Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Stravinsky the Conservative

Coming to the end of the long journey of reading Richard Taruskin's magisterial two-volume Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions and what a wonderful education it has been. I think the only monographs that can stand alongside this one are the two-volume Johann Sebastian Bach by Philipp Spitta (three volumes in the English translation) and Thayer's Life of Beethoven, originally in two volumes, both 19th century projects. There are many, many single volume treatments of the "life and works" variety, but one senses that the truly exhaustive multi-volume efforts are now a thing of the past.

I titled this post "Stravinsky the Conservative" because of an interesting passage late in the book:
Nineteen twenty-eight was the year in which Stravinsky's openly professed anti-modernism reached its peak. In that year he allowed himself to be described in print by Lourié as the leader of the "conservative and reactionary element" in contemporary music, the "antithesis" to the Schoenbergian "thesis," who sought "to affirm unity and unalterable substance" as against the ceaseless flux and disintegration of culture that was the inevitable consequence of modernist chaos. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 1610]
In practical terms what this meant was that the next piece Stravinsky composed, the ballet Le baiser de la fée, was based almost entirely on themes from the composer of Imperial Russia, Tchaikovsky!

In the great duovir of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, for some reason we often think of Schoenberg as being the "conservative," the author of all those books on composition and theory that take Beethoven as their model. While at the same time we think of Stravinsky as the more adventurous modernist with his brash innovations often inspired by primeval Russia. But it was Schoenberg that aligned himself with the worker's choruses and thought of himself as being a man of the left, while it was Stravinsky, at certain times in his career, who was the admirer of Mussolini. It has been argued that neoclassicism was a fascistic movement in music.

My sense is that we should take all this with a grain of salt. The reasons Stravinsky regressed, if that is the word, to the idiom of Tchaikovsky, were perhaps more personal than political. Similarly, it might well have been the rise of Naziism and his rediscovery of Judaism that drove Schoenberg towards the left.

The idea that music is always somehow related to its roots, and sometimes very deep roots (in some places Stravinsky goes back all the way to Glinka for inspiration), should restrain us from making too facile political associations. At the end of the day Schoenberg and Beethoven were confronted with similar compositional problems and so were Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. The context was utterly different, of course, but context isn't everything. It is not even necessarily the most important thing though it looms overly large in the "new" musicology.

Here is the Stravinsky ballet Le baiser de la fée with Ansermet conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande:


Amos said...

Schoenberg compared Germany shelling the French during the Great War to his music assaulting bourgeoisie ears, spoke of enslaving "mediocre kitschmongers" like Ravel and Stravinsky to the German spirit, and wished to create the third reich of music. Like the Frankfurt School, he moved to America and established it there instead.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, all our composers have warts, it seems. Schoenberg also said that his twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for the next hundred years.