Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Firebird, Petrushka and the Road to the Rite: Part 1

You could make the argument that, up until the 1950s or even 60s, the music of Stravinsky was the most influential on composers and the "language" of music generally. But not all of his music was equally influential. The piece with the greatest impact was certainly the Rite of Spring, which just had its hundredth anniversary, but the two important pieces leading up to the Rite, the Firebird and Petrushka, were also very important in shaping the sound of contemporary music. There were, of course, a multitude of competing visions such as that of Schoenberg, Bartók, Messiaen, Berg, Boulez, Stockhausen and others. There were also composers writing in a pre-Stravinskian mode such as Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But, as I say, I think the argument that it was Stravinsky who was at the centre is easily made.

One caveat is that I am not talking about exclusively academic circles or experimental ones, but about musical styles that found a place in concert halls and a mainstream audience.

Stravinsky's influence was really paramount until the minimalists began to have an impact in the 1970s and since then, it is they that have been driving the shaping of musical style. But I think that if we look closely at what Stravinsky was doing on the rhythmic level, we might find some interesting connections between him and the minimalists.

If the aesthetic power of Stravinsky's music were graphed like the chart of a tech stock, it might show a huge leap upwards from 1909 to 1913, then something of a decline thereafter with occasional spikes upward around 1930 (Symphony of Psalms), 1940 (Symphony in C) and 1945 (Symphony in Three Movements). I find much of his neo-classical period to be far weaker than the Russian music that preceded it. Pieces like Pulcinella are, to my ear, relatively trivial compared to the Rite. The career of Stravinsky fits so awkwardly with the modernist template of how careers are supposed to go that it was even problematic for Stravinsky himself who was constantly, with the help of ghostwriters, trying to obscure and rewrite his own history. Richard Taruskin has uncovered numerous examples.

But let's not get too caught up in side-issues as what I really want to focus on is the music. The thing that has got to stand out is that these three great works that shaped so much modern music are ballets. While the ballet genre was a lovely and popular one in the late 19th century, it was probably the furthest from being an advanced or avant-garde one and this was one reason why the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev had such an inordinate impact. Taruskin writes about how the tumult that accompanied the premiere of the Rite in Paris was actually prepared by a publicity campaign, but the Rite of Spring was preceded by two other ballets that were also far outside the usual bounds of the genre. Ballet music in the late 19th century was lyrical, refined and anything but primitive so when Diaghilev put together a stunning collaboration of design and choreography together with advanced and exotic Russian music, he invigorated the whole genre and in turn the course of 20th century music.

Dance music has a long history, going back to the very beginnings of instrumental music. We often forget that as far as written music goes, the voice dominated for hundreds of years. When it came to polyphony and larger forms, the voice ruled. Instrumental music for a long time consisted of short dance pieces with the occasional transcription of vocal music or the accompaniment to vocal music. Often, while instruments were used, they were not even indicated in the score. But underlying all instrumental music, even when it took on the sophistication of the vocal forms, is the energy of the dance.

Let's just remind ourselves of the sound of early dance music. This is a volta, very popular in the Renaissance. I like this version, transcribed for guitar, because it has more punch than a lot of other performances.

What distinguishes this kind of sound from most vocal music is the rhythmic drive and the sparkle of the quick melodic runs. You can dance to it! By the time we get to Bach, the dance forms have gotten a bit more complex, but the basic idea of a strong rhythmic drive is still present in some pieces, like the gigue:

Mozart was very fond of dancing himself and wrote a great deal of dance music such as this one:

More refined than primitive, I think! Beethoven's best "dance" movements are likely his scherzos, a quick movement in 3/4 that came out of the older minuet:

You can't quite imagine yourself dancing to that. As the century wore on, even dance-like music tended to get more and more ponderous except for the elegant Viennese waltz and the somewhat cruder polka:

Before the ballets by Stravinsky the Ballets Russes had a big success with the Polovtsian Dances from an opera by Alexandre Borodin:

That's my very idiosyncratic mini-survey of dance music before Stravinsky. Now, to highlight the impact he made with the Firebird, the first of his pieces for Diaghilev, let's listen to the climax, the Infernal Dance of All Kastchei's Subjects:

Next time we will take a closer look at the Firebird!


Marc Puckett said...

That's a very quick survey of music for the dance, sure enough. :-) I don't know much about dance and dancing (as any number of people can tell you...) so I went to Wikipedia to read the ballet articles. Was interested to read i.a. that 'early ballet was participatory, with the audience joining the dance towards the end'-- the writer is talking about court amusements and spectacles &c: read just the other day in the notes for Biber's Arminio that evidently the first and third acts are written to include, at their conclusions, invitations to the audience to join (literally and not simply figuratively) in the dancing, and the second, too, perhaps-- but that simply didn't register in my poor head until now as being representative of a stage in the development of dance.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't know much about dance either and perhaps should have described this as a whirlwind tour of some of the rhythmic textures of dance, because that is really what I am interested in.

The audience participation aspect is one I didn't know either. We are, presumably, talking about events in the context of a select aristocratic audience, not a public presentation as we think of it today.