Igor Stravinsky: “Music is…essentially powerless to express”

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”

Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p.53-54.

First actual post: some food for thought.
For those unfamiliar Igor Stravinsky was a 20th Century Russian Neo-Classical composer who wrote some of the biggest ballets of the modern ballet repertoire such as “Firebird”, “The Rite of Spring” and “Petrushka”, considering his great composing skill and the timelessness of his art, it came as a surprise when I first read the quote above.

Stravinsky here says that music by its nature as a combination of different sounds and lengths of said sounds, are unable to perform artistic expression. From my interpretation of this, he doubts the very nature of music as an art. However, I don’t think you can divorce art from it’s expression. Though that is, of course, debatable. It’s also quite interesting how he holds the idea that music is expressionless because of it’s “very nature” and that expression is by no means the “purpose of its existence”, yet I’m not personally quite sure what he thought the “purpose” of music to be. It could be possible that he thought that since music, by itself, is unable to express, it has to be paired with other arts. This would explain why he wrote so much for ballet because by combining the physical theater, the visual aesthetics of the performance and the music, the music can aid in the expression of the performance and the plot itself. Yet, he still wrote music for solo instruments such as his Elegies for strings. Perhaps then he means music, when not used in context of a performance, is to be purely for entertainment reasons and not to make statements. This would actually seem to also fit in with today’s musical contexts: if you want to express something through music, you make lyrics that fit your theme, the music itself doesn’t seem to be enough of an expression. I have a theory on why this happens, but I’ll go on about that in another post.

It’s also interesting how Stravinsky says that we only gather expression from music due to a “force of habit” or a “convention”. There’s something to be said for people forcing analysis onto art (perhaps Stravinsky himself did not mean at all for his art to be understood outside of its overt contexts), but isn’t all Art partly understood through convention? Take for example if an artist paints a red and black square and calls it death, by convention we would understand the red and black to be symbols of death and hence the piece of art has ‘expressed’ itself by drawing on cultural conventions. Is it really that different when a pianist plays a major chord followed by a diminished 7th and we understand it to be a change of mood? I argue that it’s the same social convention in play. In a musical context dominated mostly by the western tonal scale we ‘understand’ a major chord to be ‘happy’ while a ‘minor’ chord is ‘unhappy’, juxtaposing the two create a contrast – though different variations of the chords would produce different results. So if music is unable to express due to us attaching “labels” and “conventions” to the sounds, then does that mean that all art is unable to express? Seems slightly far fetched to me.

Thoughts and opinions?

(Point to note: I’m personally not a huge Stravinsky fan, it’s not because I don’t like his writings, I’m just not as familiar. I prefer the grand, lyrics Tchaikovsky when it comes to ballet)

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2 thoughts on “Igor Stravinsky: “Music is…essentially powerless to express”

  1. I actually think that the quote doesn’t specify that music as a form of art, lacks the ability to express. Rather, it occurs to me that through Stravinsky saying that it’s ‘powerless’, it just exemplifies how a piece of music, to one’s listening, can develop different feelings and attributes, and how it represents differently to every person. He mentions in the quote that it is only an illusion and not a reality, and I definitely agree with this point. The definition of a ‘good piece’ is up for interpretation, and by mentioning that it is only an illusion rather than reality, it epitomizes the fact that everyone has their interpretations to what the piece connotes, leading to the decision of whether they believe it’s powerful or not. Just like some people like Hard Rock, and others like Scottish Folk, essentially it is what we can relate to, that powers our liking towards a certain form of music. So in terms of the term ‘powerless’, it may not necessarily mean that music lacks the representation of feelings, rather, it connotes the fact that every person has a different interpretation, so one piece of music may be powerful enough to express one’s feelings, and at the same time, be weak to represent another’s feelings

    1. Interesting reading…I see where you’re coming from but I think that he’s quite aggressive with saying that music itself is impossible to understand. He did also once say “My music is best understood by children and animals”, so I still think he’s saying that music, as an art form, is essentially a bland combination of notes.

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