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  • On Igor Stravinsky
  • Robert Fink
Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. 1792. $175.00

The lead article in the first issue of the American journal that would soon become Modern Music (in 1924 it was still called The League of Composers’ Review) engages the same thorny issue that occupied the inaugural volume of this journal 70 years later. But the premise of Adolph Weissman’s creepy little essay on “Race and Modernity”—“In music, blood and not mind is the ultimate determinant”—is more than a little chilling in retrospect. We are informed that Arnold Schoenberg “draws . . . the final consequences of Germanic music- civilization,” but that “the dialectic sharpness which transformed this former Wagnerian into the reformer of music, rests on Jewish race feeling.” This “racial penetration of German music” has given rise to atonality, a “paper music” cramped by dialectic rigor (whatever that is); Weissman awaits a “truly creative spirit,” the new Mozart, adumbrated for the moment by (100% Aryan) Paul Hindemith. 1

Ironically enough, Igor Stravinsky would probably have seconded Weissman’s characterization of Schoenberg vs. Hindemith at the time. 2 But would he have recognized himself?

For the moment the world of music is under the spell of two men—Schönberg and Stravinsky. Even here race has accentuated diversity. To Stravinsky may be accorded the western domain, to Schönberg the remaining countries. . . . Stravinsky’s rhythm, his new tonality, have penetrated the world which is nearest him racially. The young Arthur Honegger, a Francis Poulenc, an Arthur Bliss may show us on what fertile field his inspiration has fallen.

[“RAM,” 4–6; italics mine.]

Schoenberg to the East, and Stravinsky to the West? It appears, incredibly, that Weissman has forgotten that the composer of Zhar-ptitsa, Vesna svyaschennaia and Svadebka was born, raised, and trained far to the east of Vienna. Well, so have we all. Even the Russian names of his most famous works are exotic and unfamiliar; their titles resonate for us now, as they did in 1924, in the Parisian French of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: L’oiseau de feu; Le sacre du printemps; Les noces. Weissman was of course well aware that Stravinsky had achieved fame writing ballets on Russian folk themes. But he was interested in the Slav content only as primitive raw material, subject to fundamentally Western manufacturing processes:

The French folk-spirit was not potent enough of itself to create a new music. Salvation came from Russia. Through continued contact with Paris, and collaboration with the Russian ballet, Stravinsky paved the way for that music which we recognize as a synthesis of barbaric folk-feeling and the highest refinement, which finds its supreme expression in the “Sacre du Printemps.”

[“RAM,” 6]

This is perhaps the oldest, tiredest story in twentieth-century musical historiography; yet it is surprisingly tenacious. Both the equation of Russia with the barbaric and the primitive, and the blithe certainty that Stravinsky’s Russian primitivism is significant exactly insofar as it helped catalyze his contribution to Western European modernism, are mainstays of Stravinsky reception to this day. Stravinsky is linked with Debussy, Satie, and Poulenc, not Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin; with Cocteau and Auden, not Pushkin and Balmont; with Matisse and [End Page 147] Picasso, not Benois and Goncharova. To introduce a key term Richard Taruskin has unearthed from Prince Nikolai Trubetskoy’s roughly contemporaneous Europe and Humanity (1920), Weissman’s article is a prime example of “pan-germanoromantic chauvinism,” against which Trubetskoy championed an idealized Eurasian Slavic culture often dubbed “Turanian.”

The fundamental argument of Taruskin’s Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, twenty-odd years in the making, is that the Turanian pairing will always tell us more about pre-1925 Stravinsky than the pan-germanoromantic one. Russia had more to offer early modernism than exotic folklore and a transfusion of primitive “new blood.” Turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg had its own complex web of artistic and musical traditions, its own highly cultivated attitudes towards Russian folk art and music. Within these traditions, by playing their strengths off against each other, Stravinsky developed his style—and...

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