- Literary Memory and the Moment of Modern Music
With the centenary of the sensational 1913 Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps upon us, scholars of the culture of modernity will increasingly have to confront the historical remoteness of this defining event of “modern” music. Recent debate in the United States Supreme Court, with congressional debate sure to follow, over whether Stravinsky’s ballet scores and other European works of similar vintage can be made subject to copyright protection encapsulates Le sacre’s uneasy position, straddling the private and the public domain, the avant-garde and the antique.1 Chronologically speaking, we are now very nearly as far removed from the debut of Le sacre as its first audience was from the debut of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; and Stravinsky’s music, vaunted in its day as a radical break from the European classical tradition, has become so securely institutionalized that to today’s students it amounts to little more than another piece in the classical repertoire—a status it has enjoyed for a long time now. Textbooks may still try to convince students of Le sacre’s distinction as an “unprecedented departure from established musical traditions”2; its unresolved dissonances may still thrill, or annoy, the classically-trained ear; but a century of musical developments has made the outraged reactions of some of its first hearers and critics seem quaint, even a little absurd. We can still appreciate the ballet’s innovative aspects, and its importance for modern music, dance, and art, but for most of us, this appreciation has to be sought from a position of historiographic retrospect. We return to the surviving original documentation of the ballet’s debut to assess the material truth of this indelible vignette of the time before the world [End Page 693] wars. The latter is the impulse behind scholarly efforts, which began in earnest in the 1980s, to situate the events of the premiere in the political and economic conditions of pre-war Paris, or to sort through the press reviews of Le sacre’s early runs and concert performances, or to “reconstruct” and reappraise Vaslav Nijinsky’s lost original choreography, to cite just a few examples.3 It is here, amid such historicist endeavors, that we as twenty-first century scholars have to begin, if we hope to understand the significance of this quintessentially twentieth-century artifact.
If this is now generally conceded, it is less well known that a similar condition of retrospective detachment has been a feature of the reception of Le sacre du printemps almost from the start, even before the ballet was ten years old. Responses to the ballet by Stravinsky’s literary contemporaries reveal as much. Partly, the historiographic slant of these early responses is a reflection of some qualities particular to Le sacre: namely, its unusual susceptibility to remaking and recontextualization, by its composer and by others, especially early in its history. This susceptibility is inextricably tied to sudden reversals in Le sacre’s popular and critical fortunes during the first decade or so of its performing life, which in turn contributed to its rapid attainment of classic status. Meanwhile, the institutionalization (and bourgeoisification) of Le sacre, which was well underway by the early 1920s, provided a platform from which literary modernists could reflect on the institutionalization that their own works were in the process of undergoing–or not undergoing, as the case may be. Implicit in this is a double perspective: the writers in question had to think of themselves both as practitioners of modern art, dependent upon its reception and commercial potential for their livelihood, and also as part of its general audience, shoulder to shoulder with the “bullet-headed many” who in Ezra Pound’s famous formulation “will never learn to trust their great artists.”4 It was a contradiction not all writers felt themselves able to resolve.
In this essay, I examine a number of literary responses to Le sacre by authors who were active in Europe during the period of the ballet’s critical and popular reassessment. All of these texts, despite their considerable differences in treatment and wide chronological and geographic...