Fin de Siecle

I am reading Alex Ross’s excellent book “The Rest is Noise” (subtitle: Listening to the Twentieth Century).  The book is mostly about contemporary music, but Ross gives the discussion a historical framework to give it contextual significance.  The early chapters deal with the period around the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, and that is where I encountered the phrase that is the title of this essay.

It is French, of course, and the literal meaning is “end of the century.”  But fin de siècle has taken on a special significance in the world of arts and culture, referring specifically to that tumultuous period.  The French and Bolshevik revolutions destroyed the old monarchies and feudal structures, industrialization was gaining momentum.  The common man was flexing his muscles and his independence, demanding his share of the power and wealth in the world.

The world of the arts could not escape being influenced by all of this, and the composers of that era sought to emulate the politics of the time, throwing off the “chains” that bound them to the old Classical-Romantic era.  The formal structures and harmonies of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were passé.  A new paradigm was needed, and composers like Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss showed the way.

Schoenberg was the leader of what became known as the “Second Viennese School,” the first having been that of the aforementioned Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, among many others.  Two of his students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who became famous in their own right, were his most ardent and effective supporters.  They led the rebellion against what they viewed as the stultified and rigid structures of tonality and formality in classical music.  In the beginning, they only sought to loosen the bonds, but eventually, as Anton Webern put it, “The time was simply ripe for the disappearance of tonality.”

A small group of these people transformed the whole musical scene, and they did it in just a few years.  Similar things were happening in other cultural milieus…painting, sculpture, literature and poetry.  It was truly an astonishing time.

Most humans…certainly more than half…live long enough to experience an end-of-century transition.  Most of the people who read this experienced the one that occurred thirteen years ago.  That was indeed a momentous one, not just the end of a century, but the end of a millennium.  What earthshaking changes happened during our fin de siècle?

Politically…the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of the United States to the pinnacle, the only “superpower.”  And then, only 21 months later, the most horrendous terrorist attack the world has ever seen.  Cataclysmic events, to be sure, but what about the arts, culture, literature?

Nothing much to report, sadly.  Our generation is obsessed with religion, politics, the environment, wars and terrorism.  We don’t seem to have much time for the arts.

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