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On Stravinsky

This is part of an essay appearing in the program of the Stravinsky Festival at Lincoln Center, June 18-25.

Stravinsky (with Max Planck, Einstein, Picasso, Joyce) proposed new dimensions for timing and spacing before the First World War. Le Sacre du Printemps was clarion for a proliferation of forces already probed by Sir James Fraser and Dr. Freud. Revolution hung in the air, but Marx’s dialectic was as yet an unproven promise. Stravinsky never classed himself as revolutionary; radical he was, with roots long and deep in traditions which he affirmed, maintained, extended, transcended. Because of the shock of Le Sacre, he was launched as a barbarian invader, a musical Genghis Khan. This entrance coincided with the notion of a permanent advance-guard, a superstition as sacred and silly as that of permanent social revolution.

However, it became abruptly clear that he was no prophet of determinism, political, aesthetic, or metaphysical. Whatever injustice, despair, or chaos imposed on this world, his increasing testimony cleaved to the catapult of free will—as if, all evidence to the contrary, it was fact. For himself, by his skill, he proved the point: mathematically. He agreed with Einstein: “God does not throw dice.” As for aleatory philosophy, Stravinsky told St.-John Perse: “One has a nose. The nose scents and it chooses. An artist is simply a kind of pig snouting truffles.”

In cleaving to free will he refused to conceive himself as a romantic agonist—self-serving, self-indulgent, self-slaying, a role adored by flashier tragedians of the era. Unfashionable except for a few ferocious friends after his initial notoriety, he was firm in a faith toward formal wholeness. Abstraction, fragmentation, self-expressionism were the order of the day, canny hysteria canonized as idiosyncratic revelation. He credited concreteness, stricture, and structure, inherited objective disciplines for responsible collaboration with dozens of patrons and publishers, hundreds of performers serving a multitude of audiences in an elevated social context. He never let fractional means, sound as sound, color as color, artifice for artifice’s sake, with their inflated partialities, satisfy him as interesting or worthy ends. Stylization is formula, not method. Personalism is a nosegay of accidental cullings, freezing talent at one lone repetitive peak. The person of sure practice proceeds by an ever-developing potential. His whole work, over seventy years, came to command a world of witnesses.

He was too cautious a historian to credit originality as more than research, although he could boast with Picasso: “Je ne cherche pas. Je trouve.” He never confused sensibility with consciousness, loose indignation with conscience, innovation with genius, or art with life. Being and acting for him were neither sporadic nor inflamed. Craftsmanship was play, not a confessional display. Theater was a game, not tragical self-suffering. His taste, no whimsical preference, relied on relentless, exhaustive, and exhausting choice.

His succession of chosen modes shifted seasonally; he was disloyal to casual devotees who had first framed him as a shaman or iconoclast. Journalists in their hurry to update fashion, too lazy, vain, or ignorant to listen or look with much selfless attention, seldom moved at the rhythm of his mobility. These felt continually betrayed (and still do) by his ingratitude for their appreciation of his next-to-last invention. For he secured himself no convenient signature which might be promptly exploitable or negotiable. By his own mercurial metric, eternally repudiating his latest mask, a central intelligence analyzed finite quantities through a machine tool, his acrobatic wit. This wit he kept about him at peak efficiency. It was the most obvious sign of his public appearance and kept at bay many who smarted under his cunning scrutiny and duelist’s scorn.

Of all artists he was most Russian and most international. Alien to no continent, always more guest than tourist, he became Angeleno and ended a New Yorker. He had had innumerable homes and inns, Petersburg to Paris, Clarens to Cairo, Mexico City or Manhattan, wherever there was peace to compose or halls to accommodate. Russians, for a millennium, have schooled courtiers for an apostolate of intellect and imagination. Around 950, Vladimir and his heir brought Christianity to Kiev. In a very few centuries native Russian choirs sang quite differently from Byzantine Greeks. Peter, Anna, and Catherine crammed their new capital with European opera and ballet. Dimitri Bortniansky listened to Mozart and wrote hymns still sung on holy days.

A bridge between East and West became well worn; Diaghilev tripled the traffic. From Glinka and the patriotic melodists culminating in Tchaikovsky, Russian music achieved its unique and fantastic cross-pollination, the hybrid with which Stravinsky garlanded three generations. His imperial appropriation of style and function is the most sinuous and strongest braiding of Byzantine, Slavic, and Western strains. His ransacking and remounting of ubiquitous treasure glitters in the permanent repertory. However, it is the more solemn music that is the purest ore mined from his essential geography and biography.

His manners and calligraphy were deliberate, dandified, processive. All were subsumed by Eastern Orthodoxy, the super-science of Hagia Sophia. Sophistication is not metaphysical sophistry. Holy Wisdom incarnates the notion of a—or The—Blessed Trinity: Source; Issue Made Flesh; Our Maker’s Fiat. A polytrope, like wily Ulysses, he was capable in every wandering. A supple chameleon, he strayed steadily through many transformation scenes. He never drugged himself with identity crises. He’d always known who, and for what, he was. His face changed hue and expression, but the skull stayed steel.

Hence he proceeded through several exiles, at home with a wife and a self, without repining, alienation, or anxiety (except about cash). Hence his procedure was without self-impersonation, recurrent recipes and concoctions, which are convenient for cooks and haberdashers, but don’t end up in subscription seasons. Hence his authority, insolence, fame, and contempt. His slyness, his sleek, dapper, impalpable, gloved sleight of hand took on the satiny and satanic quicksilver glint of many times and climes. His self felt safe, at ease, in any crevice and on every rock. His essence or magnetic center served his Source, manifest also in a triangulation of smiling muses—Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, Calliope—classic dance, vocal eloquence, sacred song.

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