You can read earlier posts about the legendary Juilliard Quartet here – founded 65 years ago, later this month, their newest member is 33 years old – and also about the Janáček that includes video clips of the complete quartet as well as background information on the piece and the novel that inspired it (you can also read more background – kind of like extra credit, if you’re interested – about Tolstoy’s novella on a post at my blog, Thoughts on a Train).
One of the things I like to do in these posts is get “behind” the music that might give a listener some different insights into the piece or the composer who wrote it, given what was going on in his life at that time in history and how it might affect how you’re listening to it. While it can certainly be appreciated and enjoyed without that background – or “context” – if you believe “the more you know, the better you’ll be able to appreciate it,” then these posts might help you understand the music a little more.
Music, of course, is difficult to “describe” in words. It is very subjective, it is gone as soon as you hear it and the impression you’re left with is more the memory of it than the music itself. How you respond to it, on what level you respond to it, will differ from person to person. Sometimes, it is just a matter of liking or not liking a piece; rarely do we have the time to react as to why you might like or dislike it. That could be because of the music itself, the performance or what you had for dinner or how your day went.
When people who love classical music but rarely get beyond 1900 except for the more “accessible” composers see the name Stravinsky on a program, they think “contemporary music” which immediately sets up certain barriers. Whatever your automatic viewpoint might be about this – “I want my Beethoven” or “ah, something other than Beethoven for a change” – I hope you’ll read this post and find a way to engage yourself during the performance of what Stravinsky rather blandly called “Three Pieces for String Quartet” which in fact are three short and perhaps confusing pieces.
The Firebird is based on an old Russian fairy tale and sounds like a direct descendant of the music of Rimsky-Korsakoff (logical, since Stravinsky was 28 when he ballet was first performed and had been a friend of the family and a student of the old master who died that year himself).
Petrushka is set in the folksy rabble of a pre-Lenten street fair with crowds of ordinary people who catch a glimpse of the private lives of puppets, the music full of Russian folk songs giving it a certain “local color.”
On the other hand, The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) burst upon the world with its famous riot – caused more by Nijinsky’s avant-garde choreography than Stravinsky’s music, actually – and was full of brute-force energy in its rhythms and dissonant music: even though a heroine who dies at the end is fairly commonplace in ballet, one who dances herself to death as part of a pagan sacrifice was considered a bit much.
One of the first pieces Stravinsky composed after the premiere of The Rite of Spring were these curious pieces for string quartet. Not a vast orchestra that he could play like a color-machine, but just four string players. Nor was it comparable in any other way in terms of the technical aspects of the music: short and condensed, they often leave first-hearers with the impression, “that’s it?” It’s as if Stravinsky, having realized The Rite of Spring was about as far as he could go in that direction, consciously started exploring other ways he could express himself.
If you believe music and its creation is like a path leading in one direction, the progress from The Firebird to Petrushka to The Rite of Spring, heard in that order, seems logical, each one more colorful, more rhythmic, more “new” in terms of its sense of melody and harmony and form (those things we can grasp onto in a traditional sense): the music that Stravinsky composed after that never seems to match our expectations. Even when we talk about Early, Middle and Late Beethoven, we still hear a continuity between his first string quartets and his last, which Beethoven’s own contemporaries (who hadn’t yet heard Wagner, Brahms and Schoenberg) might not. It is difficult to comprehend the same composer wrote The Rite of Spring, The Rake’s Progress and, say, The Huxley Variations.
Stravinsky was born in Russia during the age when ballet meant dancing aristocrats and perhaps a flock of swans or dreams come to life. Tchaikovsky died when Stravinsky was 11. Part of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s circle – the famous “Russian 5” or “Mighty Handful” who, like many artists and writers, favored a “nationalist” approach to art as opposed to the Western-influenced, more abstract world of Tchaikovsky or his teacher’s brother, Anton Rubinstein – it was natural that the young Stravinsky (a late-bloomer by most classical music standards) would be influenced by story-based music built, one way or another, on folk music.
In 1910, he was in Paris, working with the impresario Serge Diaghilev and, after Anatol Lyadov (one of the largely forgotten generation between Tchaikovsky and “The 5” and the next generation that would include Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Shostakovich) failed to produce a score for the Ballet Russe’s new work based on the story of the Firebird. Essentially a house-orchestrator for the ballet company, Stravinsky had yet to write a single large-scale work that anybody had taken serious notice of, yet he was given the assignment to create a full-scale ballet in a short time. Had Stravinsky stayed in St. Petersburg and never had the chance to be “in the right place at the right time,” it’s quite possible we might never have heard of Igor Stravinsky or, if we did, he might have been a very different composer.
Now, by the time he’d become a kind of enfant terrible with his ballet about pagan Russia and violent sacrifice, Stravinsky’s path seemed secure: he wrote a piece of music that the whole world was hearing and even if people walked out of its performances, either in the theater or in the concert hall, at least they were responding to the power of the music.
The riot that the Paris world premiere inspired became so legendary, that performance is often considered the “revolution” that began the 20th Century, musically speaking. (Considering that was 1913 and we are still in 2011, it might give us pause to wonder if we’ve really heard the work that will define the start of the 21st Century, but I digress…)
Aside from Les Noces (The Wedding) which he’d begun working on before the premiere of The Rite though which went through several revisions before it was finally premiered in 1923 (the same year Janáček composed his 1st String Quartet), Stravinsky’s indebtedness to folk song soon disappeared. By 1920, when he wrote Pulcinella, a ballet inspired by the puppets of Italy’s commedia del’Arte and the music of (or at least had been attributed to) the Baroque composer Pergolesi (who died two centuries earlier), it seems Stravinsky’s path had taken a 180° turn.
Enter the Three Pieces for String Quartet.
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On the surface, these are three very contrasting short pieces – all three take about 7 minutes, the first one clocking in under a minute. The titles of each piece came later, when he orchestrated them and added a fourth piece.
Listen to them once, then read this:
“Dance” is fairly obvious as a title, but the music is fragmented, repetitive and layered: the cello plays the same rhythmic punctuation, pizzicato (plucking the strings); the viola plays a long sustained single pitch, a drone, until the very end; the 2nd violin plays an unchanging descending four-note pattern, roughly played; the 1st violin plays what passes for a melody, a primitive-sounding, almost child-like ‘tune’ circling within a range of four notes. And yet they never seem to coincide into typical phrases or harmonies, as if they’re each on their own (except the poor violist).
The 1st violin’s ‘tune’ sounds like a Russian or at least East European folk song, the 2nd violin’s pattern gives it a peasant-like crudeness matched by the cello’s unsteady rhythm underneath everything, and the viola’s off-key drone gives it a kind of medieval quality. Though each of the four parts are independent and easily identifiable, it would be difficult to call this “counterpoint” in the traditional European sense of the word – independent lines working in harmony.
The folk-like quality might be the legacy of Petrushka and the independent rhythms and texture – not to mention the limited range of each part – is certainly part of the after-glow of The Rite of Spring. A few rounds around the circle and the work stops with an added note for the violist.
Symphonies of Wind Instruments” in 1920.
This became known as “moment form” – the structure of the piece formed by these different moments rather than by traditional themes and harmonies flowing in a logical order. When we describe motives or thematic fragments as “gestures,” listen to the different fragments and imagine them choreographed by the motions of a single dancer who never really needs to move from a single spot.
If you’re not familiar with Little Tich (see above, right), imagine perhaps a classic pantomime by one of Red Skelton’s clowns.
The third piece, called Cantique or Hymn, is the complete opposite of the first: rather than independent lines, the four string players form a choir moving in harmony, first a chorale-like statement (full of quiet ‘wrong-note’ harmony) that also circles around a limited range of notes, followed by an upper-register response that proceeds to expand and blossom as one alternation leads to another. Compared to the second piece, this final piece (despite its slow-motion kaleidoscopiality) seems static, almost ascetic, and again, rather than ending, merely stops.
Later on, Stravinsky would use this kind of ending for works like Les Noces(begin c.4min into this clip) or the “Huxley Variations” of 1964 (begin at 4:40 into this clip). (By the way, coincidence or not, check out this clip from Aaron Copland’s very American story of a “folk” wedding, Appalachian Spring and its ending, beginning at 3:48!)
Incidentally, Stravinsky considered the last twenty measures of the 3rd piece to be the best music he had composed up to that time.
Now, listen to the video clip again. Have you listened a little differently, now?
Stravinsky once said, exasperated by people who found his music difficult to listen to, "To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears, also."
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This “Portrait of Stravinsky” (see left) was painted by cubist artist Albert Gleizes in 1914.
The fact these three short pieces for four players were written a year after the premiere of The Rite of Spring is one thing, but consider what that year was: 1914. This was the start of World War I.
Stravinsky, the son of Russian aristocrats, had left Paris in 1911 to return to his family’s country estate in Ukraine where he spent the time working on the new ballet originally called “The Great Sacrifice” and “Sacred Spring” before becoming Le Sacre du printemps or “The Rite of Spring.” He left Russia in the autumn of 1912 to return to Clarens, Switzerland, where he completed the ballet. It was too late to have it produced that season, so the premiere was postponed until the following summer season on May 29th, 1913.
Whether it was a result of the strain of seeing the new ballet through its performance or the riot with which it was met, Stravinsky came down with typhoid fever, spent several weeks in a nursing home. After that, he spent the rest of the summer back in Russia, returning to Switzerland early in 1914 when his wife, pregnant with their fourth child, came down with tuberculosis.
That summer, in four days, he composed the Three Pieces for String Quartet. Then, he began working on what would become Les Noces, making a quick return to his home in Russia during mid-July to retrieve certain works from his library that might come in handy during its composition.
On July 28th, 1914, a month after the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the small kingdom of Serbia. But Russia was concerned about its influence in the Balkans which had been undergoing a series of “local” wars the previous two years, and so to protect its ally, Russia declared war on Austria two days later. With a week, Germany had declared war on Russia, France was mobilizing against Germany and England declared war on Germany. A week after that, Austria invaded Serbia, setting off a war that engulfed all of Europe until the armistice of November, 1918.
Switzerland was one of the few neutral places in Europe. And Stravinsky settled into his new home on the shores of Lake Geneva “for the duration.”
A side-effect of the war was the February 1917 Revolution that toppled the Tsar, replacing him with a provisional government. Stravinsky, from his home in Switzerland, telegraphed his mother – still living in their house in Petersburg (now Petrograd): “All our thoughts are with you in these unforgettable days of joy for our beloved Russia freed at last.” But by the end of October (November, by the old calendar), the Bolsheviks overthrew the weak provisional government and this not only made it impossible for Stravinsky to return to Russia as he had hoped but cut him off not only from his estate and its income (now confiscated) but also from any royalties he was earning from Russian publishers and performances.
In need of money and with little likelihood of engaging large orchestras and ballet companies like he had access to before the war, he wrote several small-scale works that could be played by a handful of musicians and could easily be taken on the road – works like L’Histoire du soldat (a modern-day take on the Faust story as a returning soldier sells his soul to the devil) and Renard (“The Fox,” a barnyard morality play). Naturally, these limited forces required leaner textures and the use of Russian folk music would not, perhaps, have translated as well into Western European sensibilities. Instead, there are elements of Spanish music (following a brief visit to Madrid) and even American rag-time (his friend, Ernest Ansermet, the Swiss conductor, came back from an American tour with sheet music of several rags).
Diaghilev, meanwhile, had come to him with an idea for a new and somewhat scaled-down ballet called Pulcinella along with scores of pieces written by (or at least attributed to) Giovanni Pergolesi who died in 1736. It was a success in Paris in 1920 – listen to a bit of it, here, and compare it to The Rite of Spring written just eight years earlier – and helped solidify a new movement in which many European composers began basing pieces of music of earlier, mostly unknown eras: Respighi had already written his 1st Suite of “Ancient Airs & Dances” in 1917, and two years later, Stravinsky began his newest ballet.
In this sense, these three seemingly insignificant short pieces for string quartet are more importantly a step between the three great ballets and the new post-war and post-revolution style that would become his Middle Period, usually described as “Neo-Classical,” with thinner textures, more distinct definition of melody and accompaniment and, above all, a clarification of tonality.
It became a way of returning to the control of the 18th and 19th century music – that is, “tonality” – and it’s interesting that in 1921, Arnold Schoenberg – whose Pierrot Lunaire became one of the first great works of “atonality” in 1911 and which Stravinsky, hearing it at its premiere in Berlin, admired very much – was developing another way of controlling those same textural and harmonic elements in a “system of composing with twelve tones,” later described (without Schoenberg’s approval) as “serialism.” But that’s another story…
So, in the end, listening to these pieces can give us some understanding not only into the mind of composer rethinking what and how we wants to compose, but also into the general flow of musical styles at the beginning of the 20th Century, making the transition between one century and the next.
- Dr. Dick