Monday, August 7, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 4

As before, this series of posts is based my notes from Richard Taruskin's 2,000 page study of Stravinsky. They began with this post, which is a good place to start if you are just coming to this topic.

Stravinsky liked to claim in his memoirs that he began to be influenced by modern French music as early as 1897, but this is likely an exaggeration. The New Grove claims that the Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks both show the influence of French music. Despite Stravinsky's own assertions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view. The available documents show that Stravinsky's earliest exposure to the music of Debussy came on January 22, 1903 when the suite "Pour le piano" was played at an Evenings of Contemporary Music concert. He also had the opportunity to hear Estampes at a March 1904 concert. A month later, in Rimsky-Korsakov's class, Pelléas was discussed and condemned as an example of the decay of music in the West. Stravinsky likely heard the St. Petersburg premieres of both the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Dukas' L'apprenti sorcier in the 1904/5 season. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 309]

Despite Stravinsky's terming the Prélude premiere and that of two movements of the Nocturnes in December 1907 as "major events of my early years" this again seems to be an exaggeration: the sketches for the Scherzo fantastique, a piece he claimed to show the influence of Debussy, date from the previous summer. Taruskin points out an interesting irony: those composers who were found particularly interesting by composers of Stravinsky's generation were themselves heavily indebted to the Russian composers of Rimsky-Korsakov's generation! This is particularly true of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole with its Rimskian woodwind cadenzas and rushing octatonic scales. Taruskin offers an example from The Firebird. Stravinsky mentions how proud he was of some orchestration:
For me the most striking effect in The Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando near the beginning in the introduction; which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine-wheel. I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky's violinist and cellist sons.
This is one of the most striking orchestral gestures in The Firebird. However Stravinsky had "discovered" the effect in Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole where it appears in the viola and cellos six bars into the last movement. And where had Ravel found it? In Rimsky-Korsakov where it appears in the suite from the opera Christmas Eve in the section called "Demonic Carol." (For the musical examples proving this, see Taruskin, op. cit. pp. 212-14.) The Rimsky-Korsakov was performed in Paris in May 1907 in a concert conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov himself. Ravel was in the audience and finished his Rapsodie in February 1908. This is the kind of brilliant archival research that Taruskin excels at! Here is the passage from The Firebird, for the others, see the Taruskin volume:

So why didn't Stravinsky pick up this orchestral device directly from his teacher? A possible answer is that the opera was rather old repertoire dating from 1895 when Stravinsky was studying with him, but the Rapsodie was all the rage when Stravinsky received the Firebird commission.

Taruskin's view is that Stravinsky's early Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks fall well within the magic opera tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov and even stretching back to Glinka. The Scherzo is full of Rimskian harmonic symmetries and sequences and owes nothing, despite Stravinsky's later claims, to Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn. Stravinsky's own letters provide evidence of the inspiration of the work whose early title was "The Bees." This title was suppressed, likely so as to avoid confusion with Rimsky-Korsakov's extremely popular "Flight of the Bumblebee." The piece was completed in March 1908 and premiered the following year. Let's wrap up this post with a clip of Scherzo fantastique performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by Paavo Järvi:


Jives said...

Such interesting stuff about Stravinsky.
He seems to be getting a reputation, though, for mis-representing himself in his own writings, which I find frankly odd, and I wonder if there isn't a bit of slightly haughty, OVER-analysis going on, primarily on Taruskin's part. If Stravinsky writes that his first hearings of French music had a big impact, I tend to take that statement at face value. RT seems to say that it cannot be, because HE can't find evidence of it in the music produced concurrent to that exposure. But maybe it's not there in the form he's looking for, it takes time for ideas to settle and evolve in the mind of a composer. Maybe it's just a new feeling or idea inhabiting the composer's head; influencing the myriad decisions that go into completing a work.

Not to cast aspersions on RT's analytical powers, which are formidable, but I know from my own experiences in composing that I tend to be (most) influenced by whatever I'm currently engaged in studying. No matter when the sketches are dated, what really counts is what was in Stravinsky's mind when he was getting Scherzo Fantastique ready for concert, doing the real hard work, making all the decisions. And that, if I understand correctly, DID take place after he heard L'Apres and L'apprenti. So, if that's true, I guess I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the composer's own words.

Bryan Townsend said...

Some very good points, Jives. Normally I would take them as dispositive, and in fact everyone did accept everything Stravinsky asserted in the many books that were attributed to him for several decades. But so very, very many things have cropped up, as soon as people like Taruskin started doing the archival research, that it became clear that everything Stravinsky says ought to be considered as suspect until confirmed. One of the first problems that came along I hint at with the phrase "attributed to him". Very, very little of the books that were issued with his name on them were written by him! Quoting from a Taruskin essay:

"But Robert Craft was only the caboose in a long train of Stravinskian ghostwriters. Others included Walter Nouvel, an associate of Diaghilev, who wrote Stravinsky’s Autobiography; Alexis Roland-Manuel, a French composer, and Pierre Souvtchinsky, a Russian émigré intellectual, who together wrote Stravinsky’s Harvard lectures, Poetics of Music; and Mercedes de Acosta, Alexis Kall, and Arthur Lourié, who at various times played the roles Robert Craft later permanently took on. Surely it is obvious that the deluge of verbiage was meant to hide the man from the world rather than to expose him."

Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 14978-14983). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

With Stravinsky, you can take little for granted! Taruskin has uncovered a host of deceptions that I'm sure I will relate in future posts.

Foster and Ives said...

that will be interesting. Sounds like Stravinsky wasn't too fond of composing with words. So what's the motivation for allowing lots of untrue stuff to be published about yourself? Pure cynical self-promotion, if that was even the result? What does he stand to gain from allowing all these so-called false assertions about his artistic life? Or did he just not care?

very curious.....Surely it is obvious that the deluge of verbiage was meant to hide the man from the world rather than to expose him."

that just sounds like a bald assertion. However, I don't have the book in front of me....still the question of motivation remains.

Bryan Townsend said...

There were a lot of different motivations. As Taruskin writes:

"No composer of classical music was ever more attuned to the power of publicity, or courted it more ardently, than Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky. A celebrity by the age of thirty, he learned the art of réclame from his early mentor Sergei Diaghilev, the master press manipulator of his day. The earliest “typical” Stravinsky interviews— charming, crafty, hyperarticulate, unerringly self-serving— appeared in the St. Petersburg newspapers in 1912, and the stream, or torrent, continued unabated for nearly six decades, in dozens of languages and on every continent save Antarctica. By the end of his life, the composer quipped that he was living in a perpetual state of interview. The last of them appeared— in the New York Review of Books on July 1, 1971— almost three months after his death."

Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 14965-14971). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.