Stravinsky: Poetics of Music

November 13, 2018

Poetics of Music
In the Form of Six Lessons
Igor Stravinsky
(Harvard, 1970) [1942]
xiii + 142 p.

During the academic year 1939-40 Stravinsky was invited to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard University. In them, he, then, as now, considered one of the great composers of the twentieth century, spoke about creating music, the role of musical form, the importance of tradition, and aspects of musical performance. He was a brilliant and amusing figure with strong views and a playful intelligence; the experience of reading these lectures is, I believe, greatly enhanced by imagining them spoken in his own voice (which one can hear in, for example, this interesting interview).

The title of his lectures — the “poetics” of music — might lead the unsuspecting to think that he would expostulate, in romantic terms, on the ineffable and sublime, but this was not Stravinsky’s way. The title is precise: his subject is poetics, from the Greek poieo, meaning “to do or make”. He speaks not about the pleasant fancies of music, but about the down-to-earth craft of music-making. These were the terms on which he understood his own vocation — not as a revolutionary, and not even as an “artist”, but as a craftsman. This he understood, rightly, to be a return to a pre-Romantic conception of musical composition.

(As is sometimes the case with Stravinsky, one suspects an element of misdirection at play in this self-description; it would seem to apply more aptly to the composer of Pulcinella than Le Sacre.)

If a composer is a craftsman, what are his materials, and what his tools? He defines music in objective language: “a form of speculation in terms of sound and time”. His materials are sounds, which he arranges harmonically and temporally to form structures. In the very interesting third lecture, specifically on “The Composition of Music”, he describes what this process is like for him: a combination of improvisation, accidental discovery, and positive construction in awareness of (if not always in compliance with) established musical forms. He, borrowing from medieval theologians, uses very beautiful language to describe this process of searching and finding as “a spiral of love and understanding”. This is, if you want, a phenomenology of musical composition, which he wants to present as “objective findings” of general application but which can at least be appreciated as a first-hand account of his own experience.

The importance of form to Stravinsky would be hard to overestimate. (The subtitle of these lectures is, again, carefully chosen.) It is fairly common in treatments of musical fundamentals to take tonality as one of the principal organizing features of music. This Stravinsky rejects. Instead he uses the phrase “poles of attraction” to describe what is fundamental to music. The tonal system is but one example of a “pole of attraction”, and not a necessary one. More fundamental is musical form itself, and more fundamental still is melody, which “survives every change of system”.

Form was important to him in part because it imposed limits. “If everything is permissible to me… [then] every undertaking becomes futile,” he says. Using the example of fugue to illustrate his point, he argues for the paradoxical view that “we find freedom in strict submission to the object”. By limiting our choices, we are better able to act. He contends that “strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom”, citing da Vinci, but he might have cited almost any pre-modern authority, for this view, jarring to modern ears, was a commonplace of pre-modern ethics. In applying the point here to art and aesthetics, I expect he intended exactly this jarring effect.

A principal means by which this process of limitation takes place is tradition, which hands down a set of musical forms and techniques for the composer’s use, and part of his task is to appropriate this tradition, imposing it, as he says, upon himself. He is aware that twentieth century music, especially in the person of his arch-nemesis Schoenberg, ruptured the tradition of Western music, and he describes with, it seems, barely controlled fury the plight of the man thus bereft of his inheritance:

“Individual caprice and intellectual anarchy, which tend to control the world in which we live, isolate the artist from his fellow-artists and condemn him to appear as a monster in the eyes of the public; a monster of originality, inventor of his own language, of his own vocabulary, and of the apparatus of his art. The use of already employed materials and of established forms is usually forbidden him. So he comes to the point of speaking an idiom without relation to the world that listens to him. His art becomes truly unique, in the sense that it is incommunicable and shut off on every side […].

Whether he wills it or not, the contemporary artist is caught up in this infernal machination. There are simple souls who rejoice in this state of affairs. There are criminals who approve of it. Only a few are horrified at a solitude that obliges them to turn in upon themselves […].

The universality whose benefits we are gradually losing is an entirely different thing from the cosmopolitanism that is beginning to take hold of us. Universality presupposes the fecundity of a culture that is spread and communicated everywhere, whereas cosmopolitanism […leads to…] a sterile eclecticism.”

One hears echoes of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, which Stravinsky never refers to but which almost certainly lies somewhere in the background, and the general point, here eloquently put, has wider application beyond merely musical or literary tradition.

**

Stravinsky’s love of musical order and objectivity, and his disdain for radical individualism, led him to dislike much of the music of the Romantic era, and especially to detest the music of Wagner. These lectures are laced with withering anti-Wagner invective too good to pass over in silence:

“How powerful this man must have been to have destroyed an essentially musical form [the symphony] with such energy that fifty years after his death we are still staggering under the rubbish and racket of the music drama!…

Is this what is called progress? Perhaps. Unless composers find the strength to shake off this heavy legacy by obeying Verdi’s admirable injunction: ‘Let us return to old times, and that will be progress.'”

And again:

“For the devotees of the religion of Progress, today is always and necessarily more worth while than yesterday, from which the consequence necessarily follows that in the field of music the … Wagnerian orchestra represents an advance over that of Beethoven. I leave it to you to judge what such a preference is worth.”

His aversion for this music appears to be driven in part by the Romantic reliance on extra-musical elements: tone poems that allegedly tell stories, for example, or, as with Wagner, music designed to express a stage drama. One has to take this with a grain of salt, for Stravinsky himself wrote ballets, which would be susceptible to the same criticism. I wonder, also, if he expressed the same contempt for the music of “old times” which was, so often, written to convey words, which are, in themselves, non-musical. Stravinsky, too, wrote a Mass…

**

These lectures close with a consideration of musical performance, with which Stravinsky had extensive personal experience, especially as a conductor. He stresses that the performer’s task is not only technical and aesthetic, but also ethical, for he stands under an obligation to present the work in such a way as to faithfully convey the intentions of the composer. Naturally, this is the sort of thing you would expect a composer to say! It is also in keeping with his view that musical pieces are objective productions of a skilled craftsman, like a chair. Presumably Stravinsky must have hated Glenn Gould. But a musician feels an understandable pressure to project his own personality in performance, not least as a way of distinguishing himself from the crowd of able musicians. Most of us, I expect, recognize that a performance of a piece of music reflects a combination of what the composer intended us to hear and what the performer finds in the music. I join Stravinsky in thinking that the composer’s intentions are normative, but I am inclined to give performers some indefinite and perhaps haphazard latitude in interpretation (and, in music written for the harpsichord, I am a positive revolutionary in my insistence that it be played only on a piano).

**

I very much enjoyed reading through these lectures. I always find Stravinsky stimulating; I cannot think of another person in the musical world today who is comparably articulate and eminent. Part of the problem is surely that the disintegration of our musical tradition which he lamented has been one of the factors causing it to disappear from public life. But he was also just a special person, and it is probably simple folly to expect to find another like him. He can surprise me — as when he quotes, in these lectures, both Jacques Maritain and G.K. Chesterton — and he can provoke, but spending these few hours in his company has been very much worthwhile.

**

[Sincere ignorance]
In itself ignorance is, of course, no crime. It begins to be suspect when it pleads sincerity.

[Objective music vs subjective interpretation]
It is not easy to conceive how a pianist could establish his reputation by taking Haydn as his war-horse.

[Musical over-saturation]
The time is no more when Johann Sebastian Bach travelled a long way on foot to hear Buxtehude. Today radio brings music into the home at all hours of the day and night. It relieves the listener of all effort except turning a dial. Now the musical sense cannot be acquired or developed without exercise. In music, as in everything else, inactivity leads gradually to paralysis, to the atrophying of faculties. Understood in this way way, music becomes a sort of drug which, far from stimulating the mind, paralyzes and stultifies it. So it comes about that the very undertaking which seeks to make people like music by giving it a wider and wider diffusion, very often only achieves the result of making the very people lose their appetite for music whose interest was to be aroused and whose taste was to be developed.

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