Classical Diaries: Igor Stravinsky (on Columbia)

The past week’s listening has been a refresher course in several classical favorites, chiefly those of Igor Stravinsky. The “Original Jacket Collection” box set as issued by Columbia a few years ago has nine discs worth of Stravinsky conducting his own works, and “eclectic” doesn’t even begin to describe the distance between the ballets, short songs like “Owl and the Pussycat”, choral works, so-called jazz pieces, miniatures, or brief Modern twitches. As a wizened, aging artist, Igor had half the world polishing his statue while the other half stood in line to throw darts at his neoclassicism, which in any case didn’t determine his every move. He sampled various composing methods but held none up as a lifelong banner. Whereas Schoenberg labored within his own set of rules, Stravinsky let each new piece present its own rulebook and so confounded (and still confounds) any attempt to peg him as an old hairdresser or a modern icon. A piece such as the Octet for woodwinds, in the composer’s own words, is a musical object unto itself, and Stravinsky wasn’t being entirely facetious when he said that music was incapable of Expressing anything at all. It can create a mood but cannot express a pre-existing one universally. So the Octet functions as a formal pleasure - and it’s a very inviting piece - but it has no emotional agenda. Same goes for the later Septet of 1953. Or the Eulogy from the three-part “Ode” for orchestra: formally self-contained, while the heady harmonic fabrics are a nice side effect.

There is a slight chill surrounding Stravinsky’s works, yet one can take inner warmth from the mental exercise of listening to them. Or so has been my experience. The man wrote much to admire, plenty to love, but it’s rare that he reaches into my chest and caresses my heart. The exceptions happen almost by accident, as in the brief “Pastorale”, an early piece that would be a folk throwaway were it not for the sudden detour of the melody into an unexpected chord, which then resolves into the original train of thought. And so the banal becomes somewhat profound, or at least a resonant metaphor of life, as a trite routine is interrupted (and enriched) by a slight derailment. Or maybe it’s just the yearning sound of the displaced melody as it tries to regain its footing at the tonic.

No classical composer of the time could effectively escort jazz into their orchestral idiom, as Stravinsky tries in his “Ebony Concerto”. (Better anyway to let Ellington elevate jazz from his position at its center.) “Ebony Concerto” as done by the Woody Herman band (1946) doesn’t quite happen; the same piece done by the anonymous Columbia Jazz Combo (1965) is better, because there’s no real personality being stifled. But forget crossbreeding expectations and hear “Ebony Concerto” as a modern classical diversion that ‘knows of’ jazz, and it’s delightful, particularly the second movement. Stravinsky also co-opted ragtime explicitly in “Ragtime for Eleven Instruments” and even a section of the Histoire du Soldat suite. Again, it’s better heard as folk borrowing, which in a sense it is. Igor recognized something in the new American music that was vital, although jazz’s main strain would develop into an improvisational form completely outside of classical jurisdiction. When jazz turned to the classics for material, it was popular Gershwin they raided, or dashes of Ravel. Stravinsky was for study, or the occasional smartarse quote.

The “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” (1959) frame Igor at his most modern, shards of sound forming a disconnected surface over complex harmonic ideas. All short movements, their arcane inner logic sounds like chance music at first listen. “Raoul Dufy in Memoriam” is a brevity for string quartet. The small pieces sometimes have negative charm, as in the “Elegy for JFK”, where Cathy Berberian overdoes a memorial text from Auden as clarinets hum and stab with ridiculous levity. What kind of elegy is this? And the melodrama of “A Sermon, A Narrative, and a Prayer” does not travel well beyond its time.

I’m generally not interested in vocal features, so most of Stravinsky’s choral works go right by me. However, the Symphony of Psalms opens a welcoming forest of voices. The vocal-less Symphony in C is another accessible major piece, conservative in form and texture but fresh in content. I’m not informed enough to judge either of them a masterpiece, although some experts have.

The ballets are Stravinsky’s biggest legacy. The 1945 Firebird Suite condenses and revises the original L’Oiseau de Feu into a compact brilliance: ominous opening, colorful middle sections, glorious finale. The condensed Petrushka suite is equally wonderful, more deliberate in harmony and rhythm than Firebird. The beauty of ballets sans visuals (dancers and scenery) is that they become absolute (not representational) music with organic forms. For closed eyes and open ears, Petrushka is no longer “about” a puppet - it’s open to interpretation. I realize that this ignores the spirit and intention of the music, but let’s put a positive spin on it: Stravinsky’s creations for the stage are substantial enough to exist without that stage.

The Rite of Spring is the holiest tablet from on high, and it’s no wonder that any serious musician studies it sooner or later. A turbulent work of steely melodic threads, raucous rhythms, and towering harmonies, it ranks with any musical invention of Stravinsky’s lifetime. Immortal are the pounding pagan chords of “The Augurs of Spring”, the dark waves of strings in “Spring Rounds”, and the thrilling horn and string chase in “Dance of the Earth”. With barely an ounce of warmth, The Rite is, per Stravinsky’s ideal (although I don’t think he had stated it yet), a self-contained machine of sound that creates its own world, Diaghilev’s dancers notwithstanding.

All of the above and more is heard within the aforementioned Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky boxed collection. Most of which sounds fantastic, but ironically, The Rite of Spring under Stravinsky’s baton is a rather tamed rendition that loses some extreme effects. (Or maybe this has something to do with the recording?) My preferred performance of this piece is by the Met Orchestra under James Levine, recorded in 1992 and paired on a Deutsche Grammophon disc with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Levine and the Mets don’t hold back on any of the primitive oomph of Le Sacre, and the recording captures the brunt of every impact.

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