultural authenticity of “classical music” sorely in question (especially if democracy is regarded as unquestionable). Whatever the answers may be, and of course we will sample many, the question has been in the back of every thinking musician’s mind since the 1920s.


(30) Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, pp. 6–8.

(31) Alberto Gasco, Da Cimarosa a Stravinsky (Rome, 1939); quoted in Harvey Sachs, Music in Fascist Italy (New York: Norton, 1988), p. 168.

(32) Il Piccolo, May 1935; quoted in Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), p. 552.

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-div1-008007.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-div1-008007.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-div1-008007.xml