Commonplace Book: Igor Stravinsky

Some choice bits from Chapter 3, “The Composition of Music” from his Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons, which befuddled me in college but now makes sense.

stravinskyAll creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery. This foretaste of the creative act accompanies the intuitive grasp of an unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible, an entity that will not take definite shape except by the action of a constantly vigilant technique.

This appetite that is aroused in me at the mere thought of putting in order musical elements that have attracted my attention is not at all a fortuitous thing like inspiration, but as habitual and periodic, if not as constant, as a natural need.

The premonition of an obligation, this foretaste of a pleasure, this conditioned reflex, as a modern physiologist would say, shows clearly that the idea of discovery and hard work is what attracts me.

The very act of putting my work on paper, of, as we say kneading the dough, is for me inseparable from the pleasure of creation. So far as I am concerned, I cannot separate the spiritual effort from the psychological and physical effort; they confront me on the same level and do not present a hierarchy. The word artist which, as it is most generally understood today, bestows on its bearer the highest intellectual prestige, the privilege of being accepted as a pure mind–this pretentious term is in my view entirely incompatible with the role of homo faber.


We have a duty toward music, namely to invent it. I recall once during the war when I was crossing the French border, a gendarme asked me what my profession was. I told him quite naturally that I was an inventor of music. The gendarme, then verifying my passport, asked me why I was listed as a composer. I told him that the expression “inventor of music” seems to fit my profession more exactly than the term applied to me in the documents authorizing me to cross borders.

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it. For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find. What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in the state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out…

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 29, The “seance” of music history

A TLS review of a new music book caught my eye, as it began, “Everything you know about the history of popular music is, in the view of Greil Marcus, most likely wrong.”

Paul Genders follows with a nice precis of Marcus’ argument:

[The] official, non-secret history referred to is the strictly chronological one: of jazz, blues and country giving rise to Elvis Presley, who gave rise to The Beatles, who changed everything – and the evolution has continued, with next year’s sounds emerging out of this year’s, in neat linear fashion. The problem is, of course, that the music itself doesn’t work nearly as prosaically as that narrative suggests. A great piece of popular music is less a “progression of the form” from an earlier work than a “rediscovery of a certain spirit”, or even a “step out of time”; this is an artistic medium best understood not as a sequence of forward manoeuvres but as “a drama of direct and spectral connections” between performers at different moments in history. We have “no reason to be responsible to chronology”, says Marcus, when considering something that moves as mysteriously as rock ’n’ roll.

I love this, and would only add that it’s as true of “classical” music as it is of rock ‘n’ roll. Although the time span goes on a little longer, the official history is still peddling a similar progression: baroque, to classical, to romantic schools, with Beethoven, who gave rise to Wagner, who “changed everything” serving as Elvis and the Beatles.

In fact, progression in music– maybe in any art form?–isn’t ‘forward’ –it’s multidimensional, and performers and composers are always waging restoration and revolution on their predecessors and successors. Does Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre” sound old or new? Is it still new primitive or is it old primitive now? Or consider his once derided opera “The Rake’s Progress,” which converses spectrally with Hogarth, Auden, Kalman, classical and bel canto musical forms, mid-20th century harmony, and, among others, via the medium of Dawn Upshaw, one of the great singers of yet another era.

Here is her performance of the soliloquy, “No Word From Tom,” at once an old-fashion scene and aria, and music that could have been written yesterday or tomorrow.

Beautiful Music: Two By Stravinsky

In this “The Rite of Spring” 100th anniversary year, much has been made of this epoch making work. And rightly so, as craggy monuments of genius go, it’s still got its rough edges and brilliance are intact–“news that stays new.” Fortunately, without the riots.

In can get lost in the shuffle that Stravinsky had many, many facets. His neoclassical works have always engaged me (perhaps because as a young chorister I came to grips, sort of, with the tenor II part to his cantata/opera “Oedipus Rex,” and as one does with a work that at first flummoxes you, came to love it.)

The Rake’s Progress is much later, but also has the astringent, precise quality of Stravinsky in neoclassical mode–particularly the spot on string writing and the stunning, angular but expressive vocal lines.

Since I loved these works, I naturally encouraged the singers I met one summer working at Central City Opera to listen to them and consider learning arias from them. “Such good audition pieces,” I gushed. Nuts. They are staggeringly difficult to bring off, and in the unlikely event you have the musical chops to master them, many a pianist is going to break out in a cold sweat when you ask them to open up the score. Sight reading a Stravinsky aria at tempo, with rhythmic accuracy, and when a job is on the line… Better stick to Quando me’n vo’.

Here are two singers who have no trouble with the Stravinsky, though. First Dawn Upshaw, doing Anne Truelove from The Rake’s Progress. This role was a calling card for this great American soprano. She recorded it on an early album, and later performed the role all over. Here she is singing about Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s take on a very old-fashioned operatic form, the scene and aria: four parts, recit, aria, tempo di mezzo, and cabaletta (with repeat). New wine in an old bottle.

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From Oedipus Rex (full work on YouTube), Creon’s aria (sung by a young Bryn Terfel in a production by Julie Taymor). Creon is bringing news from the oracle: there’s a murderer in their midst. The original has a narrator who explains the action. Taymor, influenced by Noh theater, among other traditions, has a Japanese performer doing this job.

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Even if 20th century opera is not your thing, what performances! (And yes, and I realize that Bryn could probably use the hands at a football match. Greek drama, football match…not perhaps so different.)


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