Sunday, August 20, 2017

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 2

Taruskin begins the second section of volume one of his book on Stravinsky by musing on how a concatenation of circumstances led to the blossoming of Stravinsky: a certain jealousy of Steinberg, the 'indifference' of the Conservatory people, the death of Rimsky-Korsakov and, around the same time, the World of Art group around Diaghilev was beginning--the symbiosis that developed between Diaghilev and Stravinsky was probably the most important of these.

In order to trim down a 2,000 page book (and that's just volume one) into a few blog posts I have to do a lot of skipping and one section I can't give full justice to is Taruskin's discussion of the social context of the World of Art group. He calls them "rightists of the left" because these progressive thinkers were not working class or even bourgeoisie, but educated members of the upper class. As one of them, Alexander Nikolayevich Benois wrote:
This very class was the one that achieved all that was calm, worthy, durable, seemingly meant to last forever. They set the very tempo of Russian life, its self-awareness, and the system of interrelationships between the members of this extended family "clan." All the subtleties of the Russian psychology, all the twists of what is typical Russian moral sensibility arose and matured within this very milieu... [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 424]
The World of Art figures, that included Dmitriy Vladimirovich Filosofov and Walter Nouvel (whom we have previously mentioned) as well as Benois, believed strongly in an age-old liberal arts ideal that art was meant to serve us rather than the other way around. But they also asserted aristocratic values in art and in that sense the movement was retrospective. The key figure in transforming what was essentially a movement of dilettantes into a social force was Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872 - 1929):

In 1896 he began to propagandize the views of his circle by means of a series of reviews of art exhibitions soon followed by organizing his own exhibits. Diaghilev showed his enormous talents for manipulation and publicity in the way he goaded the elder statesman of Russian art, Vladimir Vasilyevich Stasov, into making rash attacks on him--which only served to strengthen his position. Nothing so useful as a dependable adversary!

Taruskin offers some interesting thoughts on the historical situation at the beginning of the 20th century:
The touchstone of radicalism for art and esthetics at the beginning of the twentieth century was the conception of the nature and function of the artist. The real artists of the left were those whose attitudes grew out of the Nietzschean/Wagnerian cult of art as eschatological mystery. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 437]
This ideal reached a height in Russia with the Silver Age poets and Symbolist writers like Alexander Blok. The hope was that by harnessing the Divine Force, artists could enlighten and regenerate the world. Such apocalyptic art ideals crystallized around the concept of "Scythianism." The musician who was the supreme realization of this ideal was Scriabin. The World of Art movement had entirely different ideals: "Their mission was neither to explore the world, nor to transfigure it, but to adorn it." [op, cit. p. 438] "Social, religious, philosophical, ideological programs of any kind, in their view, were 'fetters,' "earthly things." [p. 440] The artist's role was to express his individuality through style, that is to say, form and formalism was what distinguished the World of Art movement from the other trends of the day. Taruskin asserts that this is the source of the Stravinskian aesthetic.

Perhaps this is enough history for today. Let us end with a piece we are about to spend some time with, the first major commission from Diaghilev for Stravinsky, The Firebird. This is the complete 1910 version with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It comes in several clips:



Will Wilkin said...

I find a major source of the value of art for me is in transporting me to a sublime realm where circumstance and anything too (or at least, only) literal is left behind, even forgotten and escaped. To make my point, even great propaganda art such as a revolutionary (or reactionary) poster has aesthetic value for me only to the extent that, as the event and controversy and eventually even the civilization that produced it, dissipate in time's winds of change, yet still standing in the work would be some feeling and sensibility that carries such universality or at least spiritual depth that the work can still strike a chord in a person contemplating it in what may be very different circumstances and cultural assumptions.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that your view and that of the World of Art circle would likely harmonize.