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Stravinsky in the Twenties

Unlike his conducting, Stravinsky’s piano playing determined the medium and shaped the content of about a third of the music that he composed between 1923 and 1935. The Sonata, Piano Concerto, Serenade, Capriccio, Two-Piano Concerto were all designed as vehicles for his own use, and even, at first, reserved exclusively for himself. So was the Duo Concertant written for his concert tours with Samuel Dushkin, and the several excerpts from ballets arranged for violin and piano;9 these, like the pianola transcriptions, are technically interesting though not worth even the shortest original composition.

What matters is the extent to which the composer tailored his piano music to his own specifications as a performer. His keyboard style in any music was marked by a staccato-sforzando touch, a secco tone, an avoidance of the pedal, all of these in the interests of that clarity of articulation which is reflected in his own compositions for the instrument. It follows that his abilities and limitations as a pianist are also imprinted on his piano music, for although he was not obliged to solve all of the conducting problems of his orchestral scores—conductors can and do leave orchestras to their own devices—he had to play his Sonata, his Serenade, and his concertos.10

Does this personal requirement restrict the music’s content and technical range? In most types of keyboard virtuosity Stravinsky cannot be compared with, for example, Rachmaninoff, though their respective performing skills correspond to the different kinds of music that each composed. Yet Stravinsky, if not his compatriot, might have written still more innovatively for the instrument if he had had someone besides himself in mind playing it, as in the case of his arrangement of the “Three Movements from Petrushka” for Artur Rubinstein. Perhaps the most richly exploratory use of the piano in this century is that in Pierrot lunaire, whose composer was unable to play even its simplest passages himself.

Undoubtedly this overstates the case. The author of the Capriccio exploits to perfection his own characteristics as a performer. Nor could he have been guided exclusively by his own performing technique in composing the Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, a demanding piece to play by any standards. But the influence of the pianist on the composer is evident in the Concerto for Piano and “orchestre d’harmonie,” and so, too, is the effect of that wretched pianola’s, at least in the first movement, which is as mechanical as any music Stravinsky or anyone else ever produced.

Perhaps some of the patchwork impression of the Larghissimo may be attributed to an attempt to counteract the metronomic rigidity of the first movement. But tempo itself is a problem here; Stravinsky had not written music of this kind and speed before, and he seems less than certain of the way to do it—as the lumbering, foursquare tutti, one of his rare technical miscalculations, demonstrates. Furthermore, neither the “Russian” tune at the beginning of the movement nor the “popular;” all too advertently “contrasting,” second tune is in the composer’s natural voice; and these melodies, together with the stereotyped accompaniment figurations and the perfect cadences, are ill-assorted stylistic components. Stravinsky was in trouble, failing for the first time in his twenty years as a composer to concinnate his materials and to make alien ones his own.

Obviously no one could have predicted the form of Stravinsky’s emergence from this bleak terrain, and whatever else, therefore, Oedipus Rex must have come as a huge surprise, its sheer size and emotional force being utterly unlike anything that the forty-five-year-old composer had done before.11 Nor could Stravinsky himself have foreseen the evolutionary path from Pulcinella to Oedipus Rex, and on from there to the new aesthetic of Apollo. His instinct for seeing the new in the old was apparent already in Pulcinella,12 as well as his uniquely inverted relationship with the past—for he embodies Borges’s paradox about the artist creating his precursors, actually making us believe that Pergolesi borrowed from him. With the Sonata and the Octuor, his future pointed to an increasing dependence on the Uses of the Past.13

But the variety of Stravinsky’s music of this period is bewildering. Moreover, he seems to be trying to convince himself that he is no longer Russian. Neither was he French, of course, being in fact strangely isolated from the French music for which he had provided so many models. Deprived of his cultural base, he was trying to piece together a new one from whatever came to hand: ragtime, Russo-Italian opéra bouffe, classical sonata, theme-and-variations, jazz fugue, Verdi aria.14 In January and February, 1921, Stravinsky composed eight piano pieces15 of such extreme simplicity that it seems as if he were trying to rediscover both his own roots and the elements of composition.16 At one point he even began to question former principles of instrumentation, declaring that “sounds struck and sounds bowed do not go together.”

As the first original work to appear after Pulcinella, the Concertino for string quartet would have been of exceptional interest for that reason alone. Where, in what direction, would Stravinsky go? The musical substance of the quartet develops logically from Histoire du Soldat (and on successive pages of the same sketchbook). But the new work is predictive as well as retrospective. It contains formal elements that anticipate the “fabric-of-motives” of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments,17 a score that also looks back but not forward—apart from its concluding Chorale, which is the prototype of the “apotheosis” of the secular pieces and of the “consecratio” of the sacred ones.

Yet the novel motivic architectural principle was not developed in the Octuor, that other perfect work of the Pulcinella-to-Oedipus interregnum. And the Octuor and the Symphonies are the termini post and ante quem of Stravinsky’s Great Divide, the Octuor marking the beginning not only of his neoclassic aesthetic but of his preoccupation with aesthetics. The full score of the Symphonies having been completed November 30, 1920, and the Fugato in the Octuor February 1, 1921, the index point of this epochal change in musical philosophy can be narrowed to December, 1920.

With Mavra and the Octuor, each new Stravinsky opus was introduced by a newspaper article, interview, radio talk, or public lecture. Not all of these apologia were written by Stravinsky, but all were initiated by him and kept on one of his short leashes. This is the case, for example, with Arthur Lourié’s “Apropos de l’Apollon d’Igor Strawinsky” (Musique, December 12, 1927). Even before the score was half completed, this article interpreted Stravinsky’s new musical philosophy in the light of Thomist ideas on the correlation of aesthetics and ethics18 that Lourie/aa, a disciple of Jacques Maritain, had been inculcating in Stravinsky since the beginning of their acquaintance.

But the influence of Arthur Lourie/aa on Stravinsky’s thinking from the mid-1920s through the 1930s requires an essay in itself. Moreover, Lourié would have been remarkable even if he had never known Stravinsky. In Petrograd, shortly before the Revolution, Lourié knew Olga Sudeikine,19 first wife of Vera de Bosset’s second husband, as well as Vera Sudeikine herself. In 1917, when the Sudeikines moved to Yalta,20 Lourié remained in Petrograd, where Lunacharsky appointed him Commissar of Music. Meanwhile, in faraway Brittany, Stravinsky wrote to this new commissar, whom he did not know, asking him to help Anna Stravinsky, his mother, obtain a visa to leave Russia for France.21 Lourié intervened, but permission to emigrate was withheld for two more years, by which time he himself had gone to Paris, where he was introduced to Stravinsky by Vera Sudeikine. The composer enjoyed his company, was interested in his ideas, and respected his musical opinions, and before long Lourié became Stravinsky’s musical assistant, being entrusted with such tasks as the piano reduction of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

Lourié’s qualities and his role in Stravinsky’s intellectual life are revealed in a remarkable letter22 from the younger man, in Paris, to Stravinsky, in Nice, dated December 16, 1927, the day after Schoenberg had conducted his Septet-Suite in the French capital:

Igor Feodorovitch, I mourn the death of Sologub,23 the purest and wisest of men…. Two events have occurred in the musical life here, Schoenberg and Theremin. Everybody plays Schoenberg—orchestras, chamber groups, even the salons—and we have also had causeries, connaissances, convictions. I went to his concert yesterday at the Salle Pleyel. The atmosphere was exciting, but my impression of the music was extremely bad. He seems to want to shock and to overwhelm. A big reception was given for him and his wife….

The second event was Theremin,24 which really was a sensation. Theremin is an engineer and a very gifted technician whom I knew in Russia long ago (and who is now en route from Berlin to London and America). He has invented something fantastic, music without an orchestra or instrumentation: electric music. He improvises on an electric instrument. Sound comes from space, electromagnetically. He gestures before the instrument like a conductor, which looks like witchcraft, but after a few minutes you begin to understand and become interested. If the “Theremin” is developed, it can be used in the cinema and radio. I was bored, à la longue, but I must say that this sensation has a future. I will tell you more when you come to Paris.

Now I must add a disagreeable note. Sabaneyev25 wrote an attack on Oedipus Rex and somehow got Chester26 to print it. Sabaneyev and Chester are both scoundrels; the one good thing is that nobody reads the Chesterian. It would be helpful if you could write to Edwin Evans, who, perhaps, can print my article about Oedipus. Or, if not, I might be able to find another magazine in London. Sorry to bother you with this.

No doubt an artist is always mistaken in trying to explain in words what the public does not feel or cannot follow in his work. Stravinsky was aware of that, of course; his main objective in his writing—and in this he shows both his legal training and philosopher’s mind—was to make distinctions. But at times he also felt that it was important to inform his audiences of the existence of laws of art and of the imagination with which artists alone are conversant; and to serve notice that to criticize a functioning artist (e.g., himself) was useless. Criticism, it goes without saying, was neither enlightened nor disarmed.

The composer’s pre-curtain briefing on his Concerto for Two Pianos is typical of his etymological obsessions, especially in asking his audiences to think of familiar musical terminology in obsolete senses, and of his propensity to enumerate what not to expect, including extra-musical “programs.” Edifying as are his remarks concerning classifications, they must have seemed remote indeed to listeners struggling for a foothold in the music itself:

Etymologically the word “concerto” refers to a musical work of a certain size, in several parts, affecting the architectural structure of the sonata form or the symphony. In the concerto grosso, for example, one or more instruments plays a role “in concert” (concertant), an expression deriving from the Italian “concertare,” which means concourir, to compete or participate in a contest. Hence a “concerto” presupposes a rivalry among a number of instruments in concert, or between a single instrument and an ensemble in opposition.

But “concerto” has now come to mean a work for a solo instrument, without opposition, and in which the orchestral role is usually reduced to that of an accompaniment….

My four concertos adhere to the older formula: I have opposed several instruments to the primary one, or to groups of instruments also playing concertant.

Just as the harmonic order is the natural form of the accompaniment [of a concerto for solo instrument without opposition], so a contrapuntal order is required in the “concours concertant” concerto. I have applied the latter principle in my new work, in which two pianos of equal importance assume a concertant role in relation to one another…. It is this formula that enables me to call the work a concerto.

The word Notturno, the title of my second movement, is not used in the sense in which Field and Chopin characterize those dreamy, formless fragments that they call Nocturnes. My meaning is closer to that of the Nachtmusik or Cassation, so popular with eighteenth-century composers. But in my piece, the separate sections with which compositions of this sort are generally comprised have been condensed into a single movement….27

Stravinsky’s autobiography, published in the same year as this discourse, attempts to summarize his artistic stance in the mid-1930s. But the one statement from this book that still clings to his name—“music is powerless to express anything at all”—is simply another form of the Kantian hypothesis that to be truly beautiful a thing should signify nothing but itself. Thus Stravinsky was declaring his belief in the absolute autonomy of music. Even Lourié’s friend Maritain failed to understand this. Writing to the composer on July 28, 1935, the eminent philosopher proposed another line of pursuit than the one that, in any case, the composer had denied:

From my point of view it would be necessary to confirm the existence of something entirely different from the expression of feelings. I refer to “creative emotion” or “creative intuition”; by means of this, the artist, without being aware of it, speaks to himself in his work as God does in the act of creation. I have written several pages on this subject in my Funèbres de la Poésie (pages 192-199), and I would be happy to know what you think….

Stravinsky did not commit his thoughts to paper but undoubtedly he was shocked by Maritain’s analogy. Few contemporaries have known with the first-hand certainty of Igor Stravinsky that a “creative emotion” does exist. As for God, in fact while listening to the Symphony of Psalms one feels that Stravinsky may even have had some first-hand knowledge of Him, too.

  1. 9

    The first of these, from Pulcinella, was made for the violinist Paul Kohanski, in July, 1920.

  2. 10

    Descriptions of Stravinsky at the keyboard are rare. Here is one by Leon Edel, the future biographer of Henry James, from a review of a concert in Paris in March, 1929: “…Stravinsky sat before the piano doing his Sonata, playing in a dignified, scholarly fashion…the most vigorous and interesting musical personality of today…nothing showy or dramatic or spectacular in his piano manner; it was just sound playing by a sound musician” (Montreal Star, March 13, 1929).

  3. 11

    Among the few who recognized the stature of the work was Francis Poulenc, who wrote to Stravinsky after the premiere: “Votre art est arrivé à une hauteur qu’il faudrait la langage de Sophocle pour en parler.”

  4. 12

    Subtitled in the original affiche and program, “Music by Pergolesi, arranged and orchestrated by Stravinsky,” Pergolesi’s name now seldom appears at all.

  5. 13

    A famous passage in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire explains the phenomenon of Stravinsky’s development at this stage: “Just when they seem to be engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and take from them names…costumes…borrowed language.”

  6. 14

    I like Donizetti very much,” Stravinsky told his biographer, Domenico di Paoli. “As for Bellini, he is too genial to be truly understood. But if I had been in Nietzsche’s place, I would have said Verdi instead of Bizet and held up The Masked Ball against the music of Wagner.”

  7. 15

    The embryo of the third piece, “Lento,” is found in one of Stravinsky’s sketchbooks for 1917.

  8. 16

    The Five Singers,” Stravinsky’s title for the album, was inspired by a commission—that did not materialize—for ten pieces for children, five for piano, the others for piano and voice. Stravinsky answered the request on November 15, 1920: “I cannot guarantee that the piano pieces will be based on Russian folklore; that cannot be done to order…. Also, I would prefer to compose for flute or violin and piano rather than for voice and piano, or, better still, for flute and violin or two violins; I have wanted to do the latter for a long time.” Stravinsky was very fond of Mozart’s Duo K.423 but whether he knew the piece in 1920 I cannot say.

  9. 17

    Sketches for both the Symphonies and the Concertino antedate Pulcinella, in 1919, those for the Symphonies being the earlier of the two, though some of the same materials are found in both works; thus the motive of the trumpets in the Symphonies at two measures before 13 was originally part of the Concertino.

  10. 18

    Stravinsky “interpreted” Apollo very differently later in life, regarding it, in fact, as his most “revolutionary” work, the “revolutionary” qualities, in this case, being the lyricism, the “melos uncontaminated by folk music,” and the polyphony. But he could have cited a more traditional “revolutionary” feature in the music’s audacity: in one sense, that of being a lonely swimmer against the flood, Apollo is a more daring score than Le Sacre du printemps, which is the tidal wave itself.

  11. 19

    Nadezhda Mandelstam devotes a chapter (No. 33) to Olga Sudeikine in Hope Abandoned (Atheneum, 1974).

  12. 20

    At Alushta, near Yalta, Vera Sudeikine became a close friend of Osip Mandelstam, one of whose most famous poems (Tristia No. 92) was written for her:

    The thread of gold cordial flowed

    from the bottle

    with such languor that the hostess

    found time to say

    here in mournful Tauris where our

    fates have cast us

    we are never boredwith a glance

    over her shoulder….

    Do you remember in the Greek

    house the wife they all loved?

    Not Helen. The other. And how

    long she embroidered?

    (Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, translated by Brown and Merwin, Atheneum, 1974.)

    Madame Sudeikine is the “hostess” and the “other” (i.e., Penelope). The manuscript is dated August 11, 1917. Three days earlier Mandelstam gave to Madame Sudeikine his manuscript of the poem Tristia No. 84, which he signed and dated: “August 8, 1917, Professors’ Corner [Mandelstam’s residence], Alushta.”

    Clarence Brown (Mandelstam, Cambridge University Press, 1973) commends the Soviet scholar D.M. Segal for “exposing clearly the enormous role played by classical imagery” in Tristia No. 92, and adds that Segal’s analysis of it is “one of the truly excellent detailed studies of any poem by Mandelstam.” To Brown’s own discussion of it I can add that the “cordial” was honey, and that Columbine and Pierrot were the subject of the embroidery. But the slow movement of the poem, of the anapestic pentameter, and of lines alternating fifteen and sixteen syllables, is strikingly beautiful even to those of us who are unable to appreciate the poem’s linguistic and prosodic structure.

  13. 21

    Actually Stravinsky first wrote to an intermediary, P. Katzenthall, who had aided the composer’s mother during and in the period following the Revolution, and who was a friend of Lourié.

  14. 22

    The original is in Russian with a few expressions in French.

  15. 23

    Fedor Sologub (1863-1927), author of The Little Demon, was a friend of Vera Sudeikine.

  16. 24

    Lev Theremin (b. 1896), inventor of one of the first electronic instruments. Varèse employed the theremin in Equatorial (1934).

  17. 25

    See Stravinsky’s letter to V.V.Derzhanovsky from Clarens, December 26, 1913, in “Stravinsky’s Russian Letters,” NYR, February 21, 1974.

  18. 26

    One of Stravinsky’s English publishers.

  19. 27

    From the Journal de l’Université des Annales, December 15, 1935.

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