Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Stravinsky: Context and Development, part 2

Continuing with my summary of the background as uncovered in Taruskin's book on Stravinsky.

Being as Stravinsky was born into a very cultured musical family at the center of the Saint Petersburg musical establishment, he should have been a natural reactionary. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a highly respected baritone at the Mariyinsky Theater, the dean of Russian opera singers. Fyodor had a large library, strong in history and folklore, which he used in preparation for the creation of realistic characters--his specialty. He was very close to Musorgsky, with whom he performed a number of times in public with Musorgsky himself accompanying.

Igor was born June 5, 1882 (Old Style, June 17 in the new Gregorian calendar) and grew up on the stage of the Mariyinsky, a favorite mascot of the troupe. He therefore possessed from childhood an intimate knowledge of the operatic repertoire. He was something of a young Wagnerite, well-read in aesthetics and not a fan of the absolute music theories of Eduard Hanslick. Stravinsky was descended on both sides of his family from landed aristocracy, identified in Tsarist-era documents as dvoryanin or "nobleman." The family passed their summers on country estates belonging to his mother's sisters.

Stravinsky's earliest composition is a Tarantella for piano. Taruskin describes it as follows: “The only thing remarkable about the Tarantella is how little talent it displays. It is the sort of piece every thirteen-year-old piano student writes, only Stravinsky wrote it at sixteen.” [p. 95] Bear in mind that at sixteen Glazunov was premiering his first symphony and Mozart, of course, had written dozens of symphonies and several operas already. The young piano student Stravinsky was a passionate improvisor but with little knowledge of musical rudiments. His first important teacher was Leocadia A. Kashperova, pianist and composer, who provided him entry into the New Russian School circles.

Fyodor S. Akimenko was his first harmony teacher, who taught from Rimsky-Korsakov's Practical Course in Harmony. He also studied counterpoint by himself and with Vasiliy Kalafati. The next composition is a "fearfully symmetrical" Scherzo for piano with a Trio using chromatic auxiliaries that still shows a somewhat "retarded musical developmen"—compare Glazunov at the same age or a much younger Prokofiev! Stylistically there are echoes of Tchaikovsky. The song setting of "The Storm Cloud" by Pushkin, composed at 19, is more mature, following a Rimsky-Korsakov model harmonically.

In 1902, Stravinsky met Rimsky-Korsakov, an important turning point, armed with a letter of introduction from his father. He also knew Rimsky-Korsakov's sons from university—Stravinsky was enrolled in legal studies, the usual option for people of his class. After completion of this course in 1905 he began lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky became estranged from his mother after his father’s death due to her insistence on his following a career in law and became very close to the Rimsky-Korsakov family. He was a regular attendee at the bi-weekly Wednesday musical evenings at Rimsky-Korsakov’s apartment at which Stravinsky became known for his short comic songs that were performed at these evenings (1903).

The piece written to be his official qualification for lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov was the Piano Sonata in F# minor completed in summer of 1904. For a while the music was thought to be lost and Stravinsky claimed, much later, that it was an inept imitation of Beethoven, but it was more an imitation of sonatas by Glazunov and Scriabin’s Third Sonata, also in F# minor, a kind of pledge of allegiance to the Rimsky-Korsakov circle and the Belyayev circle. The basic conception was harmonic rather than linear and followed the expanded diatonic vocabulary of the Belyayev circle: “no end of decorative, ‘trompe l’oreille.’ Any dominant seventh can be resolved as an augmented sixth and vice versa. Any first inversion can be treated as a Neapolitan. Any tone can be a ‘common tone’ for instant links between ‘unrelated’ chords” and so on. “But all the harmonic novelty is surface embellishment” [p. 116]. The basic form, for this and the Belyayev circle in general, is entirely conventional: form is objective, content subjective: form is reduced to a set of operating procedures.

Stravinsky’s sonata, modeled on Scriabin and Tchaikovsky’s Grande Sonate of 1878 uses devices typical of its models, but there is also the first appearance of the octatonic scale in a passage in the development mm 136-38. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the early sonata are representative of the school of composers he was joining, showing good command of the instrumental medium and harmonic technique. It is amazing that it comes only five or six years after the juvenile Tarantella!
Stravinsky in his early years was a docile and cosseted scion of the nobility, adopted into the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, another house of nobility—without a trace of rebellion! (Bear in mind that I am just summarizing both the facts and the evaluations from Taruskin!)

Now let's listen to that early F# minor Piano Sonata. The performer is Victor Sangiorgio:

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