Leonard Bernstein: The Twentieth Century Crisis and Stravinsky's Objective Expressivity

Tim Farrand
Guernica, Pablo Picasso

Our language is one of opposites. Fast-Slow; Good-Bad; Right-Wrong; Long-Short. We see our world through these dualities. It is this tension between either-or that allows for a reduction in the complexity of the world around us into an order that makes sense. Almost anything can be broken down at its most essential level into some form of dichotomy.

In a series of six lectures given at Harvard University, Leonard Bernstein attempted to answer the “Unanswered Question”—a reference to Charles Ives and a dichotomy within itself—through the comparison of the language of music with the languages spoken in the Western world. Noam Chomsky had worked on the theory of a universal basis for language inherent within the Human species from which Bernstein created the basis of his own exploration into musical language. The reason for doing so was to try to make sense of the chaos created in the twentieth century after the death of tonality which Bernstein identified with the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. 

Musical Periods

The history of music has been categorized into an ordered file of successive periods of development such as Baroque, Classical, and then on to the Romantic. These periods have their own generalized characteristics. Counterpoint in the Baroque, form in the Classical, and chromaticism in the Romantic, each period can be ordered in such a way that identifying a composer with a period allows one to form a general expectation. Of course there are many deviations within each of these categories but the general arch formed by them allows for a period of a few hundred years to be boiled down into comprehensible subdivisions. The problem in the twentieth century is that there are so many different “isms” that it becomes impossible to create one unified definition of what music was for that time period.

The “apocalyptic prophecy” that Bernstein describes is the prediction that he sees contained within Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Bernstein views this work as the last point in the arch of symphonic music that stretches from Haydn until 1908 when Mahler penned his Ninth Symphony. For Bernstein, the work predicts the “Twentieth Century Crisis” which he describes as the need to come to terms with the ever looming possibility of death. This is not a death of the individual, which would be a characteristic of the nineteenth century, but rather a death of the world. The twentieth century saw the rise of mechanisms by which the world could, for the first time, destroy itself. Bernstein describes this “Twentieth Century Crisis” in his fifth lecture at Harvard under that same title:

Coming to Terms with "isms"

In trying to make sense of the many divergent “isms” that came about in the twentieth century, Bernstein grabs on to a kind of will-to-life as the general topic of the age. Every new pathway or idea is in some way an attempt to keep art alive and continue its progress in the midst of “anguish.” Is this an oversimplification? Of course! But so is every other attempt at defining a period of history. There are always incongruities and pieces that don’t fit but in order to create order from the chaos it is helpful to cling on to certain general ideas off of which you can then begin to understand those ambiguities that arise.

Sonata Form as a concept is simple and precise but when one delves into the music of Mozart you find that there is hardly a textbook example to be found. Maybe you have too many themes in the exposition or the recapitulation occurs in a different way than expected. The abstract notion of Sonata Form is not meant to define the work but act as a guide off of which you are able to make sense of those deviations. This is what Bernstein is doing by classifying the twentieth century as the age of dealing with death. It is a thread that allows one to begin to comprehend the motivations affecting artists of this time. So it is with the last page of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that Bernstein marks the end of the arch of symphonic music from which all of the divergent styles of the twentieth century can be viewed as stemming out of. For Bernstein, this last page is the closest thing in art that we have to the expression of dying. 

The poem that Bernstein quotes at the end of the clip above is from John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. The narrator of the poem hears the “full-throated” nightingale singing and is filled with an abundant happiness. The narrator contemplates the ease from which the bird is able to sing, not knowing any of the turmoil, pain, and grief of life as a human being. The bird simply exists and sings in a perfect continuation from the nightingales of thousands of years ago. The bird is free and in hearing the nightingale’s song, the narrator says:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
      I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
      To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
      To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
      In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
      To thy high requiem become a sod.

For Bernstein, this last page of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony represents the act of giving into that “easeful death.” Take a listen:

Where do we go from here? This last page of Mahler’s Ninth was for Bernstein the last page of tonality, at least of tonality as it was in the arch of its development from Haydn, through the chromaticism of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and eventually dying away with the symbolic death represented by Mahler’s last completed symphony. Even if Bernstein’s viewpoint is a bit of an exaggeration it is nevertheless an important point to consider. With the death of the Romantic tradition, what comes next? How do we move on from here? The background of the twentieth century is the badly written tragedy that Bernstein describes, but what is the way in which art continues? The answer, at least from our vantage point being so close to it, is that there is not one solution but a duality, and this duality for Bernstein is the tension between Subjectivity and Objectivity.

The Subjective and Objective Lines

Arnold Schoenberg
Igor Stravinsky

The two composers who exemplify this split for Bernstein are Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. There is not one unified theory to explain the century but rather two divergent paths that act as a means for understanding and navigating the apparent chaos. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the dualities that are inherent in language. Objective and Subjective are yet another example of the tension between opposites. What is interesting about the beginning of the twentieth century is that we do not only have this or that but rather this and that. There exists both the subjective and the objective at the same time.

Subjectivity has been at the center of the arch from Haydn to Mahler. Expression was defined as that which comes from the individual. When we hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we feel the power of fate acting upon the individual. The end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony comes across as Mahler’s own intimate feelings on death. It is within this personification in sound and in the attachment to the individual that intimate expression occurs. Death is something every being has to contend with but the power of the Ninth Symphony is not just that it is about death but about the subjective take on death that Mahler seemed to express from within himself. 

Similarly, Macbeth’s soliloquy after hearing the news that “the queen, my lord, is dead” speaks of the universal truth of day by day passing by. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,” says Macbeth, “creeps in this petty pace from day to day. . .” Macbeth describes his feeling of the apartment meaninglessness of life as he sees it. “Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is here no more” and Macbeth ends by saying that this “tale” is “signifying nothing.” These desperate words are but an attempt to describe the eternal cycle of life but they gain the poignancy of expression by being personified by Macbeth:

This universal truth is portrayed subjectively through the character of Macbeth just as the trajectory of Western art has been the expression of subjective understanding. Each age brought with it its own answer for how to express in art the feelings of the time in which it was created. Art changed with the time and developed as the need for expression developed. 

Divergent Paths

What occurred in the twentieth century was a break from this direct line. Those on the subjective path continued on to develop new ways, post-tonality, to express the world around them. Schoenberg’s goal was to continue this line and create a way forward. To think of him as a subjective, expressive composer might be somewhat different from the ways in which we often encounter him in the classroom. His music is often taught as mathematical with numbers and formulas a prime focus for explaining his technique for composition. On paper, it can seem calculated and cold but this is not what Schoenberg aimed to do.

In Composing with Tones, Kathryn Bailey discusses how Schoenberg’s music has been reduced to these intellectual formulas which divorces them from their expressive intent. In his “Gedanke” manuscript, Schoenberg wrote that “music is intended (primarily) for listening (and only secondarily for reading).” [1] In fact, Schoenberg found it to be a misunderstanding of his work that one should be more interested in how he constructs and manipulates his rows than in finding the expression of his music. The “expression of emotion” should be the principal point of departure for the analysis of Schoenberg and not just the intellectual exercise of discovering how it has been constructed. [2] For Schoenberg, taking apart his music in a purely intellectual way is like counting the lines of a poem and figuring out its meter. That tells you in what way it is constructed but gives you nothing of the meaning and expression that lies within it. 

Schoenberg was the continuation of the subjective, expressive line. Stravinsky, as Bernstein describes, is the devil figure creating chaos in this established tradition. Stravinsky did not follow, at least not directly, the path of the subjective artist but removed himself from the art. He took out the individual and left only the abstract, unaffected remains. For Adorno, as Bernstein describes, it would be impossible to remove the “direct expression of feeling, subjective from the heart” and still maintain a feeling of sincerity. Stravinsky no longer relies on the personal narrative, that of Mahler and Brahms, etc.. but decides to remain at a distance.

The Move to the Objective

Does this removal of the individual, the subjective, leave the music cold and unfeeling? Far from it! Stravinsky’s works elicit just as powerful an expressive force as do Mahler’s most intimate and subjective expressions. How is it possible to remove the personality but still feel the full force of immediate expression? This is defined by Bernstein in the phrase “objective expressivity.” Objectivity and expression seem to be complete opposites but Stravinsky is able to unite them together to create this divergent path that breathed new life into tonality.

Stravinsky used artifacts from the past—reinvented and given new life—in order to find a new form of expression. These “musical objects” were the result of taking something that was of a past time—something that was seemingly dead or at least no longer an animate and integral part of subjective experience—and bringing it back to use as a form of objective expression. The language used by Mozart, which was modern at the time he was composing, could now be used by Stravinsky, at a distance from the period in which it came about, to create a new objective art form, namely, Neoclassicism.

Stravinsky's Neoclassicism

Wearing one’s heart on the sleeve was no longer the only way to achieve a meaningful depth of expression. This new wave of objective expressivity allowed for sincere expressions to be had without the involvement of intimate and personal attachment. The composer was a player behind a mask. It was no longer the expressive face of the actor that had given the immediacy of expression but rather the artificial object, the universal abstraction, that had a profound power within itself. It wasn’t necessary to express yourself personally but rather to create something that could be viewed or listened to from a distance that still contained this power of expression.

The soliloquy of Macbeth or the end of Mahler Nine were of the subjective line that Schoenberg continued on. This romantic sentiment of deep personal, and at times autobiographical, reflection was the impulse to push the boundaries of musical grammar until tonality itself broke away. With his op. 23 and op. 25 piano pieces, Schoenberg introduced a new system for musical structure. This new Twelve-tone system was an attempt to continue in the chromatic expansion that had been set afire most significantly by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Op. 23 No. 5 is the first complete Twelve-tone piece that Schoenberg wrote.

Schoenberg completed that movement in 1923, the same year of Stravinsky’s Octet which is purely in the Neoclassical style:

Schoenberg and Stravinsky were going down completely different paths. Schoenberg was continuing a tradition and Stravinsky was part of the beginning of a new one. Pieces such as Petrushka, Le Sacre du Printemps, and Histoire du Soldat extended the use of tonality by focusing on techniques of dissonance and ambiguity. Chords were extended to include the 9th and 11th, metric and rhythmic asymmetries abound, polyrhythms create hitherto unimaginable complexity, and polytonality adds a entirely new sound-world. Bernstein, when speaking of these pieces in reference to the topic of objective expressivity, states:

Igor's Mask

Without having to place himself within the world of pagan Russia or a Fair, Stravinsky is able to represent these scenes as objects in themselves. It is the whole of the experience that manifests sincere expression instead of the effect it has upon the individual.

Another element that places Stravinsky at a distance is the prevalence of the “folk element” which Bernstein would relate to Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious,” making these works not only testaments to a past historical time but containing something in them that is universal. That is the main difference between the subjective and objective. Subjective experience is that which has been produced within the individual and viewed from the vantage point of that individual.

The universal, on the other hand, contains the objective and abstract principles that can stand on their own because they do not need subjective interpretation. These universalisms are objects in themselves without any need for personal involvement which is what makes Stravinsky’s use of distance so unique. It is as if Stravinsky is taking an artifact from the museum of musical past and recreating it in his own musical language. This is the fundamental idea behind Neoclassicism and which brings us to the topic of his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex.

Oedipus Rex

The very ambiguity of calling it both opera and oratorio adds to the idea of inventiveness of this pioneering genre that Stravinsky was championing. It has elements of the operatic but is produced in an oratorio setup. There is a story but it is not acted out in the way it would have been on the stage. It is objectified and produced more similarly to the mode of an oratorio. This is the first “mask” that can be seen. By calling it both things, Stravinsky is able to freely move about behind these two different traditions while he is creating something very nontraditional. 

The next mask is Stravinsky’s use of a “universal plot.” In the book Multiple Masks: Neoclassicism in Stravinsky's Works on Greek Subjects, Maureen Carr highlights this element with a quotation from Stravinsky in which “he claims that ‘the choice was preordained. I wanted a universal plot, or at least, one so well known that I would not have to elaborate its exposition. I wished to leave the play, as play, behind, thinking by this to distill the dramatic essence and to free myself for a greater degree of focus on a purely musical dramatization.” [3]

This “universal plot” allowed Stravinsky to divorce himself from having to subjectively express the play through the characters so that he could focus more on the abstract “musical dramatization.” The story was a mask from which he could move the attention from the telling of a story to the expressing of the more universal elements contained within it. In fact, “Stravinsky recalled cautioning Cocteau against ‘an action drama,’ encouraging him more in the lines of a ‘still life.’” [4] The objectivity of a ‘still life’ on the stage adds to the personal detachment of the work.

By telling the story in the relatively dead language of Latin, Stravinsky is able to abstract the words from their specific meaning and focus more on what Carr refers to “syllabification.” [5] At the beginning of the chapter on Oedipus Rex, Carr includes the following quote by Stravinsky:

"When I work with words in music, my musical saliva is set in motion by the sounds and rhythms of the syllables.”

It was the rhythmic and sonic value of the text that inspired Stravinsky rather than the subjective meaning of each word. Instead of tone-painting—a purely subjective musical device—Stravinsky uses the text as yet another element within the objective musical texture of the work.

The Impersonal

The next mask behind which Stravinsky is able to act is the impersonal, but not in an inexpressive or unmoving manner. Impersonal in the use of a musical language that is an artifact from the past reinvented through the stylistic lens of Stravinsky. Stravinsky is hiding behind the mask of once expressive music similar to the literary masks used by T.S. Eliot in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s “Tuba Mirum” from his Requiem followed by the opening proclamation by Creon. Both open with a very similar arpeggio of voice and brass instrument:

Stravinsky creates ambiguity of style by contrasting different eras of musical artifacts against one another. Hear the distant style of Tiresias, similar to that of Sarastro from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, followed by the lyrical-romantic style of Oedipus’ response:

Other musical references from not only Western music but of other cultures can be found in this analysis by Bernstein:

And finally, the mechanical nature of the opening Oedipus Rex. Notice the repeated notes in the timpani and the menacing nature of the choir; the cold commentary of the surrounding instruments and the baroque ornamentation of Oedipus’ first entrance. These elements, while seemingly disconnected when compared to the opening of Mahler’s Second Symphony or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, still produce a depth of expression that places the listener in similar states of “pity and power” (Bernstein’s description of the opening of Oedipus Rex) of those two other tragedies:

At this point Creon steps out and sings the first example I inserted from Oedipus above. There is so much contained within this piece that it would be impossible to exhaust it in one article. Needless to say, this work exemplifies objective expressivity, that non-autobiographical track that Stravinsky took while Schoenberg continued down the subjective line of musical development beyond tonality.


I began this article by stating that our language is one of opposites. A thing is either this or that and the history of music seems to fit into periods that can be summed up in either this way or that way. A change happened in the twentieth century when a split came and there existed two completely different branches operating at the same time. It was a time of this and that. Anything could find a place within this period and a dualism was created by necessity from the ever increasing breakdown of the tonal system whereby customary norms were abolished. We could look forwards and backwards at the same time and that is what is at the center of the historical significance of this time.

This is not to say that there were not other times where splits had occurred in the history of music. Take Wagner and Brahms. Wagner was of the programmatic tradition and Brahms of the abstract but their musical language was not all that far apart from each other. What made the beginning of the twentieth century so unique was the ability to embrace styles that were of two completely different branches: one continued the traditions set forth by the Romantic Period and the other took a more removed position whereby styles of the past could be given new life. Oedipus Rex stands as one of the landmarks in this new tradition of “objective expressivity."


1 Kathryn Bailey, Composing with Tones (Royal Musical Association: London, 2001), 10. Parentheses added by Kathryn Bailey.

2 Ibid., 11.

3 Maureen Carr, Multiple Masks: Neoclassicism in Stravinsky’s Works on Greek Subjects (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 2002), 24.

4 Ibid., 25.

5 Ibid., see pages 23-64 for a detailed analysis of the text for Stravinsky’s Oediups Rex and the influence it had on the composition of the work.

June 22, 2021

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