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 6

25 May 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4

Read Part 5


The composer Igor Stravinsky in 1921.

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


In Part 5 of this entry, we considered the artistic and musical milieu of the genesis of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, concluding with a comment about sounds that were once perceived as fauve  becoming “domesticated.”

One express example of such domestication is the iconic bassoon solo that commences the work, a rendering of a Lithuanian folk tune in the Aeolian mode.  To many at the time, the bassoon was barely recognizable at this high register (this is the passage in which, according to the Italian composer Alfredo Casella who was at the premiere, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was unable to identify the instrument).  Signifying the awakening of spring, the bassoon seems uncertain, but nevertheless longing and striving:



Stravinsky once joked that this passage should be transposed up a semitone every few years — because as bassoonists get used to it, it might sound too easy.  More seriously, he claimed that this melody comprised the only authentic folk tune in the work.  This may be true . . . on the surface.  However, musicologists such as Richard Taruskin, Pieter C. van den Toorn, Lawrence Morton, and Stephen Walsh among others have found Le sacre du printemps to be saturated with indigenous material.  It’s just that these folk songs have been minced and puréed to the point where what is most recognizable is simply their Russian flavor.

Another example of an aspect of Le sacre du printemps that many in the last century have endeavored to come to terms with is its rhythmic complexity.  Take, for example, the jagged pulsations at the beginning of “Danse Sacrale,” an excerpt of which is shown below in a piano reduction:



At first, while tessellating these ostinati in changing meters, Stravinsky wasn’t sure where to draw the bar lines.  Later, during rehearsals, the dancers, who usually count out their dance steps, called the music “an arithmetic lesson.”  And then, three decades later, the French composer Olivier Messiaen, while studying the score of Le sacre du printemps, coined the term personnages rythmiques to denote such rhythmic cells that can expand, contract, or remain constant.

Still later, in the early 1950s, Pierre Boulez demonstrated the audible scheme of these cells to be a rondo-like pattern with a sixteenth-note pulse.


Pierre Boulez conducting at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2008 with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, 17 October 2008.

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


It was a revolution in rhythm that changed the course of music for the century and beyond.  Most fascinating is that in 1912, the same year that Le sacre du printemps was composed, Claude Debussy composed his revolution in form, the ballet Jeux, which Pierre Boulez said, “marks the advent of a musical form which, instantly renewing itself, involves a no less instantaneous mode of listening” — and Arnold Schönberg composed his revolution in pitch organization, Pierrot Lunaire, deemed by Stravinsky, “the solar plexus of twentieth-century music.”

But then, as Boulez once noted dryly, “Revolutions are celebrated when they are no longer dangerous.”


Musical “revolutionaries”:  Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) in a caricature by Sacha Guitry, 1905 (left), and Arnold Schönberg (1874 - 1951) in a drawing by Egon Schiele, 1917 (right).

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


Coincidentally, Debussy’s Jeux was premièred exactly two weeks before Le sacre du printemps, at the same hall in Paris — the théâtre des Champs-Élysées  — and under the same conductor, Pierre Monteux.  However the success of the former ballet was entirely overshadowed by the scandal of the latter at the time.

Last, in our consideration of the “domestication” of Le sacre du printemps, many over the past century have subjected the harmonic expression of the work to exhaustive analysis.  In Part 3 of this entry, we had discussed the challenge of the ‘Petrushka chord’, alluding to its differing interpretations.  In fact, the two ballets have much in common, Stravinsky having put Le sacre du printemps on pause in order to compose Petrushka.

At the beginning of the section titled “Les Augures Printaniers: Danses des Adolescentes,” a static harmony is iterated in the strings.  Like the Petrushka chord, this dissonant aggregate in Le sacre du printemps can be construed as two separate chords from unrelated keys, in this case an F-flat major (the enharmonic equivalent of E major) triad and a dominant seventh chord built on E-flat:



Like the Petrushka chord, this harmony seems to divulge Stravinsky’s predilection for composing at the piano, as the two chords in the bitonal explanation accommodate themselves well to the hands.

Then again, there is much in Le sacre du printemps that reveals a more profound manner of organization.  Another way of looking at the chord described above, as well as the Petrushka chord, is that all of the pitches when organized into a scale fall into neatly alternating half- and whole-steps.  In the 1960s, the American theorist Arthur Berger described the tonal organization in much of Stravinsky’s music of this period, giving it a label: the octatonic scale.

Olivier Messiaen had earlier classified this arrangement of alternating  half- and whole-steps as one of the “modes of limited transposition” (i.e., this scale can be transposed only two times before repeating — unlike a major scale which has 12 transpositions, for example).

The octatonic scale yields a wealth of conventional diatonic material, including interlocking diminished seventh chords, major, minor, and diminished triads, dominant seventh and other chords.  Other composers had used the scale before Stravinsky (and before it had a name) — including his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Franz Liszt — but Stravinsky employed the scale in dramatically new ways to create complex tonalities.

Taking a wider view, another American theorist, George Perle, when considering the profusion of different approaches to music early in the last century — for example, in addition to Igor Stravinsky, that of Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Arnold Schönberg, Edgar Varèse, or Alexander Scriabin — perceived that the stylistic differences among these composers obscures a unifying idea in their works: the law of symmetry.

The organization of tonal music is by design asymmetrical, providing us with aural cues to help us locate the key center.  Perle observed that many early twentieth-century composers, who had written tonal music originally, came to a crisis and changed drastically.  The two big connections among the ground-breaking music by these composers were strict inversion (versus tonal inversion, which is asymmetrical) and use of the octave divided into equal parts, a second type of symmetry, as in the case of the octatonic scale we have been discussing.  In other words, while they shared a common language, just as Mozart and Wagner did, they were able to sound immeasurably different one from the other.

Perle identified the reason that the tonality is ambiguous in Le sacre du printemps:  there is a blend of the symmetrical (cyclic) division of the octave and traditional diatonic harmonies.  In The Listening Composer (1990), he wrote, "This intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements seems to me the defining principle of the musical language of Le sacre and the source of the unparalleled tension and conflicted energy of the work.”

Perle further pointed out that the octatonic scale as used by Stravinsky, the whole-tone scale as used by Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók’s axis system, and Arnold Schönberg’s 12-tone method all share symmetry as an organizing principle.

There is certainly nothing primitive about that notion.

Next year (2013), in Paris and throughout the world, look for performances of Stravinsky’s  Le sacre du printemps in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of its première.


*          *            *


Igor Stravinsky and Segei Diaghilev would go on to collaborate on five different occasions following Le sacre du printemps.  In 1920 they staged Le chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale), an adaptation from Stravinsky’s opera of 1914, Le rossignol (The Nightingale), with set and costumes designed by Henri Matisse.  The same year they also produced Pulcinella, with set and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso.

The year 1922 saw the première of Renard (The Fox), a one-act chamber opera-ballet, and 1923, that of the ballet with vocalists, Les Noces (The Wedding).  Finally, in 1928 they worked together on Apollon musagète (Apollo), with choreography by George Balanchine and costumes by Coco Chanel.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Diaghilev never returned to his homeland.  He died in 1929.

To describe the rest of Stravinsky’s life would take volumes and, in fact, according to the Library of Congress, 2,317 books have been written about the composer to date.  But here is a quick summary of his life, post-Sacre.

After remaining in Switzerland through World War I, he settled in Paris, adopting an economy of orchestration out of financial necessity.  A new style emerged simultaneously in his writing that came to be called neoclassicism:  more austere, parodistic, and with a re-interpretation of classical forms.  Works from this period include L’histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale, 1918), for narrator, three characters who speak, dance, and act, and seven instrumentalists; Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), in the style of a concerto grosso and dedicated to Claude Debussy; Symphony of Psalms (1930), for chorus and orchestra; and the ballet Jeu de cartes (Card Game, 1936).

Then, in 1939 with World War II heating up, he moved to the United States.  Soon after his arrival, Stravinsky was almost arrested for his arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner," something he decided not to try again.  He eventually settled in West Hollywood near Sunset Boulevard and continued to compose in the neoclassical style, producing Symphony in C (1940), Symphony in Three Movements (1945), and his ultimate work in this style, the opera The Rake’s Progress (1948 - 1951), with a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman that is based on a series of William Hogarth engravings from the eighteenth century.


Here, in a photo from Life magazine, the composer is having fun with fellow Hollywood resident Charlie Chaplin, who in addition to making films was a songwriter.


In Los Angeles Stravinsky met the musicologist Robert Craft, who became a vital assistant to the composer.  Craft introduced Stravinsky to the 12-tone music of Arnold Schönberg and his students, especially Anton Webern.  Stravinsky and the “Second Viennese School” occupied opposite compositional camps in the public’s perception.  Ironically, Arnold Schönberg had moved to the United States prior to World War II, settling on the other side of the UCLA campus from Stravinsky in Brentwood, Los Angeles, only a few miles away.

After the death of Schönberg — the inventor of the 12-tone method — Stravinsky began writing serial music himself, inaugurating his third stylistic period.  His 1953 work, Three Songs from William Shakespeare, for voice, flute, clarinet, and viola, is a window on Stravinsky’s evolution, each song representing a new stage toward serialism.  Other serial works include the ballet, Agon (1953 – 1957), In Memorium Dylan Thomas (1954), for tenor, string quartet, and four trombones, and Requiem Canticles (1965-6), for alto, bass, chorus, and orchestra.  This last work was performed five years later at Stravinsky's funeral.

In 1969 Stravinsky moved to New York City, where he died in 1971 at the age of 88.  Although he had lived in Russia, Switzerland, France, and on both coasts of the United States, Stravinsky’s preferred city was Venice, Italy.  It was here where several of his works, including The Rake's Progress, were first performed, and where Diaghilev was buried.  In accordance with Stravinsky's wish, he was buried in Venice, in the Russian Orthodox corner of the cemetery on the island of San Michele.

Below is a slide show with photos of the tombs of both Diaghilev and Stravinsky, as well as locations in Paris named in their memory.



A view from the Doge’s Palace over Venice, Italy, toward the island of San Michele, where the graves of Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky are located. 



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.

Other Threads in This Blog: