An Age of Decadence? An Age of Anxiety?

One way of thinking about this pre-WWI period is as a period where everyday citizens are confronting the unknown or the unseeable in totally new ways. Reading through your Western Civilization textbook, you’ll encounter the unknown in medicine, in psychology, in physics. Rilke, a poet whose letter we read, writes to a young poet saying,

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has every entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. (Rilke 4)

Rilke makes the encounter with the unknown into something mystical, but others would describe this in more terrifying terms.

It may seem strange to compare Rilke’s thinking about poetry with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but they form part of the cultural fabric of the early 1900s: both speak of the power and sway mysterious forces (unsayable things for Rilke, the space-time continuum for Einstein). Click here for the NY Times info-graphic explaining Einstein’s general theory. Click here for a video about the collision of two black holes–something scientists have only recently found evidence for. The “chirp” of the collission was “heard” in Louisiana in September 2015.


Now we return to music. Stravinsky, you may recall, was a Russian composer who, for a time, was inspired by folk music played by the peasants of the countryside. Like other composers of his time, he set out to record their music and then bring its strange rhythm and “wrong” notes into the world of classical music.

Image result for edison bell cylinder Image result for edison bell cylinder

The Edison Bell Cylinder revolutionized music. Music could now be consumed at home, for those who could afford it, and it permitted musicians the opportunity to record music that could not be transcribed using the normal methods of western musical notation. It revealed, in fact, the limitations of those systems of notation. Especially important for Stravinksy, was the fact that musical notation couldn’t capture the folk sounds of Russian peasants, or for Bartok, who made recordings in 1907 in the Eastern Carpathian Mountains (Ross 89).

[Bartok] observed the flexible tempo of sung phrases, how they would accelerate in ornamental passages and taper off at the end. He saw how phrases were seldom symmetrical in shape, how a beat or two might be added or subtracted. He savored ‘bent’ notes–shadings above or below the given note–and ‘wrong’ notes that added flavor and bite. He understood how decorative figures could evolve into fresh themes, how common rhythms tied disparate themes together, how songs moved in circles instead of going from point A to point B. (Ross 89)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Remember how I asked you to move in a strange rhythm in class? In one of the classes, we lifted our feet at odd intervals, staying still on the 1 beat, the 2 beat, then the 3. In another of the classes, we clapped for all the beats except the 1, then the 2. It was hard for us to keep it straight. But Stravinsky inserted these kinds of pauses in his music for much the same reason as I did with you: it made his audience slightly uncomfortable. And discomfort, he thought, made people more attentive.

For more info, go here.

Another significant composer at this time was Erik Satie, 1866-1925. The first piece shows his engagement with dissonant chords–something we also saw with the Wagner.

Le fils des étoiles 1891

Note the opening chords “a totally irrational string of dissonant six-note chords,”(Ross 48).


Erik Satie (1866-1925)

 Le Chat Noir — an important Parisian cafe where intellectuals, artists and musicians often crossed paths. The poster to the right was for a touring show that would stop at the Chat Noir. Below is a more famous piece by Satie, part of his  Gymnopedie. One of you noted how mathematical the music sounded, something Satie would have appreciated. Satie called himself a phonometrician, or “someone who measures sounds,” and this is more evident in the pieces for which he is better known.

In this piece, Ross writes that “there is no development, no transition, only and instant prolonged” (49).

In Art



Leon Theremin plays The Theremin



Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)