A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 5

18 May 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4


A costume designed by Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947) for the première of Le sacre du printemps, 1913.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD-old}}


In Part 4 of this blog entry, we described the riot that accompanied the 1913 première of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).  Some question whether it was the music, the choreography, or the combination of the two that affected the audience.

Let’s assume for a moment that the music played a role in the mêlée.  Those in attendance that evening had just watched a ballet about invisible, more-or-less risk-free beings of the air, Les Sylphides, while being soothed to unruffled tranquility by the Romantic strains of Frédéric Chopin, that other Slavic expat who had lived in Paris and whose revolutionary music had become safe by that point.  (Some of Chopin’s music for this ballet was orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov — you know, the one who said of Stravinsky’s previous ballet, "Petrushka is not music.”)

Then the reverie exploded.  “The Rite of Spring serves as a point of reference to all who seek to establish the birth certificate of what is still called ‘contemporary’ music,” states Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) in his Orientations: Collected Writings.  “A kind of manifesto work, somewhat in the same way and probably for the same reasons as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, it has not ceased to engender, first, polemics, then, praise, and, finally, the necessary clarifications.”

By 1912, when Stravinsky was composing Le sacre du printemps, primitivism was in the air.  Picasso’s controversial 1907 painting cited by Boulez, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, had caused quite a stir.   The intimidating poses of the women with angular bodies, some like Iberian statues, some with faces resembling African tribal masks, combined with the painter’s utter rejection of perspective with a two-dimensional picture plane. For critics, this indicated the sway of the reductive formalism of African and Oceanic sculpture, even though Picasso denied it. 

Pablo Picasso in 1962.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

But then, the Fauvists had already set the “uncivilized” tone a couple of years earlier at the 1905 Salon d'Automne in Paris.  Was it the Mediterranean sunlight or the Catalan air in the village of Collioure that dramatically reconfigured the perception of André Derain (1880–1954) and Henri Matisse (1869 –1954)?   (Cue Maurice Chevalier singing, “Collioure sera toujours Collioure” — Collioure will always be Collioure — from the song "Paris sera toujours Paris”).

Because when the dazzling, vibrant colors of their paintings hit the eyes of the art critic Camille Mauclair, he said, "A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public.”  The influential critic Louis Vauxcelles went further, scornfully calling their works les Fauves — the wild beasts — which, merci beaucoup, inaugurated the Fauvist movement.


Henri Matisse (1869 –1954): Paysage à Collioure, 1905, Museum of Modern Art.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


It was into this world that Le sacre du printemps was born.  Jean Cocteau, who also collaborated with Diaghilev, noted that, “Everything considered, the Sacre is still a work belonging to the fauve school, a disciplined fauve work.  Gauguin and Matisse acclaimed it.”

Interestingly, Louis Vauxcelles, the critic who coined the term fauve, was also the first to use the word ‘cubism’ in 1908 after seeing a painting by Georges Braque (1882 – 1963).  (André Derain himself, initially labeled a fauvist, began to show the influence of cubism a little later on.)  It was in this movement of art, forged by both Braque and Picasso, that multiple perspectives were first explored, thus paralleling polytonality in music, as we had discussed in Part 3 of this entry.

So, why might Stravinsky’s music be compared to that which was considered wild or primitive?

The listening public in 1913 was accustomed to savoring a smooth, melody-dominated texture marinated in a sauce of rich harmony comprised of timbral ingredients from which balanced overtones with harmonic ratios waft up, all produced by instruments that have been cultivated since the Renaissance.  Any dissonances, of course, like bones, were resolved and disposed of properly.

On the evening of 29 May that year the audience was subjected to a sensorial assault in which not melody, but raw rhythm, dynamics, and timbre dominated; in which the essence of dissonance pervaded when there wasn’t harmonic ambiguity; and in which the non-harmonic tang of percussion flavored unpredictably shifting meters and accents.  To use another metaphor in this last case, “The percussion and bass,” Stravinsky explained to Robert Craft in 1959, “function as a central heating system,” and things were getting warm at the théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

In spite of its possible barbaric effect on those first listeners, the music is anything but disordered.  The harmony is exquisitely coordinated, the variety of textures minutely detailed, and the rhythm complexly organized, as we shall see in the next part of this entry.  Stravinsky’s motto was, “The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free."  He was so disciplined that he termed himself not a composer but an “inventor of music."

Over the course of the twentieth century, those ‘fauve’ sounds became somewhat more tame.  By the 1950s, forty years after the première of Le sacre du printemps, Lincoln Kirstein, director of the New York City Ballet, observed: "Sounds he has found or invented, however strange or forbidding at the outset, have become domesticated in our ears."


The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts ( France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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