04 December 2009

Stravinsky and (not VS.) Schoenberg

[ from Stephen Walsh’s A Creative Spring ]

Ramuz, who worked with Stravinsky in Switzerland, and wrote the libretto for L’histoire du soldat, leaves us this picture postcard of the composer:

Stravinsky’s writing desk resembled a surgeon’s instrument tray; now the order which the surgeon there sets out is one last chance he gives himself in his struggle against death. The artist too (in his way) is engaged in a struggle with death. These bottles of different-colored inks, each in its hierarchical place, play small part in a grand affirmation of a superior order. They keep company with different sorts and shapes of rubber and every kind of glinting steel object: rulers, scrapers, knives, pens, not to mention that particular wheeled instrument which Stravinsky himself had invented for the drawing of staves. One may recall St Thomas’s definition” beauty is the splendor of order.
In his notes, Stephen Walsh adds:

The “wheeled instrument” was the so called Stravigor — a several-sized wheeled stavewriter (rastrum), which Stravinsky had invented in about 1911 and had tried to patent through Nikolai Struve before the war. It figures first in his sketches for The Rite of Spring. Thereafter he usually drew his own staves on blank paper, filling in gaps at angles to avoid waste.

I’ve just read your review of the Ziloti concert in which Schoenberg conducted his Pelleas. I saw from what you wrote that you really like and understand the essence of Schoenberg—that truly outstanding artist of our time, and I therefore think that you would not be uninterested to know his latest work, wherein is most intensively displayed the whole extraordinary stamp of his creative genius. I’m talking about his [Pierrot Lunaire], which I recently heard in Berlin. Here’s something you “Contemporaries” ought to play! (Stravinsky writing to Karatygin, 26 Dec 1912)

At the theatre, Stravinsky was rehearsing Les noces. “I sat in the stalls with my score at the first rehearsal,” Monteux later recalled, “following every note. I had studied it thoroughly and I at once noticed that no one came in on time, chorus or soloists (Stravinsky at that time was not the conductor that he is today, having little or no experience with ensembles). The performance went through, and was a huge success with the Paris public, who always adored Stravinsky.” Monteux persuaded Diaghilev to give him a rehearsal of his own. “I worked with the chorus, who knew their parts perfectly; it suifficed to give them their cues at the right places. As for the soloists, they sang in any key and anywhere. They had to learn their parts. A few days after that rehearsal I had my first performance of Les noces. It went perfectly and I was satisfied, but it had not the scuccess as when conducted by the composer. C’est la vie! Ha ha!”

“Why do you change the rhythm so often?” somebody asks the composer. “Often?”—he is astonished. “I change it only when it is absolutely necessary.”

Assuming that a composer is at least entitled to like his themes (even though it may not be his duty to publish only what he himself likes), I dare say that I have shown here only melodies, themes, and sections from my works which I deemed to be good if not beautiful. Some of them were produced with ease; others required hard labor. Some are relatively simple; others are complicated. But one cannot pretend that the complicated ones required hard work or that the simple ones were always easily produced. Also, one cannot pretend that it makes any difference whether the examples derive from a spontaneous emotion or from a cerebral effort.

Unfortunately, there is no record that classic masters made much ado about the greater or lesser efforts needed for different tasks. Perhaps they wrote everything with the same ease, or, as one might suspect in the case of Beethoven, with the same great effort, as Beethoven’s sketch books prove.

But one thing seems clear: whether its final aspect is that of simplicity or of complexity, whether it was composed swiftly and easily or required hard work and much time, the finished work gives no indication of whether the emotional or cerebral constituents have been determinant.

It is necessary to remember that frequently the elaboration of unaccompanied themes and melodies in the examples I have shown required from three to seven sketches, while some of the contrapuntal sections were composed in a very short time.

It seems to me that I have anticipated the solution to this problem in the very beginning of this essay with the quotation from Balzac: “The heart must be within the domain of the head.”

It is not the heart alone which creates all that is beautiful, emotional, pathetic, affectionate, and charming; nor is it the brain alone which is able to produce the well-constructed, the soundly organized, the logical, and the complicated. First, everything of supreme value in art must show heart as well as brain. Second, the real creative genius has no difficulty in controlling his feelings mentally; nor must the brain produce only the dry and unappealing while concentrating on correctness and logic.

But one might become suspicious of the sincerity of works which incessantly exhibit their heart; which demand our pity; which invite us to dream with them of a vague and undefined beauty and of unfounded, baseless emotions; which exaggerate because of the absence of reliable yardsticks; whose simplicity is want, meagerness and dryness; whose sweetness is artificial and whose appeal attains only to the surface of the superficial. Such works only demonstrate the complete absence of a brain and show that this sentimentality has its origin in a very poor heart.

(from Heart and Brain in Music, 1946)

... When just drafted to a reserve company during the war, I, the conscript, who had had many a bad time, once found myself treated with striking mildness by a newly arrived sergeant. When he addressed me after we had drilled, I hoped I was going to be praised for my progress in all things military. There followed a blow to my soldierly keenness; surprisingly, the tribute was to my music. The sergeant, a tailor’s assistant in civil life, had recognized me, knew my career, many of my works, and so gave me still more pleasure than by praising my drill (even though I was not a little proud of that!). There were two other such meetings in Vienna: once when I had missed a train and had to spend the night in a hotel, and again when a taxi was taking me to a hotel. I was recognized the first time by the night porter, the other time by the taxi-driver, from the name on the label of the luggage. Both assured me enthusiastically that they had heard my Gurrelieder. Another time, in a hotel in Amsterdam, a hired man addressed me, saying that he was a long-standing admirer of my art; he had sung in the choir in the Gurrelieder when I conducted them in Leipzig. But the prettiest story last: a short while back, again in a hotel, the lift-man asked me whether it was I who had written Pierrot Lunaire. For he had heard it before the war (about 1912), at the first performance, and still had the sound of it in his ears, particularly of one piece where red jewels were mentioned (‘Rote fürstliche Rubine’). And he had heard at the time that musicians had no idea what to make of the piece — the sort of thing that was quite easy to understand nowadays.

It strikes me that I need not alter what I believe about the semi-ignorant, the expert judges; I may continue to think that they lack all power of intuition.

But whether I am really so unacceptable to the public as the expert judges always assert, and whether it is really so scared of my music — that often seems to me highly doubtful.

(from My Public, 1930)

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