20 Apr 2015

A Measure of Present Justice

Stravinsky would loathe the classifications we apply to his various “style periods” and likely might argue that, as consumers of his and other artists’ work, we do so at our own experiential peril. We know this about him thanks to his long, productive and highly public life, during which he enjoyed the rare opportunity of witnessing (and even responding to) the academic segmentation of his output. In a fantastic article for English National Opera’s series of informative guides (No. 43, 1991), author Brian Trowell recounted an interview Stravinsky gave to Houston Post writer Hubert Roussel. Roussel apparently asked the composer about “neoclassicism” and Stravinsky immediately bristled, calling the term a “label that means nothing whatever” and sarcastically offering a fitting anatomical location for such words. Roussel had clearly touched a nerve. The idea that Stravinsky was either the leader of or (worse) merely a member of a defined compositional movement akin to Schoenberg’s or Wagner’s or Debussy’s was something the composer himself did not find amusing.
But still…
Despite his objections, neo-classicism was such a movement and Stravinsky was a confident and effective practitioner of it. The term itself, in this context, should not be confused with the Age of Enlightenment fascination with antiquity in architecture and the visual arts. From today’s musical/historical perspective, it describes a trend that began in the 1920s as a reaction to the perceived excess of late Romantic expression when composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Hindemith and others sought inspiration in the formal and stylistic conventions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Haydn and Mozart became rich sources of raw material for the systematic stripping-down of the large orchestrations and structural densities of the day (Bach too was a frequent font of imitative solace, which begs the question of whether “neo-baroque” is not more often the appropriate moniker), and the neo-classicists soon perfected the pastiche techniques that earned them both praise and scorn.
The two sides of that critical coin would often exist side by side in the same performance reviews for Stravinsky, such was the confusion over his dedication to making the old new again. Regardless of his source material, or maybe because of it, he was occasionally chastised for not rendering his Mozartian evocations accurately enough, as if by drawing upon the wisdom of a past master, Stravinsky had turned from creator to translator and had therefore abandoned the abstract artistic standard for a clinically literal one. He seemed fully aware of the question at hand when he wrote in Themes and Episodes, “Can a composer re-use the past and at the same time move in a forward direction?”
To the Music
The answer to that question was “yes,” according to Stravinsky, but he felt disinclined to defend the point too strenuously. Since he didn’t hold with the notion of arbitrary (to him, anyhow) categories and their preconceptions, he was right not to. In truth, he never once set out to write “neo-classical” music, only music, so the fuss over expectations had to have been bewildering and frustrating for him.
The above quoted question and its answer were part of a program note Stravinsky wrote for The Rake’s Progress 13 years after its 1951 premiere. He said he was inspired by the Hogarth lithographs to create a “period” piece, one that would “assume the conventions of the period as well.” The conventions Stravinsky was referring to were those of an 18th century “number” opera, which he described as “one in which the dramatic progress depends on the succession of separate pieces – recitatives and arias, duets, trios, choruses, instrumental interludes.” He admitted that he had no intention of reforming or transforming the long-standing ideals, but rather hoped to revive them in a progressive setting. Ever self-aware, Stravinsky further conceded, “…for a long time The Rake seemed to have been created for no other purpose than journalistic debates concerning…the validity of the approach. If the opera contains imitations, however – especially of Mozart, as has been said – I will gladly allow the charge if I may thereby release people from the argument and bring them to the music.”
Let’s go there ourselves for a moment, to the music. If we consent to the notion that Stravinsky’s “neo-classical” period is a real thing for scholars and writers to parse (sorry, Maestro), then we must also accept that The Rake’s Progress was the end of it. There are no convenient diary entries that exclaim the transition (like maybe “The Rake is finished and so is my neo-classical phase. On to serialism!”), but he did clearly move into other, more recognizably “modern” compositional areas after this opera. Certainly, Stravinsky did indeed “re-use the past” for The Rake’s Progress in a way that now feels summative, like a final, eloquent statement of principle. On the subject of influences, he referred only to Gluck specifically but we do know that he also made a study of the Mozart/da Ponte collaborations (Figaro, Giovanni and Cosi) and was particularly fond of the continuous narrative design in Verdi’s Falstaff. This might lead one to see exactly what he himself identified as a common observation after the premiere, that The Rake was not much more than a collection of “imitations.” The imitations are there, sure, and as we have seen, Stravinsky permits them (Mozart, at least) in his program note, but to judge this music simply by recounting a few of its ingredients is to miss the genius of it entirely.
Stravinsky, in his elaborate use of established operatic conventions, succeeded in his wish to make the familiar newly so. His own personal conventions as a composer had themselves become canon by the time he wrote The Rake’s Progress so if his Mozartian moments weren’t sufficiently Mozartian for some commentators, it is because they were also intentionally Stravinskian. The recitatives, for instance, are especially surprising for their use of the harpsichord (expected) in the composer’s signature harmonic and rhythmic language (decidedly not expected). Truly in those instances are the innovations of the previous centuries magically reborn in his.
“…in any case,” Stravinsky continued in 1964, “I am not concerned with the future of my opera. I only ask for it a measure of present justice.” No mention of the past there, so let’s take our leave of it too and enjoy The Rake’s Progress for what it is – wonderful dramatic music and a classic in its own right – and allow the debates to sort themselves.
Jeff Counts © 2015