Wednesday, June 17, 2009

L'histoire de l'Igor

If you hurry, you might still have time to catch the tribute to Igor Stravinsky on Google's front page. (Today is the composer's 127th birthday.) For a novice iconographer such as myself, it's difficult to figure out what's supposed to be going on in this image. I get the firebird in the left side of the picture, but what on earth is the caterpillar doing there? And, because I would hate to miss the opportunity for gratuitous pedantry, I must point out that the slurs on the floating semiquavers are upside down - they should be below the note heads. As it stands, the slur could be mistaken for a third beam, causing the unwary reader to execute the four-note groupings twice as fast as notated. (See Deceptively Simple for a slightly less snarky analysis.)

Despite my uncharitable remarks, it's a pleasure to see a modernist composer make an appearance in the mainstream media at all. If any twentieth-century composer could break out of the academic ghetto and achieve some popular success, it's Stravinsky; his Sacre de printemps left an indelible impression on me from the first time I heard it, and likely led to my subsequent interest in contemporary music. (As a child, I first heard the complete ballet on CBC Radio Two, on the way home from a trip to the dentist; with Radio Two's recent descent into insipid unlistenability, that opportunity will now never be available to anyone else.) I've since found other favourites in Stravinsky's output than the popular ones - the Octet, Oedipus Rex, Agon, the two symphonies of the 1940s - but I still have a nostalgic attachment to the Rite. For most of the world, Stravinsky's ballet is the piece of modern music: sufficiently alien to confound our usual expectations, but still grounded in a style that we recognize from innumerable film scores. Long may it continue to inspire young musicians.

The coincidence of today's birthday with yesterday's Bloomsday celebrations (how did I never notice this before?) suggests some interesting parallels between these two modernist artists. With Picasso, Joyce and Stravinsky are probably the best-loved and most recognized artists of the modernist movement. The two men were approximate contemporaries (Joyce had his own 127th birthday this past February) and had a similar genius for combining the most abtruse modernist techniques with references to popular culture: think of Stravinsky's use of folk music, or Joyce's "map of Dublin on a garbage can lid". Despite their enormous fame, both figures are in some ways rather marginalized, loved for their early work (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the Rite) while their more mature creations are treated with indifference. (Ulysses, despite its awesomeness, is still more talked about than read, and the Wake is even more forbidding - and how many people have even heard of A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, or the Aldous Huxley Variations?)

Joyce and Stravinsky don't seem to have had any significant contact, but they certainly knew of each other's work - Joyce attended the Paris premiere of Le sacre du printemps. A recent book treated a 1922 dinner party that was attended by both artists, but it doesn't seem that the two spent much time together. This was probably Joyce's fault; he showed up and spent most of the evening arguing with Proust.



Here's my quick, not too polished attempt to make my own Google Stravinsky.

Christine said...

I think that the caterpillars, flowers, etc. are a (clumsy) attempt at alluding to The Rite of Spring. Because, you know, that's totally what it's about.