Stravinsky and the New Black Irony

One need only read the first half dozen or so pages of John Keegan’s history, The First World War (1999), to get a chilling picture of the social devastation of what was then known as the Great War. Almost an entire generation of young men was lost, and those who remained had witnessed unthinkable carnage and mass death. They came away with not only great physical, but psychological loss. Reading the lists of names on memorials that are replicated in every town throughout France and England, Keegan was struck with their heartrending length, “all the more heartrending because repetition of the same name testifies to more than one death, often several, in the same family.” (Keegan, 5)

In the wake of the horror of the war, many prominent composers responded by turning to cynicism, biting sarcasm and black irony.* Stravinsky manifestly banished all trace of pathos, most clearly with his Octet for Winds of 1923 (Stravinsky: “My Octuor is not an ’emotive’ work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves.” IV, 490). It is this shift that Taruskin sees as the true break from the Romantic tradition, and the moment that announced the end of the long nineteenth century with a dead-pan, ironic scoff.

Taruskin is right to see this response (which went beyond Stravinsky, but was admittedly not the only response) as a recoiling by composers from the burden of cosmic transcendence that they had inherited from the Romantics. Composers sought to reclaim “their etymological identities as artisans or artificers—skilled makers and doers, and professionals—as opposed to dreamers, reformers, philosophers, priests, politicians, or saints” (IV, 491). It was a loss of that supreme confidence (arrogance?) in the quest for human perfection that had been a driving force for so long.

Have we ever fully recovered from this blow?

*471-478 of Vol. IV should be essential reading for students looking to get an introduction into the effects of World War I on the arts.

3 Comments

  1. Intriguing question. It seems to me that, no, we have not recovered – and that WWII just made the collapse of romantic sincerity, artistic self-importance, grandiosity, and “Truth” even worse. (Of course, there were and are plenty that carried on athwart the historical tides.) Perhaps the “romantic heroes” – musicians that function in the genuine 19th century mode – abandoned the concert halls and conservatories for the less stuffy world of popular music and jazz. There was no 1960s equivalent in the classical world, for example, of lone Geniuses like Dylan, Hendrix, and Coltrane. Of course, romantic ideology in rock has since collapsed as well, so where are we now? I don’t know how I’d answer that.

  2. Where are we now? Good question. If you scan the FM radio stations these days, it seems difficult to find any level of sincerity, sentimentality, or pathos without a good dose of self-consciousness or irony immediately in tow. That is, until you hit on a country music station. Country music seems to be the only genre in which a song that begins like this—

    “Every day I drive to work across Flint River bridge / A hundred yards from the spot where me and grandpa fished / There’s a piece of his old fruit stand on the side of Sawmill Road / He’d be there peelin’ peaches if it was twenty years
    ago / And what I wouldn’t give / To ride around in that old truck with him.” (“If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away, Justin Moore)

    —does so with a completely straight face. Of course the world of country music has its fair share of cultural posturing, but one of its essentials, I think, is this type of earnestness. Could this be perhaps why so many look down their noses at the genre? For so many—after WWI, WWII, and all the rest—earnestness = naiveté.

  3. I think you find earnestness and sincerity in folk music, where country and rock both come from. The lack of a classical Dylan is not the fault of classical music. Dylan comes from a long line of folk heroes speaking truth and making music. The difference is that the media shined a bright light at folk music and countercultural life in the 1960s, when it hadn’t before. I wonder what black irony, if any, will come from our current wars.

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