Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Stravinsky: Context and Development, part 3

On to Stravinsky's studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Again, this is just a summary of my notes on Tarusksin's mammoth book on Stravinsky.

Rimsky-Korsakov was an indefatigable teacher over 35 years at three different institutions: St. Petersburg Conservatory, Free Music School and the  Court Chapel Choir (which also taught instrumental music and theory)—over which time he turned out some 250 students in theory and composition. Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov’s sole private pupil in his declining years. Rimsky-Korsakov’s usual method was to give Stravinsky unpublished works to orchestrate as he had already had basic training with Kalafati. Perhaps the most important lesson Stravinsky got from Rimsky-Korsakov was his philosophy of work: you must always keep working whether inspiration comes or not, better to write by formula than not to write at all. I have heard similar advice from professional writers who get up every morning and write a certain amount whether they feel any inspiration or not. Rimsky-Korsakov’s lessons concentrated on technical means, rejected raw emotionalism and anything improvisational. [p. 171] For the last three years of Rimsky-Korsakov s life Stravinsky came for private lessons 4-6 pm every Wednesday.

The first fruits of his studies was his opus 1 (though sketches were begun before he commenced lessons): the Symphony in E flat, conceived in the spirit of Beethoven’s Eroica but with resemblances to Glazunov's Symphony no. 6 and Symphony no. 8, the latter Rimsky-Korsakov's favorite symphony as soon as it was written (fall of 1905). Stravinsky's use of superimposed themes in counterpoint was likely following the example of a symphony by Taneyev and ultimately deriving from Franck's Symphony in D minor. The first performance was a public read-through by the Court Orchestra in January of 1908. The performance was given a substantial review by Vyacheslav Karatïgin a young music critic:
“Especially pleasing in the young author is the cheerful, buoyant turn of his musical thinking … Stravinsky’s ideas are as clear and as natural as their development”
A recurring word in the Russian reviews was bodrost’ “high spirits” or “cheerfulness” not a typical quality in Russian music! The “national coloration” of Stravinsky’s early symphony is obvious, but its nationalism, a Belyayevets characteristic, was unrelated to folklore—it was Rimskian in its harmonies and modulations and for the rest Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. The interesting question is how did Stravinsky get out of this cul-de-sac when other members of his circle did not?

His next piece, composed entirely under Rimsky-Korsakov's direction, was the suite for mezzo and orchestra titled "The Faun and the Shepherdess," op. 2 (composed wholly in 1906). Using a text by a very young (17) Pushkin, this is an epithalamium that Stravinsky began when on his honeymoon—he chose bits and pieces of the original poem resulting in a bit of a "disjointed hash." Stravinsky’s musical setting, especially of the first tableau, has excellent and resourceful declamation with some subtle harmonic touches and the borrowings (Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky again) are more successfully blended into a general stylistic resonance—nothing to “irritate” Rimsky-Korsakov's conservatism despite Stravinsky's claims much later in life.

The performance and publication history of the Faun offers a sketch of the young and struggling composer lost in a herd of others—his first attempt at publication with Zimmerman was refused, but Rimsky-Korsakov intervened in order to schedule a performance—and a vocal score was published in 1908. The critical reception was mixed and the piece was described as pale and lacking in style.

Let's listen to both of these student pieces. First the Symphony in E flat. This is the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conductor, Valeriy Platonov:

Even more obscure is "The Faun and the Shepherdess." The three parts are only available in separate clips.

The second and third will not embed:

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