Modernism, Moral Decadence and Pessimism

This post was inspired by Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music Lesson Four – Musical Typology (Amazon affiliate link)

In discussing the word ‘modernism,’ Stravinsky says:

It follows that everyone has taken advantage of the pliability of this vacuous term by trying to give it form and color.  But, again, what do we understand by the term modernism?  In the past the term was never used, was even unknown.  Yet our predecessors were no more stupid than we are.  Was the term a real discovery? We have shown that it was nothing of the sort.  Might it not rather be a sign of a decadence in morality and taste?  Here I strongly believe we must answer in the affirmative.”

Decadence in morality and taste is a common theme in Poetics.  In fact, I find that it’s part of an underlying pessimism throughout the lessons. I admire Stravinsky’s big-picture perspective in Poetics; much of it is quite inspiring.  But I wrestle with the pessimism.

I can’t help but ask:

  • Has the musical consciousness of a whole epoch really been vitiated? (From Lesson 1)
  • Is the status of man really undergoing profound upheavals? (From Lesson 3)
  • Are the fundamental laws of human equilibrium really being violated? (From Lesson 3)
  • Was the state of music really going downhill since pre-1940?
  • Is Wager’s music really that bad?

To give him credit, Stravinsky aims to defend music and its principles.  So the language is very strong and convincing; it’s easy to accept it without question.

But I’m resisting; I think his ‘big picture’ portrayal is too broad to hold up to mild scrutiny.

Is this a matter of an artist scowling at change and relishing the past?  Or are my 2010 biases young and naïve? 

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