from ‘Modern Music – The Problem’ (Part Two)
Stravinsky is more difficult to discuss than Schoenberg and Hindemith because his character seems to be more intricate. Moreover, there has been so much learned discussion of his stature and place in modern music that it is difficult to keep the source of one’s intuitions about him untainted. The dissenting opinion on him was expressed typically by Brockway and Weinstock in Men of Music; they feel that he ceased to exist as a serious composer about 1930, and has since shown only spasmodic signs of life.
In all essentials, it might be said that Stravinsky followed the familiar course that we traced in Schoenberg and Joyce: early romanticism, the sudden alarm in mid-career and the feeling of the need for brakes, followed by a deliberately cultivated intellectualism. The intellectualism at least served its purpose of impressing the intellectual critics, so that Stravinsky, like Schoenberg, now tends to be discussed on a theoretical level that is miles above the reality of his music, and that has little relation to its content.
It is easy to understand why Stravinsky should have felt the need for some new direction in his music. The great musicians of the latter part of the nineteenth century are grim warnings. Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, all display the same failure to develop beyond a certain point; mid-period Wagner sounds like later Wagner; Bruckner’s first symphony sounds much like his ninth. This does not diminish their greatness; most of us would not be without a single symphony of Bruckner or Mahler. But this kind of thing could not go on for ever; people had begun to lose interest in Richard Strauss forty years before his death because it looked as if he would go on indefinitely composing sequels to Rosenkavalier and Ariadne. Stravinsky’s master, Rimsky-Korsakov, was a case in point. Except for certain additional ripeness in the orchestration, no one could guess that more than forty years separate The Golden Cockerel (1908) from Sadko (1967).
Stravinsky’s artistic intellect, and his will, were a great deal stronger than Rimsky-Korsakov’s. But even these qualities cannot make musical inspiration spin out indefinitely. What seems to be lacking in Stravinsky is a heavyweight artistic personality. No one doubts that he possesses a genuine musical personality; even T. S Eliot, who is not given to passing judgements on music, has written: ‘Mr Stravinsky is a real musician.’ The question is whether this personality has shown a development commensurate with his musical ‘development’ from The Firebird to Threni, or whether Stravinsky has forced himself to experiment in order not to repeat himself. In the music of certain composers – Mozart, Beethoven and Bartók in our own century – one feels that changes in the musical idiom are a by-product of a development of the composers’ whole spiritual being. Does Stravinsky’s music show this kind of development?
If Schoenberg’s development is paralleled by that of Joyce, Stravinsky’s artistic personality has affinities with that of Eliot. Both began as heirs of a ‘decadent’ tradition, both made an early reputation as artistic rebels, both announced their conversion to classicism and traditionalism and developed ‘detached’ personalities, both later made religion their artistic centre of gravity. But the parallel fails to hold in one important respect. Eliot accepted the consequences of his subjective attitude, declared, in effect, that his inner life was no one’s business, except in so far as he chose to reveal it in his poetry, and consequently ceased to write poetry. Stravinsky also had a try at the haughtily detached attitude (at one point he told his critics: ‘There is nothing to discuss or criticize’); but it was clear that this was an assumed personality; he is naturally self-explanatory, even garrulous, as becomes clear from his volumes of Conversations with Robert Craft. His musical output has likewise remained enormous, like that of Hindemith; but much of it produces the same sense of lack of inner compulsion.
There can be no doubt that, if judged on the level of a musical innovator, Stravinsky must be regarded as a great composer. Like Schoenberg, he has been determined always to be an interesting composer; there is plenty of material for discussion in his work. But the question still remains: is it valid development, or simply a kind of game, like Joyce’s development after Ulysses? An examination of his career throws some light on the problem.
If Stravinsky had died in 1912, he would have been regarded as a minor follower of Rimsky-Korsakov, who took Rimsky’s style further in certain respects, much as Strauss ‘developed’ Wagner’s style. The Firebird or Petrouchka are pleasant works, slightly more interesting than Rimsky’s Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh or Coq d’Or suites simply because Stravinsky has also learned something from Debussy, and his palette contains some transparent water colours as well as the garish pigments of Scheharazade.
When an artistic personality feels that it has reached a limit in a certain direction, its tendency is to explode, to produce something that has nothing in common with what has been before. This kind of thing never occurred in Mozart or Beethoven simply because they developed organically, never feeling that they had reached a limit. (Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata is perhaps the only analogous example.) We feel that with The Rite of Spring Stravinsky is momentarily disowning his Russian nationalism and all that it implies – particularly the music of Scriabin, who was then regarded as the last word in musical sophistication and mysticism. The Rite has no musical ‘argument’, even though it proceeds in a series of episodes; it stands at no opposite extreme from a work like Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, that develops slowly, statement by statement. The Rite is a musical explosion, a shout of defiance. It is also, of course, an orchestral showpiece, like Strauss’s Don Juan or Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. But my own experience is that it will not bear repeated listening; once once one knows it, one knows it, and there is no point in listening to new performances, even by someone as dynamic as Leonard Bernstein. Generally speaking, showpieces are of limited musical interest; no one is likely to maintain a lifelong affection for Beethoven’s ‘Battle’ Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, any more than for such eminent descendants of the Rite as Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite or Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin. At the most, one buys the latest stereophonic recording to astonish and deafen one’s friends. Historically speaking, the Rite may be the most important piece of music of this century; but from the perspective of half a century later, we can see that the critic who said that it was the twentieth-century equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was talking nonsense.
There followed what must have been for Stravinsky a period of artistic anxiety. The warm nationalistic manner of The Firebird was not susceptible of development; but if anything, The Rite of Spring was even more of a dead end. Fortunately for Stravinsky, it was also, for the time being, the end of his association with the Diaghileff ballet, so that for a few years he could afford to stop worrying about the public who looked to him for new thrills. The next few years, 1913 to 1918, produced only a few minor works – a few songs, short piano works, pieces for string quartet, and the completion of an opera begin in the Firebird period, The Nightingale.
There was only one major work, Les Noces, written in 1917, and it shows Stravinsky attempting to develop the rhythmic implications of The Rite of Spring. Many regard it as a masterpiece; its first five minutes certainly arrest the attention with their rhythmic vitality and the oriental sound of the vocal line (which, in this respect, bears some resemblance to Ravel’s Two Hebrew Melodies written three years earlier). But continued acquaintance reveals the same defect as in the Rite; the lack of a melody is tiresome; the ear grows tired of barbaric rhythms, which have the same effect of blunting the sensibility that one finds in some of Wagner’s noisier passages. The same thing applies to the ‘burlesque tale’ Reynard, although here a certain lightness of touch gives the work the quality of an agreeable romp.
The Soldier’s Tale (1918) again shows Stravinsky preoccupied with helping out the music by buttressing it with words. The attempt would have been more successful if it had not been for the puerile nature of the text by C. F Ramuz. The quality of the music shows that Stravinsky is not entirely at home when he cannot rely on his rhythmic effects (the music having been written for seven instruments). Nevertheless, The Soldier’s Tale succeeds in holding the attention for forty minutes, and in this respect may be regarded as his most successful work since The Firebird.
The twenties were Stravinsky’s phase of ‘time travelling’ (to use Constance Lambert’s description). The 1923 Piano Concerto became associated with the catch phrase ‘Back to Bach’, and is the first of a number of ‘harmonically sour and emotionally dry works’. It would appear that Stravinsky had come fully to realize that the actions and reactions of his early years were essentially rootless, and had decided that ‘tradition’ should give him the dimension that he otherwise lacked – the ability to develop logically. Tradition, to begin with, meant various eighteenth-century procedures. And what is equally clear is that Stravinsky himself was not enough of a personality, that is, a living and suffering human being, to develop in the existential manner of a Mozart or Beethoven. His colleague Nijinsky sensed this instinctively, and wrote of him: ‘He seeks riches and glory… Stravinsky is a good composer, but he does not know about life. His compositions have no purpose…’ He goes on to tell how Stravinsky and his wife declined to look after Nijinsky’s child while the dancer toured America and implies, what Madame Nijinsky states flatly, that Stravinsky was a cold fish. Certainly one feels about all the music written after Petrouchka that it is ‘cold fish’ music, that it was never written as a spontaneous outpouring of something that had to be expressed. This unsatisfactoriness is easiest to pin down in the works based upon other composers: Pulcinella (based on Pergolesi), The Fairy’s Kiss (Tchaikovsky), and Norwegian Moods (Grieg). Somehow the ‘Stravinsky-izing’ of the music has the effect of devitalizing it, removing its flavour, like putting salmon into tins; it is like putting it through some processing machine.
The thirties and forties were, on the whole, a bad time for Stravinsky. He produced a number of remarkable works that compare favourably with Les Noces in rhythmic force: the Symphony of Psalms, the Concerto for two pianos, the Danses Concertantes and the Symphony in Three Movements (1945), as well as some works that have all the characteristics of of the processing machine, and that seem as colourless and unsatisfactory as the ‘classical’ works that Hindemith was producing at the same period. In 1948 he began work on what Roman Vlad has described as the culminating work of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, the opera The Rake’s Progress. As with The Soldier’s Tale, this work holds the interest – the libretto is a great deal better than the one by Ramuz, in spite of a few absurdities, such as the bread-making machine, and the marriage to the bearded lady – but the music is frequently even less inspired than in The Soldier’s Tale; there are long ‘Mozartian’ recitatives that are accompanied by a tuneless plinking on the harpsichord. This would be excusable if they were separated by arias of Mozartian melodic invention; but there is no other work of Stravinsky in which it is so clear that he has no melodic gift of any kind.
Once again Stravinsky found himself at the end of musical tether. By this time both Schoenberg and Webern were safely dead. Up till this point Stravinsky’s name had been mentioned with sneers by the ‘serialists’, and to have shown any interest in Schoenberg would have seemed a capitulation. But twelve-tone music now provided another avenue of development – the only possible one, in fact. Stravinsky therefore began to experiment with twelve-tone procedures. One of the first of these works was a setting of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. It is intended as a dirge for Thomas, and the instrumentation – string quartet and four trombones – is deliberately lugubrious; but the music itself is completely undirge-like; it rises and falls arbitrarily, and again manages to give the impression of being machine-made. It was something of a mistake on Stravinsky’s part to set the text of such a well known poem, since anyone can grasp the emotion of the poem, and decide whether the music expresses its feeling. He here show none of the delicate feeling for words that Britten often displays in his setting of poems.
Possibly warned by his experience, Stravinsky returned to the setting of a Latin text in his next major work, the Canticum Sacrum, a procedure that had produced one of his most successful operas, Oedipus Rex. In its way, Canticum Sacrum is as effective as Oedipus; the frantic trumpets at the beginning contrast strangely with the ‘churchy’ associations of the organ and choir (a hint that Britten borrowed for the War Requiem). Roman Vlad describes it as ‘the most comprehensive… synthesis of elements it is possible to imagine at this particular stage in the evolution of European music’, and speaks of its various influences: Gregorian chant, Webern, Byzantine modes, polytonality and atonality. One can imagine the late Constant Lambert wrinkling his nose and muttering, ‘Pastiche again.’ The same basic objection applies to the Canticum Sacrum as to the Dylan Thomas poem. In Schoenberg’s twelve-note music, one is aware of the underlying emotion; in Stravinsky’s, it is difficult to perceive any underlying emotion. There are moments when it becomes moving or exciting – usually moments of sudden contrast, when the old rhythmic Stravinsky breaks through – but for the most part it sounds like ruler-and-compass music.
Since the Canticum, Stravinsky has produced two more twelve-note works: Threni and The Flood. Threni is a great deal longer than the Canticum, but on the whole the same remarks apply to it. (Once again, it is apparent that Britten has noted certain effects for his War Requiem.) According to some critics, it can be regarded as the culmination of Stravinsky’s life work, a lofty and inaccessible masterpiece that will not be generally understood for many years. At this stage, it is too early to decide; one can only say that if it is true, then it is the first time in his life that Stravinsky has been lofty and inaccessible; most of his works set out very obviously to make an immediate impact.
Judgement must be reserved on The Flood, a short opera commissioned by television. It is perhaps the worst text that Stravinsky has set since The Soldier’s Tale. One wonders what to make of passages like this:
Mother, we beg you all together,
Come into the ship for fear of the weather.
The flood is flowing in full fast,
For fear of drowning we are aghast.
Admittedly, the text is supposed to be a medieval morality play; even so, was Stravinsky unaware of its comic ? Or was this perhaps a part of the intention? If so, the twelve-note music, which sounds mostly as abrupt and disconnected as Webern, is completely inappropriate and likely to ruin any joke. It is almost as if Stravinsky wanted to test the faith of his admirers by deliberately making himself a sitting target for unbelievers.
When writing about a composer’s shortcomings, it is difficult not to sound completely destructive. It seems to me that Stravinsky’s development has not been entirely authentic, and that Constant Lambert was right when he said that Stravinsky chief desire was to remain fashionable and controversial. There is, it seems to me, distinctly an element of insincerity, of the desire to be thought a great composer rather than to become, as far as possible, a complete human being. This insincerity may not be entirely conscious; it is clear, from the irregular line of his development that Stravinsky is an exceptionally suggestible person. (And from reading the Conversations with Robert Craft, one suspects that Mr Craft may be the Svengali behind some of his most recent metamorphoses.) But it undoubtedly makes it impossible to consider seriously the claims that he is, in the final sense, a ‘great composer’.
And yet all this is only to say that Stravinsky will probably be placed one day in the gallery of minor composers, which includes his master Rimsky-Korsakov, and that probably includes Schoenberg himself. This is not to say that his music has not its own authentic value; only that, for the present, this value is enormously overrated.
The problem stated at the beginning of this chapter now presents itself in a new light. The followers of Schoenberg, Hindemith,and Stravinsky can see only that these artists were wholly sincere; they can also point out that these artists were wholly sincere; they can also point out that they were accomplished musicians, not mere rebels. (Schoenberg and Hindemith both composed classic textbooks on musical composition, and Stravinsky has also written on the ‘Poetics of Music’.) Their opponents, on the other hand, are aware mainly of the preposterous mystique that has come to surround these figures, and which is due mainly to intellectual snobbery. Schoenberg’s principles of composition are justified because, in many cases, they have produced impressive music; the same goes for Webern and Berg. But it is preposterous to pretend that therefore serial music has a general and universal validity, and that non-serial composers are betraying their frivolity. Joyce wrote the manuscript of Finnegans Wake in different-coloured inks on different-coloured sheets of paper; this does not mean that this method should become de rigueur for all serious writers. The most that can be said is that serial music demands a fairly serious approach to composing, and therefore may help to sort the sheep from the goats. But it does not guarantee anything.
The worst aspect of all this is the influence it has had on young composers, who have swallowed their serialism as eagerly as writers of thirty years ago gulped down their Joyce, Eliot and Proust, and who, in some cases, feel that real originality demands that they go ‘beyond Schoenberg’ (since, they argue, Schoenberg displayed conservatism in retaining any kind of ‘scale’). There was recently published a volume of interviews with British composers, ranging from John Ireland to Peter Racine Fricker and Alexander Goehr, which reveals the kind of total split that exists in the musical world. Thus the interviewer (Murray Schafer) can open his interview with Goehr (born 1932) with the staggering remark: ‘In comparison with your European contemporaries you might be called a “reactionary”. Your music owes more to Schoenberg than to Webern…’ (Goehr sensibly replies that the merit of a composition does not depend on whether it is experimental or not, and that experimentalism has been greatly overstressed.) The result is that the symposium has the curious effect of a volume on philosophy written by a mixture of mythical atheists and bigoted Roman Catholics.
The younger composers are hardly to be blamed for this. The need for discipline of some sort is generally felt by all healthy minds, and if their elders assure them dogmatically that Schoenberg may be the greatest composer of all, it is not surprising if they come to accept that serialism is the only serious way of composing. the result is that experimental music becomes an offshoot of the mainstream of music, rather like jazz, and its adherents announce that their method is the only true way of salvation. All this is not the result of the musical theorizing of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Hindemith, but of the systematic overrating of these interesting minor composers. (The constant use of the word ‘greatness’ in connection with Britten is another example.) The result of this overrating is that the argument tends to proceed to extremes, and Henry Pleasants can speak indignantly of ‘the twelve-tone aberrations of Boulez and Nono (neither of whom are serialists), and then go on to suggest that the twentieth-century American music, including jazz and the musical, is fundamentally more valuable than European ‘serious’ music of the same period; while on the other hand a composer like Sibelius is ignored in several reputable volumes on twentieth-century music, and is no longer played on the BBC Third Programme.
There is of course, a fundamental fallacy in Mr Pleasants’s way of arguing. It is not in the least difficult to show that Beethoven inevitably gave way to Wagner who in turn gave way to Bruckner and Mahler, who set the scene for twentieth-century music, and that therefore twentieth-century music finds itself in a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape, no possible route for creative development. One is reminded of how literary critics of the forties argued in the same way about the novel and poetry, and ended by pointing to the dearth of important writers since Joyce and Eliot to prove that their diagnosis was correct. The literary revival of the fifties, in America as well as Europe, proved that the real problem was lack off writers with something to say. The same is true of music. Tradition is important; it can enable a minor composer to produce a major work. Conversely, a lack of tradition (or the inheritance of a moribund tradition) produces the ‘race for originality’ that may prevent a serious composer from finding his feet. (This seems to me to be true of Tippett.) But ultimately the great composer creates what tradition he needs, or manufactures it from odds and ends of other ages. If the music of an age is disappointing, it is for lack of musicians with something important to say rather than because the musical tradition has become enfeebled. History may be to blame, but only individuals with the courage to be subjective can remedy it.
–Colin Wilson (originally published 1964)
The first part of Wilson’s essay on modern music is at The Fiend, and is a part of the new edition of the book ‘Brandy of the Damned; Colin Wilson on Music’ by Foruli Classics released earlier this year.
Born in 1931, Colin Wilson was a highly prolific British writer of creative and critical prose, writing 150 books over 50 years, and covering subjects of philosophy, literature, mysticism, the occult, religion, science fiction, spirituality, crime, and studies in consciousness. He is arguably best known for his first book ‘The Outsider’, for his philosophic amendments to popular European existentialism, and for his compendiums on the occult. He died in December of last year.