Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Stravinsky vs. Prokofiev on neoclassicism

Igor Stravinsky/Wikipedia
Igor Stravinsky more than once said he did not want the label of “Neoclassical” applied to his music.

In part, I suspect it was some professional jealousy and rivalry with Sergei Prokofiev, who first got the label from his 1916 “Classical Symphony.” In a post about Albert Camus and how he disliked the label “existentialist” for his works, I similarly said it was probably in part due to professional rivalry with Jean-Paul Sartre.

But I also said it was because he wasn’t so much an existentialist.

Ditto with Stravinsky.

His early works, like “Firebird” and “Rite of Spring,” we’d call Late Romantic, or Expressionist, or similar, right?

But, what about, say “A Soldier’s Story”? Couldn’t we call it Neoclassical?

We could, but even if the label fully fit, Stravinsky was moving further back in time, at times.

“Symphony in C” and “Symphony in Three Movements” both seem to combine Expressionistic elements with Neoclassical ones. But if you look at something like “Symphony of Psalms,” you realize we’re in different territory.

With a nod of the head to Paul Hindemith, I’ve called that territory Neobaroque. Given that Stravinsky would go on to do things like setting Shakespearean sonnets to music, one could even argue for the descriptor of Neorenaissance.

Of course, Stravinksy, over a long and productive career, changed his stripes more than once, and so is harder to label artistically than is Camus.

But, if we are to put a label on him, either Neobaroque or Neorenaissance is much more accurate for the Stravinsky of post-World War I days than is Neoclassical.

I actually favor the Neorenaissance labeling, myself. It’s not such much based on his later musical structures as it is on his instrumentation. On one listening to “Symphony of Psalms,” the fact that he uses no violins sunk in, and I thought back to the viol-family dominance before the later Baroque. His strong use of woodwinds, including modern ones like sarussophone in “Threni,” underscore this. (In case you’re wondering, a sarussophone is somewhat like if a saxophone and a bassoon had sex and produced a child.)

Interestingly, I did not know that Ernst Krenek also did a setting of Lamentations.

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