Stravinski and The Soviets

October 07, 2017

Just as T S Eliot entered in as a poet like an earthquake at the turn of the 20th century around the time of the First World War; so to about the same time Stravinski shook the foundations of what was then considered art and music fashion, and entered in with a similar violence to shock the music scene.

Both artists made radical breaks with what had gone before them. This is not to say there was no strand of continuity in their works with works of the past. Eliot one can see with hindsight owed much in his early works to French symbolism and to Robert Browning’s style of buttonholing one’s attention, as if with an informal familiarity. Stravinski is sometimes catalogued as being a Neo-Classical composer; and certainly he harks back to Pergolesi and to other early Italian Classicists in an amount of his musical output.

Another, perhaps a little less illustrious, early 20th century composer, Ottorino Respeghi, might well be set beside Stravinski (both I believe wrote works for Diaghilev's Ballets Russe). Respeghi is a master of musical colours; and a composer whose best works seem to me to have been composed as refashioned items and using very early Classical compositions as their basis. New works but with a powerful flavour of something borrowed and then made anew.

Stravinski of course is up there with the greats of music. His gifts were enormous and are able to astound and leave one cold with marvelling even at this distance of over a century since many of his works saw their premieres.

There is of course that notorious piece which perhaps was meant to shock and to appal; his The Rite of Spring, and its taking a leaf from the book of brutalism which the new art and architecture of primitive power-statement was beginning to display. Stravinski’s were unquiet times. Russia was in the throes, in the first place of a World War, and thereafter of a political upheaval which led to a series of Revolutions out of which the Soviets emerged victorious, after many years bloodshed. The credo of Soviet Socialism as demonstrated in its art it produced; art for the most part State-sponsored and State-approved, allegedly a proletarian art, was often just such a monolithic brutal power-statement art, proclaiming The Dictatorship of The Proletariat – a phrase which in its ironic ambiguity rang acid in its emblazonment as justification for the Russian coup and takeover led by Lenin and consolidated by Stalin and even later followed-through by Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Indeed the proletariat of Russia did live by dictatorship; the first Totalitarian experiment in modern times; one which sought its advancement by means of pogroms and purges calculated to enslave and murder in forced labour camps; so many, that the toll never seems able to be accurately stated; but it is generally agreed it was more than 20 million souls.

Of course Stravinski was a ‘bourgeois’, as was Diaghilev; and his lifestyle was not that of the peasant hordes of Mother Russia. He spent his creative life in Russia until this became impossible; then in Paris and thereafter in the USA. As a Russian artist he escaped the years in the northern tundra breaking rocks and building useless power plants and factories senselessly; a fate for too many whose thought was considered to challenge the granite might of The State.

Generally-speaking, I have myself found musicians as a bunch rarely to be ‘political’ animals; certainly very infrequently a Verdi pops up in the shape of a radical or revolutionary; but musicians, including composers, seem to be of that tribe most often found to be ‘hangers-on’ at royal courts or else State-sponsored ‘lackeys’ kept on strings by stipends, so as to be able to make a living by entertaining the rich and powerful. Even so, quickly became the great Russian Experiment; it turned out pretty soon pretty like the setup under the Anciente Regime; and in their own sometimes perverse ways social classes reemerged. Those who would frequent the ballet and the opera house emerged again, who were of a different ilk, a higher breed, than those who tilled the fields and manned and womaned the satanic factories.

For instance, the dream and ambition of most aspiring folk in Moscow during these years was to obtain a Party Card. A Party Card was, as it were, an ‘internal social passport’ allowing a whole new world to open up for a person who had managed to acquire one; a world of privilege and even in certain comparative ways, of luxury. The Party Card was of course the document which confirmed and endorsed you as being a Member of the Communist Party of The Soviet Union. Moscow being the seat of government meant that many hopefuls flocked there and there many aspirants sought after the much-prized Party Card. To have obtained one, they were normally only widely available in the bigger cities, and most especially in Moscow; meant that one’s housing accommodation was able to be of a better class; one’s district of abode also; and goods and services were available to you which were sparse and hard to obtain for a person without a Card. These goods and services included foods and household gadgetry; travel and jobs. Perhaps the job was the key? To get a Card one ‘had to know someone’ and had to curry favour with this someone, and to have a place or job of employment somewhere, someway connected, in even the most tenuous way, to a someone amongst the political elite.

Like all societies wherein goods and services are scarce and shortages have become commonplace; the show in The Soviet union eventually ended up working for the most part via what Brits call ‘graft’; or in other words by way of leveraging and leaning upon people and trading-in favours. Scratching backs mutually and playing the toady to power, insinuating oneself into favour and into advantageous situations; playing the social and political scene for as much as could be squeezed from it.

It’s easy to be scathing about this; but not many of us are saints or heroes; most of us just want to ‘get along’ and avoid trouble or hassle; so it’s the natural instinct to buckle under and conform under such circumstances; to do what has to be done in order to survive and/or to advance in life. It is this complicity, and its accompanying erosion of any ideals and principles one might once have had, that sense of having no option but to embroil oneself, to get one’s hands dirty and soil one’s conscience; in order to survive or to get a more secure life; this is a scenario which allows and encourages corruptions to become endemic and embeds them into a way of life. No political ideology is able to work to its best capabilities whenever ‘graft’ is a necessary requirement simply for ordinary people under pressure to be able to ‘make ends meet’ or to save oneself from having to join bread queues at empty bakers’ shops.

Scarcities coupled with ‘graft’ then, thus made the Soviet Union in a some strange ways more competitive in an economic sense, and a more unequal place to live in than is the case in many laissez faire nations of our own days, in which we are enjoying plenty to excess. Excess on a scale which in its own insidious ways has enervated the peoples of our nations and blunted their sense of the actual abrasive and fragile terms of existence.

Eventually then, Stravinski got ‘hoovered-up’ in that cyclone which carried almost every outcast of great talent to the United States during the years of the mid twentieth century. He has a star on Sunset Boulevard I believe. He is said to have mined deeply his ethnic roots in his musical compositions; and it is true that a listener can hear strange and often bewitchingly bewildering clashes and coalitions in his most well-known works. Petrushka being a good case in point; a folk tale story of some knockabout and violent events. It’s music seems sometimes to start out at you and startle; as if a sudden change of subject, but yet integral; and in its awakening jolting way a fluent and fluid continuation of what went before. Thus it’s an intensely dramatic style, drawing you up in your tracks and preventing you presuming too much.

Even the little street tune found recurring in Petrushka, which is said to have been inspired by a barrel organ or hurdygurdy player stood in the streets below Stravinski’s house window, and who came every day and drove the jolly naive melody right into his mind; even this jaunty audacious childish tune gets woven weft and woof deep into the fabric of the composition of Petrushka; and turns up here, then here, in cunning guises and as remote echoes.

There’s also as sense of energy, of the power in the music almost tumbling over itself for it to get out of the instruments it’s played on; a brawling sense of play and impish joy but a guiding and dynamic intelligence forming the architecture of the music overall. No-one but no-one is able to do this quite like Stravinski; it is his hallmark, and his signet.

All this power and dynamism combined with an arch impishness and yet with a strong solid structure, are what characterise his music and enable one to identify it by ear as being his. Then there are by contrast those smooth flows and serene slow sweeping musings which might juxtapose beside and between all kinds of jumps and inserts; one minute Stravinski has you wholly enchanted and bemused by his crafted seductive plaints; and the next a listener is bumping along as if on a peasant cart with a foaming drink in hand and a stirring song on one’s lips.

Sometimes there seems like there is nothing Stravinski cannot do with his music; it is as if he is master of tones tonalities rhythms, musical thoughts and wrinkles which one might not have dreamed could have been thought of. As I said, he can leave you stone cold with astonished marvelling.

His ballets besides Petrushka, such as Le Basier de la Fey and Pulchinella are likewise enchanting, able to steep wholly a listener in atmosphere and intrigue, and they also bear his characteristic ability to change colours, tempos, moods, and pace, all at an eyeblink, and yet never does it seem that the flow and the journey is out of place or jarring as being artistic thought or gambit.

Almost certainly his radical styles of composing music would have come into conflict with the Soviet authorities had he been unable to flee or chosen to remain in his Motherland in the second decade of 20th Century. A Russian composer like Shostakovitch, nowhere near so pointedly ‘modernist’ composer as was Stravinski, found himself in enough broils with his Soviet political masters about his art. Indeed for artists in Soviet Russia the chief decision for them was either to attempt truth to oneself and to one’s vision of life, or else to buckle-to and serve The State and so more or less ‘sell’ one’s talents in the service of a propaganda and for the sake of one’s (relative, but not always) safety and sure regular income.

Of course this is not the whole truth; only a generalisation; and perhaps there were rare artists like Bertoldt Brecht, the dramatist working in East Germany (before and) after WWII, and Maxim Gorky, the Russian writer, also working in Soviet Russia itself; whose visions of life tallied sufficiently with the ‘official’ Soviet Line (although not with the reality of living life under The Politburo and The Kremlin). For the most part the case was very different though for artists, intellectuals, religious believers and many others; and for corroboration of this stark difference see the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his epic history of the activities of the Soviet Secret Police (of The Cheka, and The NKVD) and of the millions of persons wanting only freedom of thought; and who were surprised by a hammering on the door at 3 am and a peremptory arrest, interrogation and sentence to decades of forced labour imprisoned in God-forsaken camps in the most inhospitable and inaccessible places of the Soviet Empire. (“The Gulag Archipelago”, in 3 volumes).

However, as a generalisation, that artists were either toadies or persecuted in Soviet countries, it is a strong and very extensive generalisation. Few persons under their government who were perceived by The Soviets to be ‘rocking the boat’ politically were allowed by them to merely ‘get away with it’. And the term ‘politically’ here was a very very broad church and catchment

George Orwell’s famous dystopia “1984” is not so much a futuristic Cassandra-like prophesy as it is a final judgement by Orwell on the politics and oppressive behaviours happening contemporaneously in his times in The Soviet Union.

So we ought to be thankful, at least musically and artistically, that great talents like Stravinski did escape from The Soviets (and likewise later others ran from the Nazis) and flourish elsewhere in the world, producing works which act to shed glory on themselves and on their orphaned native countries (often by way of a regret for what might have been)

A friend of mine sat the Oxford University entrance examination to study history and was given amongst his questions to be answered the following:

“Freedom never flourishes where the orange blossom grows. Discuss”

Orange blossom is perhaps one of the least-likely vegetation one would expect to find thriving inside the Arctic Circle or in the wastes of the Siberian Tundras. Certainly freedom, even as we know it attenuatedly in our tunnel-vision, media-managed, consumer-led, liberal democracies, has never been the lodestar or trigpoint which marks out Mother Russia; not today, not yesterday, and manifests there at best only for some few, and at a price of their surrender of all principle.