Poetics of Music
Below are excerpts of Poetics of Music in the form of 6 lessons by Igor Stravinsky, delivered as lectures at Harvard University between 1939 and 1940.
The quality of being revolutionary is generally attributed to artists in our day with laudatory intent, undoubtedly because we are living in a period when revolution enjoys a kind of prestige among yesterday’s elite. Let us understand each other: I am the first to recognize that daring is the motive force of the finest and greatest acts; which is all the more reason for not putting it unthinkingly at the service of disorder and base cravings in a desire to cause sensation at any price. I approve of daring; I set no limits to it.
To enjoy to the full the conquest of daring, we must demand that it operates in a pitiless light.
Gratuitous excess spoils every substance, every form it touches. In its blundering it impairs the effectiveness of most valuable discoveries and at the same time corrupts the taste of its devotees.
A musical complex, however harsh it may be, is legitimate to the extent to which it is genuine.
I am completely insensitive to the prestige of revolution. All the noise it may make will not call forth the slightest echo in me. For revolution is one thing, innovation another.
The phenomenon of music #
Sounds of nature are promises of music, it takes a human being to keep them: a human being who is sensible to nature many voices, of course, but who in addition feels the need of putting them in order and who is gifted for that task with a special attitude. Tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized, and that such organization presupposes a conscious human act. So that to the gift of nature are added the benefits of artifice - such is the general significance of art.
The phenomenon of music is nothing else than a phenomenon of speculation. The basis of musical creation is a preliminary feeling out, a will moving first in an abstract realm with the object of giving shape to something concrete. The elements at which this speculation necessarily aims are those of sound and time.
Music is a chronologic art as painting is a spatial art. It is an organisation in time: a chronomy.
Contrast produces an immediate effect. Similarity satisfies us only in the long run. Contrast is an element of variety, but it divides our attention. Similarity is born of a striving for unity. The need to seek variety is perfectly legitimate, but we should not forget that the One precedes the Many.
Variety is valid only as a means of attaining similarity. Variety surrounds me on every hand. So I need not fear that I shall be lacking in it, since I am constantly confronted by it. Contrast is everywhere. One has only to take note of it. Similarity is hidden; it must be sought out, and it is found only after the most exhaustive efforts.
The function of tonality is completely subordinated to the force of attraction of the pole of sonority. All music is nothing more than a succession of impulses that converge towards a definite point of repose. The general law of attraction is satisfied in only a limited way by the traditional diatonic system, for that system possesses no absolute value.
The fact remains that it is still impossible to lay down the rules that govern a new technique. Harmony as it is taught today dictates rules that were not fixed until long after the publication of the works upon which they are based, rules which were unknown to the composer of these works.
In this manner, our harmonic treatises take as their point of departure Mozart and Haydn, neither of whom ever heard of harmonic treaties.
Our pole of attraction are no longer within the closed system which was the diatonic system, we can bring the poles together without being compelled to conform to the exigencies of tonality. For we no longer believe in the absolute value of the major-minor system based on the entity which musicologists call the C-scale.
Composing is putting sounds in order according to certain interval relationships. This activity leads to a search for a center. The discovery of this center suggests to me the solution of my problem. It’s musical topography.
The system of classic tonality which has served as the basis for musical constructions of compelling interest, has had authority of law among musicians for only a short period of time (XVII-XIXth century). From the moment when chords no longer serve to fulfill merely the function assigned to them by the interplay of tones but, instead, throw off all constraints to become new entities free of all ties - from that moment on, one may say that the process is completed: the diatonic system has lived out his lifecycle.
Modality, tonality, polarity are merely provisional means that are passing by, and will even pass away. What survives every change of system is melody: the intonation of the melos, a part of a phrase. Melody is the musical singing of a cadenced phrase. The example of Beethoven would suffice to convince us that, of all the elements of music, melody is the most accessible to the ear and the least capable of acquisition.
Song, more and more bound to words, has finally become a kind of filler, thereby evidencing its decadence. From the moment song assumes as its calling the expression of the meaning of discourse, it leaves the realm of music and has nothing more in common with it.
“Let us return to old times, and that will be progress” - Verdi
The composition of music #
All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery. This foretaste of the creative act accompanies the intuitive grasp of the unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible, an entity that will not take definite shape except by the action of constantly vigilant technique.
This appetite that is aroused in me at the mere thought of putting in order musical elements that have attracted my attention is not at all a fortuitous thing like inspiration, but as habitual and periodic as a natural need.
The word artist bestows on its bearer the highest intellectual prestige, the privilege of being accepted as a pure mind - is in my view entirely incompatible with the role of the homo faber.
If it is true that we are intellectuals, we are called upon not to cogitate but to perform. The Renaissance invented the artist, distinguished him from the artisan and began to exalt the former at the expense of the latter.
Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it. For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and achieving full-realization of this find. What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from its actual being worked out.
In the course of my labours, I stumble upon something unexpected. It strikes me. I make note of it. At the proper time, I put it to profitable use. Fancy implies a will to abandon one’s self to caprice. The assistance of the unexpected is quite different, it is a collaboration immanently bound up with the inertia of the creative process, heavy with possibilities which are unsolicited and come most appositely to temper the inevitable over-rigorousness of the naked-will.
“In everything that yields gracefully, there must be resistance”. - G.K Chesterton.
An accident is perhaps the only thing that really inspires us. A composer improvises aimlessly the way the animal grubs about, seek things out. What urges of the composer is satisfied by this investigation? The rules with which, like a penitent, he is burdened? No: he is in quest if pleasure. He seeks satisfaction that he fully knows he will not find without first striving for it.
A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy. The effects it produces may accidentally amuse but are not capable of being repeated.
Fantasy being the acceptation which presupposes an abandonment of one’s self to the caprices of imagination. And this presupposes that the composer’s will is voluntarily paralyzed.
The creator’s function is to sift elements he receives from her, for human activity must impose limit upon itself. The more art is controlled, the more it is free.
If everything is permissible to me, if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.
Will I then have to lose myself in the abyss of freedom? To what shall I cling in order to escape the dizziness that seizes me before the virtuality of this infinitude? However, I shall not succumb. I shall overcome my terror and be re-assured by the thought that I have the 7 notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal, that weak and strong accent are within my reach, and that in all of these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that had just frightened me.
It is into this field that I shall sink my roots, full convinced that combinations which have at their disposal 12 sounds in each octave and all possible rhythmic varieties promise me riches that all the activity of human genius will never exhaust.
So here we are, in the realm of necessity.
Talking about art as the realm of freedom is an uniformly widespread because it is imagined that art is outsides the bound of ordinary activity.
My freedom consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.
“It is evident” writes Baudelaire, “that rhetorics and prosodies are not arbitrarily invented tyrannies, but a collection of rules demanded by the very organization of the spiritual being, and never have prosodies and rhetorics kept originality from fully manifesting itself. The contrary, that is to say, that they have aided the flowering of originality, would be infinitely more true”.
Musical typology #
All art presupposes a work of selection. To proceed by elimination is the great technique of selection. And here again we find the search of the One out of the Many.
Style is the particular way a composer organizes his conception and speaks the langage of his craft.
The style of an epoch results from a combination of individual styles dominated by the methods of the composers who have exerted a preponderant influence on their time.
One may say that the masters send out the rays of their genius well beyond their own day. In this way, they appear as beacons by whose light and warmth is developed a sum of tendencies that will be shared by most of their successors and that contributes to form a parcel of traditions which make up culture.
This beacons never flare up without causing profound disturbances in the world of music. Once stabilized, the fire’s radiation become more and more attenuated until the moment comes when it warms none but the pedagogues. At that point academicism is born. But a new beacon-fire appears, and the story goes on.
It just so happens that our contemporary epoch offers us the example of a musical culture that is day by day losing the sense of continuity and the taste for a common langage.
The universality whose benefits we are gradually losing is an entirely different thing from the cosmopolitanism that is beginning to take hold of us. Universality presupposes the fecundity of a culture that is spread and communicated everywhere, whereas cosmopolitanism provides for neither action nor doctrine and induces the indifferent passivity of a sterile eclecticism.
What is most irritating about artistic rebels is the spirit of systemization which under the guise of doing away with conventions, establishes a new set, quite as arbitrary and cumbersome than the old.
That is what André Gide so well expressed in saying that classical works are beautiful by virtue of their subjugated romanticism.
The performance of music. #
The listener is in a way called upon to become the composer’s partner. This presupposes that the listener’s instruction and education are sufficiently extensive that he may not only grasp the main features of the work as they emerge, but that he may even follow to some degree the changing aspects of its unfolding. This exceptional participation gives the partner such lively pleasure that it unites him in a certain measure with the mind that conceived and realized the work to which he is listening, giving him the illusion if identifying himself with the creator. That is the meaning of Raphael’s famous adage: “To understand is to equate”.
The time is no more when Bach gladly traveled a long way to hear Buxterhude. Today radio brings music into the home at all hours of the day and night. It relieves the listener of all effort except that of turning of a dial. Now the musical sense cannot be acquired or developed without exercise. In music, as everything else, inactivity leads gradually to paralysis, to the atrophying of faculties. Understood in this way, music becomes a sort of drug which, far from stimulating the mind paralyzes and stultifies it. So it comes about that the very undertaking which seeks to make people like music by giving it a wider and wider diffusion, very often only achieves the result of making the very people lose their appetite for music whose interest was to be aroused and whose taste was to be developed.
Music is what unifies. This bond of unity is never achieved without searching and hardship. But the need to create must clear away all obstacles.
For the unity of the work has a resonance all its own. Its echo, caught by our soul, sounds nearer and nearer. Thus the consummated work spreads abroad to be communicated and finally flows back to its source. The cycle then is closed. And this is how music comes to reveal itself as a form of communion with our fellow man - and with the Supreme Being.