Last rites for an empire's culture

Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions
April 4, 1997

This is a work of monumental scholarship which, like many monuments, is more impressive when viewed from a distance. Occasionally slackly written and often repetitive, it only just merits its extraordinary overdetermining bulk and OUP's permissive editorial hand.

It does so in the light of Richard Taruskin's desire to correct an unquestioned consensus about the stylistic and cultural loyalties of the 20th century's most densely documented musical artist. Inevitably, most literature is weighted towards Stravinsky's later years in Western Europe and the United States, where he granted Robert Craft the faintly suspect "interviews" which consolidated most of the critical orthodoxies about Stravinsky and his work. The most persistent of these is that, having been shown the great Tchaikovsky in his box at the opera and having been steered away from the conservatories by Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky turned his back on Russia and its culture in favour of neoclassical cosmopolitanism. The "neoclassical" tag is in itself misleading, and makes no more sense of Stravinsky's aesthetic than do "late Romantic", "Impressionist", "primitivist", and "serialist". He was all of them, but at different times, and while there is a basic continuity it has nothing to do with the values he imbibed in post-first world war Paris. What continuity there is, Taruskin is arguing, stems precisely from the Russianness Stravinsky tried so hard to combat in himself, but never refined out of his work. Not unexpectedly, the place to look for this treacherously self-defining "national" characteristic is during the period when the composer was most vociferously denying it.

It is always a mistake to review books by interrogating their titles. However, the very oddity of Taruskin's deserves some comment. What he means by "traditions" plural becomes obvious in the course of his argument and is a salutary point, but what is meant by a "biography" of musical "works" is less clear, unless Taruskin is implying a strict parallelism between life and art, and this is emphatically not proven. The significance of "through Mavra" relative to a span of 1,750 pages takes a moment to sink in. Stravinsky's comic opera after Pushkin received its premiere in Paris on June 3 1922, when the composer was 40 and had another 50 years of life and music-making left to him. This is redressing the balance with a vengeance, but it should be noted that by 1922, Stravinsky had written most of the works which established his reputation: the "Scherzo Fantastique", the "Chant Fun bre" for his beloved Rimsky, "L'Oiseau de Feu", "Petrouchka", and above all, the "scenes of pagan Russia" which made up the notorious "The Rite of Spring", which was first heard in the country which inspired it a matter of weeks before the great cultural schism of the first world war.

Taruskin's argument is readily summed up. Stravinsky, he suggests, achieved his extraordinarily aesthetic flexibility by playing off the traditions of Russian folk music against the denatured provincialism of Russian art music in which he had been reared and which Rimsky warned him off. Taruskin convincingly suggests that Stravinsky's understanding of Russian folklore came from outside music altogether, largely from his contact with Mir isskustva, the artists associated with the journal "World of Art", and with the movement towards neonationalist purity in decoration fomented by "World of Art" antagonist Vladimir Vasilyevich Stasov. The physical background to the strong divide in Stravinsky's artistic personality can best be seen in the contrast between the hideously "Russian" Church of the Resurrection, commissioned by Alexander III for the site where his father was assassinated and a monument which yelps incongruously among the Italianate, neoclassical structures which surround it. If there is a location which explains the shifts and ironies in Stravinsky's career then Alexander's church, begun in the year of Stravinsky's birth, completed the year he wrote his first fully successful work, the "Scherzo Fantastique", is it.

Stasov was convinced that folk ornament should not merely be preserved, but utilised creatively. Taruskin makes it clear that Stravinsky deliberately retained folkloristic elements in a recombinant form which meant that even when working far from ostensibly Russian models, even when he was denying his origins most polemically, he was never anything other than "the most completely Russian composer of art music that ever was and, if present trends continue, that ever will be". This is the final reason for the bulk of Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: the fall of the Soviet Empire has not brought about but has exposed the decline and fragmentation of a Russian culture that has managed to sustain itself in carefully managed isolation for the better part of a millennium. Stravinsky has often been cast as the last "great" composer, seldom with the more historically grounded, less apocalyptic ethnic qualification. This is a large, overstuffed book, an urgently put together collection of fragments shored up against the ruin of something much grander and more complex than it could ever hope to convey.

Brian Morton is a writer and BBC broadcaster, and author of four books on music.

Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, Volumes One and Two

Author - Richard Taruskin
ISBN - 0 19 816250 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £80.00
Pages - 1,757

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