Life & Liberty: Stravinsky, Fabulist of Evil


Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has rightly been considered a fit 20th-century counterpart to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony of the 19th century. But whereas Beethoven's work is the first, and probably the best, presentation of the heroic in musical history, Stravinsky's Rite is the first, and perhaps best, accurate depiction of evil in musical history.

Stravinsky describes the scenario of the work in his autobiography: "I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite; sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring." It is the ancient story of man being crushed between two forces—mysticism and the collective. It is the story of the individual being offered up to the former by the latter. It is, ultimately, the story of that abomination that has cursed the human race ever since it acquired reason—unreason.

The Rite's creator, Igor Stravinsky, is the most influential and most discussed composer of this century, with the possible exception of Arnold Schoenberg. It is therefore surprising that little attention has been given to how unmusical a mind he actually possessed.

Stravinsky's deficiencies in purely musical intelligence are illustrated not only by his ineptitude as a melodist (a startlingly large number of his works have as their raw materials the tunes of others) but by his essays in absolute form—the bleached-out and jerry-built Symphony in C, for example. It was only when Stravinsky combined his musical conceptions with a specific didactic intention that he was capable of composing something worthwhile. And it is here that his chief value lies—as a musical fabulist, a Krylov or Aesop of sound.

This is made clear by his preference for narrative ballets and is evident from the beginning of his career, in his two earliest ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petruchka (1911). The latter is especially significant as a fable for our times, a story about a sentient being who is a mere puppet, controlled (literally) by external forces. This conception of self is one of the most common impressions of modernist despair, and except in totalitarian countries, it is also totally misconceived. Even if one doesn't buy the determinism of the tale, however, one can appreciate its ingenuity and effectiveness as a conveyer of its theme. But Stravinsky's best work is The Rite of Spring, composed in 1913.

Although The Rite of Spring is a story from primordial times, it is particularly relevant in an age of nostalgia when primordial times are enjoying a revival. In the 19th century there were attempts by composers to depict the savagery of irrationalism in its various forms—one thinks of Boris Godounov in Mussorgsky's opera of the same name or the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlo. But the great significance of the Stravinsky method in The Rite is that for once the evil of irrationality is presented naked, with no dignifying Romantic idiom. The evil of the sacrifice, the irrational hysteria of primitive superstition, is presented in a musical style that takes full cognizance of the horror involved. It is to this end that Stravinsky applied all the techniques that he had devised and that made the piece famous: the violent rhythms; the strange, exotic instrumentation; the primitive-sounding but tonal harmonies combined with wrenching dissonances; and so on.

The melodic materials of the work were based on a series of folk tunes, the same sort of corny peasant melodies that had been the chief influence on serious Russian music for more than 50 years. Only now they were used in a fitting manner; not even Mussorgsky had seen so clearly the underlying connection between the brainlessly primitive and the violently savage. The Rite of Spring is, in effect, the reductio ad absurdum of musical nationalism, the ultimate artistic expression of the primitive for what it is—not benign folksiness, but tribal barbarism.

To be understood completely, The Rite requires knowledge of its ballet scenario and comprehension of the nature of the evils described therein. It is not enough to say that Stravinsky's work is a superb depiction of irrationalism: there are hundreds of modern works that fit this description simply because they sound like incomprehensible ravings. Stravinsky's music is intended as objective description, not as a record of his inner state; it is this that separates Stravinsky the intellectual from a profoundly musical thinker like Beethoven.

Beethoven's Eroica is an exercise in pure form through which Beethoven expressed the grandeur of his own soul—and, incidentally, initiated an era. Stravinsky, on the other hand, used his compositional skill to examine external matters. In this case his task was to study the nature of evil and irrationalism as they are exhibited in tribal mysticism, and he succeeded. If the Eroica presents a musical utopia, a statement of human potentialities, then The Rite is the musical equivalent of that 20th-century literary form the dystopia, a grim warning.

Although the work is set in the primeval past, it has a peculiar relevance to our time. It was written 70 years ago but continues to be the work that, in some nagging way, seems the quintessence of 20th-century music. But why? The best answer seems to be that listeners hear the work as what it is: an eloquent description, with little left to the imagination, of the modern trend toward totalitarianism and irrational mysticism. The sacrifice of one young girl to the delusions of her savage elders is the prehistoric prototype of the equally pointless annihilation of millions in wars and concentration camps that has been the predominant activity of modern history. It scarcely matters that the moderns have been sacrificed not to some deity but to some social theory or another: the impulse to sacrifice and to be sacrificed is still there.

Stravinsky himself may not have understood the full implication of what he had done. The Rite, however, was his masterpiece, a work whose quality he never again reached. Seemingly frightened of what he had wrought, he became more cautious in his moral judgments. His didactic works came to be characterized less by passionate conviction than by cool irony, such as that evinced in The Soldier's Tale (1917) and The Rake's Progress (1951). This icy irony eventually took the form, in his "neoclassical" works, of the parodistic glorification of the empty practices of academic hacks, resulting in music impeccably crafted but barren of substance.

In the content of his music, Stravinsky was becoming an amoralist. This is obvious not only by the increasingly indifferent emotional tone of his works but by his tendency to turn to religious texts and subjects. It is possible that as he observed the human race moving to embrace the evils he had warned against in The Rite, he began to seek a refuge in religion. But in doing so he diminished any possibility of his having a role in solving the moral dilemmas of his time. Morality is necessarily concerned with the free will of rational beings choosing between right and wrong: it is essentially a guide to reasoned action. Inasmuch as formal religions tend to prefer their devotees to act on edicts and dogma, they are ill-equipped to deal with fundamental moral questions.

And Stravinsky was perhaps the most honest religious composer ever. His music to religious texts conveys fully the literal sense of the words, the indifference to earthly things that is the essence of formal religion. It is impossible to imagine a listener being converted by it, as one can imagine his being converted by Bach's B-Minor Mass or Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, overwhelmed by the sheer emotional power of the music. Listening to a Stravinsky piece like The Symphony of Psalms (1930) or Canticum Sacrum (1955), one is reminded more of the bland despair of Middle Ages Gregorian chant than of the life-affirming exuberance of Romantic sacred works. This is appropriate; Stravinsky was a man of his time and was intelligent enough to observe that the Middle Ages, with their burden of irrationality, superstition, and oppression, were making a comeback. Only this time Stravinsky was writing not as an indignant protester of the 20th-century trend against reason but as a phlegmatic supporter of it.

Toward the end of his long life, Stravinsky tended to write and talk about his art as much as he created—always a danger signal in an artist. His intellectualism led him in his youth to produce works of originality that attempted to reflect the world around him and in his middle age to adopt various half-baked versions of "art for art's sake" to defend a series of increasingly dull works. In his old age, that same intellectualism made him an erudite bore. And the moral fervor that had directed his youthful originality toward instructive ends eroded to the point where he was no longer capable of providing moral guidance in his music.

Kyle Rothweiler is a free-lance writer and is currently writing a book on modem music.