Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff: A Comparative Study of Their Musical Ideologies
Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were two composers with relatively similar backgrounds. They both came from musical families; both their families were considered to be in the upper echelon of the Tsar’s Russia; they both trained with the best composers/teachers. Regardless of the preceding facts, their music drastically diverged from one another. Rachmaninoff chose to follow the foolproof methodology of the romantic era composers, whereas Stravinsky chose to create his own methods of composition. In the following I will analyze the development of musical ideals in the two composers, as well as the background, which lead to the formation of their respective ideologies. I will first discuss the preliminary backgrounds of the two composers. Then, the course of their musical training will be outlined. Finally, the numerous differences between their two ideologies will be discussed.
This comparison will concentrate on the composition aspect of these two composers’ lives. It is well known that both composers were capable of both conducting and playing the piano (although to different degrees). Their respective musical compositions are a concrete method of assessing their body of work. It is also important to emphasize the fact that this will not be a complete comparative study of these two composers. There are limitations in time, resources, and space for that undertaking. The following is a highlight of the major points of interest (at the discretion of this writer).
The backgrounds of these two composers were remarkably similar. The most obvious similarity between the two is the time of their birth. Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky were both composers of the same time period in music history. Rachmaninoff was born on April 1, 1873, whereas Stravinsky was born on June 18, 1882. Another similarity between the two composers is the fact that both came from families with extensive musical backgrounds. Stravinsky’s father, Feodor Stravinsky, was an influential operatic singer. The significance of his father’s role will be discussed in further detail later. In Rachmaninoff’s family, the most prominent (contemporary) musician was his cousin, Alexander Siloti. Siloti was a highly successful former student of Franz Liszt. He taught at the Moscow conservatory, and was considered to be one of most prominent virtuosos of his time (Norris 4). He even had the good fortune of knowing Tchaikovksy in person (Piggott 18). Siolti, however, was not the first musical talent in the family. Rachmaninoff’s great grandfather was an accomplished violinist, and his grandfather was a great pianist. Rachmaninoff’s grandfather was said to have composed a bit as well. Rachmaninoff’s father was also a capable piano player, but he never pursued music as a career (Piggott 12). This wealth of musical heritage was certainly an effective means to inspire the young Rachmaninoff to develop his musical abilities.
As stated before, Stravinsky’s father was a famous bass singer (in Kiev and later in St. Petersburg) at the time of Stravinsky’s intellectual maturation. Feodor’s repertoire included the works of contemporary Russian composers. Feodor’s contributions to Stravinsky’s development were not only of a musical nature. He helped shape Stravinsky’s social and intellectual mind through other means as well as music. A representative example of this phenomenon was Feodor’s collection of current and classic Russian, as well as traditional European authors and poets. Stravinsky’s father owned an extensive collection of works by Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Dante. He also owned first edition volumes by Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy. Stravinsky did not hesitate to take advantage of this impressive resource. He voraciously (and indiscriminately) read through as many books as he could. It has been said that he particularly enjoyed Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (Routh 2). These works were to provide the material for much of Stravinsky’s body of work. This applies to Oedipus Rex best. In 1927 Stravinsky composed a choral piece according to this story. The poems of Pushkin are also represented well in Stravinsky’s body of work. For instance, the song-suite The Faun and the Shepherdess (1906) was written based on Pushkin poem (Taruskin).
The influences of Stravinsky’s father extended to include direct musical thoughts also. The strictly musical influences of his father were in the form of Stravinsky’s attendance of numerous performances of the greatest contemporary Russian pieces. These works inspired important compositions later on in Stravinsky’s career, in a similar manner to the inspirations gained from the literary pieces he studied. It has been recorded that Stravinsky attended performances of such great pieces as Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla, Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Prince Igor (Routh 3).
There is direct evidence for the influence of these pieces on Stravinsky’s future works. This type scenario is more evident in the early stages of Stravinsky’s composition career. For instance, Stravinsky chose to use Rimsky-Korsakov’s material from the opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh in his Op. 6, which was simply called Two Melodies. This composition was a pair of songs, which Rimsky-Korsakov chose to call “uninspired” and “too modern” (Harrington).
Another more representative example of this notion is present in the ballet The Firebird. Here, Stravinsky chose to quote past composers directly (musical passages) as well as methods of portrayal. There are passages, where Stravinsky pays direct tribute to his predecessors. The structure and the material of the pieces are also derived from the methodology of past/contemporary composers. For instance, in composing The Firebird, Stravinsky took full advantage of Rimsky-Korsakov’s idea of representing good (human) characters with folkloric tunes, while evil (magical) characters are represented by “structured harmonies.” Stravinsky freely borrowed from other Russian composers as well, in order to construct the spirit of The Firebird. He used harmonies similar to those of Sciabin. He also used the same folkloric spirit, seen so often in Borodin’s music (Grove). The notion of borrowing from his predecessors is a multifaceted concept in Stravinsky’s pieces. This notion applies also to The Firebird. While Stravinsky borrowed freely from his predecessors, the method in which he culminated these thoughts is completely unique. The elegant method, by which he sculpted The Firebird, is the genius in the piece. This notion applies anytime Stravinsky is seemingly copying his predecessors. It is also important to note that he chose to set his first major work in the form of a ballet: a form, which was absolutely despised by Rimsky-Korsakov and his circle of colleagues. This choice clearly distinguishes Stravinsky’s stylistic impetus from those of his previous generation. Stravinsky’s style may have been heavily infused with the spirit of the Russian past, but it remained distinctively unique throughout his career.
II. Study of Musical Training:
An important aspect in analyzing these two composers’ backgrounds is the study of their musical training. The main point of difference in this aspect of their backgrounds is the age at which training begun for the two composers. Stravinsky had no formal musical training as a child. His parents refused to allow him to study music with the seriousness needed for the development of a career (website: Igor Stravinsky). However, the influence of Stravinsky’s father cannot be ignored as a significant source of musical training. Stravinsky was most likely used to hearing his father practice his pieces in the house. As stated before, Stravinsky attended the opera regularly. Therefore, a musical mind was definitely developing, despite the lack of formal instrumental tutelage. This is sharply contrasted by the training received by Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff’s first piano lesson was at age 6. At that time Rachmaninoff’s mother realized that he was in need of professional training, in order to flourish. Therefore Anna Ornatskaya, a St. Petersburg conservatory trained pianist, was hired as his first piano teacher. It was she, who in 1881 recommended that Rachmaninoff attend the St. Petersburg conservatory. She also helped in acquiring a scholarship for his studies at that conservatory (Norris 2). Rachmaninoff attended the St. Petersburg conservatory from 1882 to 1885. He was said to be a very energetic and careless student. He often skipped his classes, and seldom completed assignments. In 1885, Rachmaninoff failed all of his general studies courses at the St. Petersburg conservatory, and thus his scholarship was threatened. However with the intervention of his mother, as well as Siloti, Rachmaninoff was allowed to go to the Moscow conservatory to finish his studies under a notoriously strict professor of piano named Nikolai Zverev (Norris 4). Zverev was Siloti’s former teacher. Due to Siloti’s considerable success, Zverev agreed to accept Rachmaninoff as a student. The potential for success, as seen in his cousin, was most likely a large incentive for Zverev to taking Rachmaninoff as a student.
During his stay at Moscow, Rachmaninoff stayed with Zverev and was under constant supervision. He was forced to work under the strictest of conditions: he was instructed to begin practice on the piano at 6 o’clock every morning. This treatment was excellent for Rachmaninoff’s development. This experience changed Rachmaninoff’s behaviour greatly. Rachmaninoff stopped his deviant tendencies and began developing the stoic qualities, which personify his later years. Zverev’s strictness caused him to develop a certain methodological approach to music in general. This methodical approach helped develop the magnificent performer, which Rachmaninoff was. He also gained extensive knowledge on the general “nature” of music, since he was constantly playing through four hand arrangements of the different symphonies (Norris 5). Zverev’s strictness also helped develop a technique, which was unrivaled at that time. Rachmaninoff developed into a performer without limits. He could play the greatest of piano pieces, with relative ease. His utter mastery of technique had great implications upon his compositions. The delicate relationship between Rachmaninoff’s unrivaled abilities and his compositions will be discussed in more detail later on.
While staying with Zverev, Rachmaninoff had the good fortune of studying with two prominent teachers: Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev. He joined Arensky’s harmony class a year after he begun his studies with Zverev. Arensky was an influential figure for Rachmaninoff in that he allowed Rachmaninoff to develop his composition skills aside from his technical piano skills. Arensky recognized Rachmaninoff’s potential as a great composer. This encouragement caused Tchaikovsky to take notice of the fifteen-year-old Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky advised Rachmaninoff to begin studying counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev. Taneyev was a former student of Tchaikovsky, who is considered to be one of the most influential figures of Russian music. His students included almost all of the successful composers of Moscow in that time period. He, together with Arensky, helped shape the fundamentals of Rachmaninoff’s composing abilities. Their composition techniques in addition to Zverev’s instructions on the piano shaped the spirit of Rachmaninoff’s compositions.
The period of study with Zverev was relevant to Rachmaninoff’s composition career in another way also: this was the time in which Rachmaninoff first developed his life long rituals while composing. For instance, it has been shown that Rachmaninoff could compose only in secluded areas, with minimal distractions. Rachmaninoff could never bring himself to compose under all conditions. He needed total isolation, in order to create.
The advantages of studying at the Moscow conservatory were tremendous toward Rachmaninoff’s development as a composer. On Sunday afternoons, Zverev invited the prominent composers of that period to his home. This was a great chance for Rachmaninoff to know these composers on a personal level. At these gatherings, Rachmaninoff had the chance to familiarize himself with the personality of these great artists. He had the chance to communicate with these composers through other means than music. This had great effects on his future musical endeavors.
The time spent at the Moscow conservatory with Zverev saw the first of Rachmaninoff’s compositions. This has been documented through another of Zverev’s students, Matvey Presman. Presman also lived at the Zverev residence, and thus was in constant contact with the budding Rachmaninoff:
I remember my stay at Simeiz chiefly because of Rachmaninoff. It was there that he first began to compose. As I remember, Rachmaninoff was very pensive, even gloomy. He wanted to be alone, and would walk about with his head lowered and his gaze fixed on some distant point; at the same time he would whistle something almost inaudibly and gesticulate as if conducting. This state lasted for a few days. Finally, waiting for a moment when nobody apart from myself was about, he beckoned me to the piano and began to play. When he had finished he asked me, ‘Do you know what that was?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘And how,’ he asked, ‘did you like this pedal point in the bass against the chromaticism in the upper parts?’ Having received a satisfactory reply, he said complacently, ‘I composed it myself and I dedicate this piece to you.’ (Quoted in Norris 6)
III. Variations on a Theme
A major difference between the composers could be observed in regards to their reaction to disappointment. This notion could be described best, through examples. Rachmaninoff’s first symphony had a very disappointing premiere. This caused a great deal of post-facto suffering for the young composer. Similarly, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had a disappointing premiere. The details of these two events will be discussed in the following. However, in order to analyze the significance of these two events, the attitude of each composer toward music must be discussed. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff viewed music in entirely different manners. They both had their own unique methodology in inspecting what music conveys. This was mostly due to their methods of training. Their music education had great effects on their views of music. Stravinsky’s view of music is relatively well defined in a series of lectures (six in total) he gave at Harvard University between 1939 and 1940. Stravinsky states clearly at the beginning of the lecture series that he “shall talk about making in the field of music” (Stravinsky 5). These six lectures appear in one volume called Poetics of Music.
In his Poetics of Music Stravinsky defines his attitude toward music and composition in general. He expresses his thoughts on how his compositions come to life. Stravinsky manages to make a distinct disclaimer and clarification here: he says that he will provide “an explanation of music as I conceive it” (Stravinsky 7). He also makes the clarification that the previous fact does not reduce the objectivity of the explanation. He states that the explanation will not “be any the less objective for being the fruit of my own experience and my personal observation” (Stravinsky 7). This is quite a unique characteristic in an individual. Individuals have difficulty in maintaining objectivity when personal opinion is concerned.
This idea of objectivity is a central theme in Stravinsky’s life and composition. He maintained an untainted view of music. Stravinsky never allowed himself to taint the autonomous beauty of a composition with his emotions. Nothing could keep Stravinsky from jeopardizing this autonomy (Routh 12). On the same note, Stravinsky would risk anything for the sake of keeping personal feelings out of a matter (music).
The Rite of Spring is a representative example of this thought. In his sketchbook, Stravinsky has the piece set up with a thematic continuity among the movements. The harmony and the chordal structure follow closely as noted in his sketchbook. For instance, ‘Augurs of Spring’ appears before ‘Khorovod’ (round dance). If inspected more closely, one even finds a smooth transition from ‘Augurs of Spring’ to ‘Korovod’ (Tauruskin). A clearer example appears in the cases of ‘Games of Abduction’ and ‘Games of Rival Tribes.’ In Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring sketchbook, ‘Game of Rival Tribes’ appears before ‘Game of Abduction.’ In addition to the chronology in the sketchbook, there is a thematic evolution between the two pieces as well. The opening theme of the ‘Game of Rival Tribes’ (2 measures after figure 57) is a primitive version of one of the melodies heard in the ‘Game of Abduction’ (figure 43). The evolution of thought is evident in the method of notation. In the ‘Game of Rival Tribes,’ the melody consists of a measure in common time and a succeeding measure in 3/4 time:
In the ‘Game of Abduction’ a similar melody is expressed in a more expanded fashion. Here, two 6/8 measures are followed by a 7/8 measure, which is finally followed by a 3/4 measure:
This evolution of thought and theme clearly expresses a chronological connectivity between the two movements. They were composed at different times, and originally Stravinsky meant to notate a different order for the movements (Walsh 47). This piece of information about the change in the order of movements appears to be a rather unlikely act for a composer, who understood music as well as Stravinsky. Rearranging this piece certainly destroyed a great deal of thematic effects, which were created carefully by the composer. However, when this act of destruction by Stravinsky is put in the context of the piece itself, the strangeness diminishes. Stravinsky chose to destroy the piece’s thematic integrity in order to convey the pagan nature of the composition. He voluntarily detached connected movements in order to effectively portray the lack of development in the piece. Had he chosen to use the classical methodology of notation and thematic development, he would have been pointlessly trying to portray something primitive through modern means. However when he chose to destroy the piece’s connectivity, he truly iterated the message of loss and destruction. Stravinsky chose to destroy his thematic continuity in order to finalize the rough nature of this pagan rite. It is certainly true that Stravinsky personally cared for the thematic attachment among the movements. However, he approached the outcome with a solemn sense of “sovereign disregard.” He chose to “write with an ax” in order to convey the primitiveness of the pagan ritural of celebrating the arrival of spring (Taruskin). Stravinsky never allowed his sentimentality to interfere with the objective nature of his music. On a very subjective level, the composer wanted to maintain the integrity of the piece. However, Stravinsky’s objectivity managed to triumph for the resultant composition. Here, Stravinsky willingly surrendered his valued subjectivity, in order to objectively portray an event.
Yet another facet of autonomous music is present in The Rite of Spring. The Rite of Spring was written as a ballet. Traditionally, ballet music has been written to accompany the dancers. This is not how Stravinsky meant his Rite to be performed. Stravinsky wanted the dancers to be an accompaniment to the music. With this notion, Stravinsky, once again asserts his notion of autonomy in composition. Stravinsky did not write an accompaniment for dancers. He wrote a piece, which did not need accessories to be completed. Dancers in The Rite of Spring were meant to make “explicit what is already implicit in the score” (Routh 12).
As The Rite of Spring was written as a ballet, the premiere required a choreographer in order to put accompany the music with dance. However, this notion of autonomous music is quite foreign to most choreographers. Choreographers focus on the technical aspects of dance. Thus they assume the dance as the most important aspect of the performance, since it is communicated through the visual sense. According to Stravinsky, this was the case in the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. The choreographer at that time of the premiere was Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky was a great dancer of his time, but Stravinsky did not think that he accomplished the task of choreographing properly for a piece of such high caliber. Stravinsky did not think that Nijinsky respected the autonomy of The Rite. Despite the fact that Nijinsky’s choreography was described as “almost bestial,” (Acocella 94) Stravinsky did not think that his music was properly accompanied. Thus, Stravinsky put all the blame for the disastrous premiere upon Nijinsky. According to spectators, this premiere was “Paris’s most cherished theatrical riot” (Acocella 94). Stravinsky’s own account of the event describes the mayhem, which ensued:
The [premiere of] Le Sacre du Printemps was given on May 28 at the evening performance. The complexity of my score had demanded a great number of rehearsals, which Monteux had conducted with his usual skill and attention. As for the actual performance, I am not in a position to judge, as I left the auditorium [to stand in the wings] at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar. During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky's side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming "sixteen, seventeen, eighteen" -- they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally, the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghilev [the impresario] kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about that first performance. (quoted in Harrington)
The view taken here by Stravinsky is quite interesting. First, he conveys his lack of appreciation for dancers. He lightly states, “they had their own method of counting,” as if they should have yielded to the “usual” method of counting used by musicians. He did not like the idea that dancers were following a different paradigm than the one assigned by him in his score. He goes on to say that he had to keep Nijinsky from running onto the stage and thus “creat[ing] a scandal.” This statement is quite hilarious! Stravinsky says this without even taking into consideration the “scandal” that was already caused by his music. He did not even consider the notion that his music may have contributed to the pandemonium, which was underway in the audience. Both these acts by Stravinsky go on to further prove his mindset toward the music. He thought of the music as an absolutely autonomous art form, which could not be criticized. Thus, the entire fault was to be laid upon the dancers and the choreographer (Nijinsky).
Later performances of The Rite of Spring gave Stravinsky even more reason to blame Nijinsky for the failure of the performance. A concert performance of the piece was given on April 5, 1914, with Pierre Monteux conducting again. This performance went quite well. The audience loved the piece and they applauded Stravinsky for such a marvelous composition (Routh 12). The lack of a ballet accompaniment in this successful performance gave Stravinsky a great deal of reason for believing that Nijinsky was indeed responsible for the disasterous debacle of the premiere.
Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was met with a similar attitude when compared with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The premiere, however, was not a pronounced demonstration, as was the case with the Stravinsky premiere. Rachmaninoff began work on his first symphony (symphony in D minor) in 1895. Rachmaninoff chose to use motifs, which were reminiscent of his childhood in Novgorod at his grandmother’s estate. There were church bells in Novgorod, and Rachmaninoff paid tribute to them in his first symphony. In the symphony, Rachmaninoff manages to convey “power, tenderness, passion, sorrow, and at times even epic grandeur” (Piggott 32). Rachmaninoff spent a great amount of time on inputting his personal feelings into his piece. He truly made this piece to be a manifestation of his Self. A particular event justifies this fact. His former teacher Sergei Taneyev advised him to change a few pages of the piece, which were in need of “drastic revision.” Rachmaninoff ignored Taneyev’s opinion, and allowed the piece to be performed as written (Piggott 33). He did not feel that it would be appropriate to change something so personal. He could not imagine altering something, which signified so many ideals to him. The rehearsal and the performance were both lead by Alexander Glazunov. The rehearsal (attended by Rimsky-Korsakov) did not go well. Glazunov should have garnered most of the blame for the bad rehearsal. However, the young Rachmaninoff was ultimately responsible for the piece’s failure to impress the attendants. Rimsky-Korsakov “blatantly” admitted to Rachmaninoff that he did not like the piece. At this point Rachmaninoff realized that he should have taken the advice offered by Taneyev. However the time had passed for modifications. The premiere (15 March 1897) of the piece was also a disaster. Again, Glazunov’s poor conducting should have been blamed for the failure, but again Rachmaninoff was chided for the “innumerable muddles and consequent earsplitting cacophony” (Piggott 33).
This debacle destroyed Rachmaninoff. Since he invested so much of himself in this piece, he felt that its failure signaled his failure as a composer. In the period immediately following the symphony’s premiere, he tried composing other significant works, but he was not able to accomplish much. This just added to his previously developed sense of “frustration.” Rachmaninoff did not begin to compose another major piece until 1900.
Rachmaninoff wrote a letter to Alexander Zataevitch (composer and music critic) on 6 May 1897. In it, he declares a very subjective view of the performance of his symphony:
I am not at all affected by its lack of success, nor am I dismayed by the disparaging critiques – I am deeply upset and most depressed that my Symphony, though I loved it very much, and still do, did not please me after its first rehearsal [. . .] This means, you’ll say that it’s poorly orchestrated. But I am convinced, in reply, that good music can “shine through” poor orchestration, nor do I think that the instrumentation is totally unsuccessful. (Cannata 19)
Rachmaninoff goes on to blame “the performance” for the failure of his piece. In this quote, the subjective nature, with which this work was completed could be observed clearly. Rachmaninoff states clearly that he “loved” the piece very much. He had taken this failure as a heartbreak caused by an unfaithful lover. He personified the piece to such a great extent that any foul comment about the piece would have staunchly stabbed him.
Finally, in 1900, Rachmaninoff decided to seek help for his lack of creativity. He met with Leo Tolstoy for encouraging words (Cannata 19). Rachmaninoff considered Tolstoy as a great thinker, and thus thought of their conversations as quite helpful to his recovery. However, the main catalyst for change in his gloomy creative sense was doctor Nikolai Dahl. Dr. Dahl was a hypnotist, who helped inspire Rachmaninoff into writing his Second Piano Concerto. It is common belief that Dr. Dahl did not achieve any measurable change in Rachmaninoff. He simply provided him with the assurance needed to compose (Cannata 20). These drastic measures taken by Rachmaninoff were not of any use for Stravinsky.
Stravinsky’s attitude toward failure of the premiere should be discussed here. Stravinsky did not give up hope after the failure. He knew that his music was a sound composition. He never once doubted the integrity of the music. Instead he chose to blame elements, on which he had no control (i.e. the choreography). This is to be expected with Stravinsky’s mindset. He viewed his music as objectively as possible. To Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring was a concrete object. It could not have been altered. However the peripherals of the music (the dance) were not so objective, as choreographed by Nijinsky. The music could not have been at fault here. The only thing that lacked stringent objectivity was Nijinsky’s choreography. Therefore, the fault laid entirely on the dance, and not the music. This attitude prevented Stravinsky from being affected by public opinion toward his work. His works were completely autonomous, and thus stood firm. No one had to approve of them, and no one could criticize their existence. This point of attitude toward a composition will be of great contrast in the case of Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff’s works contained a piece of his being. If they were criticized, he felt that the very core of his being was shaken. Rachmaninoff’s pieces were not autonomous pieces of composition. They were always dependent on some element of Rachmaninoff’s life. For instance, the close association of the first symphony with the church bells of Novgorod was a significant link. The failure of the first symphony’s premiere managed to taint a part of his past. That tainted past took some time to clear.
Another aspect of Stravinsky’s attitude toward music lies within the idea of constraints. Stravinsky had very strong feelings toward the idea of having limits in his composition. He outlines these thoughts in his Poetics of Music. Stravinsky believed that “musical art is limited in its expression in a measure corresponding exactly to the limitations of the organ that perceives it” (Stravinsky 65). He thought that every composer had a limit within which he had to work. Stravinsky realized that he had work within his limits. The most limiting of his “organs” was his hands. He did not have great piano playing abilities. This did not mean that he was limited in the ideas he could perceive though: instead, his manifestation of ideas had to be more innovative than the person with the abundant technical abilities.
Stravinsky despised composer who did not know their compositional limit. He hated the idea of pretending to be limitless. He also hated the idea of music with no discipline. Both of these notions could be found in the works of Richard Wagner. Stravinsky had very specific thoughts on Wagner’s music
Wagner’s work corresponds to a tendency that is not, properly speaking, a disorder, but one which tries to compensate for a lack of order. The principle of the endless melody perfectly illustrates this tendency. It is the perpetual becoming of a music that never had any reason for starting, any more than it has any reason for ending. (Stravinsky 65)
Here Stravinsky criticizes Wagner for writing pointless music. This notion of writing music without an aim is definitely a manifestation of writing without limits. Stravinsky did not believe that writing without limits creates real music:
A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy. The effects it produces may accidentally amuse, but are not capable of being repeated. I cannot conceive of a fantasy that is repeated, for it can be repeated only to its detriment. (Stravinsky 65-66)
Creating fantasies was not Stravinsky’s goal. His aim was to create music, which could speak for itself. His aim was the autonomy of his music.
Rachmaninoff did not feel any particular constraint upon his compositions. The reasons for this are multifaceted. First, the amazing technique and memory of Rachmaninoff kept anything from limiting him. His extraordinary skills guided him throughout his career. Rachmaninoff’s memory is a great testament to the extent of his abilities. An example of Rachmaninoff’s amazing memory could be found at the age of fifteen. One evening, Alexander Glazunov came to Taneyev’s flat to perform his new symphony (Symphony No. 5). Glazunov performed his symphony on the piano, without Rachmaninoff in the room. After the performance, Taneyev brought out the young Rachmaninoff and instructed him to play the piano for the present company. Everyone expected Rachmaninoff to play standard etudes or a small new composition. Instead, Rachmaninoff played Glavunov’s new symphony in its entirety. When Glazunov expressed his amazement and demanded to know how the young Rachmaninoff had played the piece, Taneyev calmly said “Sergei Vassilievitch heard it through the door while you were playing it” (Piggott 22). This type of amazing “instinctual musicianship” was not observed in Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s memory betrayed him many times. It has been recorded that at the premiere of his Piano Concerto (22 May 1924), Stravinsky suffered a momentary lapse of memory and Koussevitzky had to hum the first note of the Largo to him, in order to continue (Routh 31). Stravinsky’s creative mind was far too active to simply memorize notes. He saw potential within every possible chance. Therefore, his memorization skills were rather poor. That is another constraint, within which he had to work. However, as mentioned before, Stravinsky embraced the challenge of constraints.
The necessity of composition is yet another aspect of Stravinsky’s attitude toward music. In Poetics of Music he clearly expresses his physical necessity toward composition:
All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery [. . .]. This appetite that is aroused in me at the mere thought of putting in order musical elements that have attracted my attention is not at all a fortuitous thing like inspiration, but as habitual and periodic, if not as constant, as a natural need. This premonition of an obligation, this foretaste of a pleasure, this conditioned reflex, [. . .] shows clearly that the idea of discovery and hard work is what attracts me. (Stravinsky 52)
This testimonial clearly distinguishes Stravinsky’s need to compose from mere inspiration. Stravinsky did not need the uncertainty of a “certain emotive disturbance generally designated by the name of inspiration” (Stravinsky 51). As a matter of a fact, what he feels toward music is quite the opposite of inspiration. Individuals, who need inspiration to compose, cannot compose at all times. They have to wait until the proper elements cause them to become inspired and thus compose. Stravinsky needed to create (compose) because he was obligated to the task. He did not have a choice in the matter. Composition was a key part of his personality and being. This idea of the physical need to compose is related to the objective aspect of Stravinsky’s life and music. If an individual has the ability to be objective, inspiration carries no significant meaning. Inspiration is quite a subjective notion. No one could pinpoint the exact meaning or cause of inspiration. There are too many variables in the word and the thought. Stravinsky disliked the notion of too many variables. He did not like the notion of defining his life in intangible terms (such as inspiration). This is in stark contrast to the techniques used by Rachmaninoff to compose.
As discussed previously, Rachmaninoff could not compose, unless he was in a perfectly undisturbed setting. As he studied with Zverev, he requested a separate room, in order to compose in isolation from the other students in Zverev’s residence (Norris 8). This request hampered their relationship for years. Rachmaninoff did not have the same obligation toward composition as Stravinsky did. Rachmaninoff never found it absolutely necessary to his well being to compose (unlike Stravinsky). This is the reason for extended periods without compositional content in Rachmaninoff’s life. A good example of this lack of activity is a three-year break between 1897 and 1900, as discussed above. This lack of urgency in composition, gives Rachmaninoff’s pieces a very romantic sense of calm. Rachmaninoff’s works are not urgent. They are simply works, which inoffensively amuse the listener.
There is a great irony in the compositions of these two composers. Rachmaninoff, who tried so hard to embody the human condition in his pieces, is now regarded as a post-romantic romantic. However Stravinsky, who tried adamantly to keep subjectivity out of his pieces is hailed as the composer who has managed to recreate the human condition the best. For instance, the emotions stirred by The Rite of Spring haunt one’s inner soul with immaculate persistence. No Rachmaninoff piece comes close to achieving that task. The irony here exists in the fact that the more objective composer has managed to convey his subject matter in a more palatable way.
The ideology of these composers differed in that each had a differing purpose for music. Each composer developed this view through the influences of previous generations. One chose to follow the previous paradigm. The other altered the earlier methodology and created the new sound of the twentieth century.
Acocella, Joan. “The Lost Nijinsky” The New Yorker 7 May 2001: 94-97.
Cannata, David B. Rachmaninoff and the Symphony. Innsbruck/Wien: Studien Verlag, 1999.
Harrington, John. A Compendium of Stravinsky’s Works. 13 April 2001 <www.geocities.com/vienna/1807/stravinsky.html>
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971). 13 April 2001 <http://www.cs.hut.fi/~pno/Music/Stravinsky/>
New Grove Online Dictionary. 2001. Igor Stravinsky. 12 April 2001 <http://www.grovemusic.com>
Norris, Geoffrey. Rachmaninoff. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1976.
Piggott, Patrick. Rachmaninoff . London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1978.
Routh, Francis. Stravinky. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1975.
Stravinksy, Igor. Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.
Taruskin, Richard. Lecture on 20 February 2001.
Walsh, Stephen. The Music of Stravinsky. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Note: Modern Language Association's format was used throughout this document. The 5th edition of the MLA handbook was utilized as a reference.