Monday, November 21, 2016

Excerpt: "Stravinsky's 'Great Passacaglia'"

by Don Traut

The following is partially excerpted from the author’s forthcoming book, Stravinsky’s ‘Great Passacaglia’: Recurring Elements in the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (University of Rochester Press, 2016), which received support from the AMS 75 Pays Endowment.

Since its completion in 1924, Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments has been many things to many people. For Stravinsky, it was both a major artistic accomplishment in his burgeoning neoclassic style and a vehicle for financial gain as a touring soloist, an endeavor that took him throughout Europe and was instrumental in bringing him to America for the first time. For the audiences who attended those concerts, it was very likely the first truly original neoclassic piece by Stravinsky they had heard. For many critics, it came to represent all that was wrong with Stravinsky’s new style. For others, it pointed the way forward, while looking back for models. For scholars, it initiated a call for new avenues into understanding tonality in the new century. To conductors of wind ensembles, it now holds a welcome place as an original composition by a composer of the highest stature.

This inventory draws attention to the significance of the Concerto, which represents—both artistically and biographically—so many important new elements in the life of the Russian master. His performing career went hand-in-hand with his increasing comfort as a conductor, a discipline that sustained him longer than playing. His 1925 visit to America impacted him so strongly that he would eventually move there permanently. He changed as a composer as well. After the Concerto, he composed his pieces primarily one at a time, from conception to premiere, not in the dovetailing manner that sustained him through his Russian period. Individually, these may all seem like small matters, but when taken as a whole, they signal a sea change in Stravinsky’s compositional approach.

Attributing such significance to the Concerto may seem misplaced, since it is neither his most famous neoclassic piece nor his most critically acclaimed. Anyone who knows the Concerto is aware of its quirks: the slow, dissonant, intricately contrapuntal introduction by a quartet of horns, the dry and sometimes shrill orchestration, the simplistic repeated-note theme, and the third-movement fugato that comes out of nowhere. In many ways, however, the Concerto is simply a lot like his other music from this era. Its surface textures and forms remind us of Baroque genres. Its three movements lay out in the fast-slow-fast arrangement typical of seventeenth-century concerti. Its unique sense of tonality leaves us feeling somewhere between comfortable and uncertain. Its rhythms are sometimes Handelian and other times more like Joplin. It is also quite disjunct, with sometimes jarring interruptions of texture. By and large, it is comprised of discrete formal sections, not all featuring the ostinati of the “blocks” associated with his Russian period, but still clearly delineated. In a word, it epitomizes the essence of what has come to represent Stravinsky’s neoclassic language.

Regardless of its significance, one thing is certain—listeners have always had strong and often diametrically opposed opinions about the piece. This is as true today as it was in the mid-1920s. Some early reviewers described the Concerto as a masterpiece of formal logic, praising it for its charm and authenticity. German critic Adolf Weissmann felt it pointed the way forward for a new phase of anti-Romanticism. As he stated, “The Piano Concerto, with wonderful terseness of form, is a model of this prevailing latest phase.” Its detractors often used the exact opposite terminology in their reviews. For them, its themes are “cheap” and unlovely, its form confusing and illogical. As Prokofiev put it, the “scratched-up Bach” comes across as “a case of ‘monkey see, monkey do.’” Other authors went out of their way to make an example of the Concerto. The most famous was Heinrich Schenker, who determined that Stravinsky’s counterpoint “lacks coherence” and is therefore “bad, inartistic, and unmusical.” Constant Lambert’s monograph Music Ho!: Music in Decline attacked Stravinsky’s themes and described how the “very insignificant content” of the second movement is “illogically extended.” Theodor Adorno referred to the piece as “dissolute” and “incomprehensible.” Scorn for the Concerto is not reserved for Stravinsky’s enemies either; neither Robert Craft nor Pieter van den Toorn cared much for it. Indeed, Lawrence Kramer was correct when he stated that the Concerto is “a special target for Stravinsky’s detractors and no special favorite, it seems, of his admirers.”

While these comments seem damning, they should be taken with a grain of salt. In most cases, they come from commentators relying on relatively superficial impressions of the piece, at least judging by what appears in print. Often there is mention of only one movement or, more common still, just part of one movement, with little concern for context. This is true even for those authors with a more positive spin. Both William Benjamin’s thoughtful article and Robert Morgan’s anthology entry discuss only the opening Allegro. Simply stated, it is time for an in-depth analysis of this piece.

Stravinsky’s ‘Great Passacaglia’ sets out to study all three movements of the Concerto, allowing for both detailed analysis of individual passages and broader observations about inter-movement connections. Two main sources guide analyses. The first is a single sketch that Stravinsky jotted down on a page torn from a pocket calendar. This hasty musing—surely his earliest for the piece—shows the main tune, which is transformed throughout the piece. The second is a statement he made while touring in America. When asked for a few comments regarding the Concerto, he likened it to a “great passacaglia.” While his precise meaning is unclear, I illustrate four primary recurring elements that cut across movements and unify the piece. The strategic use of these elements—both exact and transformed—in all three movements lends credence to Stravinsky’s passacaglia statement. It suggests that the Baroque elements go beyond mere gimmicks. In fact, they impact the piece at the deepest levels.

The analyses also respond, in a way, to many of the critics cited above. A recurring theme of these authors is that Stravinsky somehow misunderstood earlier music. Schenker and Adorno, for example, both focus on his treatment of dissonance. They both reveal a clear bias against Stravinsky when they conclude that compositional techniques (namely contrapuntal displacement) associated with inspiration and genius in other composers (such as Bach, Beethoven, and even Schoenberg) are cause for repudiation in Stravinsky’s case. Sensitive analyses show that many of Stravinsky’s dissonances derive from clear underlying tonal patterns, suggesting that the novelty of his contrapuntal practice represents more a matter of degree than a difference in kind when compared to more common-practice composers. When viewed through this lens, the Concerto, like his other Neoclassic pieces, represents a masterful and intentional misreading of earlier music offered up by a composer intent on paving a new path forward, not an amateurish hack-job written by a naïve composer with little understanding of the past.

Don Traut is an associate professor of music theory. His research focuses primarily on the music of Igor Stravinsky, with a special interest on the composer's compositional sketches and what they tell us about the creative process. He has published articles on this and other topics in Theory and Practice, Popular Music, Indiana Theory Review, and Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy.

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