Sunday, February 23, 2020

Stravinsky at the Close

I have finally finished Taruskin's two-volume book on Stravinsky that he describes as "a biography of the works" and a spectacular project it is. I don't think that there is anything to compare to it for depth and breadth--other than the same author's Oxford History of Western Music. I would love for him to take on another big project, but after those two, we probably shouldn't expect anything more.

The last work he examines is the Requiem Canticles, written in 1966, towards the end of Stravinsky's life and his last major composition. The work uses Stravinsky's unique approach to the serial method. As requiems go it is brief, fifteen minutes long, but compelling. For some reason, before this morning, I had never listened to it. One of the things I take from my reading of the second volume of Taruskin is how much of later Stravinsky is still not widely known. Productions of his operas are not nearly as common as you would think and some works, like Les Noces, are so unusual that one suspects they have yet to find an audience. Stravinsky's early triumphs, The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, are now over a hundred years old and have become recognized as the masterpieces that they are. But the later works are still infrequently performed--excepting popular ones like the Symphony of Psalms, now ninety years old!

When you think of it, describing pieces like The Rite or the Symphony of Psalms as "contemporary music" is quite absurd. Even the moniker "modern music" is a stretch. Reminds me of a famous essay "When was Modernism?" "20th century music" is at least accurate, if uninformative. A few years ago a couple of my songs were part of a concert described as "20th Century" music, but they were actually written in 2010, so "21st Century" music in fact.

We might recognize a few odd things about recent history: even before the First World War, there were some serious dislocations in European civilization heralded by Nietzsche's writings about the death of God and "master-slave morality." The most serious musicians were already dismantling the inherited structures of tonality and rhythm and searching for alternatives. This was an even more profound dislocation than was perceived at the time. Even though, between the two wars, a neoclassical synthesis was attempted, it never quite achieved the hoped for success and the canon of classical music was still dominated by music from the 18th and 19th centuries.

It remains the case that some really important music from a hundred years ago, and I am thinking of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920, are still, not only unappreciated, but uncongenial to the whole context of music in the 21st century. Instead of a growing acceptance of this kind of repertoire, we have a general lowering of musical taste to the point that music like this is not even disliked. Instead, it is completely unknown! In essence, music now is written by and for teenagers of very limited knowledge and experience. Billie Eilish is the embodiment of our current musical taste. I wonder how she will be regarded a hundred years from now?

Let's listen to two pieces by Stravinsky. The first, the hundred-year-old Symphonies of Wind Instruments:

and the over fifty-year-old Requiem Canticles:


Maury said...

In retrospect the 20th C orchestra reached a high water mark in the first 20 years of the century and have been retreating since. Just looking at the orchestra, a composer today could not get a piece with the instrumental requirements of The Rite of Spring performed. The same for Holst's Planets or Messiaen's Turangalila, the last large orchestral work in the repertoire. My understanding is that commissions for orchestra few as they are limit the orchestra essentially to a Dvorak or Brahms symphony.

As for late Stravinsky while I really love both Agon and Threni these are two more works that will never be mainstream. Sadly I wonder if even The wonderful Russian songs from Mussorgsky through Stravinsky will ever become standard repertoire. I would say it is unlikely that any classical work composed before WW2 that has not attracted at least some concert audience by now is never going to. They will live on in recordings played privately.

Bryan Townsend said...

Maury, I hate to disagree with you, but there have been lots of premieres of new, large pieces for orchestra. Just off the top of my head, last year there was the premiere of a big new piece by Thomas Adès for large orchestra with a huge percussion section. And Salonen's cello concerto was premiered quite recently and it is for large orchestra as well. Those are just the ones I noticed.

But I fear you may be correct about about the difficulty of newer works getting into the mainstream.

Bryan Townsend said...

And I was just listening to a new piece by Pascal Dusapin put up two days ago on YouTube in a performance by the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra with a big orchestra--huge brass section.

Maury said...

Thanks for the correction - you don't have to hate to disagree if there is something factually incorrect. I should have specified the US as that was what I was thinking about. The occasional premieres I've heard in the past 15 years (not from established people like Ades or Salonen) were all quite modest in their requirements. I'm guessing the limits were mandated as I heard they specifically were in one case. I am less familiar with the various premieres in Europe. I would be curious if the ones with large orchestra are ever given a second performance unless a noted conductor is the composer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Probably right about the US, though the Salonen Cello Concerto premiere I think I recall was in Chicago. But, sure, he is a big, established artist. I remember a Montreal composer years ago, who actually got a full-scale opera performed, but was bitter that there were no follow-up performances.

Dex Quire said...

You have posted a few Stravinsky comments of late. Slightly OT but here goes: What do you think of guitarists performing orchestral/piano music reduced for classical guitar? Kazuhito Yamashita transcribed and performed Mussorgsky's 'Pictures of an Exhibition' for guitar back in the 1980s. It is quite good as far as it goes, but -- to paraphrase WB Yeats on AE Housman's 'Shropshire Lad' --- 1000 more yards and he would be in the marsh. With Yamashita's reduction of Stravinsky's 'Firebird' I think we end up in the marsh. Why do talented guitarists take on such tasks? There must be some sense of inferiority; the guitar not being a member of the orchestra pit; most of the great 19th century composers ignoring it. In the 19th century the guitar was the instrument your kid sister played in the parlor to snare a boyfriend with.

In the 20th century Andres Segovia enlarged the repertoire immensely by getting many contemporary composers to compose for guitar. At the same time he transcribed many classical standards for the guitar. Could we agree on one thing about transcriptions for guitar? They must be as good as or better than the original composition. Otherwise why bother? Sometimes you see guitarists playing versions of great piano music, say, Debussy or Ravel. Their technical abilities are pushed to the contorting limits of what is possible for the guitar. Even then, the performance can barely match the that of a competent second year piano student.

There is a reason composers choose the instruments they do for their compositions. For whatever reasons, sometimes I think guitarists play fast and loose with masterpieces of classical repertoire.*

*Bach, of course, the great exception here. His music so constructed as to make any instrument hospitable ....

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, lots to muse over in your comment! I was actually in the audience when Yamashita played the Mussorgsky in Toronto at the big guitar festival--I think it was 1978, but I could misremember. I could have been the one in the early 80s. They did three or four big festivals in Toronto back then and I attended three of them and played a concert in one. The Yamashita concert was really wild. I think I was in the fifth row. He is a brutal player and forces the guitar to the very limits of what is possible and slightly beyond! I had his transcription published by Zen-on and even tried to play it. The problem with that particular transcription is that it, inevitably, loses so much of the sheer power of the original--even with the technical wizardry of Yamashita. Incidentally, he also played a Sor sonata in the same concert and it was a bit bizarre because he attacked it as he attacked the Mussorgsky. I haven't heard his Firebird transcription, by the way, but the mere thought of it makes me shudder. I suspect that Yamashita did what he did first of all because he could and second of all in a kind of extension of Segovia's project to put the guitar on the concert stage alongside the vioin, cello and piano.

Segovia, by the way, had some real successes. The most important was his transcription of the Bach Chaconne which was one of the pieces that converted me to the classical guitar. It is, I think, indisputably as successful on the guitar as it is on the violin--or piano for that matter. The other hugely successful transcription was of Albeniz' Leyenda, just as effective if not more so on the guitar as on the piano. There are a few other pieces in that category from Granados and Scarlatti, both composers, of course, evoking the guitar.

As you say, Debussy and Ravel almost work, but not quite. One composer that can never be transcribed successfully for guitar, in my opinion, is Beethoven with Haydn and Mozart close behind. Go play Giuliani if you must!

Dex Quire said...

Bryan please, if you haven't already, write about the event of the concert with Yamashita performing "Pictures of an Exhibition". What an occasion! I think Yamashita's Mussorgsky works because of his selection of melody and harmony (he had to toss out a fair amount); and because Mussorgsky's melody lines are so strong. Yamashita must have a gift of intuition: if this piece were written for guitar, how would it sound? Something like that.

I met him (along With a line of fans) after a concert in Tokyo in the early 90s. We fumbled along in Japanese and English. He was getting ready for a concert in San Francisco; very kind and humble to all of his well-wishers.

I think contemporary composers are the key to the guitar's future in this century. Yourself included! Who do you admire among contemporary composers who have written for guitar ...? Thanks again - DQ

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't have much more to say about the Yamashita concert--it was forty years ago! But yes, it was very impressive in that he not only managed to find technical solutions to a lot of the problems, but he managed to give a musically convincing performance. The whole time, however, there was a sense that he was demanding from the guitar things that it could not quite deliver.

Yes, the guitar got a very substantial shot in the arm in the 20th century from a host of new compositions, many of them of high quality. The Segovia repertoire was greatly enriched by works from Moreno Torroba, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Joaquin Rodrigo. Then Julian Bream managed to get some fine works from Benjamin Britten and other British composers like Walton, Tippett, Berkeley, Maxwell Davies and non-British ones like Hans Werner Henze.

I think the most important composers for the guitar in the second half of the century and into the 21st century are Leo Brouwer and Sofia Gubaidulina. However, it looks very much like the electric guitar in the hands of musicians like Bryce Dessner could well overtake the classical guitar in contemporary music.