Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 1

The next element taken up by Taruskin in his monumental book on Stravinsky that I am loosely following here, is the influence of his peers and how that gave him a window on the wider world outside the circle of Rimsky-Korsakov. The key figure was Mikhail Gnesin (1883 - 1957) a fellow-student and later music educator who taught both Khrennikov and Khachaturyan among his composition students.

Gnesin was well-connected with the artistic circles outside of music, particularly the Symbolist group that included the radical poets of the day. He set a lot of poetry of the group, including that of Alexander Blok, and they encouraged him to experiment in order to find a musical style that matched their aesthetic striving. This group was also connected to the organizers of the Evenings of Contemporary Music that presented concerts in St. Petersburg from 1901 to 1912. One of the leaders was Alfred Nurok (1863 - 1919), a musical dilettante and iconoclast. Another figure was Walter Nouvel (1871 - 1949), a "Sunday composer" and recognized arbiter of taste in contemporary music.

Despite the radical ambitions of these figures, the first several years of the Evenings were characterized by moderation. Western composers such as Franck, d'Indy, Reger, Debussy and Ravel were interspersed with works by local composers such as Rachmaninoff, Cherepnin, Glazunov, and a very small amount of Scriabin. Nonetheless, to the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, this was definitely the "other camp."

Gnesin managed to have a foot in each camp: he did not find the nasty criticisms of Rimsky-Korsakov by Nouvel justified (but with a grain of truth), but at the same time his music had admirers in the circle of Rimsky intimates. As one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most "advanced" students, Gnesin sometimes wrote specifically to appeal to his taste by carefully eliminating academic transgressions and adding bits of contrapuntal effects. Stravinsky did the same as we can see not only in the Scherzo fantastique but also his Etudes for piano, op. 7.

Stravinsky, along with the Rimsky students he was closest to, Maximilian Steinberg and Gnesin, was featured in a concert of the Evenings of Contemporary Music on December 27, 1907 in performances of settings of Symbolist poetry. This was the first time that Stravinsky's music was performed before a paying audience.

Steinberg, of Polish Jewish descent, was a very talented student and his gifts were praised to the skies by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. He married Rimsky's daughter Nadya and succeeded Glazunov as professor of orchestration at the conservatory. Indeed, he was considerably more highly regarded than Stravinsky, whom he displaced as heir apparent of the New Russian School. Some of Stravinsky's later resentment of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov may be a result of their favoring Steinberg's talents above his. Before The Firebird, this was rather a general critical opinion. Taruskin uncovers a revealing quote by the reviewer Karatïgin appearing in the journal Apollon in the fall of 1910:
However highly we may value the musical wit of Stravinsky's latest works--the Scherzo fantastique and especially the orchestral fantasia Fireworks, a piece dedicated to Steinberg and absolutely dazzling in its immense richness of harmonic and coloristic invention--still and all one cannot deny that from the point of view of sheer musical content and profundity of musical ideas, Stravinsky's work is much inferior to Steinberg's. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 395]
The fact that his music was, compared to that of Steinberg's, regarded by quite a few of his contemporaries as being a bit lightweight might have been, according to Taruskin, a powerful motive for Stravinsky's modernist revolt.

For our envoi, let's listen to some music by Stravinsky's rival. This is the Symphony No. 2 dating from 1909 and the piece that was evaluated as being of greater quality than Stravinsky's. The performers are the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi:

That sounds rather Brahmsian to me.

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