Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works
Reviewing Igor Stravinsky’s life, works, career, polemical statements, or any books regarding these, one can stipulate that he has been since 1910 a major modern force, that he is now the most admired living composer, and that in the present decade he has revealed himself as a remarkably sharp musical observer. The latter personality let us call Craft-Igor, since it is a double one, in which the voice is the voice of Robert Craft, but the head is of Igor Fyodorovitch.
In Themes and Episodes, fifth volume of this perfect impersonation, though the voice takes formal leave of personal diary-keeping, surely Craft has not for the last time served as chief of English language protocol for the master’s many verbalizing needs. Also, the composer’s wife, Vera de Bosset, becomes a speaking member of the trinity. And most welcome she is, since with her painter’s prodigious visual memory she gives us Stravinsky in domestic close-up while watching over him as one might a patient or a child, and writes about his life, his house, his habits with unfailing warmth, good humor, and good sense. This in two long letters written to a cousin in Russia and translated anonymously with infinite grace. One does hope that in future chats she will be present, if only to give us the logistics of a life so far-flung geographically and at the same time so tightly tied into a three-person package by the great man’s urgencies regarding daily work, liquor, bodily symptoms, and the highest fees.
Craft has served Stravinsky during fifteen years as assistant conductor and during ten as interviewer for eliciting from him printable statements of musical opinion. Also, as traveling companion and cultural guide the youngman-who-reads-many-books has been a door opener. It was not till Craft became a close associate that Stravinsky showed any notable interest in either Arnold Schoenberg or in 12-tone serial music, both of which he now follows piously, at least within the limits of his eighty-five-year-old’s power of self transformation, which is considerable. And in the domain of Renaissance vocal music, which he has taken in late years almost for his own discovery, he must have been guided toward many an odd practitioner—Heinrich Isaac, for instance, or Gesualdo di Venosa—by the reading of the younger musician. If not to these, then at least to the minor Elizabethan poets and to Dylan Thomas; for Craft, right along with his alertness to music, is a fin lettré aware of trends in literary prestige.
As a writer he is less straightforward than either of the Stravinskys. Vera, in this regard, is the perfect one. Igor, as a Russian experienced in at least four other languages, is fascinated by words of Latin origin. And as an artist, moreover, he is prone to lay out any contemporary composer or rival performer who displeases him, which most of them do, as well as to rewrite the history of music for his own benefit, as every other composer throughout music’s history has done who has written at all.
IS IT STRAVINSKY’S LOVE of verbal legerdemain that has led Craft on, or his own propensity for giggles that makes him so fond of “hard” words? In his latest travel diary one comes upon: nictitating, clerihew, mystagogical, anastomosis, antitragus, geminate (a noun), pendunculates, pargeting, testudinarious, stercoral, scorbiculated, examinate, strigil, castrametation, cyclothymic, paranomasia, enchaféd, eldritch (adj.), coffle, and deturpation, as well as “the marvering and crizzling of the parison, which is glass in its bubblegum state.”
In turning Stravinsky’s own pages, do not miss the interview on Anton Webern and the present state of “Anton-olatry” (p. 115 et seq. of Themes and Episodes). Here are a major musician’s work described, current trends observed, aesthetics compared, an estimate proposed, and the interviewer gently teased—all with a knife-like critical penetration, a compacted irony, and a wealth of side-swipes, even at himself, that are a lesson in how to deflate a cult without injury to the revered composer inside.
And for plain answers to far from simple questions, let me paraphrase a reporter’s interview that does not appear in these books, published in 1957 by Buenos Aires Musical.
Q. Is musical form “mathematical?”
A. It is neither exactly arithmetical nor an affair of equations; but it is related to a mathematical way of thinking.
Q. What of electronic music?
A. I find its sounds boring. What interests me is the notation.
Q. What does sincerity mean to you?
A. It is a sine qua non, but guarantees nothing.
Q. Is your duration-universe the same as formerly?
A. No. Nowadays my music is more compact. Certain parts of Agon, for instance, contain three times as much music, by the clock, as many of my earlier works.
Q. Isn’t there something oriental about the duration-universe of serial music?
A. Not specifically. Moreover, I have no contact with the orient nor any understanding of it.
Q. Are there any new developments today in rhythm?
A. In Le Marteau sans maître by Pierre Boulez and in Zeitmasse by Kartheinz Stockhausen accelerando and ritardando are regulated from point to point by metronomic indications. Thus speed control eliminates fixed tempo and gives to music a wholly new agility. Beyond this interesting device, there has been nothing new in rhythm for fifty years, not since my own The Rite of Spring.
Q. Is there any danger in today’s search for mere novelty?
A. No. But it does make life hard for critics, especially in Germany, where they are supposed to act as a brake on impetuosity.
One could cite, I am sure, the whole of Stravinsky’s contribution to the Craft-Igor books without nothing one deviation from clarity, though of malice (as against a fellow-Russian composer, Vladimir Dukelsky, whom he addresses as V.D.), venom (attacking with vitriol a puny reviewer who had not admired his work), and self-praise (the constant insistance on his own importance to the history of music) there are a plenty.
Musicians, we know, tend toward extreme irritability; and exasperation, of course, is the right of any artist. We like it when a life-giving spillover breaks through the proprieties. But when a great man takes to quibbling about the obvious, one could wish he would wrestle with someone near his size. And that he would remember, too, the importance of the place, as great as can ever be estimated with certainty during an artist’s life, that has long been stipulated in this one’s favor.
HOWEVER, though a sizeable niche is certain, the placement of it is far from settled. The present study of his life and works by Eric Walter White, which aims to clarify the matter, is a compendium of virtually all that is known about both the man and his music. It is one of those terminal biographies, like Lockspeiser’s of Debussy or Ernest Newman’s of Richard Wagner, that are the glory of England’s music-and-letters tradition. After publishing a book called Stravinsky’s Sacrifice to Apollo at the exact point, 1930, where Paul Collaer’s illuminating Strawinsky left off, White has gone forward with a will to make his study complete, and backward with a determination to get everything right, attesting on every page his devotion to both truth and music.
Collaer’s book, long out of print in French and never, I think, available in English, contains a more lively analysis of the early works, white-lighted as it is by a near-contemporary’s understanding. The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, writing of the same early works in various volumes, has a comparable way of carrying us back to a time when the Russianness of all musical Russians, with their so-fresh tunes and so-fresh harmonies, was heady nourishment, and when the shocking, immense presence of Stravinsky’s music, from The Fire Bird and Petrushka through The Rite of Spring, was making clear that the century was on.
Stravinsky’s work has received the homage of analysis and explication in book form by composers as impressive as Alfredo Casella, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Nicolas Nabokov, Alexandre Tansman, and Roman Vlad, not to mention critical examinations by the hundreds, among which those of Boris de Schloezer and of the conductor Robert Siohan are in my judgment the most meaty. Heretofore, Italians and the France-centered have done best by him. The Germans, though voluminous, have not been notable; nor have the Americans nor previously the English, save for White’s earlier (1948) Stravinsky: A Critical Survey, itself to come out in German two years later.
After now, any serious study of the composer must begin with White’s Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works if only because of its completeness—completeness of biographical matter, of documentary aids, of contemporary opinion quoted, of works described and musical examples analyzed. Besides all this there are reprints, in their original French or English, of divers articles and lectures by Stravinsky and a selection of letters to Stravinsky from Debussy, Delius, Ravel, and the novelist Jules Romains. The analyses and their musical quotations, especially if one fills them out from Collaer’s book, are prodigiously abundant and revealing. Nothing is lacking but the Craft-Igor conversations.
It is doubtful whether any composer, saving only Richard Wagner, has ever been so expansive in print. Nor were any, save Wagner, Rossini, and possibly Satie, one half so entertaining personally. And among all those whom we know from their writings, only Wagner and Stravinsky seem to have felt the need for reasserting constantly their demand for a particular historical place.
One regrets this insistence, while realizing its probable source. Both composers, of course, through coming late to music, retained the insecurity of the autodidact. Both achieved success early through a remarkable gift for orchestration and through the soundness of their instinct for the stage. Both, moreover, lavished on their stage works the richest symphonic textures. Wagner, however, as a German, had to explain away not writing symphonies. He knew that theater music, no matter what its excellence, would not alone admit him to Valhalla. And so, all perfectly true and tiresome and repetitive, he explained over and over what he had done, and gave it a new name, Musik-drama.
STRAVINSKY, being Russian, had no qualms about writing for the stage; but as a Russian with affinities toward the West, he knew he must become a Western master. He could not be a primitive like Moussorgsky, since no one can be a stay-at-home and a traveler. In his three most famous ballets, all composed by thirty, he had so firmly proved himself a master of Impressionism that he scared the daylights out of Claude Debussy. That French road he never explored extensively again. For the rest of his life he yearned toward Italy, through the opera, both seria and buffa, and toward Germany, through oratorio and the symphony.
Opera he never quite mastered, terrified lest the human voice escape his strict control. But he did, in Oedipus Rex, produce an oratorio about a Greek tragedy that is closer to the original aims of opera than anything else written in the whole time of opera. Craft considers it Stravinsky’s masterpiece, though others choose Petrushka, and there are supporters for The Rite, even for Les Noces and L’Historie d’un soldat. In any case, Oedipus is a mighty work composed at forty-five by the century’s “most lucid creative genius,” to quote Henri Sauguet. What it lacks of directness, as in Petrushka, it replaces with irony and with a stiffnecked, almost doctrinaire, absorption in the history of music. I doubt that its formal perfections completely save it. Anyway, Petrushka is no less perfect; and its form is less self-conscious, more organic.
Organic form is an invention of the German classic masters. Possibly derived as concept from the German literary sentence, of which the outcome remains in suspense till the very end, when verbs appear, it was developed for fugal writing by Bach and Handel. In Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert it became sonata form, though not one of these knew the term. For them it grew like people or like trees, no two alike but all with a morphological identity.
On Schubert’s death, through Brahms and Bruckner and Mahler, it ran to giganticism and finally fell apart. French efforts by César Franck and his pupils to reconstitute scholastically the species brought no life-infusion. Vienna wisely neglected these and relaxed in happy decay, later to tie itself in tight chromatic knots.
The only composer after Schubert to achieve lifelike organic forms, self-sustained and self-contained, of which the inner complexities, as in Mozart, reflect no outward strain, was Debussy. In this sense, La Mer is a true and proper symphony, held together not by passion or by pathos or by storytelling, but simply by its own well-functioning muscular and nervous system.
Organic form is the ideal Stravinsky has struggled toward in all three of his mature symphonies, including the choral one, and beginning even earlier, is my guess, in the Symphonies for Wind Instruments in Memory of Claude Debussy. The Symphony of Psalms is a lovely oratorio with a theme-song ending. The Symphony in Three Movements is a touching selection, or olio, of remembered patriotic and Russian feelings. Edward T. Cone’s analysis of the Symphony in C, first published five years ago in The Musical Quarterly, reveals this extraordinarily interesting work (a “masterpiece,” in Mr. Cone’s opinion) to be a wrestling match with the ghost of Josef Haydn in which Stravinsky changes all the rules.
FORMERLY, one might have taken Stravinsky’s past-oriented sonatas, concertos, duos, and the like for witty evocations of some epoch or personality, a cubistico-impressionist reassembling of characteristic detail with everything delightfully in the wrong place. Both Collaer and Ansermet knew, all the same, that below the fashionably equalized surface tensions were diversified interval tensions and harmonic distortions, and rhythmic controls too, of the highest musical interest. In the Symphony in C, as in the Symphonies for Wind Instruments, these almost produce life. That they do not quite, perhaps, succeed in doing so is due in large part, I am sure, to the composer’s unwillingness to sacrifice one jot or tittle of his modernity, of his unbreakable surface tensions and high-viscosity dissonance content. The rest of the failure (still relative, for it was a more than noble effort) is probably due to the fact that all other attempts to revive organic form, excepting only that of Debussy, have run afoul of the modernist aesthetic. How Debussy succeeded no one knows; but I am sure that he did succeed and that Stravinsky has continued to try. Also that in the short works of his old age he seems to be maybe approaching success. That he has not quit produced the miracle is proved, I think, by the fact that believing him to have done so remains a sectarian view. Had he succeeded, the works in question would have become popular without delay, as his early Impressionist ballets did.
He failed to master the opera, if he did, for a comparable reason. He could not let go of his dissonance controls and his rhythmic corsetings. Gravest of all, he tried to incorporate ballet stylizations. When he finally abandoned these, and also his high dissonance saturation (though he kept the rhythmic corset), he produced The Rake’s Progress, a popular piece that travels. It is not a success, however, in any meaning of the term that musical consensus would sustain. The poetry of W.H. Auden, though pretty, is too eighteenth-century mannered for strong impact. The musical setting of this, for all its fragmentation into static syllables—a way with Stravinsky ever since his earliest Russian-language works—is surprisingly comprehensible verbally and melodically diverting. Even within its metrical strait-jacket, put there to prevent interpretational freedom, it could still communicate the story, were not that story—an incredible mélange of Little Red- Riding Hood, Dr. Faustus, and an inversion of Oedipus Rex in which the hero murders not his father but the woman in his motherly sweet-heart and marries, in the form of a bearded lady, his father-image—were not all this, I fear, so utterly silly as to preclude any emotional involvement that the music might provoke.
STRAVINSKY HAS KNOWN these problems well and faced them manfully. He has, in fact, talked and written about little else in the last forty years. They are the fulfillment theme of his dearest aspiration and the burden of his critical denouncements. He may win through yet on the symphonic level. Meanwhile, thanks to his insistent self-exposure in the matter—as well as of all his daily pains and vigorous quarrels, his joyous hospitality, and his happy home—his friends and readers would pardon an occasional failure. His glory as the last master of Impressionism, could he be satisfied with that, would do ever so nicely for posterity. Moreover, no one is a universal genius. Neither Bach nor Beethoven, for example, was at home in opera; and Mozart, in either choral works or lieder, was nowhere so tightly packed with meanings as in his chamber works, his symphonies, his still unmatched, incomparable operas.
Could it be that the masters of modernism, in aiming to make everything as different as possible from what came before and at the same time aspiring to resemble preceding masters both in freedom of composition and in the organizing of that freedom into a humane discourse universally meaningful, have all stubbed their toe on the same rock? In other words, can a modernist become a classic? The answer is certainly yes. Because Debussy did it. And so did Stravinsky, barely thirty. After that? Well, he has worked and traveled and talked and traveled and worked. He has worked well and talked well and, as one says of good wine, traveled well. He has perhaps not yet solved all of music’s problems, but he has through his brilliantly arbitrary and essentially happy music and through his lively talk become an indispensable part of our lives.
What is it Macaulay said of Samuel Johnson? That “our intimate acquaintance with what he would himself have called the anfractuosities of his intellect and of his temper serves only to strengthen our conviction that he was both a great and a good man.”