We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 Pathos Is Banned
Richard Taruskin
Plus Some Famous Words About It

ex. 8-16 Igor Stravinsky, Octet for Winds in Arthur Lourié’s piano transcription, III, end

That self-evident mood of facetiousness that makes the Octet so charming, once the initial shock has worn off, gave Stravinsky another avenue for ironic play. He accompanied its appearance with a mock-forbidding manifesto, “Some Ideas about My Octuor” (using the French word for octet), which he published in a London arts magazine in January 1924. (It was the first of many such publicity pieces with which Stravinsky sought to manage the reception of his work.) Originally, this spectacularly humorless little essay must have been meant as a joke at his readers’ expense, such as many French composers were then playing in accordance with the reigning postwar mood of debunkery. Stravinsky maintained the deadpan better than they, with the result that his peremptory words were taken seriously (at least by those unfamiliar with the music). Eventually Stravinsky seems to have taken them seriously himself.

Serious or no, it is an excellent gloss on the whole strange notion of “objectivity” in art that carried so much weight with composers burned by the big lies of romanticism. It begins right off with the announcement, “My Octuor is a musical object.”36 And it proceeds from there to define a stance that a French contemporary, Charles Koechlin, writing in 1926, called “an art that wishes to be plain, brisk, non-descriptive, and even non-expressive”37 —and therefore the only truly novel or modern movement in music. Here are a few of Stravinsky’s barked-out points, every sentence a paragraph unto itself, slightly edited to compensate for his (or his translator’s) faulty English, and numbered for ready reference:

  1. 1. My Octuor is not an “emotive” work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves.

  2. 2. I have excluded from this work all sorts of nuances, which I have replaced by the play of volumes.

  3. 3. I have excluded all nuances between the forte and the piano; I have left only the forte and the piano.

  4. 4. The play of these volumes is one of the two active elements on which I have based the action of my musical text, the other element being the tempos [Stravinsky has “movements”] in their reciprocal connection.

  5. 5. This play of tempos and volumes that puts into action the musical text constitutes the impelling force of the composition and determines its form.

  6. 6. I admit the commercial exploitation of a musical composition, but I do not admit its emotive exploitation. To the author belongs the emotive exploitation of his ideas, the result of which is the composition; to the executant belongs the presentation of that composition in the way designated to him by its own form.

  7. 7. Form, in my music, derives from counterpoint. I consider counterpoint as the only means through which the attention of the composer is concentrated on purely musical questions. Its elements also lend themselves perfectly to an architectural construction.

  8. 8. This sort of music has no other aim than to be sufficient in itself. In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems; and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be in music of any real interest. The play of the musical elements is the thing.38

The whole antiromantic platform passes in review. Plank 1 pronounces the ban on pathos. Planks 7 and 8 declare the formalist agenda: music is architecture in time and nothing else. Plank 6 is especially arch in its refusal to honor the romantic insistence that art and artists be “disinterested,” devoid of any ulterior motives (but especially commercial ones). Stravinsky was only one of many artists who were reclaiming their etymological identities as artisans or artificers—skilled makers and doers, and professionals—as opposed to dreamers, reformers, philosophers, priests, politicians, or saints.

But plank 6 had another aim as well. In conjunction with planks 2–5, which describe the volumes and tempos of the composition in absolute terms of contrasted being that preclude all “becoming” or nuance, it ties the performer’s hands and proclaims the inviolability of the text. (Actually it does even more than that, explicitly equating “text” and “work” for the first time and declaring the act of performance superfluous and even maleficent: in several other planks Stravinsky equates performance with “deformation.”) Plank 3 exaggerates the case somewhat. The text of the Octet has its share of crescendos and descrescendos. But more characteristic of it are markings like “p subito” or “sempre p” or “staccato e mf sempre.” And there are frequent streams of constant note values (as in a lot of baroque music, it is true) that enforce uniformity of tempo, since there are no differences to exaggerate.

The ultimate point in the direction of inelastic (and inexpressive) uniformity was reached in the works for piano that Stravinsky wrote in the 1920s for his own use as performer. That side career was undertaken out of necessity. Stravinsky had not only been deprived of his family inheritance by the Russian revolution, he was also deprived of the income from his most popular works because of his nationality: Russia did not sign international copyright agreements until the 1970s. The pieces he wrote for his own performance appearances were among the most severe and uncompromising of his early neoclassical pieces, partly because his piano playing while competent, was not of a sort to compete with flamboyant virtuosos like his fellow émigré Serge Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), or even with Prokofieff. He therefore sought to make a virtue of nonflamboyance (or, to put it positively, of seriousness and assiduousness). The success he had with audiences, as we know because Rachmaninoff and Prokofieff grumbled about it in their letters, shows that he shrewdly calculated the allure of elitism. Whatever Stravinsky did was “chic.” Stravinsky wrote himself three such vehicles in quick succession: a three-movement Concerto for piano and wind band (1923–1924), a three-movement Sonata (or to be Gallicly exact, a Sonate, 1924), and a four-movement suite called Sérénade en la (“Serenade in A”, 1925). The exclusion of strings from the accompaniment to the Concerto was characteristic of Stravinsky at this time. Strings were too “humanoid” and “expressive” for his taste (especially as they were played then, with lots of throbbing vibrato and lots of portamento or sliding pitch). “Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments,” Stravinsky wrote in “Some Ideas about My Octuor,” especially the strings, “which are less cold and more vague.”39 The Sonate is distinguished by its expression markings—or rather, its lack of them. The first and last movements are headed, simply, () = 112, as cold and precise and expressively noncommittal as one could wish.

The Sérénade is a little less austere than that. Its movements have titles that give at least some indication of character, and the overall title, like “divertimento,” recalls an aristocratic eighteenth-century entertainment genre. The suite was composed on commission from a record company that thought Stravinsky’s reputation bankable (and the composer, who had made a point of “admit[ting] the commercial exploitation of a musical composition,” readily acquiesced). The contract specified that the final product would be a set of two 10-inch 78 RPM discs, played by the composer, with one movement on each side, thereby imposing a time limit of three minutes per movement.

Plus Some Famous Words About ItPlus Some Famous Words About It

ex. 8-17 Igor Stravinsky, Sérénade en la, “Rondoletto,” mm. 1–27

The third movement, “Rondoletto” (Ex. 8-17), again takes the absence of expression (or at least the absence of expression markings) to an extreme. Like the outer movements of the Sonate it carries only a numerical metronomic indication of tempo. Even more noteworthy is the absence of any dynamic marking. The whole composition implicitly unfolds at a single level of volume—the default level, or the level at which one plays without giving any particular thought to the matter (sometimes called “mezzo-fortissimo” by “studio hacks” who make their living sight-reading commercial jingles). The only exceptions are sforzandos, used as cadential punctuation, and a single “subito meno f.” Also spectacularly unvaried is the rhythmic motion, a nearly unrelieved stream of sixteenth notes (the only relief being those same cadential chords marked sforzando, and there are only two). Not even at the end of the piece does Stravinsky leave the modification of the tempo to the “deformer.” He “composes in” the ritardando as a series of gear shifts, from sixteenths to triplet eighths, thence to ordinary eighths and finally to quarters and halves.

That is “rigidity of form” and “dehumanization” with a vengeance. Indeed, Stravinsky was greatly attracted to the pianola, or player piano, which could perform with a mechanized rigidity beyond human capability (further identifying “dehumanization” with the superhuman, not the sub). He spent many hours transcribing his early works for the instrument, finally writing a piece for it directly (Étude for pianola, 1917); and he did his best, as his own piano performances from the period attest, to turn himself into a walking pianola. It would appear, then, that a memento of futurismo, the maximalist worship of the Machine Age, lingered—ironically!—in Stravinsky’s “neoclassicism,” further compromising its ostensibly retrospective character. It was meant to be—and certainly did become, for awhile—the music of the future.


(36) Igor Stravinsky, “Some Ideas about My Octuor,” The Arts, January 1924; reprinted in Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966), p. 528.

(37) Charles Koechlin, “Le ‘Retour à Bach,’” La Revue musicale VIII (1926): pp. 1–2.

(38) Stravinsky, “Some Ideas,” pp. 529–31.

(39) Ibid., p. 528.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Pathos Is Banned." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008009.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 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008009.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 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-008009.xml