Stravinsky vs. Bernstein : The State of the Art



Two books crossed my desk; one old, one new(er), neither borrowed nor blue. Igor Stravinsky's Themes and Conclusions (University of California Press , 1966, '69 and '72) and Leonard Bernstein's Findings (Anchor Books, 1982) both represent important writing on important topics, or one topic in particular - the state of music. This is terrific rabble to rouse; there are as many theories as theorists on the 'ology' part of music. As neither of these music makers (they would prefer this collective title, I think) was associated with the academy and both were integral in the shaping music of the American soundscape, their fortuitous plop on my desk was a happy moment of bliss, the bliss of pure intellectual stimulation. Like when you find that Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn is very like Disney's Bambi. Two takes on the state of things.

    Before you leave this rambling, consider their respective views on the direction of modern music. [Remember that Stravinsky is in his 80s] Stravinsky says in an interview with the New York Review of the development of electronic music,

    "As for the live new music of the decade, the main power struggle was between the pre-ordained and the lottery schools, even though so far as the listener was concerned this amounted to a stalemate, for no matter how polarized the differences, only score readers and initiates were aware of them . In practice, the ad lib timing , the unfixed notes in fixed range, the mechanisms of choice, were not recognized as the freedom gestures they were intended to be, but as effects that might have been despotically 'written' as any other. ...But some of the other 'pioneering of the period must have seemed like paring closer and closer to nothingness: the engaging of choruses in a variety of pranks not including the use of the voice, for example, and the performances on the woodwork of the piano,...,and the exploitation of a principle of form based entirely on audience suspense guessing how near the actual cul of the sac the promulgator really was (Themes and Conclusions, p. 150)."

    This barb is obviously pointed towards John Cage whose work Stravinsky never supported. He goes on to bemoan nature of new music's creation. "In my youth the new music grew out of and in reaction to traditions, whereas it appears to be evolving today as much from social needs as interior artistic ones (T&C, p. 151)." So Stravinsky was summarily unconvinced of the fecundity of "new music" at least of the 60s. This quote is typical of his almost curmudgeonly views on life. There are many telling moments in this tome, especially his views of health and aging.

    Bernstein's book, on the other hand, is full of his own special verve. This is extended to his views on other composers and even to our elder statesman - Mr. Stravinsky himself in a chapter entitled "Homage to Stravinsky." His speech delivered on 23 May, 1963 called "Varese, Koussevitsky and New Music," really demonstrates his love for new music and, perhaps more importantly, new music makers.

    "Does anyone care anymore-really care-if anyone of us here ever writes another note? You see, our crisis is different from the historical precedents: it is concerned with human expressivity, the mirroring of our inner lives in music. Are we still living in a world where an octave leap upward implies a sense of yearning, or reaching? Or is it become only an intervallic symbol? Do we still base our forms on the concept of struggle and resolution, or are we now condemned to reveal ourselves as forever unresolved? These are only a few of the questions that rack the composer's soul today; our experimentation has acquired a sort of desperate quality, and we don't know many answers. But that is precisely the wrong reason - and this would be the wrongest possible time - to abandon the modern composer. Now, if ever, he needs all the encouragement he can get: stimulation, interest, commissions, performances (Findings, p. 216)."

    How his enthusiasm glows for the cause of new music and composers of same. This very eagerness can be eked out of some of Stravinsky's comments in the "program notes" and in "Prefaces". "Even now, me younger colleagues ... are able to hear necessity where I hear only randomness, and to perceive Ariadne's threads (as mollusks perceive colours beyond the range of human awareness) where I find only broken bits of string. Do these seventy years constitute a period of high musical achievement? I think they do, at any rate, and I would rank the highest flights of the time (Jacobsleiter, Pierrot lunaire) with the greatest achievements of the past (T&C, pp. 189-190)." A tidbit of the full-blown honesty that abounds in these two books.

    Stravinsky's book is ridden with a sort of intermediary; in literary style and in content. This is the effect of the editor Robert Craft reparsing some of the material, especially the interviews. One has the feeling of Stravinky's superhuman command of languages and ideas (which he no doubt possessed) but the rapidity and coherence of some of his responses in interviews is not to be believed. Be that as it may, it is still a very honest outpouring of a complicated and deeply intellectual man. Berstein's is more chatty. He is often joking and teasing the sensibilities and just plain having fun. The presentation is casual; including several speeches and even the rough draft (final) version of the "Young Peoples' Concert Lectures." I hope that you will read either or both of these. They tell of two very different men in the realm of modern music, complete with indulgences, pratfalls and quirks. Most vivid is the insight into the nature of necessary involvement with music's fabric, indeed artistic life itself.

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