Last week the subject was Stravinsky the radical: the composer of "The Rite of Spring" - the score that exploded classical music, and in the process, created a new paradigm for orchestral music. Music now had become atavistic, "in your face" and most of all, not refined or respectful of venerated tradition. If the ghosts of Bach and Mozart were listening from Elysium, what would they say? Were these cacophonous new sounds really music at all?
Good question. Traditional listeners were thinking the same thing, and were outraged by "Rite." Call it the shock of the new. At the same time, forces beyond Stravinsky’s control would make "Rite" unique - a landmark incapable of being the basis of a new style.
"Rite," it turns out, was the culmination of a trend towards gargantuan-ism, as typified in the fin-de-siecle symphonies, tone poems and operas of Mahler, Schoenberg and Strauss. Composers could go no further. The death knell to these dinosaurian projects was, of course, World War I. The decimation of Europe, with the loss of cultural institutions (opera houses, symphonies) and the musicians to perform in them, many killed in the war, meant that ambitious, large-scale musical ventures were out of the question.
What was a composer to do, especially after having achieved a succes de scandal with "Rite"? Stravinsky was always "the man with a plan;" looking both ahead and around, he possessed a kind
He also had a love, as it happened, for the ragtime that was in the air. A decent pianist, he wrote his own skewed, perverse version of this early pre-jazz popular music, and followed it with a "Ragtime" for small chamber ensemble. Soon after, around 1918, only five years after "Rite," he composed an "Octet for Wind Instruments" that really had people guessing if Stravinsky hadn’t gone ‘round the bend. How, and why, could the notorious composer of "Rite" be interested in vernacular music, and even more surprising, look backwards to the classical models of chamber music - for that’s what the "Octet" appeared to be - a reversion to an archaic style that had nothing to do with the heady dissonance and radical modernity of "Rite."
But this was Stravinsky’s genius: to extract from the stereotypical, old-hat past what he needed to create something new. The multiple pasts - be they Baroque, Classical, borrowings from Pergolesi, Verdi and Tchaikovsky (yes, he really let himself be influenced by these diverse styles and masters,) was grist for his compositional gamesmanship. Could ragtime be merged with Bach and Handel-like textures? Sure - why not? Listen to the 1924 Piano Concerto and see if it doesn’t make you roll your eyes or burst out laughing with its outrageous potpourri of styles, one after the other.
"Ragtime" and the "Octet" were just the beginning. This new manner, dubbed "Neoclassicism," through everybody for a loop, from the critics, to Schoenberg (a wag, he called Stravinsky "little Modernsky, with his powdered wig and real fake hair").
Neoclassicism, in Stravinsky’s hands, was a plan, a strategy to achieve results: to write music that was modest in scope and easy to program; music that was simultaneously old and new, thus familiar and radical at the same time, pleasing both the traditional and adventurous music lover (that was the plan), and music that allowed Stravinsky to indulge his love of the past, for he was, in his furtive soul, a traditionalist.
The true creator is always making connections, acting out a "what if" scenario in an imaginary plot to marry the unlikely to the familiar.
How else does art progress, if not by building upon the past, standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before? Yet, there is the question of originality. "Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal." Thus saith Igor, quoted, no doubt, in one of his tongue-in-cheek moments.
In all his incarnations, wearing whichever mask he pleased, Stravinsky absorbed, embellished, re-channeled and re-mapped the past, all the while with an ear to incorporating the current available musical tools and sensibilities. He was a composer for all times, all eras, all styles, much like his friend Picasso was in visual art.
Neoclassicism served Stravinsky well from around 1918-1951. After composing the opera "The Rake’s Progress," he had, it seemed, said all he could in that panoply of styles, and felt the need for something new. With a little help from the young conductor/musical assistant Robert Craft, he was led to discover the post-world War II modernism of Anton Webern (1881-1945). More about that in Stravinsky, Part III, upcoming.