Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 6

We're getting very near the end, as some pop lyricist said, and not many pages remain to cover in this series. Taruskin delves into the ways that Stravinsky evokes and contrasts three different modalities or "polytonalities": the octatonic collection, the whole tone collection and the diatonic collection. Out of these three he can construct simple C major chords, or strong dissonances. As Taruskin summarizes:
we now have whole-tone, octatonic, and diatonic constructs from the source melodies all running concurrently, and all intersecting on C, which pitch is thus promoted to the status of a specious tonic. [op. cit. p. 930]
I have worked with this kind of structure myself, to a limited extent, and it is both effective and curious. It seems as it you are writing, sort-of, tonal music, but always with strange twists. This is so different from the completely atonal approach of Schoenberg and his followers, where you are always wandering in a trackless (though at times very, very symmetrical!) landscape.

The "Dance of the Earth" is the section that the above discussion is about and Taruskin describes it as:
at once one of the most radical sections of The Rite--surely the most radical by far in Part I--and the dance most rigorously based on folk-derived source melodies.
He goes on to say that The Rite is Stravinsky's "Eroica," referring to the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven which represented a similar kind of fundamental breakthrough. Nothing before (except, perhaps parts of Petrushka?) prepares you for the bewildering originality of The Rite. Taruskin's book, brilliant as it is, is not a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the work. For that he directs us to two books: The Harmonic Organization of "The Rite of Spring" by Allen Forte and Stravinsky and "The Rite" by Pieter Van den Toorn.

The Rite resonates, not only with folklore, but with earlier Russian music for the stage such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada and Snegurochka. Incidentally, the Opéra Comique production of the latter opera and Stravinsky's ballet shared not only the same designer of sets and costumes, Nikolai Roerich, but nearly the same designs! The characteristic timbres of Russian folk wind instruments is another shared quality. What Stravinsky did that was truly new and original was to take two elements present in Russian music, the folkloristic and modernistic, and synthesize them in an original way.

One unifying factor in The Rite is its use of two octatonic tetrachords, a tritone apart:

A characteristic "triad" is created by taking the outer notes of the upper tetrachord, D and G, and the lowest note of the lower one, G#, or the outer notes of the lower and the top note of the upper: G#, C# and G. This kind of sonority is common enough for Taruskin to dub it The Rite chord by analogy with the Petrushka chord.

Taruksin points to an exact contemporary of Stravinsky's, Mikhail Laryonov (1881 - 1964) and his partner Natalia Goncharova (1881 - 1962), as pursuing the same synthesis between folklore and modernism in his work:

Click to enlarge
Both have transcended their sources and contexts to achieve a "pan-human" result in the phrase of Roerich. Both are about a radical formal simplification, the sacrifice of kul'tura on the altar of stikhiya. The culture rejected by The Rite was that of the German symphonic tradition. Instead, formal procedures are stripped down to what is most basic: extension through repetition, alternation and sheer accumulation. This is what gives The Rite its elemental power. Instead of harmonic progression, thematic development and smooth transitions there would be stasis and abrupt discontinuities.

Taruskin sees two different kinds of rhythmic innovations: the immobile, hypnotic ostinato and the irregularly spaced downbeats, both features of Russian folk music. Here is an example of the latter, which Rimsky-Korsakov took down from the singing of Borodin's maid!

The barring, both in this song transcription and in The Rite, is rather arbitrary. When you combine the two different rhythmic techniques, as Stravinsky characteristically did, you obtain one of his most original textures.

And that brings us to the end of our long journey. I might offer a drive-by analysis of one or two movements in the near future, but this, I think, completes our survey of the context for The Rite of Spring. This has been just a collection of notes from Richard Taruskin's monumental work of music scholarship, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra.

So for our final envoi, here is, yet again, a performance of the work. This is the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez, which is, I think, the version I first purchased around 1970:

Monday, September 18, 2017

From Prestige to Notoriety

I don't have quite the right tag for this--my subtitle might have been "what has happened to our institutions of higher learning?" What got me thinking is the latest kerfuffle over the firing of Matthew Halls as director of the Oregon Bach Festival by the University of Oregon. If you want a quick, nasty take on it, read this over at Slipped Disc. For a longer and more nuanced treatment, there is an article in The Spectator:
Mr Halls insists he has not been told why he has been fired. Sponsors and supporters of the festival are also in the dark. Oregon University, which runs the bash, has said only that it intends to pursue a ‘different direction’ to the one pursued by Mr Halls, and hence he has to go. I would have thought there were a limited number of directions one could pursue with a Bach festival, most of them in the general direction of playing some Bach, but there we are. However, a very close friend of Mr Halls’s thinks he knows why he was fired. Reginald Mobley, a hugely talented counter-tenor, and an African-American, believes it is because a stupid white woman overheard a conversation between himself and Halls and construed one of Halls’s comments as being — yes, yes, we’re there again — racist. And complained to the authorities.
Another theory has it that the festival was experiencing a drop in attendance and this is why Halls was let go, but just a few weeks before his contract had been renewed to 2020, so that seems unlikely.

What I want to talk about is not the merits of this individual case, or related cases such as the debacle at Evergreen State College where out-of-control student protests allegedly created a hostile work environment for a biology professor and his wife or the fraught circumstances suffered by Madison Faupel at the University of Minnesota where she is president of the College Republican chapter. Instead, I want to examine what seems to link these and other cases: a collapse of integrity at institutions of higher learning.

If we go back a few decades, universities and colleges were very prestigious places where distinguished scholars pursued their researches free of political bias and did so with a certain amount of courage on modest salaries. This seems to have changed, though, I am sure, some still remains. But if you look into the instances I cite above and other similar ones, it seems that the best characterization of current institutions is that they are now vehicles for political indoctrination and the administrators seem to be unable to resist pressure from extremists. Indeed, these extremists now seem to be the mainstream.

Instead of courage, what we see is rank cowardice. If you hunt around you can find videos of college administrators being berated by groups of student protestors and all they seem able to do is appease them. This seems to me to be the tail wagging the dog. Undergraduate students have always been susceptible to wacky idealisms, but what we are experiencing now is a level of viciousness that seems so out of proportion that one wonders, is it simply political correctness gone viral or is this a very clever strategy?

What does seem to be revealed is an emptiness at the heart of Western culture that makes it susceptible to a ravaging virus. The idea of preserving, presenting and teaching the quality of Western culture as exemplified in, for example, the music of Bach, used to be its own justification. But now it seems that the whole hierarchy of value is overturned and the mere (false) suspicion of racism overrules anything else. What we need are some serious antibodies to fight off the infection! Oh, yes, and to recognize that this is a cultural war and one that needs to be won.

Well, I hope that wasn't too political! There are not a lot of clips of Matthew Halls on YouTube, but here is the Sinfonia from the Bach Easter Oratorio with him conducting the Retrospect Ensemble:

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 5

When I talk about the "use" of folk melodies in The Rite, do not think for a moment that this is not a wholeheartedly creative act! As you can see from the last post, the rhythmic transformations were so thorough that you might not even see the connection. Other kinds of transformation were from major to Dorian mode, inserting a profusion of leaping grace notes reminiscent of dudki, the expansion of intervals (replacing half steps with thirds) and so on. There are some instances where the relationship between a folk melody source and The Rite is only traceable through the mediating authority of Stravinsky's sketchbook, where we can witness the transformation.

Taruskin explores four different instances of these transformations which he describes as Stravinsky's use of Russian folk music as a self-emancipation from the cul-de-sac that Russian music was trapped in. Let's look at one of his examples. Here is a facsimile page from the sketchbook. At the top of the page, tidily written out, is the Semik song "Nu-ka, kumushka, mï pokumimsya" which comes from Rimsky-Korsakov's anthology. The rest of the page shows developments of the tune for the "Spring Rounds" or "Khorovodï."

From p. 907 of Taruskin, op. cit.

We are so lucky to have access to Stravinsky's sketchbook! Taruskin offers a comparative analysis showing how the tune was transformed and incorporated in The Rite:

Taruskin, p. 909
What is really remarkable here is not that he found inspiration in folk melodies, that was quite common in composers of many countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What is remarkable is that he absorbed some stylistic elements, such as the leaping grace notes, and wholly transformed the original material with great freedom.

Another example, that I won't quote (see Taruskin pp. 911 et seq.), involves the deconstruction of a wedding song by using motifs from it as tesserae in a melodic mosaic, subjected to varied juxtapositions, internal repetition, transposition and so on. There is even a folk source for the kind of dissonant counterpoint we often find in The Rite. I mentioned many posts back that Russian folk music is actually performed by groups, not soloists, and it is typically full of heterophonic polyphony, meaning a melody accompanied by variants of itself. Taruskin quotes examples from the sketchbook. 

In a burst of enthusiasm, on page 36 of the sketchbook, Stravinsky scrawled a phrase that might serve as a motto for The Rite of Spring: "There is music wherever there is rhythm, as there is life wherever there beats a pulse."

And with that, let's pause for today and listen to another performance of The Rite. This is the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest of the Netherlands conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Just follow the link:

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Composers and Biographies

I've got a "biographies" tag that I use for general talk about the biographies of musicians and for the specific discussion of the relationship between biographical events and compositions. One of the things I like about Taruskin's book on Stravinsky, which he subtitles: "A Biography of the Works Through Mavra" is that he focuses the discussion on the works and what events and ideas influenced them and does not talk about Stravinsky's private life except as it is relevant.

I have said before that, despite a lot of loose talk, a musical composition is really not so much autobiography. I just ran across an interesting example in the life of Sibelius. I have been reading the monograph by Guy Rickards from Phaidon and ran across this passage:
Sibelius returned home at the end of May [1909] to a financial crisis ... He had totalled up a large number of his debts while still in London and these came to well over 50,000 Finnish marks, approximately five years' average income ... but by December, matters had come to a head and he put out a desperate appeal to Carpelan who came to Ainola to work out Sibelius' exact position. To the horror of all concerned, the final total debt was closer to 100,000 marks, and Sibelius' expenses exceeded his income annually by 6,000 marks which was twice the amount of his state pension. By the time Christmas arrived, help was at hand after Carpelan had successfully petitioned the wealthy Dahlström family in Turku for funds to alleviate (but by no means clear) his debts. Such was the measure of security this afforded the composer that Sibelius immediately declared to Carpelan that he would devote himself to the composition of a fourth symphony...
Ok, good news, so one would expect something rather celebratory in the symphony, wouldn't one? Here is a performance of the Symphony No. 4, op 63, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:

That's a bit of a surprise. But not in my book. The aesthetic form and mood of a piece of music has nothing really to do with the psychological mood of the composer. Why not? I think they just live in different parts of the mind or brain.

The moral of the story? Never allow a composer to run a tab.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

This is, I guess, really good news. Canadian violinist Marc Djokic is awarded the $125,000 Prix Goyer, which is named after art patron Jean-Pierre Goyer of Montréal. What is really great about this is that it is a significant amount! Remember the last time I wrote about music prizes in Canada it was in reference to the insultingly tiny amounts for a competition in Vancouver? $800? Canadian? Now this one is worth winning. I know some of his collaborators as well, Jérôme Ducharme and Jaime Parker, both brilliant Canadian virtuosos. Djokic seems to be well-adapted for a career in today's media world. He won this, it seems, for the multitude of unusual collaborations which include marimba, piano, two guitars, dance and visual arts. Here is a short clip showing the diversity of his efforts:

* * *

Make a joke with a friend and if it is overheard by a "useful idiot" then you can be fired from your prestigious job directing the Oregon Bach Festival. Read the Daily Mail for the details:
A British conductor has been fired from his job directing a prestigious American music festival after being branded racist over a joke, his friend says.
Matthew Halls, who was educated and taught at Oxford, was hired in 2014 as artistic director at the Oregon Bach Festival which is run by the University of Oregon.
But he has now been fired after a joke he made with African American friend and singer Reginald Mobley was overheard by a white woman and reported as racist.
Mr Mobley, who is from Florida, has since spoken out to defend his friend, saying Mr Halls was 'victimised' and the jibe had nothing to do with race.
He told The Sunday Telegraph: 'It was an innocent joke that has been entirely taken out of context.'
* * *

This might be just a tad cruel, but I found this interview with pianist Yuja Wang and conductor Jaap van Zweden on the occasion of a concert in New York when, I believe, she was playing one of the Prokofiev concertos.

Ok, so what does she say when she does actually say something? Here, let's listen to her discuss the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3:

Well, actually, I think I prefer the first interview...

* * *

Offered without comment is this remarkably articulate essay by a student in the UK about the sidelining of classical music:
Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains. Maxwell Davies, speaking of his students at Cirencester Grammar School, said that 'It was extraordinary how the musical activities of those youngsters I taught influenced their whole attitude towards life inside the school, and outside. It was as if music were a catalyst or a trigger, which in so many instances sparked off a creative understanding in subjects which, on the surface, may not seem to be closely related - foreign languages, mathematics, religious studies.'
Read the whole thing.

* * *

I'm always whining about how, in the absence of any really strong arguments from aesthetic value, the classical repertory will be swept away as if it never existed, replaced with ephemera. I say this because the process in literature is far advanced, English departments having long since been gutted by post-modernism. Witness this denouement in the Ontario school curriculum:
"There's probably a small minority who still believe that there is a literary canon that we need to hold onto. I think it's because it is the way we've always been taught," said Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services at the Peel board. "[But] if we are focusing on equity and inclusion as a school board, the work around inclusion must be visible at the student desk."
Ms. Grewal sent a memo to English department heads in June, asking them to explore culturally relevant texts after the school board heard from its students that their experiences were not being reflected in classroom literature. She attached a list of books, which includes A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse. Students in Ontario are required to take an English course every year of high school.
The Globe and Mail allowed comments on this article and when I read it there were forty-three comments of which forty-two were strongly against this policy and one (1) was weakly for it.

The 60s idea of "relevancy" is now buttressed with "equity" and "diversity." Any arguments to the contrary are depicted in the news story as "backlash." Instead of any kind of aesthetic criteria, the idea is that literature, to find its place in the curriculum, has to reflect the "experience" of the students. What experience? The experience of being indoctrinated in the assumptions of post-modern identity politics? It would appear so. Music has been resisting this fairly well, but recent indications seem to show that it is being overwhelmed as well.

* * *

This concert was a bit of a tour-de-force, but one that he has done before, Yo-Yo Ma does the impossible at the Hollywood Bowl: all six of the Bach cello suites in one concert with a tiny intermission in the middle.

Safety tip: don't drink a lot of coffee before the concert.

* * *

Here is a follow-up to the Oregon Bach Festival story, UNIVERSITY PAYS SACKED MAESTRO $90,000 FOR HIS SILENCE. As always with items at Slipped Disc, the comments are fun reading.

* * *

This item has a bit of a "pushing on a string" feel to it, Can City Hall Make a Music Scene?
If a city wants to cultivate its musical biome to boost quality of life, education, tourism, and the local music biz itself, then it has to get serious about it. “That means it needs a policy,” he says. “It needs assessment mechanisms. It needs to be discussed in public. It needs to be less reactive and more proactive.”
Truth be told, local governments can hinder local music more than help. Hot scenes often arise from illicit spaces in struggling neighborhoods—musicians gravitate to lightly regulated and low-rent environs. Witness the punk and hip-hop movements that emerged from Lower East Side and South Bronx, respectively, during the 1970s: That didn’t happen because nigh-bankrupt New York City was promoting them. Today, several cities wary of disasters like Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire last year have shuttered the kinds of underground ad-hoc live-work-performance spaces that can incubate local scenes.
I don't know how it plays out in the US, but what often seems to happen in Canada is that as soon as some government arts policy, meaning funding of some sort, is announced, a host of opportunists spring up to siphon away the money.

* * *

The inevitable envoi for today will be Yo-Yo Ma playing the Cello Suite No. 1 from his 2015 performance at the Proms when he also played all six suites in one go. YouTube won't embed, so just follow the link:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Stravinsky and the Rite, part 4

Taruskin goes into great detail about the peasant rites and the sources that document them, much of which we can skip, though I encourage you to read the account in his book. One of the primary sources for Roerich and therefore Stravinsky seems to have been the Russian Primary Chronicle which describes the rites of the Kupala festival in exactly the same order that they appear in Stravinsky's sketchbook (see Taruskin, p. 884 et. seq.) Things like the notorious bar of 11/4 might have been inspired by a passage describing an old woman beating on a linden bark drum and the opening bassoon solo by the folk instrument dudki, mentioned in Roerich's scenario.

The ethnological accuracy of the scenario and costumes (based on peasant originals) is also reflected in the music, though Stravinsky was keen to disavow this in later years. He confided in one biographer that the opening bassoon solo was taken from an anthology of Lithuanian folk songs, and did so largely to give the impression, later clearly stated, that this was the only instance in The Rite! As we shall see, the use of folk melodies was extensive. With few exceptions, the ones that have been discovered so far belong to the type known to ethnographers as obryadnïye pesni or ceremonial songs, specifically to the category of kalendarnïye pesni, seasonal or calendar songs. That is, ones associated with the very festivals on which Roerich based the scenario. These songs are some of the oldest and come down, largely intact, from pagan times.

Roerich recounts that when he and Stravinsky were meeting at Talashkino in the summer of 1911, another guest was the singer and gusli player Sergey Kolosov (1855 - after 1915) who was then collecting folk material. He sang for the collaborators and Stravinsky took down a number of melodies. It is unlikely, therefore, that it will ever be possible to identify all of the folk melodies in The Rite. There are about a dozen, however, that are easily identified. It is astonishing that no-one even bothered to look up any sources for folk melodies in The Rite until Lawrence Morton, in 1979, began examining the mammoth anthology of Lithuanian melodies (over 1700) that Stravinsky had used. Morton found not only the source of the opening bassoon solo, but three additional melodies he also used. Why the long delay? Prior to this, all the approaches had been strictly abstract and analytical, typified by Pierre Boulez' in the early 1950s, in which not a single mention is made of the scenic or choreographic design.

Here are all the melodies taken from the Lithuanian anthology (collected by Anton Juszkiewicz) used in The Rite:

And here is how they appear in the work (in the same order):

As you can see, the transformations are largely rhythmic.

That should give you enough to chew on for today. Let's listen to a concert performance, with score, by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yoel Levi:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Stravinsky and the Rite, part 3

"The Great Sacrifice" as the original project was called, was set, not in Spring, but in midsummer to correspond to the ancient Slavic rite of Kupala which was the one with the sacrificial aspect. After Russia was Christianized in the tenth century the festivals of the folk calendar were accommodated to those of Christianity and Kupala became associated with the feast of John the Baptist. In Russia there grew up a set of ritual folksongs known as Ivanovskiye pesni, "Songs of St. John's Eve." One of these was published in a collection in 1899 and part of the tune found its way into the middle section of Stravinsky's Danse russe from Petrushka:

This Ivanovskaya could be described as a khorovod, often translated as "round dance." But khorovodï are more than that, they are often enactments of folk rituals that contain elements of long-forgotten folk customs. One Vladimir Propp has given a description:
Unlike ... songs [that] are performed only vocally [khorovods] are accompanied by various body movements. ... The khorovod may be performed by various movements in a circle (usually to the left posodon', that is, as the sun moves), with or without stopping; there can be two circles, one inside and one outside, moving in opposite directions. While those moving in the circle sing, those standing inside the circle (a young man, or a girl, or a pair) perform and portray what is being sung. ... the chorus may form not only a circle, but also a chain, it can perform different movements in a straight line or in various line formations... [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 868]
And so on. We see all of this reflected in the scenario and choreography. The opening tune used in the Danse russe was also a khorovod and the text was associated with matchmaking. Both this and the tune quoted above refer to the ancient "ritual of abduction" a somewhat rough form of matchmaking where the youth abducts the girl. This was part of the ritual of Kupala. Recall that Stravinsky had actually started sketching "The Great Sacrifice" before he began composing Petrushka. Obviously the Danse russe was originally intended for it.

The scenario was finalized towards the end of July 1911 in a visit Stravinsky paid to Roerich in Talashkino where the latter was designing and supervising the creation of murals and mosaics for Princess Tenisheva's private church, one of the landmarks of the neonationalist movement. At this time the scenario was divided into two parts instead of one and the name was changed to Prazdnik vesni or "The Festival of Spring." Later the Russian name would become "Vesna svyashchennaya" or "The Consecrated Spring." Stravinsky's sketchbook, which has survived, contains the titles for the individual dances, worked out in this meeting. Here they are, together with the equivalents in the published score:


The most significant change from this to the final arrangement is the movement of the "Jeu de rapt" from its penultimate position in Part I to much earlier, just after "Les augures printanières." The earliest surviving synopsis of the action is in a letter of Stravinsky dated December 1912:
The first part, which bears the name "The Kiss of the Earth," is made up of ancient Slavonic rituals--the joy of spring. The orchestral introduction is a swarm of spring pipes [dudki]; later, after the curtain goes up, there are auguries, khorovod rituals, a game of abduction, a khorovod game of cities, and all of this is interrupted by the procession of the "Oldest-and-Wisest." the elder who bestows a kiss upon the earth. A wild stomping dance upon the earth, the people drunk with spring, brings the first part to its conclusion.
In the second part the maidens at night perform their secret rituals upon a sacred hillock. One of the the maidens is doomed by fate to be sacrificed. She wanders into a stone labyrinth from which there is no exit, whereupon all the remaining maidens glorify the Chosen One in a boisterous martial dance. Then the elders enter. The doomed one, left alone face to face with the elders, dances her last "Holy Dance"--the Great Sacrifice. These last words are in fact the name of the second part. The elders are witness to her last dance, which ends in the death of the doomed one.
Throughout the whole composition I give the listener a sense of the closeness of the people to the earth of the commonality of their lives with the earth, by means of lapidary rhythms. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 874]
A number of other synopses are extant, some were published around the time of the premiere. Stravinsky went to great lengths to disavow some of these later in life.

The ultimate source for the folk rituals was likely the three volume compendium by Alexander Afanasyev published 1866-69 titled, in English, The Slavs's Poetic Attitudes Toward Nature. Rimsky-Korsakov had drawn heavily on Afanasyev for a number of his operas. The book was a kind of bible for the Russian Symbolists and World of Art circle.

The original choreographer was going to be Fokine, but he left the Ballets russes and the job was given to Nijinsky who began work in November 1912.

Let's stop here for today and listen to a performance of the Danse russe from Petrushka. The conductor is Valeria Martinelli at the INTERNATIONAL BARTÓK SEMINAR AND FESTIVAL 2014: