Riverpedia archive - 04/16/2023

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Wagner and Stravinsky

Rivers Cuomo

Carol Babiracki


Music 97r Final Paper: Compare the Romantic and the Modern views of the representational capabilities of art as exemplified by Wagner and Stravinsky.

Every bar of dramatic music is justified only by the fact that it explains something in the action or in the character of the actor." Richard Wagner 1[^1]
"Do we not, in truth, ask the impossible of music when we expect it to express feelings, to translate dramatic situations, even to imitate nature?" Igor Stravinsky[^2]

Here, apparently, are two artists who hold entirely antagonistic views of the representational capabilities and responsibilities of art. Wagner holds that his music exists only to serve the expression of the drama, that all the elements of an operatic production—the orchestral music, the vocal melodies, the poetry, the scenery, the costumes, the lighting—can and should be united, in what he calls the Gesamtkunstwerk, for the purpose of expressing the drama. Stravinsky, on the other hand, holds that such a Synthesis of the Arts betrays and debases pure music with its arbitrary and artificial constraints—constraints that are entirely foreign to the natural laws of music. However, one must temper these two rather extreme opposing views with the knowledge that Wagner and Stravinsky were both headstrong characters wont to make bold or inflammatory statements not necessarily representative of their actual respective practices. Donald Grout points out that in practice Wagner occasionally abandons his ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, that "the drama is occasionally interrupted, or adorned, with interwoven scenes of decidedly operatic character that are not always strictly necessary to the plot."[^3] Moreover, "Wagner sometimes introduces certain motifs for what seem to be purely musical reasons, without any obvious necessary connection with the dramatic situation . . ."[^4] And Stravinsky—although squarely opposed to the belief that music is capable of representing emotions, objects, or dramatic situations—is best known for his ballets, an opera (The Rake's Progress), an opera-oratorio (Oedipus Rex), a choral symphony (Symphony of Psalms), and a dance piece based on an old folktale (L'histoire du soldat), all of which are forms which are generally programmatic in nature. Given this apparent contradiction—that the respective theories of Wagner and Stravinsky are in direct opposition, yet their practices reveal numerous similarities–the question arises: Exactly how do Wagner and Stravinsky differ, not in their theories nor on the surface of their compositions, but in what their music ultimately communicates to the listener?

If Stravinsky mistakenly believed that Wagner's ultimate point of communication was "the drama" (meaning "the plot"), one mustn't blame him, for Wagner himself forcefully made this claim, as witnessed in the quote opening this essay. Richard Crocker, in A History of Musical Style, corrects this common misunderstanding with an alternative explanation: in the music-dramas, contrary to the composer's own statements, Wagner actually makes "the music primary and the text secondary."[^5] He observes that in Tristan und Isolde,

the plot . . . is in itself unimportant, serving only to bring the two lovers . . . together in circumstances that prohibit their love . . . The drama was conceived so as to facilitate the exploitation of luxurious harmonies and progressions . . . the nature of the harmonic events is reproduced by the drama but . . . the singing and acting [only] ride on the surface of the harmonies.[^6]

With this interpretation in mind, it is not surprising to learn that late in life Wagner rescinded his earlier claims and admitted that the "music-drama remained symphonic in the deepest sense: the text was in the end a program of the kind used by Berlioz and Liszt, to incite and guide the listener's imaginative response."[^7] In the music-drama, the music does not exist to explain the text—the practice Stravinsky so strongly objects to—but rather, the text exists to provide a more concrete image of the music. Wagner saw the music-drama not as the enslavement of music by a higher dramatic purpose, but rather as the logical extension of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, taking the shape of the symphonic form but with it's meaning made clearer by the text.[^8]

Still, this is an attempt at the synthesis of text and music, regardless of which serves which, and as such would still be objectionable to Stravinsky, for if he believed that music is incapable of representing emotions, objects, or ideas, then surely he must have believed that text is incapable of accurately representing the meaning of the music. Judging by The Rake's Progress, one gets the feeling that Stravinsky would object to any imposed relationship between text and music. For Stravinsky, dramatic action and text are forever isolated from music. However, it would be foolish to deny that there is some relationship between the two in Stravinsky's music. For example, in the graveyard scene, the composer does not set the text to a happy-sounding jig, but rather consciously chooses an agitated melody in G minor. How then can he insist that his music does not represent the "dark" and "dreadful place"? And when Tom goes mad and sings his childish song, then too, the music—a simple, repetitive melody in the major mode—seems a perfect match for the setting. How does this style differ from that of Wagner's music-dramas? For one, the key motives of any section are not attached to any particular emotion, object, word, or dramatic idea, as are the leitmotivs of Wagner. Rather they stand on their own and as a unifying component of the musical aspect of the composition. For example, in the graveyard scene, the following motive appears a number of times in Tom's part of the duet:

Instead of representing any one idea, this melody sets the various words: "dreadful is this place", "fills", "I", and "pay you"—all lines which have no obvious connection. This example illustrates that Stravinsky did not compose the drama and the music as an organic whole, as did Wagner, but rather, he used the dramatic setting as a point of departure and composed the music as an independent entity to sit beside the text but to retain its own rationale, balance, order, and meaning.

Given that Stravinsky exhibits these values, it is not surprising that he relies on Classical models for many aspects of the composition of The Rake's Progress. The opera is broken up into arias, recitative accompanied by harpsichord, duets, and ensembles. In the Poetics of Music, he says that "Arias, ensembles, and their reciprocal relationships in the structure of an opera confer upon the whole work a coherence that is merely the external and visible manifestation of an internal and profound order"[^9]. Stravinsky makes no attempt at making a realistic presentation of the drama, as does Wagner. The plot is advanced mostly in the recitative sections, and the arias remain mostly pure musical expression, as they do in the operas of Mozart. The fragmented nature of this opera, along with the wholesale repetition of entire sections of music under different texts (for example, Shadow's "I burn" aria), ensure that the music will be considered on a purely musical level, rather than as a representation of an ongoing drama.

Wagner sought to eliminate these divisions. He admired the dramatic force of the symphonic form and begrudged traditional opera the artificiality of its conventions. In Tristan und Isolde, long, uninterrupted passages of music chronicle the action through many changes of mood and subject. In this sense, the music-drama is the culmination of a trend that had been evolving from the earliest days of Western art music. In the Renaissance, Monteverdi cleverly reflected the imagery of his text in his melodies; in the Baroque era, Bach shaped his melodic lines to bear religious significance; in the Classic era, Mozart ingeniously characterized the characters of his operas with telling music; in the Romantic era, Schumann expressed his often complex innermost feelings in song-cycles; and in the late Romantic era, Wagner attempted a total synthesis of music and dramatic meaning. Nearly one hundred years after Tristan und Isolde, perhaps Stravinsky felt that music and text had gotten as close to each other as possible, or perhaps that they had gotten too close, and that it was no longer possible to proceed along the course along which Western art music had developed until that point. And so, in The Rake's Progress, he pulled them back apart. In The Rake's Progress, music is no longer a reflection of "mountains" or "valleys" in the text, nor of the emotions of the composer. In this opera, music is just music, to be judged on its own merits alone, and on its own terms. This absolutism is in stark contrast to the representationalism of Wagner and the Romantics, whose music Stravinsky describes as "smothered under literary flowers"[^10] and is one of the hallmarks of the Modern era.

( Last edited by Rivers at 2023-04-16T14:38:33Z)