Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Problem with Stravinsky

Possibly the finest music composition of the 20th century came rather early in the century. What piece of music could I be talking about? I think that a lot of people would agree that the Rite of Spring (FrenchLe Sacre du printempsRussian«Весна священная») is certainly a very strong candidate for the finest composition of the century. While utilizing both folk song and the influence of modern French composers like Ravel and Debussy, it is a uniquely powerful and entirely individual expression and one that I don't think Stravinsky ever topped. I just finished listening to a whole box of Stravinsky's ballets and symphonies and while the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements are both fine works and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a beautifully enigmatic one, I don't think that they really are an improvement over the Rite. And after listening to quite a few of his subsequent ballets like Apollon musagète or Agon, to be anywhere near as inspired as the Rite. For me, and I welcome disagreement, Stravinsky's so-called "neo-classical" period was a bust and his "serial" period a similar bust, but with more wrong notes. Please take me to task in the comments!

But before you do so, listen to the music. Can this:

Or this:

Really stand up in comparison to the Rite:

Or even Petrouchka:

I don't think Stravinsky knew where to go after the Rite. He had burned through such an incredible amount of creative energy between 1910 and 1913 that perhaps he had nothing left. Neo-classicism as practiced by Stravinsky was a kind of retreat from the first eruption of modernism which would not be significantly advanced on until after the Second World War.

I am not biased in favor of modernism as a rule, but the incredible brilliance of Stravinsky's early ballets is undeniable, I think. Pulcinella was initially received as a bit of a joke and certainly, coming from the composer of the Rite of Spring, it is at the very least, incongruous:

Honestly, doesn't that sound like slightly woozy Handel?

Please, weigh in in the comments. I would love to hear what my readers think.


Anonymous said...

I forget who said to Stravinsky upon arriving in France. "Don't listen to Debussy: I'm afraid you'll like it."

Not sure I'd be as harsh as you, but to me Stravinsky is in the mold of Picasso and Bob Dylan. A dismally high portion of their output is dreck. But at their best each one is unsurpassed in their respective genres: modern music; modern painting; pop music.

Hit and miss, isn't that the lot of all great artists? No. I am not aware of any mediocre Bach music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that quote is actually from Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.

Do you think that there is a decline in Stravinsky's later stuff? Because that doesn't seem to be the case with Bob Dylan, at least.

And try to find a mediocre piece by Mozart or Haydn!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reference to the quotation. It's cute.

I agree about Mozart and Haydn. And yes I think Stravinsky lost his way, but to be fair, so much innovation was going on in music his efforts to keep up turned out, in hindsight, to have been mistaken. Maybe it had to be that way. I still think of him as the last great composer.

Bob Dylan's range has always been limited (much more so than the Beatles). He works around the blues idiom and does a good job. Though I'll admit it's been years since I paid close attention to him. His sloppiness (both with lyrics and music) started to grate on me.

Rickard Dahl said...

Last great composer? Aren't you forgetting about Shostakovich? And also that you consider him to be the last great doesn't mean there won't plenty of new great composers in the future.

Bryan Townsend said...

Even given their immense talent and hard work, it is still astonishing how much great music Haydn, Mozart and Schubert wrote. If you put all the outstanding pieces by Stravinsky in a single CD box, how many discs would you need? Ten? Twenty at the most? The complete edition of Mozart takes up 170 CDs! And I have yet to find a bad or even a mediocre piece. I listened to a whole disc of marches the other day--and you certainly don't think of Mozart as much of a march composer. But guess what, they were all good!

When we are talking about 20th century artists like Stravinsky (and Picasso for that matter) there is always some additional context: publicity, marketing and the mass media have much more influence than in previous eras. I think that we might think of Stravinsky as the last great composer because he was the last composer of classical music who was widely talked about in the mass media. He was a kind of celebrity. Since then, the doors to that kind of fame have been largely closed to composers of classical music. The only musicians today who can be celebrities are pop musicians.

So setting that aspect to one side, if we look at composers like John Adams or John Luther Adams or Philip Glass or Esa-Pekka Salonen, do we want to say that their music is as insignificant as their public profile might indicate? Certainly in the case of Salonen I would want to say that his music is easily the equal of a lot of what Stravinsky wrote, even if not quite at the Rite of Spring level.

Shostakovich was working in an entirely different context. In the Soviet Union, even into the 70s, the public environment was still oriented towards classical, not pop music. The impact of the Beatles was barely felt behind the Iron Curtain. So Shostakovich could achieve a level of fame in that kind of context because he is a very fine composer. Had he lived in the West he would have faced different kinds of challenges and likely written a different kind of music.