Some years ago, as I began to test the validity of my dream to write fiction, I got interested in the music of Igor Stravinsky. Everyone who loves classical music knows the three landmark ballets he composed before World War One and the noisy scandal one of them caused in Paris in 1912.
There’s much more to Stravinsky’s music than those three pieces, however. He wrote music for another 40 years or more. He was a pioneer who led the movement toward neoclassicism and late in life adopted twelve-tone proce3dures that Arnold Schoenberg introduced. Stravinsky’s range in his later years was astonishing. He wrote operas, symphonies, concertos, more ballets, chamber works, songs, dramatic oratorios, orchestral pieces, sacred music and masterpieces like the “Symphony of Psalms”, the “Symphony in C” and modernist works like “Threni”, based on the biblical prophet Jeremiah’s lamentations, and “Canticum Sacrum”.
One aspect of Stravinsky’s journey through life that fascinated me is secondary to his music. Like many of his contemporaries, political ups and downs affected him. He left Russia before the Bolshevik tyranny, lived in Switzerland and France, and fled Europe when the nazi’s came to power. He moved to the U. S. settled in the the Los Angeles area and became an American citizen in 1946. All the time, in spite of wrenching dislocation, he kept on writing music.
I don’t know how much of his music is played today but I suspect that many still believe that he had one of the 20th century’s great creative minds. The nasty parts of life couldn’t derail hin.
Now, the reason I bring this old story up is that while I carry out physical exercises late in the evening, I’ve been listening to vinyl recordings of his music that I collected decades ago and also reading a print copy of lectures he gave at an American university that he called “Poetics of Music”. The third chapter has particularly interested me, because in it he discusses the creative process.
It’s dense reading, but I’ve been able to fashion a sequence out of his comments that goes like this:
The problem Stravinsky addresses is that “modern man is…losing his understanding of values and his sense of proportion” and “a failure to understand essential realities.” Referring especially to trends in the Soviet Union, he writes that music is degraded to “servile employment and to vulgarities…” With regard to creativity, he lays down several propositions:
The importance of the will in creative work. He says that speculative volition is the origin of all creation. “I cannot help having the desire to create.
Inspiration is a secondary phenomenon. Primary is “balance and calculation, through which the breath of the speculative spirit blows”, after which “the emotive disturbance at the root of inspiration may arise”.
“Step by step, link by link, it will be granted (the artist) to discover the work.”
“All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery.”
He writes several times about the “pleasure of creation”.
“We are called upon not to cogitate but to perform.” Mozart said something similar, that all symphonies that remain in the composer’s head amount to nothing.
“The act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving a full realization of this find.”
Stravinsky emphasizes the prime importance of order and discipline.
He writes that he may come up against an unexpected occurrence and puts it to good use at the right time.
The ability to observe always accompanies the power to create. We may recognize truly creative people by their ability to extract something worthwhile out of the “commonest and humblest thing”.
We don’t manufacture acccidents but observe them to take inspration from them. Accidents are most likely the only things that truly inspire us.
Composers work hard to gain the satisfaction they’re looking for.
The shock we receive from unforeseen obstacles awakens our power to create.
Stravinsky stresses the importance of culture and tradition. For him, tradition assures that creation will go on. It’s a heritage that comes to us with the stipulation that we use it fruitfully before we pass it on to the next generation.
What’s the creator’s job? To examine the materials his or her imagination sends, understanding that “human activity imposes limits on itself”.
Stravinsky writes about being terrified at the start of new projects because of the multitude of possibilities that come tlo him.What’s to guarantee a good piece of work if everything, both good and bad, is available to him? He finds rescue and true freedom in the notes of the scale and the twelve sounds in an octave and the varieties of rhythm.
He tells us that the act of turning to concrete things like the notes of a scale frees him from the anguish of unrestrained freedom. He testifies that he has no use for what he calls “theoretic freedom”.
He dislikes talk of art as complete freedom. Art is like everything else: “one can build only upon a resisting foundation”. He asserts that his freedom will be great and meaningful when he limits his “field of action”.
Stravinsky blames Richard Wagner’s music dramas for the troubles for he offers a remedy for. It would be difficult and very likely harmful to try to dismiss Wagner and his followers from the musical scene. Still, the rewards of building an opposing movement, as Stravinsky suggests, could be enormous and healing.