I'm finally getting around to reading volume 2 of Richard Taruskin's magisterial book on Stravinsky: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra. He could only have written this if he were intimately familiar not only with every piece that Stravinsky composed, but also every letter he ever wrote and every letter that was ever written to him (if it were preserved in some archive somewhere) as well as every article every written about Stravinsky in any language whatsoever. And he is not shy about offering voluminous quotes and musical examples. This two volume monograph should be the model for any future publications of this type. Sadly, I suspect that there will be virtually no future publications of this type! Who has the intellectual capacity to do it? Right now I am wishing that there were a similar book(s) on Arnold Schoenberg, because surely he deserves it. But never mind, let's just have a brief sample of the Taruskin to get my argument started.
Stravinsky was feted by the French avant-garde, especially by one Jacques Rivière in the pages of the Nouvelle revue française. This kind of magazine really doesn't exist any more. It was an aggressively nationalistic (as Taruskin describes it) literary forum and ironically it looked to the aesthetic revolution heralded by Stravinsky and the ballets russe as a model. As Taruskin describes it:
Henri Ghéon, one of the founding editors, would announce: "Our dream has been realized--and not by us." The Russians great gift to the French had been an object lesson in "two principles common to all the arts, unity of conception and respect for materials [respect de la matière]." The exemplar of exemplars had been The Firebird, which "confronts us with the most exquisite miracle of equilibrium--of sound, movement, form--that we have ever dreamed of seeing... [Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, p. 990]Rivière was particularly eloquent about the Rite:
The great novelty of Le sacre du printemps is its renunciation of "sauce." Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Bitter and harsh, if you will; but a work in which no gravy deadens the taste, no art of cooking smooths or smears the edges. It is not a "work of art," with all the usual attendant fuss. Nothing is blurred, nothing is mitigated by shadows; no veils and no poetic sweeteners; not a trace of atmosphere. The work is whole and tough, its parts remain quite raw; they are served up without digestive aids; everything is crisp, intact, clear and crude. [Rivière, Nouvelles études, 73, italics added by Taruskin, quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 992]There are a couple of points I am trying to make. First, that the music of Stravinsky was important to the art scene in general. Paris was a major, perhaps the major center of artistic activity and Stravinsky was at the heart of it. As such he received real criticism, not just positive as in this case, but lots of negative as well. His work was a nexus of aesthetic debate. Second, notice who Stravinsky is being contrasted with. Who was active in Paris in the early part of the century whose music could be described as atmospheric and poetic? Debussy, of course. Despite that fact that they were friends, it was necessary in terms of the aesthetic battle to see Stravinsky as being the counterpoint to Debussy. Another thing to note here is that the coming neo-classical period of Stravinsky is being hinted at with phrases like "crisp, intact, clear."
Sadly, musical discussion in the mainstream media these days is really not about any kind of aesthetic questions. It consists of puff pieces that simply advertise upcoming concerts such as the piece I mentioned in the miscellanea yesterday. This probably covers 90% of the writing. The other kind of piece revolves entirely around identity politics: why are there not more women conductors, why are there not more black composers featured and so on.
The inevitable conclusion is that, apart from being a small source of income for a few people, classical contemporary music really has very little importance in society and there is virtually nothing at stake musically!
Let's listen to The Firebird for our envoi. This is Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000: