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Stravinsky, Five Star Composer

cooler, grey skies, after a very rainy and windy weekend. I was wrong, no real change yet.

I made up my mind to find out about C20th music, because Gabriel was playing from Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, he brought the Ashkenazy recording home and I found I liked them very much. Ravel should have been next in this occasional series, but my blog was down, and now I've moved on to the Sacred Monster, whose music I only knew of through childhood exposure (ballet was unavoidably big when I was a child) to the nice ballets, Petrushka and The Firebird. And the dinosaurs, of course. So now I'm reading Stephen Walsh's two-part biography (Part I A Creative Spring) & I've been here before. I am late in the day, this is Stravinsky debunked: the new official version: Stravinsky's own version and his apostle's version, corrected by recourse to the evidence. Only unlike "Shostakovich, secret voice of suffering Russia, speaker in code, closet dissident?" Igor Stravinsky does not come out with rep repaired and his face cleaned. Hm. Stravinsky was born near Petersburg, to an urbanised gentry family, and like Shostakovich a crucial couple of decades later, brought up in that unhygenic, West-facing city of culture. His father was a (regionally) famous opera singer, bass baritone, specialising in character parts, a selfish patriarch with a nasty temper, his mother the long-suffering helpmate of a great artist, who sank into that role and never said boo; the children had a bit of a thin time. A pattern that was to be repeated. Definitely not an infant prodigy (but his father would have stepped over him like a ruck in the carpet if he'd been a young Mozart, Walsh rather thinks), he didn't really get started in music until he was past twenty. But he could sight-read, and if you're born being able to sight-read, if you can read music in full sentences instead of having to spell out the words letter by letter, without training: that means you can compose.

So, anyway, his father hustled for him and he became a protege of Rimsky-Korsakov, who was then a professor at the Petersburg Conservatoire and a decent sort of bloke, not only supported the students over their actions in the 1905 rehearsal for a revolution, he put his job on the line for them. Petersburg music was in ferment, along with the politics: Russianism, mythicism, feuds, cliques, Fiveists versus World of Art-ists, everybody denouncing everybody else as cr*p and savagely supporting their own teams. Young Igor plunged with enthusiasm into the nest of vipers, in which he was to spend his creative life, and took to it like a duck to water. In 1909 he secured, by tangled and bewildering means, a commission from Diaghilev to write the music for a scenario called The Firebird, and the rest is history. He left Russia very early (in terms of the revolution). His first great ballets were all premiered in Paris, a city he immediately recognised as the centre of his world. He spent the Great War living in Geneva (a very early attempt at producing The Soldier's Tale in Switzerland fell victim to the Spanish flu in 1918); the subsequent decades, while becoming a fantastically significant figure in Modern music, he was riccocheting between the A-list Paris art & culture world (an affair with Coco Chanel, a big love-hate thing going on with Cocteau) where he kept his long-term mistress; various rented summer dachas for the family in Switzerland, Nice and the Savoie; and punishing concert tours of the USA, England & continental Europe.

It took me a while to get into this immensely detailed account of a life, because what it recounts is so intricately muddled and so emotionally cold: but in the end I was fascinated. The feuding and the name-dropping is fairly irrisistible. What about the bloke himself? It's no secret that Stravinsky was not a very nice person: that he was, by all accounts even his own, whorish, rapacious and treacherous in art and in business. But did his flaws go beyond the normal chequered record? The most ordinary people become monsters, if subjected to a regime of fame and fortune, we've proved that pretty conclusively with our own celebrity culture. Okay, Igor was an awful, grasping person to do business with, but he did have a clueless extended emigree family to support. Okay, he kept a mistress for show and a wife at home, and expected them to accept the situation: but after all, he married young, probably repented at leisure and he didn't dump the mother of his children (not in volume one, anyway). Okay, he was routinely anti-semitic, routinely callous about sinister developments in European politics. The same could be said for many "A-listers" of the twenties and thirties. They're beating jews to death in Berlin, yeah, yeah, not my concern. The mark is going to hell: does that mean no more concert dates? MY GOD, how evil, how could they do this to mee??? But it can't be denied that Stravinsky was one of those (along with Coco Chanel by the way) who served the cause of Fascism above and beyond the call of airhead self-obsessed idiocy. There was the grovelling to Mussonlini: that wasn't just a cynical whore's reflex, it extended to his private papers. There was the I Love Nazis Clean Bill of Health document he eagerly signed, in support of Germany's regime.

But what about the composer? Wagner in Modernist drag? That gives you a good idea of his ideology and his innate conservatism, but it doesn't describe the music. I don't feel like dismissing Stravinsky as a hollow faker, Damien Hirst style (horrible thought, considering Stravinsky's status), but I did start to wonder, is this bloke, with his passion for mechanical reproduction; for special effects; for any means of making "his music" that devalues the role of the instrumentalist, conductor or vocalist, the Norman Cook of Modernism? I heard Fat Boy Slim, at the height of his fame, describe himself as a producer of music, rather than a creative artist, and maybe that's Stravinsky too. He never went back to Russia, and the Russians said this was because audiences at home would have spotted at once how much of his stuff was stolen from the living and the dead (on the other hand, prophet without honour in his own country won't accept a concert date that might turn out to be a one way ticket to Labour Camp: I won't shoot him for that.) He was the impure face of Modernism, he took up the pure "Modernism" of the opposing school when it suited him: like a magpie, like a fashionista. He re-created, re-made, transformed, stuff that existed already and that was his art: that was his thing.

In the eighteenth century the composer belonged to someone, was on the staff at the Archbishopric or whatever. In the nineteenth century (post Beethoven) composing became institutionalised, you belonged by the Musical Estabishment, the Academy, the Conservatoire. Stravinsky, predictably enough, belongs to the market. He sells himself, puffs himself and reinvents himself like a fashion line, always producing something new, so that the public will have to buy it and he can go on eating. Couture fashion, of course. This was still high culture, and though Stravinsky spent years working from hand to mouth, it was always champagne poverty, he knew where he belonged: where he and his luxury goods had to belong, to survive.

So, I'm sceptical, and so far the listening I've done hasn't dented my scepticism. It's a little like my aquaintance with The Grateful Dead. You watch Anthem To Beauty, and these guys talk up a storm, get you all excited about their musical vision. But then, as a corrective, you remind yourself what it was actually like being trapped under their feedback towers, or you dig out Aoxomoxoa. The instrumental music I've been listening to is nothing like the Sacre Du Printemps; or Wagner. It's perfectly listenable, unaggressive, just doesn't command my attention, and I'm used to reserving my top admiration for art that commands my attention whether I understand it or not. . . (Sacre du Printemps passes that test NB). Yet I get glimpses in the biography of a different Stravinsky. He knew what he was doing, say the instrumentalists he worked with; say the conductors. You look at what he's written, and it shouldn't work, and he's never written for the violin (trumpet, wind, whatever), so he's asking the impossible, but then you try it and does work, and its amazing. I find instrumentalists convincing (although, erm, god help them if they said anything negative and it got back to Igor)

His own instrument was the piano. His technique was not great, but eventually he got himself up to speed, in his own style, an emotionless and mechanically precise style. This may have been his genius, or possibly Stravinsky without much feeling to express, making a virtue of necessity.

More later. My problem now is that a lot of those dance Masterpieces of Modernism haven't had a very good time in repertoire. Of course I took up this topic just in time to miss the ENO Rite of Spring, & can you get it on DVD? Not hardly.






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Elisabeth Boucher on :

It's always a bit of a dilemma deciding whether to read biographies of musicians and composers, for me. I didn't want to listen to Nick Drake or Sandy Denny for a while after reading biographies of them which destroyed too many of my illusions. However, many years ago I read an interview with Marc Bolan and knew I'd like his music, although I'd never heard of him.

I think the Dickens novel in the previous post is Hard Times, but it wouldn't let me comment.

graywyvern on :

Stravinsky has his moments, but for 20c composers nobody beats Penderecky.
His best work? Utrenja.

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