Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stravinsky Died 40 Years Ago Today

(The Flood: Commissioned by and written for an CBS broadcast in 1962.)

I find classical music's fixation on composer's birthdays to be rather morbid, so I suppose acknowledgement of death days would be still moreso. But Tom Service has a wonderful little blogpost on Stravinsky in The Guardian site today. Service is, at his best, easily the most perceptive of the mainstream British critics. His two main points are firstly that Stravinsky's growth as a composer is incredible. In each piece, Stravinsky assimilates different styles, influences, whole attitudes that are entirely different from one another. Each work almost sounds as though written by a different composer, but not quite. There's something unmistakeably Stravinsky about every piece he wrote. That is his genius. If one compares 'The Flood' (see above) to The Firebird or Petrushka, they sound utterly different, and yet they sound the same.

But even more important is his other point: there is not a single great musician of the 20th century who has escaped Stravinsky's influence. It is almost as though each of Stravinsky's pieces has bequeathed the career a different great composer. Lots of musicians -- never geniuses but very talented ones -- mine the same idea for their entire careers. It is not within them to adapt to new times or new styles. In these cases, music would mean exactly the same thing to them in 1965 as it does in 2008. They hang on to a set idea of what great music must be and they think any divergence from that idea somehow cheapens the art. And because their idea of music never changes, theysee music not as an infinite series of possibilities but as a 2-D model that can be mastered. So whenever they encounter genius, the same story ensues: the genius takes their musical contribution, assimilates it into his/her musical vocabulary, and then moves on to soak up different influences, and then the mere talent cries bloody murder. This is the mindset of Wynton Marsalis to Miles Davis, the mindset of Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan, and the attitude encountered by Stravinsky at every point in his career. Throughout his career, Stravinsky reinvented himself anew, keeping abreast with every advance
in twentieth century music, and yet throughout he sounded like no one but himself.

Even so, while I passionately love individual pieces of his, I've never been able to accept him as one of my absolute favorite musicians. His style does not lend itself to personal warmth and his adapting a different style to every piece feels at least a bit vapid, not unlike David Bowie or Lady Gaga continuously finding new ways to shock people without creating meaningful art. But in some ways, Stravinsky's art was larger than any need to express feeling -- and the very nature of expression in music is a term which some people (not me) might dismiss as an outdated 19th century notion. In the 30's, Stravinsky famously declared that music expresses nothing at all. Perhaps Stravinsky didn't need to express anything.

Yet something about this notion has always gnawed at me. Abstract as his music can sound, I look at the chronology of his works and can't escape the feeling that Stravinsky is mapping out an emotional autobiography in sound. For all the abstraction of his music, the majority of his great scores were tied to narratives. Purely as an exercise: let's look at the narratives of the first "Russian" phase of his career: His first great ballet, The Firebird, is a perfect fairy tale, expressing the terrors and wonders of early childhood all too vividly. Next comes Petrushka, a parable about a Russian fair in which the puppets come to life. Perhaps Petrushka is about the excitements of late childhood when you first wake up to the larger world and even the miraculous seems possible. Then of course comes The Rite of Spring -- technically about the pagan sacrifice of a virgin for the spring harvest. But with all the ritualizing of its adolescent aggression and intimations of sexual awakening, the sense of early adolescent hormones is unmistakable. And then came his first opera, The Nightingale, in which I can't help thinking that the bird sings in an unmistakably erotic fashion. Perhaps the adolescent longings of the Rite seem mastered and initiated into sexual maturity. All of this finally culminating in Les Noces, meaning literally: The Wedding.

No doubt one can play this game with the entirety of his career, just as one can with many other composers and artists. But it's always a little silly to ascribe narrative stories to music. How can you say that a series of chords definitively represents a specific narrative. Perhaps music can only express itself, perhaps music is capable of expressing something more. But there is no composer for whom that question was more important than Stravinsky. No composer did more to discourage us from seeing a large personality behind the music, yet few composers had a personality that thundered so loudly through their music than Stravinsky's.

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