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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.