Saturday 1 February 2014

Stravinsky, Part 1

I have a special problem with Stravinsky.  It has two parts.  In this posting, I want to talk a little about how annoying it has become to hear people quoting the balderdash that Stravinsky wrote.

It is, at best, dangerous to take too seriously what composers say about their own work.  I fully grasp the irony of saying that on a blog about music.  But some composers are more consistent in their writings than others.  Debussy, for example, was quite focused and articulate in his writing.  The writings of Tchaikovsky, almost unknown, are in fact incredibly perspicacious.  Busoni and Ives were thoughtful and even visionary.

The writings of Stravinsky are genuinely crap.  Stravinsky was, more than most, a product of his time.  A quick glance at his work confirms that he essentially went where the wind blew.  He reflects every major "ism" of the 20th century.  I am not saying he was not a great composer (more on that in Part 2.)  I am not saying that The Rite of Spring didn't change music forever, in as profound a way as the Eroica Symphony.  I am simply saying that, as a result of his need to endlessly re-invent himself, he embraced many approaches to making music, some of which were mutually exclusive.

This is not a crime.  So he started by hating 12-tone music and ended up writing it-- so what?  He changed his mind.  He had a right to change his mind.  He was an artist.

The problem is that, at every later stage of his development, he seemed compelled to write about what he was doing.  So while his musical approach changed, his writings got published and remained constant.  People now quote things he wrote in mid-career which completely contradict the things he did in later career.

And here's the thing that really bothers me:  I strongly suspect he wrote deliberately inflammatory things entirely for purpose of staying in the headlines.  Think about it:  he enraged the world with the Rite, and never achieved the same public impact again.  He was in his 30s when the Rite was premiered.  It can't be a coincidence that he didn't really start writing about music until much later in his career, when he had already become a "grand old man".  (He was over 60 when he wrote The Poetics of Music, and was already writing some of the least interesting music he ever wrote.)

I really can't stand having one more person say to me "Stravinsky said that his pieces were really just objects", or "Stravinsky said that music can never really express anything".  Stravinsky said a lot of things.  Put down the writings, and listen to the music.  It will tell you all you need to know.