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Igor Stravinsky: Poetics of Music


Igor StravinskyIgor Stravinsky: Poetics of Music In the Form of Six Lessons.

Of all the books that I have read in my life, only a handful of books have affected me in a meaningful way. When it comes to books on music even fewer made made a lasting impression. Igor Stravinsky’s book Poetics of Music, with a magnificent introduction by the poet, George Seferis, is one of those few books on music that left such an impression on my life as well as my life in the arts that it has become a sort of handbook for me almost as often as I write about music. And that goes for any form, any dialect, and any genre of music. Once read this book seeps into the mind’s mind and you will never be able to listen to music again without remembering something or the other that Stravinsky said in this slim but memorable work.

This book began its life over eighty-five years ago as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. There were six lectures in all, beginning with an introduction to the subject (‘Getting Acquainted’). This was followed by five other chapters: ‘The Phenomenon of Music’, ‘The Composition of Music’, ‘Musical Typology’, ‘The Avatars of Russian Music’ and ‘The Performance’ of Music’. Each of the chapters in the book was delivered at Harvard U in the 1940s. They were written and delivered in French (in the academic year 1939-1940) and the book that was first published in 1942 was translated with great authority by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl. When I first read the book, more than a decade ago, I was struck by how little I knew about music even though I first began my musical sorjourn at 4 years of age, in 1959 at Trinity College of Music in London. I had many fine teachers, none finer than Marie Lourdes Saldanha, who taught me pianoforte and the rudiments of musical theory. Madam Saldanha was a wonderful teacher and I credit my love for the arts to her. But it was Stravinsky’s book, which I read much later of course, that became a sort of ‘bible’ for me. It shaped not only my playing but also my understanding of how music worked in its most secret realm.

Igor Stravinsky The Poetics of MusicStravinsky’s belief and his thesis is that ‘the more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.’ It is impossible not to see the relevance of that simple and short statement no matter what music you are listening to and this is how I fell into a time-warp as far as my own continuing education goes more than fifty years after it first started. Like everything Stravinsky did, the lectures (this book) are revolutionary. His opinions about Wagner, Verdi, Berlioz, Hindemith, Weber, Beethoven, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Bach are refreshing to say the least. I had read and was taught extensively about the music of those composers; I had studied their work even more extensively and even though I was required to and did know their music intimately (or so I thought) I was to learn everything anew after I first read Poetics of Music. And today, when I write critiques of music it all comes into play. Reading Stravinsky’s analyses of the function of the critic, the requirements of the interpreter, the state of Russian music and musical taste and snobbery, I remain awake and cognizant of all that I have read in Stravinsky’s lectures/book.

I cannot listen to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols; I cannot listen to Charles Mingus and especially to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill – in fact, to the entire Chicago-born Association for Advancement of Creative Music – without recalling something or the other about Stravinsky’s words in a particular lecture. For instance Stravinsky notes somewhere:

“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

It is clear that Stravinsky intended for this to be about all so when I applied it to Jazz what surprisingly new meaning it gave me. I began to understand Mingus more deeply as did I understand John Coltrane and most of all, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. And of course it opened my ears to the music of Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and others. No longer am I bemused by the most far-reaching musical statements that those musicians made in their works. Stravinsky helped me – and continues to help me – understand more of the nuances not only of Beethoven, Bach and Mussorgsky, but also the great Jazz musicians. In fact, I found that Stravinsky’s lectures gave me a deeper understanding of life itself. I had always believed that music is life and hence tried to superimpose my life in music upon life itself. After all when we say to ourselves that ‘music is life’, it means exactly that: there cannot be life without music – at least for me no matter what and how many curve balls life threw at me – and I feel sure for many others as well. I understood this better when I read this in Poetics of Music:

“In everything that yields gracefully, GK Chesterton says somewhere, there must be resistance. Bows are beautiful when they bend only because they seek to remain rigid. Rigidity that slightly yields, like Justice swayed by Pity, is all the beauty of earth. Everything seeks to grow straight and happily nothing succeeds in so growing. Try to grow straight and life will bend you.”

Here was not a Stravinsky curve ball, but something to be learned about Life and Music. After all is not Jazz like that? In fact, is not all music like that? And how much more beauty we see when our eves have been opened with that statement in Music as in Life.

Harvard University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0674678569
142 pp – $19.49


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