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.