June 17, 2015

On Stravinsky’s Birthday, “Dance, Dance, Wherever You May Be”

book revBy Stuart Mitchner

Today is Igor Stravinsky’s 134th birthday. The facts say that he died in 1971 but here he is on YouTube in a shipboard afterlife. While everyone else is assembling for a lifeboat drill, Stravinsky remains at his table with his drink, as if the deck were a sidewalk cafe. “I never am sea sick,” he leans over to tell us, tête-à-tête. “Never.” Leaning closer with a smile, almost singing the words, he says, Russian to the core, “I am sea drunk. Quite different.” With that, he toasts our good health. Where or when, which ship or which ocean, dead or alive, does it matter? We’ve been toasted by the maestro.

In Paul Horgan’s Encounters With Stravinsky: A Personal Record (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1972), the composer of orchestral dynamite in the form of Le Sacre du printemps (hereafter The Rite of Spring) denounces snobbery as “snobism oblige” and expresses his undying love for Chivas Regal: “My God, so much I like to drink Scotch that sometimes I think my name is Igor Strawhiskey.”

What can you say? It’s a silly pun, beneath his dignity, but he could care less, he whose music savaged dignity and incited concertgoers to riot a little over a hundred years ago at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. So let’s take it in the spirit of the man, give it a shrug and a smile and move on. Otherwise, he’ll tell us “Thank you very much, go to hell,” his stock response to “opinions which seek to influence, discredit, or even for the wrong reasons, to praise.”

In the Vernacular

“First I heard The Firebird Suite,” Charlie Parker told Nat Hentoff in 1953. “In the vernacular of the streets, I flipped.” According to Howard McGhee, who plays trumpet on Parker’s Dial sessions of 1945, “Bird hipped me to, like, Stravinsky …. So, like The Rite of Spring, he brought it over to the house and let me hear it. And I said, “yeah, this cat … knows what he’s doing.’ I mean Stravinsky was a hip dude, you know, as far as writing music was concerned. He had this thing down.”

Jazz and Stravinsky have always had a relationship, but in the wake of Friday morning’s news of the death of Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), it’s impossible to mention this giant of 20th century music without reference to the loss of the man, who as the Times obit has it, “rewrote the language of jazz.”

A common language can be heard in the way the sinuously haunting phrase that begins The Rite surfaces in an exhilarating cycle of variations in “Sleep Talkin” on Coleman’s appropriately titled 2006 album Sound Grammar. You can also hear hints of Stravinsky in “Lonely Woman,” the anthemic opening track on Ornette’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

When I lived briefly at the Albert Hotel in my first year on my own in New York, I heard someone practicing scales in a room on the same floor. Asked about the saxophonist down the hall, the night clerk said, “It’s some musician named Coleman.” It took awhile for it to sink in that the guy on my floor was the wild man from Texas shaking the jazz world and being treated no less abusively (“tone-deaf,” “out of tune,” “a charlatan”) than Stravinsky had been (“a Parisian freak,” a “hoax”). Later that year I stood mesmerized in the presence of the man himself at the Five Spot listening to something piercingly new that didn’t ask you to like it or even to bear with the urgency of a sound that could be translated into Stravinsky speech, “Thank you very much, go to hell.”

A Marvelous Scandal

Paul Horgan’s encounter with Stravinsky began in 1920 when Horgan was a 17-year-old student at a military academy in Roswell, New Mexico, where an enlightened teacher who had never actually heard The Rite of Spring said that from what he’d read about it, “violent dissonances together with rhythms previously unheard in serious music, and described by everyone as primitive, even barbaric, were what had set off the work’s career in a marvelous scandal” in Paris in May 1913.

The account of the event Horgan quotes from at length is by Carl Van Vechten (also born on June 17), who described the battle between those “swept away with wrath” by “a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art” and those who “bellowed defiance” and “felt that the principles of free speech were at stake.” Such was “the potent force of the music” that the man sitting behind Van Vechten began beating rhythmically on the top of his head with his fists. “My emotion was so great,” Van Vechten admits, “that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the beat of the music.”

Alone in the House

I read about the Paris riot in the liner notes of the Leonard Bernstein /New York Philharmonic recording I acquired as a member of the Columbia Record Club (a 17th-birthday present). Although the notes said something about the Paris riot, Nijinsky and Diaghilev, and the Russian folk tradition behind the ballet, nothing prepared me for what happened when I put the record on the turntable. Soon I knew I was not going to be able to listen to the music sitting down. Since I was still living with my parents at the time, I made sure I was alone in the house, drew the shades, put the cat out, and locked the front door, like Dr. Jekyll securing the lab before quaffing the formula that would transform him into Mr. Hyde. So overwhelming was the convergence of rhythms and clashing motifs and pagan fanfares, there was no room for anything but the storm of sound. If Van Vechten had been sitting in front of me, I’d have been dancing on top of him. At some point I seemed to be engaged in a spasmodic parody of conducting as I waved my arms and jumped around, in the grip of blind, helpless, hapless, idiot excitement. When it was over, I collapsed, out of breath, not knowing at the time, just as well, that the ballet ends with a dance to the death by the sacrificial maiden.

It’s odd to realize that I never equated the power and glory of Stravinsky’s Rite with my passion for Russian literature, which eventually led to a minor in Slavic Studies. After absorbing three different performances of The Rite (conducted by Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Michael Tilson Thomas), it’s possible to imagine the music scoring everything from Raskolnikov’s fevers in Crime and Punishment to the Siege of Moscow in War and Peace. Late one night I indulged in a fantasy of an orchestra composed of musicians resembling Dostoevsky’s clerks and drunkards and angelic prostitutes playing side by side with peasants and aristocrats out of Tolstoy, all conducted by who else but Chekhov, the steady hand, balanced and brilliant to the last note.

Remembering John Fischer

Having been submerged for days in Stravinsky, I came to the surface Sunday wondering what sort of music would be chosen for a memorial service at the University Chapel for our friend and neighbor John Fischer, who died on May 15. No surprise, there was Bach, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a singing of “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun” from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and “Amazing Grace,” a lovely but not unusual choice. The surprise was “Lord of the Dance,” a hymn by Sydney Carter. After a morning listening obsessively to The Rite of Spring, music written, after all, for dancers, how remarkable to be singing a hymn with a jaunty beat and a joyous chorus (“Dance, dance, wherever you may be”), a hymn in which we seemed to be singing along with Jesus (“I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth/At Bethlehem I had my birth”). Most hymns are like stately pageants. Here, in the austere, spacious, stained-glass wonder of the chapel we were singing lines like “I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun” to a catchy, folky melody that I recognized from many hours listening to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring around the time I was dancing myself dizzy to Stravinsky.

The Postlude for John’s service was “Sheep May Safely Graze” from Bach’s Cantata 208, music to melt a heart of stone, the same music on the tape I played again and again for my father when he was dying.

Books and Love

Later at the Arts Council, where friends and family remembered and celebrated John Fischer, a fellow scholar read Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poem John’s wife Panthea had been reading to him as he died. Best known for his writings on the poetry of Jonathan Swift, John once observed, in the context of Swift’s long poem “Cadenus and Vanessa,” that “a relationship that mingles love and books is possible and joyous.” He dedicated that essay, “itself about books and love,” to Panthea.