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Book Review

Stravinsky the Music-Maker

Stravinsky the Music-Maker by Keller & Cosman

Writings, Prints and Drawings

Hans Keller & Milein Cosman
Toccata Press, 242 pp, 2010
ISBN-10: 0907689698
ISBN-13: 978-0907689690
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Ear, eye, and brain.

Hans Keller and Milein Cosman fled the Nazis in the late Thirties – Keller from Vienna, Cosman from Germany itself. They made it to England. Keller had studied violin and music theory in Vienna. He also was extremely knowledgeable about psychoanalytic theory, although he never became a certified analyst. He made enormous contributions to British musical life right away, even in alien internment, by getting together the musicians who became the Amadeus Quartet. He also began writing for music journals and beat the drum for those he considered under-appreciated: Schoenberg, Britten, and late Stravinsky. He did not, however, confine himself to contemporary music. He also produced penetrating articles on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. He became a mainstay of William Glock's programming policy at the BBC. He essentially kept the gate over new scores. Many disparaged the policy (mainly as applied to the Proms) which brought in contemporary music at the cost of not programming most of the traditional British Moderns. As someone who likes both, I don't object. The classical playlist has never been fixed. Composers go in and out of fashion all the time. What goes around tends to come around again, for better or worse.

Milein Cosman is an artist, still alive and sharp, specializing in ink and etching. Some of the most prestigious museums have acquired her work. Much of it portrays musicians. She and Keller met and married in 1946.

This volume from Toccata Press contains material from Stravinsky Seen and Heard and Stravinsky in Rehearsal – essays by Keller, drawings by Cosman. A great deal of new material has been added.

I know very little about art, so I can't talk too much about Cosman's drawings. I can, however, say that I like them very much. Many present Stravinsky at the podium, either deep into a score or just about vibrating with energy while he conducts. There are also other portraits, some of them rather endearing, even Yoda-like, of what I've always considered a distinctly non-endearing personality. On the other hand, I never met Stravinsky, although I once attended a talk. Cosman found something I never thought was there: a frailty, a dependence on others.

Keller's writings reflect his training in philosophy. Don't expect anything chatty. At times his prose seems to have been Google-translated from the original German. You may find yourself, as I did, rereading the same sentence or paragraph three or four times. Furthermore, he is a true critic, as opposed to a reviewer. A reviewer tries to capture his reaction to art and offer reasons for it. A critic often does the same, or at least assumes the validity of his reaction. However, he aims to know the work of art as it "truly is," opinion aside. Keller talks a great deal about "artistic facts," as distinct from opinion, and offers the example of Hanslick, who despite an unfavorable view of Wagner conducting Beethoven, nevertheless described it accurately, so that a reader has a very good idea of the facts of the performance. One essay analyzes in great detail Stravinsky's dodecaphonic In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, setting out the entire score. In another, he concerns himself with an accompanying figure in Pulcinella. If you don't read music, at least some of this book will pass you by. Keller addresses, to a large extent, professionals. That said, however, he's not a professional musical "priest." He believes very much in a work that communicates, in a sense that Beethoven would have understood. A fiery partisan for Schoenberg, Webern, and the serial Stravinsky, he nevertheless rails against "dodecaphoneys" (most of the total serialists) for concentrating on "precompositional elements" – for example, building a row with certain set-theory properties – rather than on the sound of actual music. He also hates rhythmic counterpoint so complex (5 beats against 7 against 15 against 11, for instance) that you don't really distinguish it from anything randomly struck, because you can't hear the pulse that ties them all together. I heartily agree. I thought I didn't like it because I was an American and thus needed to hear the beat. Incidentally, there's a marvelous essay on Gershwin's and Stravinsky's approaches to rhythm. At any rate, unlike most disparagers of the Modern and the Contemporary, Keller cites both the preconception without roots in actual music and the arrhythmia, rather than the suppression of tonality, as a cause for audience alienation.

What about Stravinsky specifically? Keller considers him a unique genius. All geniuses are unique, and Stravinsky is the "most unique" in the history of art. The composer's appropriations of the past fascinate Keller and prod him to construct a theory in psychological terms. Keller's explanation made little sense to me, absolutely unversed in psychological arcana, but it has to do with "suppression," whatever that may mean. Where Keller reaches me is in his considerations of Stravinsky's switch to dodecaphony. To me, Stravinsky took off from Webern, mostly on the basis of the lean textures of both. Keller makes me question this. He sees Stravinsky's twelve-tone work as an appropriation of Schoenberg. I suspect he's right. He examines why Stravinsky waited until after Schoenberg's death to go whole-hog into serialism, all the while showing that Stravinsky had used serial technique in some of his tonal works (Keller has apparently also done this for Mozart and Beethoven). He points out that Stravinsky and Schoenberg's rows arise out of thematic or melodic invention. The music comes first, the row possibilities later. For me, this explains why Stravinsky and Schoenberg, tonal or dodecaphonic, sound like themselves. This identification or re-alignment of the two composers turns on its head one of the major conceptual oppositions of Modern music: the opposition of Schoenberg and Stravinsky along tonal-dodecaphonically serial lines.

Its chief formulation appears in Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik. I consider it the work of a crank, but Keller is more generous, saying that no one could have predicted (or, more pointedly, did) Stravinsky's adaptation. At least during the Forties and early Fifties, Schoenbergians and Stravinskyites were two hostile camps. If you supported one, you denigrated the other. There was even a moral component to which side you chose. Anti-dodecaphony had been associated with Fascism (mistakenly – Goebbels didn't mind composers dabbling in atonality; he objected to any crediting of the Jewish Schoenberg) and Stalinism. The clearest formulation of this view came from Adorno, who also added (preposterously, in my opinion) that the lack of a key center promoted "democracy" among the tones, while functional harmony was "monarchical."

Yet dodecaphonists like Eisler and Blitzstein, both committed to the Left, nevertheless stood ambivalently toward dodecaphony, while idolizing Schoenberg. Vaughan Williams, liberal democrat (if not Socialist) by conviction, hated tone-row music ("row" for him rhymed with "cow") and thought it ugly. Britten, a Schoenberg admirer, never during this period produced a dodecaphonic score. Hindemith, a solid democrat, set himself up as the anti-Schoenberg, wrote satirical pieces based on rows of 11 and 13 notes, and mistakenly claimed that tonality was "natural." He later became reconciled to Schoenberg's music, but not before he had seriously undermined his critical reputation.

Stravinsky himself pronounced on the "limitations" of 12-tone serialism (along Hindemithian lines, incidentally), all the while pointing out (probably unconsciously) the serial nature of his music. When his first serial works appeared, Stravinskyites like Tansman and Dukelsky howled, feeling betrayed. Keller remained sane and supported both Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and time seems to have borne him out. The tonality-atonality split increasingly looks as aesthetically irrelevant (that is, relevant for cultural historians only) as the Brahms-Wagner split of the 19th century. Schoenberg and Stravinsky remain polarities, but across a German-Romantic/anti-Romantic axis – expressive vs. "suppressive."

Keller also talks about Stravinsky the man, usually in the context of the Stravinsky-Craft conversation books. He's not impressed, to put it mildly, viewing Stravinsky as a vulgar careerist, less than scrupulous in his business dealings, and not above re-issuing earlier writings in more expensive formats – all true, as it turns out. Also, he dislikes Craft's cavalier devaluing of the truth – also true. On the other hand, Stravinsky had to support a very large family and liked to live lavishly. A classical composer, even a great one, doesn't rake in the bucks. I can live with everything except his shabby cheating of his collaborators out of their fees. He did this with Auden and Kallman, his librettists for The Rake's Progess, neither of them moneyed, by insisting that the dough he received for the premiere of the opera was not for the commission or for the performing rights, but for his conducting services. Even so, he refused to throw a few bucks their way. Keller once met Stravinsky face-to-face, who made the mistake of trying to flatter him, and came away with a lot of contempt.

Nevertheless, the book, as difficult as some parts are to get through, contains gems for the persistent reader, including splendid analyses of Symphony of Psalms, many investigations of Stravinsky's rhythmic traits, enlightening program notes on Stravinsky works, tonal and serial. I learned a lot from this book. It was well worth the effort.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Schwartz.