Monday, September 6, 2010

Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and Cubism in Music

In recent years I have really come to understand Igor Stravinsky's aesthetic as emphasizing construction.  This sounds simplistic because all composers "construct" their music.  What I mean is, in terms of an artistic stance particularly related to both Russian Cubo-Futurism and to Cubism.  His art does not follow the Russian Constructivist idea of art serving the state - Stravinsky was very much about art for art's sake - but his music is very constructivist.

I've been listening a lot to Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938) for chamber orchestra.  To me it's very easy to correlate the fractured lines that occur as being related to a "cubist" structural approach.  The harmonic rhythm happens as passing conglomerates of episodic tonal vocabularies, juxtaposed and blended for the narrative flow.  Stravinsky's harmonic conglomerates are well beyond the framework of traditional functional harmony, and are not just expansions of traditional harmony, but complete reinventions.  Within these conglomerates his melodic content is fragmented and layered in highly controlled confluences.  In music, collage effect sounds random if blending is neglected.  Ives' stark collages and quotations would be a far too crude procedure for Stravinsky.  Stravinsky was a master composer who controlled all elements of the compositional process at once, and always maintained a certain elegance of expression.

The Schoenbergians missed the point of Stravinsky's art of this period by sardonically saying he was trying to take on the guise of "Papa Bach."  Stravinsky wasn't doing Bach, he was reinventing the very nature of counterpoint, in the same way that he reinvented so many aspects of the musical art.  A genius can do this with a major scale just as easily as with a tone row.  The influence of the Cubists on Stravinsky, via Picasso, is mutated to become his reinvention of musical structure.  He fragmented and restructured the sounds, just like the Cubists did with images.  He did this using diatonic tonal frameworks which play against the traditional diatonic hierarchy of tones.  (See Pandiatonic)

In the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto a Bachian orchestra is used, but an aesthetic of cubist-like construction is masterfully given to the orchestra to be puzzled out and balanced.  The fragmentation of melody and instrumental usage can give this music a jagged and slightly frenetic quality.  Since Stravinsky's aesthetic is far removed from Romanticism, those who want soaring destination melodies will always have a hard time with Stravinsky.  His approach towards melody always sounds "modern" since it contrasts itself so much with "melody" as traditional song-like flow.  We get a very instrumental (non-singable) approach towards melody, but one in which the surfaces are still memorable and strangely tuneful, although quite fractured at times.  His writing for winds in this piece is as it always is, composed with such an intimate knowledge of the instrumental capabilities - far beyond the knowledge of most composers.  The concept of instrumentalism is strong with Stravinsky, where the capabilities of the instruments themselves drive the compositional process.  I have always been struck by his use of the bass instruments as punctuators rather than as sustainers of tones.  This is another feature of his music that is anti-Romantic, in that lush thick sounds tend to be avoided.  As in several of his neoclassical period works, we have moments of Rossini-esque bits inserted in collage-like fashion.  This music is delightful, modern, abstract, and joyous all at once.  His music is endlessly fascinating, always pristine, and forever masterful.

I love the quote by Nadia Boulanger about Stravinsky - "He sees what we do not see.  He knows what we do not know."

© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Robert Craft's recording of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto with the Orchestra of St. Lukes

Woman Playing a Mandolin
by Pablo Picasso (1909)

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