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Stravinsky Night
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 9:13 pm - Stravinsky Night

On October 18th I attended the Metís performance of three practices of Stravinsky. A production that had kept alive since 1981. It includes the intrepid and famous ballet Le Sacre du Printemps and two short but remarkably different operas written fifteen years apart, the transcendental Le Rossignol and the severely neo-classical Oedipus Rex.
In different ways all three pieces under the romantic baton of Valery Gergiev showed off Stravinsky talent for sensational, original and effective theatre music. Le Sacre and Le Rossignol ar sensational pieces that extend inherited and inebriated 19th century romantic ideas of the unattainable ideal, the savage, the exotic, the explosion outward from the narrowness of the Enlightenment as well as the comparable small range of the medieval echoes of church and state that collapsed in both in substance and musical language nearly a century within both worlds, reorganized in a new individualistic way in the 1820s into the very personal orchestral fantasies of Berlioz and the thornily chromatic pianist of Chopin and Liszt.
Le Sacre as well as Le Rossignol attempts to create a sense of metaphysical awe in the audience at the ritual and strangeness of human beehives in different or imaginary cultures, a theme of cultural relativism and the perplexity of all of us at the enigma of human life that goes back to the Persian Letters of Montescquieu. An audience of Parisians taking in the alexin character of the hinterlands of their world as the ultimate in sophisticated analysis of human character was fashionable in Paris over two centuries from Rameaeu through Chopin and Liszt to Diaghelevís champions of the alexin and sensational like Stravinsky.
In another century one has to be aware of the excised character of instrumentation and melody in Le Sacre and Le Rossignol. They are sensational but they are also brilliantly crafted. As absolute music there are impeccable as Haydnís quartets. Itís important to realize their virtues when the transcendental causes they represent, the Teutonic longing for the unattainable translated into the idiom of Debussy and his circle of whom Stravinsky was one, and the long time Parisian fascination with the exotic, have become less fashionable.
As deliberately strange and esoteric as their vertical harmonies seem even to us, the essential elements of music, melodic, rhythm and the vocal integrity of the musical lines are always impeccable, even classic when even a semblance of a tonal base and conventional triadic progression has disappeared. Perhaps the most severe point of departure in Le Sacre is the way forward extension of ideas become schizoidally episodic with the constant change of meter and unexpected melodic resolutions.
David Hockneyís sets for all these productions emphasis various kinds of devices of geometry and color in a powerfully necromantic way. Le Sacre takes place around a circle of crimson colors like a disk of fire. Hockneyís costumes are sufficiently revealing to show the virility of the bodies that resonate to this sensuous music. The not notably original retro choreography by Doug Varone deficits savagery and Russian dreams of Central Asian ruthlessness but seems wedded competently to this feral concept.
Le Rossignol with a libretti co-written by the composer based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, uses vary shadows of blue in a more conventional transcendental set; only the Japanese contingent is robed in crimson. Its mixture of dreamy dance and drama suggests Pelleas Et Melisande and Le Martyrdom du St. Sebastian. The strange melodies of the nightingale are delivered exquisitely by Olga Makarina. Victor Chernomorotsev is grand and pious as the Chinese emperor. Ronald Nakli gives the fisherman the right aura of naive hunger for the unknowable.
As much as Le Sacre and Le Rossignol are about sublimity and frenzy such as romantic composers have been depicting rather directly since Beethoven and Berlioz, Oedipus Rex is a cold and frozen rite in a closed form about the enigma of fortune and the large riddle of an inexplicable rule by the gods. Cocteauís libretto takes out all of the complexity Sophocles gave the tale, giving the story an iconic and stony character for all its patty and terror. The chilly and remote nature of the piece is mirrored by its use of fossilized Latin. Stravinsky used a similar set of devices later in his more massive Symphony of Psalms. All threes acts in this show were done in masks; if Le Rossignol has the most beautiful of dominos and robes Oedipus has an uncanny tone because the masks are mixed in Hockneyís production with ordinary modern dress. It refreshes our notion of costume with a sense of horror.
Oedipus is particularly frightening in the extreme Bacchus with such costumes one sees nothing in two ways. Some of the empty and abstract character of the David Hockney set suggesting is mutineer dress in one more sinister riddle has a reptilian opacity that matches the music. The detached and ironic character of the piece is accentuated by the blend of modernity and the hoary age of the tale, the world of goods that are dead if not forgotten, the feeling perhaps in the audience that more deities than Zeus have joined the stony pantheon of unspeakable and not quite perished entities still abroad in their own lifetime.
In all three acts of this myriad tribute Valery Gergiev is equal to rousing the orchestra to be at awesome, ferocious, gauzy and fey, frozen and obscure when Stravinsky calls for such a uncanny variety in his palette.


Since we have his variousness of many of his works concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 50s and 60s in these days we can compare his notions of his music in his old age both with scores that were written when he was in many ways armed with a very different aesthetic.
We donít have Clause Debussy playing his two piano version with him of the two piano score, we donít know what Stravinsky or St. Seans said to their friends after they eft the hall after the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, a spectacle for st. Seans that began when he couldnít recognize the bassoon sound in those high note at its opening; we do can savor performances by Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet, two conductors often associated with Stravinskyís music. These masters of the baton and Stravinsky both lived a very long time.
Ensermet had felt in his old age that Stravinskyís matter of fact approach to his scores came for a lack of conducting technique. Certainly this evening Gergiev gave a performance of all three works at a polarity from Stravinskyís own late aesthetic. The famous opening bassoon and bass clarinet duet in Le Sacre was done in a hyper-romantic rubato. The orchestral colors were brought out for their optimal transcendental and sensational ferocity.
There are a few moments in music of the past in the spirit of this scare, the developments in the first and last movements of Mozartís G Minor Symphony, some of the last movement of Beethovenís Second and Seventh Symphonies, some of the Monroe dionysiac music of Debussy and Ravel; nobody including Stravinsky himself had created a whole score of such astonishing mixes of savage rhythms and capricious atonality to capture the romantic hunger for the exotic and forbidden.
Le Rossignol was begun by Stravinsky in 1909 but finished several years later; it is clearly related to the perfumed and exotic style of The Firebird, also part of a turn of the century fey transcendental aesthetic that may remend us of parallel works like Bluebeardís Castle and Griffesí Pleasure Dome Of Kubla Kahn.
In retrospect Le Sacre is close in subject if not in style to late Stravinsky works in its concern with the past. Though it seemed on the mad side to Monteux, this score has to strike one as exquisitely made, free and mobile in its melodic audacity, very resourceful in timbre, much more like absolute music in its beautiful crafted linear voices than baths in orchestral sensuality one can hear from this time. As jazz musicians discovered in from the Whitman band to Fusion, as long as there is a driving rhythm and one is one step away or less from the sound of shuffling feet the most intrepid harmonies are acceptable to an audience.
This is as much tau in a Haydn minuet where the astonishments arenít usually harmonic but detail of sub-structure. In fact one can see in this clarity of line in Le Sacre the very neo-classical qualities that seem soporifically to be at such remove from it one hears in Stravinskyís pieces between 1948 and Agon, his first twelve tone work, done of the late 40s. At the time in seemed near impossible for instrumentalists in an orchestra to count Le Sacreís relentless changing meters although much of it is slow and in pretty straightforward 4/4 time. Yet enough of it isnít to make an orchestral player leery about his entrances and performance. It must be still seemingly perversely hard to count because I heard several shaky entrances tonight. The wide vertical range of voces leave no place to hide. Of course itís a pace that aims to shock and succeeds; the parts that are metrically module as if the dancers have five legs effectively do that.
Yet for some who had led legions of composers into the future Stravinsky was as much concerned with resuscitating the past as much as any reactionary who honestly thought it was the present or should be. His mercurial career didnít really invite disciples though he had many of them. It was obvious in this concert that Le Sacre and Le Rossignol were written by the same composer; it might have astonished anyone who didnít know it that Stravinsky was also the composer of the severely neo-classical Oedipus Rex. Composers audacious as STRAVINSKY or even Beethoven like a point of denature. Sometimes the eclectic initial place is entirely gone by the time the piece is written. Stravinsky of all composers rarely concealed his derivations. After all, his genius lay at least partially in finding fresh things in what had seemed stale and dead.
His early work didnít wander much beyond those static stations of subsequent travel. I donít think anyone in an imaginary quiz show would easily associate either Stravinsky with the composer of the early E Flat Symphony and Piano Sonata or the late Movements For Piano and Orchestra, the latter a lapidary masterpiece of serialist. Both Robert Craft and Milton Babbitt have told me these were seminal works for those immersed in this hermetic sonic arcana.
The several very elegant Craft books are not merely a wonderful collection of wit and profundity such as one rarely finds in non-fiction or for that matter fiction in America; they are a collaboration that made Stravinsky for many into the first and only celebrity outside the achievement of his work we have hade in the Unified States. Some claim Craft had made Stravinsky more articulate in this musical hagiographia than he was; I donít think so. Iíve heard others besides Craft personally tell me how epigrammatic Stravinsky could be.
Like many foreigners he may have gotten all the American sounds wrong; like those same educated foreigners he had a mastery of English superior to most people born here. The Craft books donít really tell us anything intimate about Stravinskyís inner life or offer the secrets of his creative process though we get the surface of it and him well enough. From wham others say Stravinsky never offered it. The superfluities are fascinating. Craft enriches us with all manner of dateless of the surface of an enigma that talent always is from Stravinsky habit of wearing religious medals when he composed to his noisy scratching on the music paper.
Among other things Craft walks into the sanctum sanctorum to find Stravinskyís genius in the objective appearance of his execution of work. Fascinating and audacious as Craftís approach is, grateful as I am to have read these brilliant and lapidary books, I donít find them any more an explanation of why Stravinsky had genius than Eckermamnís similar anatomy of the life and tabletalk of Goethe. Whatever happened to Stravinsky between his dull and barely competent early Symphony in E Flat and the pages of Le Rossignol written in 1909 remains an interred mystery to us. If Stravinsky described it, would we then understand it?
One infers from the direct evidence of the scores that Le Rossignol has some aesthetic if not stylistic antecedents in his teacher Risky Korsakoffís Invisible City of Kizeh, that Stravinsky must have studied to scores of Debussy and Ravel very carefully during this time, that he went to Pairs not to escape the Bolsheviks but several years before the Soviet Revolution like Prokeffief to come to a musical capital where sensational music was appreciates by the best of their cognoscenti as a spasmodic epiphany more satisfying than love, at their worst by their jaded philistines as an elaborate civilized frisson.
It was the same sort of move to a world capital Chopin and Liszt had made in the previous century from Poland and Hungary. Stravinsky was a practical man; he nearly always from first to last worked on commission; he rarely did pieces without a stipend though in getting one he insisted he go his own way.
His financial acumen was one of the ways he was different from Schoenberg. Of course the world at that time was not avid to give Schoenberg any such easy guerdons; Schoenberg didnít go to Paris to astound anyone either. Both men werenít really performers; Stravinsky had a sense of the sensational and its value that performers have when they donít even have talent.
Itís rather amusing to think that Pierre Monteux thought Stravinsky was crazy the first time he heard Le Sacre. His conducing performance at the debut became one of the perorations of Monteuxí career when he coincided its first performance. Certainly nearly averred but his circle thought Schoenberg was perverse or a crank; few were convinced he was also a lunatic. The best once could say about twelve tone music in those days was that it was a very hermetic art for the few. When creative minds become lunatic as Schumann did they donít necessarily compose less well organized and persuasive music.
Le Sacre did prove something Beethoven showed a century before it and Mile Davis and Chick Cornea realized more than a half century later: as long as one has fierce driving repetitive rhythms one can build almost any harmony and melodic line as well as the most complex polyphony one cares to one cares to and produce effective music. Now we listen to both Schoenberg and Stravinsky as traditional masters and think other people are crazy. We might notice that Schoenberg didnít offer rhythms beyond the ability of the human mind to organize them easily and clearly either. Eventual as music reaches levels of complexity or anarchy that are worthy of being confused with the effusions of those who are certifiably boners we will accuse composers of being irrelevant to us if not madmen and we will be right.
I would guess that long before he met Diaghelev Stravinsky liked to astonish people. Though trained by Rimsky Korsakoff he didnít start out to be a composer, was not a prodigy and composed some rather dull music into his early twenties. His family had not been particularly musical. Something mysterious apparently happened to him in his early 30s that turned him from a bore to a genius. Whatever it was, it was wedded to a restlessness that led him to compose in many styles, even write jazzy pieces, set music in five languages, four of which he spoke with a heavy accent, and live in France, then the United States. His process was severely internal whatever it was. Obviously Stravinsky didnít need inspiration from the environment if he lived most of his last decades in California.
He protected himself well. He didnít waste his creative energy teaching like Schoenberg; he had no pupils. He made a laving performing if he was not a great pianist or conductor; he was however a sui generis emigre celebrity who was able continually to live on solely on commissions and performances that might be described as Samuel Johnson once said about a dancing bear, not notable for its mastery but that he could do it at all. He was frugal and perhaps a little tight with money. His children complained he came first in their family life. Although their respective courts told Stravinsky and Schoenberg that the other was their enemy, to the point here both men, living in Los Angeles, only talked to each other; as soon as Schoenberg died in 1951 Stravinsky sort of took over the niche of Schoenberg, taking over the leadership of serial music to the bafflement of his former musical knights.
The Stravinsky-Schoenberg war of their two retinues was silly stiff. Both composers were influenced early by Debussy, the transcendental, the whole late romantic gestalt, both creates neo-classic works around the same time, the late 1920s, as well, and both of course were for long period of their careers users of twelve tone and serial techniques.
Both were not first class performers either; they were modern specialists rather than all around types like Bach who represented a cleavage in writing and performing music that would have been unthinkable to the very musical tradition that had formed them. Very sensational and original talents who redefined what music could be in ways that in the end werenít all that dissimilar, both were influenced by Debussy because, if Chopin skirted it, that composer really wrote the first music in the West that sometimes defined analytical analysis; Debussy represented in practice if not in theory a freedom from translation of inspiration to a hard edged logical extension of ideas.
Stravinsky was the friend and performer collaborating with Debussy; Schoenbergís Pelleas und Melisande is as much a tribute from a distance to that master. Debussy after all was the one who when asked how he explain his choice of harmonies or notes said, mon plaisir. It also disturbs Schoenbergís atonal paired. Yet if one thinks of it is also is a description of the music of Haydn and Mozart.
That timeless aesthetic with its invention pushed to the font is one step or less from atonality if one could say that Mozartís G Major Gigue isnít far away either. Polytonailty and twelve tone systems both tend to undermine inequality of tones, escaping vertical triad chords and conventional harmonic progressions to stress a Pythagorean attention on the integrity of individual notes. It also takes up a new direction to embrace whatever order and logic it can in its Art that is a big stretch from the music of scales, actives, fifths, various consonances that structure music all over the planet. It is a soot of invasion of invention and pure cognition into the previously invulnerable presumptive sonic notions that are programmed into all humans biologically. It is in the sense very much a mirror to a technology in the West that aims to make all substance infinitely plastic and malleable, to be an army of Fausts commanding their amiable Mephistopheles forever to be conjuring endlessly amassing and carnally comforting artifice out of the very atoms.
We think of Schoenberg as uncompromising because he seed to have that scot of thorny earnest character, Stravinsky as a man ready to work at anything in any idiom; itís rather unfair to both composers. Although we are accustomed to thinking of Schoenberg and his school as musical purists, that is just a cartoon and a pitch to the rubes. Schoenberg set Strauss waltzes, orchestrated the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet, wrote concerti after Handel and Monn, did all manner of minor pieces of music for teaching purposes that have still never been rechartered, eclectic vignettes showing the varieties of various styles. Schoenberg real first quartet is a tuneful work full of folksy mediates in the style of Dvorak.
Stravinsky in music aims to be personally neutral while achieving only a kind of uniqueness that is thornily idiosyncratic in its severe asperity. Claiming he took up style a Picasso did is interesting to a point; yet we donít listen to any music, classical music, jazz or blues to do other than savor the geniuses who make music in a certain time to be acceptable or ene out of homage to the personal options a style given them in expression or even an opaque lack of it as they embrace one style or another. The selectivity that has spared us most of the lousy music of the past works to convince us if we donít think about it that there is an objective virtue or lack of it in style. We simply donít listen in music of the past to anything but their geniuses if we can help it. Why should we be citified with competence in a field in which even mere excellence isnít good enough? We are badgered by the vendors of the new to have a more lax standard about music written in the present. Thereís nothing intrinsically musical or even objectively tolerable in the romantic athetotic that produce Le Sacre and Le Rossignol. They are great and worth our attention because of who wrote them. Consequently the burden of being amusing in the end rests shelly on the composer, not the style. He must be interesting to seem interesting musically.
Unlike any other composer working in the last century, Stravinsky also became the hero in the rememberable and witty Robert Craft books. He was fortunate that both Craft and Goddard Leiberson championed him in the 50s and beyond. Before their efforts there werenít many recordings of any 20th century composer in the stores nor were there many books or other engines of celebrity to make them attractive as products in the bins either. Had Schoenberg such knights he might have been able to quite teaching at UCLA and finish Moses und Aron.
Rather paradoxically, Schoenbergís career took after his death off to its present seeming apogee form the efforts of German conductors like Hans Rosbaud and the German culture generally. He was, as Boulez put it in one of his essays, not quite the Moses of music but he was close to it. Stravinsky thrived in America while he was living as a resident genion European genius. Neither of them did movie scores like Korngold, Steiner, Rosza and other less radical European composers in Los Angeles; none of them except Kurt Weill wrote pop songs either like Stravinskyís real nemesis, Vernon Duke.
One should say that Duke and his very witty book Listen Here! is the only man to inspire Stravinsky in the Craft books to wild rage. Stravinsky remarks that all Vernon Duke did was write a hit pop song, April In Paris. Actually Duke wrote several hit songs and some good pop scores but perhaps Dukeís career did the one thing Stravinsky never did or could do: he made a lot of money from those hits. Duke became more popular and influential in a populist country with his miniature pop and show tunes than Stravinsky was in America or ever could be.
As great a genius as Stravinsky was, in America he could never enter the lists with Duke or Elvis or Hank Williams. It seems absurd to us to much such a comparison but in Europe Stravinsky was a celebrity to everybody; in America he was only one to the American who for one reason or another felt less like Americans and more like Europeans. As a European with a thick accent he was in a way what they thought they were.


One might take Stravinskyís career and achievement as a point of departure for a more general look on who both Stravinsky and Schoenberg, born in an age in which Artists had been prophets since Beethoven and Byron, became much less important than politician, courtesans, and real estate magnates after the First World War; they declined in their fame into a near oblivion as social influences after the Second World War. If eon was born after 1960 one cannot imagine a classical music composer, a poet, painter or a novelist having the kind of influence and power that Byron, Beethoven, Victor Hugo, DíAnnunzio, Ibsen, Shaw or Tolstoy to name a few had on the West o even on those in the colonial hinterlands like Gandhi.
It wasnít a glamour confined to the educated few; it was a central estates held in this time only by movie stars and television hosts that reached into the homes of ordinary people. If one was born after 1970 he notion that musicians or even paladins might be taken seriously much less followed for their leadership and wisdom is really unthinkable.
In America the kind of influence and power that a Hemingway, Kerouac or Ginsberg could still wield in the 1950s is now history. Stravinsky came as close to being a celebrity in his lifetime as such European champion of high art ever are in America; he might have wanted also the income of Kurt Weill and Vernon Duke. He did make achenial tentative forays into a more papillar idiom early and late with Le Histoire du Soldat, Circus Polka, am Ebony Concerto, all on commission, along with some late songs like The Owl and the Pussycat. He certainly was a composer who was ready to try anything.
My guess is that had the Beatles and Roiling Stones asked him to write for them he would have done it. So for that matter would Schoenberg. The notion that they accept only poaches of high art is really not born out by their diverse achievements. We can't say that classical music as a style hid in the realm of high arcana from a genal republican movement in Western history starting in the 1730s and continuing with ever more energy in our present.
The successful history of romantic music can be linked centrally to how much classical European music negotiated with folk and pop music of its time. Verdi when writing Donna E Mobile for Rigoletto told his friends the next day that the whole city would be hamming this tune once the opera was mounted. We can't imagine such ambitions in classical music or for that matter any music today. If any composer were to say tat after mountie an opera anywhere in the West nowadays he would possibly be committed. Yesterdayís truth can turn into todayís grandiosity.
Similarly we find unthinkable that a novel like Kerouacís On the Road or a few long poems by Ginsberg published by a small press could change not only a nation but eventually the culture of the planet thought they did in my lifetime. Itís not that the Arts were not at times or among certain populist talents avid to speak to the common people as the world of kings and priests was dying or dead; something very central in the mechanism of not merely Western art but leadership, authority and trust in excellence and genius itself became marginal to nil as successive waves of more radical departures from the old culture became more prevalent and dominant among the populace.
Itís not as if Stravinsky wasnít out there reaching with his genius for the audience he knew was potentially in front of him. Itís rather that the audience for Art and thought in the old way was running way from him, the West generally had ontological hares running faster than even Stravinsky could sprint to try to catch them.
We are living now in not merely a world musical sensibility that has escaped its past but a general Luddite suspicion of anything more than very practical thought, language and aesthetics which are manifestations of the hard edged and severe means of departure from old ways revolutions often have in and out of the Arts. Stravinsky early and late did his best to make some accommodations he would live with in this social condition. Like all practical men he knew when diplomacy no longer had any preps.
The last phase of his career after Agon through the late serial works were the response of a realist about the musical landscape he inhabited. It wasnít just that classical music had become elitist arcana when it had aimed to be part of the worldís army of prophets. It was that thought itself about problem solving had seemed endurable fey, complex or otherwise contemptible to an audience that had formerly looked to its most excellent pundits for this kind of formerly timeless meditation and discourse.
It hardly singled our classical music by which we mean European music not dominated by a severe folk style. Pop music, once compel and richly luscious in its harmonics enough to nurture a talent like Vernon Dukeís, a.k.a Vladimir Dukensky had declined at the time of Agon, had plummeted further to the level of How Much Is That Doggie In the Window? with its four transparent repetitive chords. We were on our way in the early 50s in our pop culture to a fusion of the treacly and puerile; Stravinsky had to make the most of salvaging what he could from our rhinestone cult of feral or castrated stupidity.
We can see in the pagan pages of Oedipus Rex not a reactionary hunger for the past but one of the first attempts of Stravinsky to play all bases in a reformulation of Western touchstones for values in a world he sensed much earlier had needed or at least wanted new fulcrums of reality.
Many of his subsequent masterpieces from Agon through the Movements for Piano and Orchestra and Abraham and Isaac were in one sense retrospect overviews from a great distance of Hellenic, Jewish and English takes on social reality, not in a way all that removed from his earlier adventures in Scythian and Chinese materials in Le Sacre and Le Rossignol.
We perhaps owe the very imploded and lapidary character of Stravinskyís music from 1948 to his death in 1971 to a genius that took up the gilded barnacles left behind in the spiritual wreckage of the Western ship of state that still appreciated him.
One never knows whether one is going to be the first or last of any dynasty or exploration in a certain direction. Though they both lived in Los Angeles nobody hired either Schoenberg or Stravinsky for movie scores; one can see their influences of course in the works of such as Jerry Goldsmith and Johnny Mandel.
Both men stretched a European envelope as far as they could in Calliphorine, but not into the republican roots of the country they had adopted. Stravinsky lived long enough to survive in his last years in a time that lacked the entire mythic idiom of Europe, the very shorthand he had been brought up in of the Old World; it had a new one that he took up only occasionally in Ebony Concerto, his Woody Herman piece. The tradeoff of living for a long while is that everything else around one largely perishes.
Stravinsky had spent his whole life making a recovery from that situation. His last dodocacophonic works show that in his old age he had decided to leave republican music to the republicans and make absolute music like Schoenberg with his own rather different, rich and memorable imported theatre of history.
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