a brief note on stravinsky and the musical tradition

Some justification for my statement that Stravinsky was a reviver of the tradition probably seems in order.

The way in which Stravinsky was most obviously a reviver of the tradition was in his theory of the purpose of music. For Stravinsky, there existed two sorts of time— the subjective* & the ontological. Subjective is the time of our normal experience; it’s the time of emotion, and the time of crisis. The most common examples of subjective time are those before dangerous incidents; when I was hit by a speeding full–size pickup, everything happened in a perception of slow motion, after seeing it (a mere fifteen yards away) I had the time to judge its speed, realize it was going to hit me, dread the collision and understand that it would be serious. (I was spun around 450°.) Blissful moments can also seem both longer and shorter, and so on. Stravinsky saw the purpose of proper music to be an aid to bringing the user into the ontological time which was the time of true reality, the time of creation. An accessible (albeit fictional) example of the music of ontological time would be Tolkien’s music of the Ainu (to repeat a quote I have placed in this blog before):

“[…]the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Ainulindalë’ in The Silmarillion (boldface mine)

The idea that music would appeal to the subjective time of the composer’s (or performer[s]’) emotion was part of the fear of the entry of music into the liturgical services of the Church, and once again part of the fear of using anything other than monophonic recitation. The purpose of the liturgies of the Church are explicitly to be a foretaste of the reality of that which is about God and the future that is the new heaven & the new earth. Stravinsky understood this, and appealed against the classical and romantic tradition which we now often see as the only tradition because of it. (This is not to say—in my opinion—that pieces within that tradition cannot bring the listener into such time, and I do not believe that musics which operate on the level of entertainment—folk song, opera, musicals—are subject to this objection.) I have some feeling that the following Mozart piece manages (or can manage, depending on performance) that:

But it manages it in a very different fashion than Stravinsky or Arvo Pärt do:

Part of this may be ear & training, I do not know. But in his philosophical basis (at the very least) Stravinsky is correct and deeply in tune with the Tradition that is rare in modernity; he is not its destroyer, he is someone who was fundamentally misunderstood, with his disciples reading a political–artistic stance that was not there.

I suppose that this note was only brief by my standards.

* I do not remember if this is the precise word he used— I do not own the text.

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Filed under music, philosophy & theology

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