Thursday, September 7, 2017

20th Century Music History is a Series of Footnotes to Stravinsky

My reference is, of course, to the famous quote by the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
--Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979]
The more I study Stravinsky, the more I see that he is so central to the course of music in the 20th century that it could be seen as a series of footnotes to his music. A few random examples:
  • his use of folklore, not only in the use of folksongs integrated into modernist works such as the Rite of Spring, but also the structural use of the techniques of folk music such as the march that begins Renard, precedes the use of folk music by Bartók by a couple of decades
  • his neo-classicist phase was a tribute to the past and was a forerunner of the Early Music movement of the 70s and 80s 
  • he was perhaps the first 20th century composer to use popular genres in his music as we see in his Ragtime written in 1918, this was many decades before composers started integrating popular genres in their music
  • his compulsive use of motoric rhythms and ostinati resonates with the minimalists of the 1970s
  • his interest in theatre and invention of new theatrical genres such as in Oedipus Rex and, again, Renard, precedes similar theatrical experiments of the 60s and 70s
  • The Standard Narrative on 20th century music is that it was launched by Claude Debussy and this is partly true, but Debussy himself in his second book of Preludes for piano, dating from 1913, was influenced by Petrushka, his favorite piece by Stravinsky. Taruskin refers to the Prelude 11, "Les tierces alternées" as "from beginning to end a study in Petrushka textures." [op. cit. p. 773]
Music historians, a bit stumped as to how to categorize Stravinsky, took as their conceptual model of progressivism in music the technical innovations in terms of dissonance and harmony of the Schoenberg school (followed by Boulez and Stockhausen) and in so doing managed to get the history of 20th century music rather muddled. The Standard Narrative as it has been taught reads rather like Deuteronomy: And in the beginning there was Debussy who discovered new colors and textures, but the real foundations were laid by Schoenberg who had as disciples Berg and Webern and they begat Boulez and Stockhausen and there were others in that place, though lesser: Bartók and Ligeti and others of their tribe. There was also Stravinsky, but he did not follow the Commandments, so who knows what he was up to!

This Standard Narrative, which really deserves a doctoral dissertation or two, was the product of the first wave of the European avant-garde who were essentially conducting a revolution in music in terms of atonality, serialism and, most important, a complete break with the past. This has echoes of the Russian Revolution with its starting history over again at zero with the new Soviet man. Stravinsky was, in those terms, a reactionary, a member of the old Russian aristocracy and whose music was full of references to previous music. One of the basic books of the Standard Narrative was René Leibowitz' Schoenberg and His School, first published in 1949.

If I get a chance, I should do a post on the Leibowitz book as I am sure an examination of its biases and assumptions would be fascinating. I read it sometime in the 70s and lost my copy years ago. Luckily it is available on Kindle.

For our envoi, let's listen to one of the pieces that are at the core of the Standard Narrative. The Quartet op. 28 by Anton Webern was the subject of innumerable classes in 20th century analysis but in the larger scheme of things is not of much lasting significance. The performers are the Emerson String Quartet:


Anonymous said...

Lots to think about here. Very interesting post. Hard to find much to disagree with. But yes a post on the Leibowitz book would be great fun.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I was awaiting your comment. I'm reading the Leibowitz book now.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the earthquake. I hope nowhere near where you live got hurt and everyone you know is safe.