Monday, September 4, 2017

Stravinsky and the Ballet, part 5

We are not yet done with Petrushka, I'm afraid. What we are getting from Taruskin, via my summaries in these posts, is even more than you would get in a graduate seminar on Stravinsky. I know, as I have done one! In doctoral seminars it often seems there is not enough time to really get into the details, everything is rather rushed. But here we can take the time to go through Taruskin's exhaustive book on Stravinsky (just volume one, mind you) that he spent decades researching. As one of my musicology professors remarked in a seminar on DuFay, "it is the details that we are interested in."

A couple of interesting details are the discovery by Russian musicologists that, contrary to long-standing opinion, Russian folk music is actually polyphonic! Yuliy Nikolayevich Melgunov (1846 - 93) was the first to assert this and notate in his 1879 collection the "undervoicelets" or little heterophonic elements typically found in performance. Prior to this, the collectors of folksong tended to sit down with individual informants to notate what they sang. But Russian folksong is nearly always performed by a group. Until the advent of the use of the phonograph to record these performances, it was nearly impossible to notate what was going on. The first musicologist to go into the field and record these performances was Yevgenia Eduardovna Linyova (1853 - 1919). Her first expedition using the phonograph was in 1903 and the third and last collection of folksongs transcribed from recordings was published in 1909. It was her view that only now was a true neonationalist program in music possible because only now was the true nature of Russian folksong revealed. Was Stravinsky even aware of this research? You bet! Taruskin's exhaustive research into the archives turned up a letter from Stravinsky to his mother asking her to send him:
folk songs of the Caucasian peoples that have been phonographically transcribed ... I already have the first volume of "Great Russian Songs in Folk Harmonization" (as transcribed phonographically by Linyova). [op. cit. p. 733]
 Taruskin points out some interesting ironies: despite the authenticity that underlies the depiction of the Shrovetide festivities, the impression is not naturalistic. The street scenes are a magical invocation, but viewed through the eyes of the puppets, who are the only real "characters" with individuality. The world of the puppets is more "real" than the world of the humans, danced by the corps de ballet.

Taruskin traces some hints of the "Petrushka chord" polytonality in previous music by Rimsky-Korsakov, in Scheherezade, where a great deal of the music is exhaustively octatonic. You might recall that the "Petrushka chord," much-loved by theorists, is a superimposition of a C major chord and an F# major chord, something not possible in common practice harmony, but very feasible in an octatonic context as both chords are derivable from an octatonic scale. Here are the two possibilities starting on C. The upper one consists of a tone/semitone sequence and the lower is the semitone/tone version:

If you look at the lower version of the scale you will see that it contains the three notes of a C major triad: C E G and also the three notes of an F# major triad, though they are spelled as a G flat major triad: G flat, B flat and D flat. In Petrushka we have not only a vertical conjunction of the two chords, but also their extension in time as a structural device. The second tableau, Petrushka's Room, for example, begins with a passage on C and ends with a cadence on F#. I'm not going to discuss all of Taruskin's analysis here, fascinating though it is. If you are interested, please go directly to the book yourself.

The idea of two competing tonal centers a tritone apart fits well with Stravinsky's original vision in his Konzerstück for piano and orchestra, sketches for which precede the ballet. The idea was that of a conflict between order and chaos that became mapped onto the ballet scenario. In the ballet, the polarity is between the human world and the puppet world, reflected in the "white key" versus "black key" music of the C major/F# major opposition.

What of the reception of Petrushka? It was an enormous hit with the Parisians and while Russians would not hear a performance in Russia until years later, there were certainly commentators who had either seen a performance in Paris or at least studied the score, published in 1911. Myaskovsky wrote:
Petrushka is life itself. All the music in it is full of such energy, such freshness and wit, such healthy, incorruptible merriment, such reckless abandon, that all its deliberate banalities and trivialities, its constant background of concertinas, not only fail to repel, but, quite the contrary, carry us away all the more, just as you yourself, on a Shrovetime aglitter with sun and snow, in the full ardor of your fresh young blood, once mingled in the merry, rolicking holiday crowd and flowed with it in an indivisible exultant whole. [op. cit. p. 762]
There were others who now regarded Stravinsky as an apostate, among them his erstwhile friend, Rimsky-Korsakov's son Andrey. He wrote, regarding a performance of three fragments from the work:
Petrushka glitters with an artificial assortment of bright rags and patches and clatters with ringing rattles. Were it not for the big talents of Benois and Stravinsky, this piece, with its vulgar tunes, would have been a monstrous crime.
Even fifty years later Stravinsky was still so wounded by this that he recalled it with bitterness. In other reviews Stravinsky's music was compared unfavorably with his conservative antipode, Glazunov. Possibly the most thorough and penetrating review came, unexpectedly, from the patriarch of Russian music criticism, the seventy-six year old Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kashkin who ended his lengthy commentary by saying:
The main thing to be said in conclusion is that Petrushka is the work of a real talent, from whom we may expect a very great deal in the future.
Right he was!

One thing that is immediately noticeable, to me at least, is how Petrushka is a kind of antithesis to The Firebird. Their structures are kind of mirror-images. The Firebird begins in mystery while Petrushka ends in mysterious pizzicati. The Firebird builds to a magnificent, blaring climax while Petrushka begins with the magnificent tapestry of the Shrovetide fair. The Firebird looks back in homage to Rimsky-Korsakov while Petrushka absorbs authentic folklore and fuses it with an incipient modernism. With Petrushka Stravinsky finally becomes Stravinsky.

Let's end with two more performances of the ballet. The first, with the score, is Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic:

This is a restaging of the ballet by Nicolas Beriosov for the Paris Opera, based on the original sets. The audio in this clip is pretty iffy, but it is interesting to see a different production:


Will Wilkin said...

Nice to read how much Myaskovsky appreciated Petrushka right from the start. I have a box set of his 27 symphonies and he does not remind me of Stravinsky!

The bit about Stravinsky studying field recordings of Russian folk songs reminds me of a presumably much later recording project in Hungary that I bought on CD in 2000 while visiting that country. It is a 2-disc set called (in English translation) "A History of Hungarian Folk Music," and has 58 tracks on disc 1 and 65 on disc 2 of carefully cataloged field recordings of folk songs. The songs are grouped into categories: 1) Prehistoric, archaic stratum of Hungarian folk music; 2) Primitive stratum from the Ugrian period; 3) Strophic development of the primitive stratum from the Ugrian age -the lament style; 4) Supernational stratum: the psalmodic style; 5) Old Turkic stratum: narrow range pentatonic style; 6) Old Turkic stratum: broadly descending (fifth-shifting) pentatonic style; 7) Medieval folk music; 8) Folk music of the 16th & 17th centuries; 9) Folk music of the 18th & 19th centuries; 10) Folk music of the 18th & 19th centuries: the new style. Most of these recordings sound pretty rustic and the variety of melodies and textures and inflections is fascinating.

Bryan Townsend said...

I really don't know the music of Myaskovsky at all, but my impression from a few brief passages is that he is a Soviet composer, a bit like an older and less-interesting Shostakovich.

Wow, that Hungarian project sounds fascinating. I know quite a bit about Bartók's folksong research as I wrote a paper on it for a Bartók seminar in grad school. But this sounds as if there is a developed theory about the stages of evolution of Hungarian folksong. I would love to read about how that theory was developed. Are any musicologists mentioned on the discs?

And thanks again for taking the time to comment on the Stravinsky posts!

Will Wilkin said...

There are no notes with the CD, just list of tracks in Hungarian and the categories as section headings, in Hungarian and English.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's too bad! The existence of this kind of typology, dividing Hungarian folksongs into ten historic and prehistoric levels, presupposes a pretty robust theory of how exactly it might be possible to even do that!

Will Wilkin said...

Here, in these notes to a different collection of Hungarian folk music recordings (30 LPs!), is a different categorization, mostly geographical. But the notes also describe previous collections and their categories, which were more chronological. These notes are worth reading for insight into the projects of collecting their indigenous melodies while they were still part of the living culture. When I visited in 2000, I saw a folk music group play and dance some traditional Hungarian songs in traditional costume. Everywhere I was impressed with the people's strong sense of national identity and history, but also I saw they wanted more contact and commerce and cultural exchange with the west, and although I haven't been back (yet) to see what 17 more years have done to them, I suspect the allure of globalization and the pop music scene has eroded the traditional music scene, probably in a corruption not so different from how electricity has been ruining music here in North America as well.

Will Wilkin said...

And a search at, under the category CDs/vinyl, using the key words "Russian folk", yields many interesting album and cd covers with pictures of the ensembles and instruments. Not quite anthropologist field recordings but a lot of it looks like the next best thing, which is more modern groups specializing in the musical lore of Russia. I imagine the catalog would be vast....

Bryan Townsend said...

That Hungarian collection looks vast! All on vinyl, too. I will have to look into this when I get a chance.

David said...

Bryan, I think I may have the same box set of Myaskovksy that Will referred to. The conductor is Svetlanov. I was prompted to comment by your impression that Myaskovsky is an "older and less interesting Shostakovich". To my ear, Myaskovsky is easier to listen to than Dimitri S, with a less industrial sound and"a more digestible finished product. It may be that Myaskovsky has suffered the "forgotten or ignored composer syndrome". I think the notes to the box set say that Svetlanov made it a project of his to expose more ears to Myaskovsky's work. Here is the URL for a paper that surveys his works:

Bryan Townsend said...

David, thanks. I'm reading the article and listening to the Symphony no. 22 to cure my ignorance!! I need to make shallow, ignorant remarks from time to time, just to provoke some comments. Mind you, that's not too hard for me! I don't know why I haven't heard more about him?

Will Wilkin said...

Yup, Svetlanov conducted the Myaskovsky set I have.

David said...

Bryan, welcome to the small, but hopefully growing, population of listeners that are aware of Myaskovsky and his music. One can marvel at the connections and organic relationships in the evolution of western music. And the connections that develop in the community of modern listeners. Where would we be without your comment-triggering remarks? OK, you would be doing something other than listening to M's Symphony no. 22. I hope you enjoy this avenue of discovery.