Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Rite of Spring, Preliminaries

"Stravinsky had long been the Russian composer I loved best and consequently feared most as a subject of research..."

--Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, p xii

Even as he cultivated the façade of a sophisticated cosmopolitan ... Stravinsky was profoundly un- and even anti-Western in his musical thinking (and much more so than any previous Russian composer had cause to be). Inevitably, the Eurasian aspects of the style worked out in his "period of exploration and discovery" [Stravinsky's own phrase] marked him for life. They remained with him as permanent stylistic resources, however neoclassic or neoserial his overt stylistic orientation would become, and no matter how doggedly he would strive in his late years to "angle" himself with respect to the "German stem." He was, ultimately, an outsider to all traditions of West and East alike--at first a triumphantly self-proclaimed outsider, at last a humbled and suppliant outsider, but at all times the great "zarubezhniy" of twentieth-century music.
ibid, p. 16

My little project on the Rite of Spring is, I'm afraid, turning out to be rather more ambitious than I originally intended. In order to really come to terms with it, some considerable research is involved, but it is extremely enjoyable research, so I hope you don't mind my sharing it with you as it progresses.

I have known the Rite as a listener for over forty years as I purchased an LP recording of it around 1970 or 71. This was the new recording with Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and it was widely regarded at the time as being the first really accurate performance. I can't tell for sure, but this might be that version:

I have listened to the Rite many, many times, probably extending into three figures and, as is true of very few pieces of music by even fewer composers, find each listening to be a fresh exploration. Every time I hear it I marvel again at what Stravinsky has created.

As Taruskin points out in the introduction to his massive book on Stravinsky, the Rite is more than just organized sound. It comes out of and expresses not only the individual creative brilliance of its composer, but also an historical context. It is motivated and conditioned by traditions and genres including literature, folklore, painting, dance, and other things in addition to the  musical context.

Stravinsky was deeply ambivalent about his past and influences, more so the more he became a cosmopolitan figure. Because of this he created a very misleading and distorted picture of his development in a series of talks and books. One of the important things Taruskin does is to show just how misleading all these documents are and how they cannot be trusted. This is one of the prime motivations behind his 2,000 page book. Stravinsky cultivated a façade of cosmopolitanism, but behind it his musical thinking was anything but. Converted to the Russian folklore just as it was vanishing by friends belonging to artistic, not musical, circles, Stravinsky was a true outsider.

Taruskin is a particularly valuable guide because he is uniquely qualified. Descended from Russian emigrant Jews, the language is not a barrier to him as it is to most Western musicologists. He can access the enormous and largely unknown Russian language archives to uncover the details of Stravinsky's Russian origins.

As I work my way through the hefty volume one (which covers the Rite) I will pass on the interesting bits. I hope by the end, I will be able to describe some of just how Stravinsky managed to create such an astonishing piece of music.

Alfred North Whitehead was a widely influential twentieth century philosopher and mathematician. He is responsible for coining the following celebrated quote about Plato's enduring influence:
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979]

I mention this because I come more and more to think that music in the 20th century is largely a series of footnotes to the Rite of Spring. Perhaps later in this series I will post examples of just why I think this.


Anonymous said...

It will be fascinating to hear your "footnote" argument developed. So much of 20th c. music is so completely at odds with Stravinsky. I wonder how Webern or Stockhausen can be read as Igor's footnote. If anything, it seems to me the influence goes the other way around. Anyway, looking forward to it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes! All I can claim at this point is that it seems to be an idea original with me. I have an intuitive sense about it, but I will put together an argument as details emerge. The conventional wisdom is that Stravinsky was off on his own while, in the first half of the century at least, the main "school" of composition was the Second Viennese School. And there was most certainly an aesthetic struggle going on. But as we look back from a number of decades later, the landscape starts to look a bit different.