Aghast

Philip Booth

  • Stravinsky Seen and Heard by Hans Keller and Milein Cosman
    Toccata Press, 127 pp, £5.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 907689 01 9
  • Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music by Léonie Rosenstiel
    Norton, 427 pp, £16.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 393 01495 9

The husband-and-wife team of Hans Keller and Milein Cosman looks at Stravinsky in his later years from two very different points of view: on the one hand, that of the rational music critic and analyst; on the other, that of the subjective visual artist. Milein Cosman’s vigorous sketches, made during the composer’s visits to London between 1958 and 1965, occupy over half the book. Although there are more sketches than seems necessary, they capture marvellously the hunched, almost repressed posture characteristic of the composer (even as a younger man), and thus lend support to some of Keller’s psychological hypotheses. This physical attitude is all the more noticeable for its juxtaposition here with the crisp, refined figure of Jean Cocteau, a contrast which justifies Cocteau’s inclusion amongst the sketches far more compellingly than Cosman’s practical explanation that he was involved in a performance of Oedipus Rex. There is one eloquent and highly economical sketch in which Cocteau’s disdain for the chair on which he is sitting seems to reach beyond the physically possible. Alas, there is nothing quite so telling among the sketches of Stravinsky himself.

Keller’s contribution consists of 39 pages of original text, together with an article reprinted from Tempo (1955) which introduces a functional analysis of the central section of Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. The index to this material occupies a further four and a half pages, and contains such fascinating entries as ‘sadism, Webern’s in-turned’. The book is generally superlative in tone, and Keller’s fondness for verbal inflation leads him down some very dubious paths. Thus Webern is a ‘great minor master’, Stravinsky’s switch to serial composition is ‘the profoundest surprise in the history of music’, and his genius, finally, is not merely unique but ‘the uniquest of the lot’. Keller’s concern here, as elsewhere in his writings and his radio talks, is to convince us that we are in the presence of ideas of supreme importance which have inexplicably been overlooked or at least underrated by duller minds. In this particular case, the oversight is a failure by Stravinsky scholars to account psychologically for the composer’s espousal of serial technique in the teeth of his own very vocal hostility towards Schoenberg. This oversight, which might induce a sense of mild surprise in lesser men, leaves Keller ‘aghast’.

For Keller there are two kinds of music: namely, music and unmusic, the latter being the result of non-aural inspiration worked out according to non-aural principles – for example, a mathematically structured piece based on a note-row ‘selected’ for some particular quality such as angularity, in which the row will therefore tend to be unrecognisable in performance. Keller considers rhythm (and hence also melody) to be an indispensable adjunct of musical inspiration, and the list of 20th-century composers whom Keller considers to be ‘great’ – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten and Skalkottas – only includes composers whose material is generally recognisable to the ear, no matter how complex the technical processes involved. (Readers whose favourite 20th-century composer has been left out of this list will search in vain for any clues as to what else, in Keller’s view, constitutes ‘greatness’. Yet the impression remains that he considers greatness to be a precisely measurable phenomenon.)

According to Keller, the vast majority of composers are today writing unmusic, and even ‘considerable talents’ are frequently tempted over to the wrong side of what he describes as the musical iron curtain. So it is easy to see why he considers it important that Stravinsky’s last music – I mean, ‘music’ – should be properly understood. Its theoretical strictness should satisfy even the most unmusical composer, but Stravinsky never failed to write music. Armed with a complete understanding of how he achieved this, suggests Keller, contemporary composers might be able to find a more musical way forward.

Keller approaches the serial question from two points of view, firstly by examining the psychological issues involved and secondly by looking for serial precedents in Stravinsky’s music written before 1950. The psychological analysis attempts to show how Stravinsky came to identify with Schoenberg (in the Freudian sense of the term) after Schoenberg’s death in 1951, in much the same way as he had already identified with many composers of the past. However, while adopting something of Schoenberg’s technique, he would never more than tangentially admit to its origins, preferring to give the glory to Webern (who died in 1945). This was because, in Keller’s opinion, ‘apart from Stravinsky himself, Webern is the only great sadomasochistic figure in the history of music.’ Stravinsky’s technique, however, makes its origins clear enough. Webern’s note-rows are abstract in conception, whereas Stravinsky follows Schoenberg in abstracting them from an essentially melodic inspiration. Keller sums up: ‘With the unerring certainty of genius, he split his mourning attitude between the two composers ... and took from either what he needed, leaving the unrealistic aspects of Webern as well as the developmental and expressionist aspects of Schoenberg on one side.’

Two things about Keller’s analysis are particularly striking. First, he writes as if his explanation were in some sense a real picture of what actually happened in Stravinsky’s psyche. Psychoanalysis generally takes into account the existence of parallel explanations or simultaneous pictures which may be equally valid: the fact that your model works does not make it the only possible model, nor does it ever cease to be a mere model. And secondly, one can’t help feeling that despite the brevity of the text there must be a much shorter and simpler way of saying what Keller wishes to say. After all, a certain musical isolation (partly self-inflicted, like Beethoven’s) was an important aspect in the shaping of Stravinsky’s individuality, and it is not unreasonable that he should have fought shy of close involvement with such a man as Schoenberg except through the channel of an intermediary. (This surely was one function of his friendship with the ardent Schoenbergian Robert Craft – which Keller does not mention – a friendship which began three years before Schoenberg’s death.) Many perceptive observers will have taken it for granted that Webern acted as a kind of buffer between the two other composers, and will be surprised – or aghast, depending upon temperament – to find Keller serving up this idea as a fresh discovery and dragging in the whole paraphernalia of Freudian analysis to substantiate it. Probably the reason for Keller’s almost obsessive concern is that he regards the enormous influence of Webern on post-war composers as seriously damaging to contemporary music, since it is precisely Webern’s neurotic, unmusical tendencies that they have seized on with such delight. Thus it is important to demonstrate clearly that, whatever affinity of personality there may have been between himself and Webern, Stravinsky was musically indebted to Schoenberg. The two greater masters therefore sink or swim together, and Keller is right to point out that, in terms of their influence on the present generation of composers, they have unfortunately sunk.

It is Keller’s second chapter which leads us to expect that he will approach Stravinsky’s switch to serialism through an examination of serial precedents in his earlier music. In fact, we are obliged to make do with a single example drawn from the Symphony of Psalms, a four-note row which serves as an ostinato in the first movement and later as the opening of the fugue subject. I find this example terribly unconvincing, the weakest point in the book. Keller himself knows that thematic unity in classical works may be achieved by the manipulation of melodic motifs in a quasi-serial manner. As tonality disintegrates, it becomes more and more desirable to apply this method to one’s material. The miracle would be if there were no such examples to be found in Stravinsky’s pre-serial music: their presence does less to prove that he was a likely candidate for total serialism than would an analysis of his reductive techniques in general.

Keller takes the view that it will be difficult for future generations to be influenced in any useful way by Stravinsky’s suppressionist brand of conservatism. Here again he attaches far too much importance to merely verbal proofs. He says, for example: if Stravinsky’s ‘kind of inexpressive expression, this overwhelmingly expressive anti-espressivo, hadn’t happened, we would have been able to show, on the basis of our entire history of music, that it couldn’t possibly happen’. Creative minds have more sense than to think in this inhibitive way. Again, Keller asks the question: what does Stravinsky’s music convey? ‘Once that inescapable control which is the character of Stravinsky’s message, or anti-message, has been traced in concrete, analytic detail,’ he concludes, ‘our unanswered question will have been fully answered.’ Surely there are a good many people around who already ‘know’ what Stravinsky’s music conveys. If the composers among them are unable to apply this knowledge to their own work, this is hardly for want of thorough technical analysis.

What seems most naive about Keller’s approach is his tendency to blame the decline of classical music on specific groups of individuals: critics have neglected Stravinsky’s case, unmusicians, acting out of sheer perversity, have deliberately adopted unmusic as their goal, and so forth. This viewpoint is far too narrow to be at all useful. The crisis in classical music is intimately bound up with the crisis in Western culture as a whole, which is perhaps most clearly observable in the problems of philosophy since Nietzsche. Although I sympathise with Keller’s desire to illuminate every possible corner of his chosen field with the light of intellect, it must be accepted that music is not solely or perhaps even fundamentally an intellectual pursuit. Too much light can blind us: perhaps only genius stumbling in the dark can find the way forward.

‘Can a composer re-use the past and at the same time move in a forward direction?’ asks Stravinsky himself in a note on The Rake’s Progress, a work which precedes the composer’s serial revolution (or evolution) by only a year or two, and which not surprisingly derives much of its internal drama from the dilemma of the contemporary artist. That Stravinsky’s personal answer was inevitably affirmative is further evidenced by the fact that he had to wait for serialism to become history (through the deaths of Webern and Schoenberg) before he could comfortably adopt it himself. Stravinsky clearly felt that there was no other valid form of advance, and the sad fate of Tom Rakewell, resulting as it does from the naive supposition that he has unlimited freedom of choice, looks very much like a paternal rap on the knuckles for the postwar avant-garde.

Nadia Boulanger was one of many who came to grief over Stravinsky’s switch to serialism. For years she had championed the Russian composer’s music against that of the Viennese School, which she always refused to discuss with her pupils. When asked what she thought of Schoenberg’s music, she would howl like a dog and say: ‘Do you call that music?’ Her confusion after Stravinsky’s change of heart is easily imagined, and no doubt he thoroughly enjoyed her embarrassment. The two had first met in 1910, soon after the premiere of Firebird. Boulanger congratulated Stravinsky on the vitality of his music, but the composer replied: ‘That’s not very important. What is, is that my name becomes a household word.’ Can we detect an all-too-human factor behind Stravinsky’s most controversial stylistic development?

Léonie Rosenstiel has already published a biography of Lili Boulanger, Nadia’s younger sister, a gifted composer and winner of the Prix de Rome who died in 1918 at the age of 24. It was as a result of this earlier volume that Nadia, who had long resisted the pressure to write her own memoirs, chose the young American to be her biographer. The public life of Nadia Boulanger the musician is already well-known. She was born in Paris in 1887, and studied with some of the greatest figures in French music. It was not until she was nearly forty that she realised her vocation was to be a teacher, and thereafter she taught an astonishing number of prominent musicians. During World War Two, she taught, lectured and conducted in the United States. In 1953, she became director of the American Conservatoire at Fontainebleau, and continued to teach there and elsewhere until her death in 1979, at the age of 92. Rosenstiel’s research has evidently been painstaking, and although her tone is rather earnest, there is sufficient life in the material itself for this to be no handicap. However, the real strength of this biography is the intuitive understanding it shows of Boulanger’s complex and elusive inner life. The influence of her aristocratic Russian mother was profound, as was that of the Catholic Church, and she emerges as a surprisingly weak woman, a constant prey to guilt and superstition. Rosenstiel perceptively links this with her authoritarian image, her generally right-wing, élitist views and what one commentator described as ‘her instinctive need to guide and mould the minds of others’. With her students, she was a tyrant.

I myself had the unnerving privilege of playing at one of the American Conservatoire’s concerts in 1976. Afterwards I was introduced to Boulanger, already very frail and almost blind, who censured the performance in her usual fashion by saying nothing about it at all. But the real test came during the dinner which followed. I was seated opposite Boulanger, and soon realised that her judgment of a musician depended just as much on his grasp of etiquette and good conversation as on his musical ability. Thank heaven I was then unaware that a trifling faux pas had been enough to earn sentences of excommunication on giants such as Bartok and Hindemith. Not the least fascinating element of this book concerns Boulanger’s relation to feminism. When a journalist asked her how she felt about being the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she replied: ‘I’ve been a woman for a little over fifty years, and have got over my initial astonishment.’