Saturday, June 17, 2006

In the repertoire

Today would have been Stravinsky's 124th.

A friend pointed out a review by Terry Teachout of the new, second volume, of the Stravinsky biography by Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky, The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971 . The review focuses on two areas, Stravinsky's relationship with his family and with Robert Craft (the man for whom we now reserve the profession of ananuensis) and the veracity of Stravinsky and Craft, a topic which doesn't interest me, and the status of the late music, a topic which interests me a lot.

Teachout writes:
Yet except for Agon, which survives mainly in its capacity as the score for one of Balanchine’s best ballets, none of Stravinsky’s later works has entered the concert repertoire. Nor does it now appear likely that they will be taken up by a new generation of performers. With the revival of tonality, time has passed them by.
In the late works there is at least one failure (The Flood), there are several occasional and memorial pieces, ranging in quality from delightful to harmless, and there are some arrangements (J.S. Bach, Gesualdo, Sibelius, Hugo Wolf). Failures, occasional pieces and arrangements rarely have repertoire status. (Though it should be noted that the little Greeting Prelude is both an arrangement and an occasional piece, and manages to get played with some frequency). But there are four major works: Agon, Threni, Movements for piano and Orchestra, and the Requiem Canticles. Teachout and I can agree on Agon, and performances of the other three pieces are indeed rare. Threni and Movements might never have a wide audience, although the professional opinion on Movements has always been high and, in the case of Threni, has lately been part of a modest growth market. With the right players, Movements can be like fire crackers in the concert hall, so I wouldn't close the book on it.

I believe that the Requiem Canticles is* a repertoire item, but it is a unique member of the repertoire. It has not been and I expect that will never be played with great frequency. In part, this is due to material circumstances: it requires an orchestra, which, although small in total, requires the hiring of additional players in some sections, it requires a choir and solists with better-than-normal musicianship, and it is relatively brief for a work that requires such added resources. In other words, it costs too much. But I believe that there are also non-material considerations which weigh more heavily in this case. The Requiem Canticles is, in the end, a requiem. An odd requiem, to be sure: an incomplete or fragmented text, a text in Latin by a Russian Orthodox composer, the odd duration and ensemble. It has always been a problem to find the other piece or pieces to program with it in a concert. Or does it belong in a concert hall at all? Putting it in church is also a problem. Impossible in an orthodox church, chancy in a catholic church, and probably not appropriate to a protestant church. And the Requiem Canticles is an auto-requiem by a composer whom musicians hold in high esteem. It's one of those pieces for which we hold such high esteem that we cannot let it suffer a bad performance. So we don't play it often, but it haunts us all the time, and when we play it, we try to get it right.

"In the repertoire" does not mean played often.

* Should it be the Requiem Canticles are or the Requiem Canticles is?


Anonymous said...

Don't you know? The Requiem Canticles be.

PWS said...

The Flood a failure? Come, come. Perhaps it was dramatically, and some of the libretto is cloying and pretentious (thanks mostly to the cloying and pretentious Craft) but it has some amazing music.

Daniel Wolf said...

I'm willing to hear someone make a case for for The Flood -- I recently went out on a similar limb in defending the Septet -- but the deficits still strike me as beyond mending, and although most of these deficits can be assigned to collaborators, the composer can't escape responsibility altogether.

PWS said...

I love the Septet too. I think it's one of his most assured and masterful instrumental chamber works.