Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

When style categories like "neoclassical" confuse more than they enlighten

One of my tasks this summer has been to dig deeper into the music of Igor Stravinsky as I complete an article on the nexus between liberal theology and choral singing. Stravinsky's choral music, his religious life, and his approaches to text setting are fascinating and complex matters. But rather than rehearse here what I intend to argue in my article, I thought I would use this space to discuss a side issue that I won't be treating there.

I am increasingly suspicious of the division of Igor Stravinsky's career into three periods (folkloric, then neoclassical, then serial). Ever since Beethoven, the notion of three style periods has become an overused crutch. The more I listen to Stravinsky's works, the more I am unhappy with the notion that everything from the ragtimey chamber music of The Soldier's Tale (1918) to the hieratic ritual of Oedipus Rex (1927) constitutes a "neoclassical period."

(And even in Beethoven's case, it is debatable how useful it is to speak of three style periods. The Eighth Symphony is neither "heroic" nor "late," and perhaps we neglect this wonderful work because it doesn't fit our preconceived notions of "second period" or "third period" style.)

Take the three mature works which Stravinsky named with the word "symphony," often grouped on a single CD: the Symphony of Psalms (1930), Symphony in C (1938-40), and Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45). As a choral singer, I have had a long interest in the first work, one of the major works for orchestra and chorus from the 20th century. I have gotten to know the others more recently. Surely if any work of Stravinsky's deserves the label of "neoclassical", it is the Symphony in C, with its obvious debt to Mozart and Haydn for its balanced phrasing and form. Next to it, the Symphony of Psalms seems from another world, with its wind-heavy orchestration, chantlike themes, and dissonant counterpoint.

Then there is the Symphony in Three Movements, which at first I found elusive, perhaps because I was trying to square my experience of the work with the category of "neoclassical." My first impression of the work was that Stravinsky was trying to sound too much like the Stravinsky of the popular early ballets such as The Rite of Spring (1913). With repeated listening, I began to focus on a comic tone found through much of the symphony. Perhaps I was hearing the work with the ears of Hollywood, because a number of passages seem to be closely imitated by numerous film composers these days. The bouncy, slightly askew opening of the slow movement could easily appear between scenes of a romantic comedy, while the theme beginning at 1:21 in the third movement seems a dead ringer for depictions of comic mastery in blockbusters of the Spielberg type. (Is the melody at 2:00 a premonition of one of the themes in Star Wars?)

Recently, I have been reading Robert Craft's most recent compilation of his conversations with Igor Stravinsky, Memories and Commentaries (2002). Stravinsky's discussion of the Symphony in Three Movements is an eye-opener because, despite his protestations, the work seems to have a specific program drawn from the events of World War II, particularly as experienced in newsreels. It is not just a matter of later film composers raiding the Symphony for ideas; there is already something cinematic about the work's musical language. (And in fact, some of the music in the symphony comes from abandoned film projects.) On the other hand, Stravinsky's imagery seems to be different from mine. The passage I experience as "comic mastery" above Stravinsky describes as a "rumba ... associated in my imagination with the movements of [German] war machines": comic "immobility" rather than mastery.

(You can read a version of Stravinsky's program from an earlier Craft conversation book here. In Craft's 2002 book, the account of being roughed up by Nazi brownshirts does not appear in conjunction with the Symphony, but in a completely different context. Making sense of the multiple versions of Stravinsky conversations would be a fine topic for a folklore or musicology dissertation.)

One of my favorite writers on music, Joseph Horowitz, has posted a wonderful video that attempts to couple Stravinsky's music with the newsreel footage that inspired it. (It does not appear to be available on video sharing sites, so you will have to download the file to your computer. It is well worth the effort.) While obviously this video is not the last word on "what the music means," it makes clear that the finale of the Symphony in Three Movements could be heard as a "film score without images" (rather like a "song without words"). Perhaps one could call the Symphony "neoromantic," but "neoclassical" just does not apply.

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