On Igor Stravinsky


On Igor Stravinsky


Vol. VI. No. 6
June 1971

Stravinsky was talking once about the forms of sacred music — the Masses, Passions, motets, the cantatas — and the particular glory of them. His interlocutor asked whether one must be a believer to compose these forms. Stravinsky’s answer was a thing of trumpets. “Certainly,” he said, “and not merely a believer in ‘symbolic figures,’ but in the Person of the Lord, the Person of the Devil, and the Miracles of the Church.”

It is not so much theory as personal witness. Stravinsky came to faith the long way about. After a religiously sterile childhood (his parents were not believers), he drifted away from observance. It was thirty years before he rediscovered “the necessity of religious belief,” and then it was not because of rational apologetics but was a kind of Credo quia absurdum. “I was not reasoned into my disposition,” he said. “Though I admire the structural thought of theology… it is to religion no more than counterpoint exercises are to music.” Despite that analogy, his religion, unlike his music, remained intensely Russian. The Catholicism of the West was profoundly attractive to him (especially the mystic fervor of Spain, which he encountered in a visit to Toledo and the Escorial), but by culture and linguistic habit he remained within the anti-Soviet faction of the Russian Orthodox church-in-exile. An icon to which he had a particular devotion hung over his work-desk; holy medals and St. Christophers littered the dressers and night-tables.

It is somewhat surprising that a man who was for decades in the forefront of the so-called avant-garde, the intimate of the great artistic innovators of this century, was “nevertheless” an Orthodox believer. What is really astonishing, however, is that this orthodoxy was not held as a private superstition but as a facet of an overall order in the intellect. Stravinsky despised the fashionable liberals in the tsarist bureaucracy, with their penchant for “advanced ideas,” atheism, or the “amateur Christianizing” of Tolstoy. He scored the musical criticism practised in the USSR (Beethoven, the friend of the people) as scarcely different “from the platitudes and commonplace utterances of the publicity mongers of liberalism.” He rejected the ideologies of this century and the last as attempts “to refurbish old cults, dragged from some revolutionary arsenal, wherewith to enter into competition with the Church.” He was revolted by Wagnerianism’s pomps of Bayreuth, “a sacrilegious conception of art as religion and the theatre as a temple”; but this horned-and-howling bad taste was not surprising “at a time like the present [1935], when the openly irreligious masses in their degradation of spiritual values and debasement of human thought necessarily lead us to utter brutalisation.” Was free speech sacred? Consider this jewel: “I agree that what an incompetent reviewer says may be inconsequential, even in the short run. What I protest is his right to say it — Voltaire in reverse. Some people have earned the right, by knowledge and skill, but they are not the present… crop of reviewers. To protest is to plead for higher standards, and it is my duty to do that. Incidentally, it has been said to me in argument that certain reviewers are wrong but honest. I find this illogical as a defense and alarming as an indication of the state of ethics. I am not concerned with the honesty of an opinion but with its worth. And what a condition we have come to that honesty is so exceptional as to deserve citation.”

And for the comfort of Una Voce, this:

I have always considered that a special language, and not that of current converse, was required for subjects touching on the sublime. That is why I was trying to discover what language would be most appropriate for my projected work [the opera Oedipus Rex], and why I finally selected Latin… a medium not dead, but turned to stone and so monumentalized as to have become immune from all risk of vulgarization… What a joy it is to compose music to a language… the very nature of which imposes a lofty dignity! One no longer feels dominated by the phrase, the literal meaning of the words. Cast in an immutable mold which adequately expresses their value, they do not require any further commentary. The text thus becomes purely phonetic material tor the composer. He can dissect it at will and concentrate all his attention on its primary constituent element… the syllable. Was not this method of treating the text that of the old masters of austere style? This, too, has for centuries been the Church’s attitude towards music, and has prevented it from falling into sentimentalism, and consequently into individualism.

Stravinsky’s Latin translator for the text of Oedipus, by way of gossip, was Jean Danielou.

As Stravinsky often protested, it is absurd to label his music “revolutionary.” His craftsmanship is simply a reassertion of order, a return to the basics of interval and rhythm, an insistence on purely musical solutions to musical problems. As such his art presents few concessions to the listener who cannot hear, to the addict of romantic Weltschmalz, to the “sensitive” soul who can’t hear a fugue as a fugue but only as “pretty” or “dissonant,” “dramatic” or “dry,” “Russian-sounding” or “sunny.” Which is not to say that music, especially Stravinsky’s, lacks expressive power. It has provoked riots!

It is a tribute to the barbarism of the age that Stravinsky’s sacred music is not better known, the barbarism that demands either bonbons (Mozart, Gounod) that are art but not liturgy; or folk-rock, which is neither art nor liturgy. Stravinsky’s Mass, composed specifically for Roman Catholic use, is, by contrast, so pure in musical structure, so perfectly “liturgical,” that many critics found it difficult to believe that Stravinsky was not familiar with medieval work (especially Machaut). How many Catholics have so much as heard of it?

The Symphony of Psalms is an acknowledged masterpiece but still too seldom performed. The fugue for human voices in the second movement is as fine as anything in the Renaissance masters; the Alleluia of the third movement, an answer to prayer. That third movement is a complete setting of Psalm 150, Laudate Dominum, and achieves its effects without a trace of that loud and fast bombast which is precisely how God is not praised. (“But the Lord was not in the earthquake.”) When one hears this serene joy, one is eternally grateful for what the composer has refrained from doing to “Praise Him on the high-sounding cymbals,” a gratitude one sorely misses in such high-holy nonsense as the Kaddish Symphony or the War Requiem.

To a criticism that his settings are insufficiently “Hebraic,” Stravinsky’s reply is devastating: “This gentleman does not seem to know that after 2,000 years the Psalms are not necessarily associated with the synagogue, but are the main foundation of the prayers, orisons, and chants of the Church. But , apart from his real or pretended ignorance, does [he not reveal] a mentality which one encounters more and more frequently today? Apparently people have lost all capacity to treat the Holy Scriptures otherwise than from the viewpoint of ethnography, history, or picturesqueness. That anyone should take his inspiration from the Psalms without giving thought to these side-issues appears to be incredible to them, and so they demand explanations.”

The late Stravinsky (serial period) has fared even worse in this kingdom of the lazy. One does have to concentrate in order to understand the Canticum Sacrum, Threni, or the Requiem Canticles. But the effort is worth it. I cannot mention without emotion the Introitus in memory of T.S. Eliot. It is a setting of the Latin Introit of the Requiem Mass, agonized, with solemn tympany as for a military burial, a suitable memory of its creator — artist, craftsman, Christian.

Click here for PDF