Friday, August 17, 2012


Stravinsky_Igor_Postcard-1910.jpgWONDERFUL, GETTING OLD; There to the left is Igor Stravinsky at twenty-eight, about the time of Firebird; here I am a few days from seventy-seven, listening with new ears to a composer whose music I detested in my youth . It's the fault of my reclusive friend to the north, who told me last month of having received the gift of the Sony box of 22 CDs containing Orpheus alone knows how many Stravinsky compositions — ballets, operas, orchestral music, music for small ensembles, even some keyboard music: apparently virtually everything the man recorded for Columbia, as composer or pianist.

The first thing to note, I suppose, is that such recordings exist at all. Will the Stravinskys of the future have such means at their disposal, I wonder; and then quickly I wonder how music would sound today were other composers of new music, lacking Stravinsky's ego, certitude, and hustle, to see and hear their scores so immediately accessible. Ah well: better not to contemplate: that way madness lies.

The next thing to note, and it quickly shoulders everything else aside, is how fecund, fertile, energetic, intelligent, tuneful this music is. Thank the gods for Stravinsky, the Picasso of music, who knew and respected his forerunners among composers and, as Bhishma reminds me, knows and respects his musicians as did few other composers of his century.

My problem with Stravinsky, thirty and forty and fifty years ago, was that he was not a radical. I bought into Theodor Adorno's stupid dialectic of Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg, as if you could admit either one or the other but not both. (It's true they both lived in Los Angeles, where they famously ignored one another publicly.)

Late in his life Stravinsky came to terms with the twelve-tone method, having been brought to it by his young acolyte Robert Craft; he even composed using the method; Agon is among my favorite scores of his. It seemed cancelled, I thought then, by an even later piece, the setting of Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat," which struck me as a bit of senescent claptrap, like T.S. Eliot's "Practical Cats" verses. In those same years critics were disparaging Picasso's very late paintings; but when I saw the series of self-portraits a few years ago I found them extraordinarily moving.

Now I'm older, and understand better the octogenarian's indifference to the distinctions that seem so pivotal to a younger man, so epochal. One can only follow one's bent, however curious one may be about other views, other styles, other agendas than one's own.

At the moment I'm listening to Le baiser de la fée — the title's so much better in French than in English — one of the "neoclassic" pieces Stravinsky produced in the 1920s, in a "style" that particularly annoyed me; it seemed so safe, so cynically accessible, such a denial of what seemed to me then to be the undeniably forward-propelled course of music history. But Stravinsky is not re-writing Tchaikovsky, I now see clearly, he is composing music that contemplates the relevance, even the utility of Tchaikovsky in the period of Anton Webern's greatest work. One end of any such dualism is only enriched by the presence of the other; together, an entire historical period is made fuller, more rewarding.

It'll take a while to work my way through all these CDs. Bhishma's ahead of me, and reports that many of the recordings are remarkably fine — Ebony Concerto, Ragtime among them — whereas others reveal the flaws of underrehearsed pick-up "orchestras" which are in fact really only ad hoc gatherings of musicians of varying degrees of skill. Renard, Apollon Musagète, and Jeu de cartes are very enjoyable; ditto this Baiser and Scènes de ballet. And the box is an amazing bargain: I'm glad I bought it, and I'm grateful to have had my ears and mind re-tuned to admit this wonderful body of work.

•Works of Igor Stravinsky: Ballet music, suites, orchestral music, chamber music, minatures, songs, sacred works, performed by various ensembles under the direction of the composer; Sony|BMG 88697 103112 [22 CDs: circa 26:32:00]; available at Amazon; a full account of the contents is surveyed by Rob Barnett, with an indispensable detailed listing of performers, recording dates, etc., here.

[Later: let me add an anecdote from my friend Howard Hersh:
I was a high school student with a part-time job at the Beverly Hills Typewriter Shop, delivering machines, installing ribbons, etc.

One afternoon, I delivered Vera's typewriter to the Stravinsky home in the Hollywood - well, not hills, but foothills - and Igor himself answered the door. (It was a gracious, but modest home...) He was a bit befuddled about what do with it, but I got him to sign the receipt and was off... Yes, I knew who he was, but I did not know enough to be breathless..That would come later. How I wish I could have taken his hand and thanked him for what he had given us, and told him about my own dreams of being a composer...but I was not yet ready to do that.

Life just seemed to bring small encounters with the celebrated. I delivered a typewriter to Orson Welles' home - this was a true mansion in the Hollywood style - and saw the great man, enormous, and sitting, wrapped in some sort of purple dressing gown, in the darkened dining room.

“Taken his hand and thanked him for what he had given us”: Just the right thing to do, I think. I suppose he’d have been a bit befuddled.]


Civic Center said...

A lot of people complain about Stravinsky conducting Stravinsky but that's my favorite thing about this boxed set. So much of it sounds different and "righter" than many other interpretations over the years. And yes, his music is getting better with the years, it's not just your maturity.

Charles Shere said...

Yes, I've heard the same thing about Stravinsky as conductor, and almost made a negative comment about that myself… it's so easy to fall into those stupid mental routines. I only saw Stravinsky once, when he presided at a rehearsal of the Oakland Symphony — he'd been scheduled to conduct, but was too frail, and Craft took over in the event. Stravinsky had the reputation of being a dry, amateurish conductor, caught between his immense authority as composer and Historical Figure and his relative inexperience as a conductor (which means, in fact, his exclusion from the ranks of prettyboy and handkissing conductors). Listening to these recordings, though, you see the value of clarity, authority, collaboration, directness.

Maturity! No one's accused me of that before!

Curtis Faville said...

Stravinsky became an early hero of mine. The theme music for the old KQED series "Science in Action" moderated by a fellow in a white coat who televised from the old building in Golden Gate Park (I think), was taken from the last movement of the Petrouchka Suite (the part which walks down the scale with stacked fourths--?). I forget the moderator's name, but he was a very pleasant man (not condescending at all). The program was for kids.

Then, when I must have been about 13 or 14, I got an LP with three ballet suites -- Petrouchka, Le Pas d"Acier (Prokofiev), and a short piece by Liadov. The writing was dance music--very dramatic, sardonic and exultant by turns.

As music lovers two generations before me, I mourned the master's determination not to repeat himself by writing any more Firebirds or Petrouchkas or Rites, but the disappointment was muted by my love of so many of his subsequent works. Les Noces, Pulcinella, Octet, Violin Concerto, Symphony of Psalms, Rake's Progress, etc.

Then, at a time in his life when most artists are slowing and sinking, he became a fascinating essayist or self-interviewer--in a series of books published by Knopf. So perspicacious, curious, energetic! Egotist? Certainly. Often bitter and nasty? Yup. But boy he stayed alert and funny to the end.

John Whiting said...

Valerie Eliot once told me of an evening when she and Tom dined at a New York restaurant with Stravinsky and his wife. As they were leaving, the maitre de said audibly to one of the waiters, "There go the greatest poet and the greatest composer in the world."

There was a silence, broken by Madame Stravinsky: "They do their best."

Charles Shere said...

We need a compilation of Stravinsky anecdotes. Here's one from another friend:

Stravinsky signed the guest book at Lucy's parents' wedding [July 1941]. His signature was the largest in the book — and he drew a marquee around it, complete with light bulbs.