Even Ludwig Nodded

Illustration by Christoph Heckel

MY OH MY, HOW THE LETTERS HAVE poured in! "How could you?" their writers fairly scream, as if I had turned my back on motherhood, America and a hot lunch for orphans -- which, by the way, I haven't. What I did, in all innocence and, I think, all honesty, was to note my displeasure at being subjected to just short of a full hour of Igor Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, complete with narration, dancing and what has always struck me in this work as an agonizing predilection for padding by repetition. Minus the storyline -- whose garrulousness suffers in translation from the folksy French -- and the music's tendency to chew its cabbage once or twice too often, The Soldier's Tale boils down to a 23-minute suite: not top-drawer Stravinsky, but bearable. At the Ford Amphitheater the cabbage was expertly sliced by Esa-Pekka Salonen and a state-of-the-art ensemble, but we still were served the whole head to try to digest.

This is my statement on Stravinsky, definitive as of this morning but -- as with all my statements -- subject to change at the drop of a downbeat. I admire above all the pleasure in his own technique that his music radiates, his own joy in the act of composition. The Rite of Spring remains his supreme score, most of all for the sheer arrogance that enabled its creation. It stands -- beside Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Beethoven's "Eroica" and not much else -- as one of the truly brave, inexplicable forward steps in the arts. Stravinsky never lost the motive power that his arrogance provided. It led him in time to the composition of other excellent scores, alongside a large repertory of intellectual flimflam that, had it not flowed from the pen of the composer of The Rite, would surely have languished in limbo long ago. Not since George Frederick Handel had a major composer produced so high a proportion of trash to masterworks. One of the ongoing astonishments about Stravinsky comes when you try to equate, say, the triviality of the Four Norwegian Moods with the fervor of the Symphony of Psalms, the desiccated gestures of the Violin Concerto or Oedipus Rex with the elegant inventions in Orpheus.

I admire his continued curiosity. The Soldier's Tale came from a time, near the end of WWI, when awareness of America's music had begun to inundate European imaginations. American ragtime caught on quickly, more so at the start in Europe than in the United States. It conquered Stravinsky early in his game; there is some of it in The Soldier's Tale, and there are also two other ragtime pieces from 1918-19, both of them truly awful. In a career spanning over half a century he seemed obsessed with trying his hand, at least once, at every new musical style that came down the pike, and in those between-the-wars decades there were plenty of new styles to try.

The failure rate may have been high; I don't hold much hope for the claims to eternal-masterpiece status of most of the hybrids: the pseudo-baroque works like Pulcinella and the chamber concertos, the pseudo-atonal works like Abraham and Isaac, the pseudo-medieval Mass or the pseudo-Tchaikovsky Fairy's Kiss. About the pseudo-Donizetti Rake's Progress I change my mind with every performance I witness. Yet we can read into the best of these works -- or, let's say, the least worst -- the process of a vigorous, questing mind investigating the vast panorama of his chosen art and trying it all on for size. That's a time-honored process; Bach studied his contemporaries by copying out and adapting their music, and Mozart did the same with Bach.

IT'S A LAZY MAN'S PROCESS, IT SEEMS to me, to assume that every work by even the most revered composers deserves a place in the active repertory. The great composers aspire to a place far ahead of the popular taste of their time; you can easily verify this by getting hold of a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, a large collection of the attempts by critics contemporary to famous works of the past to apply the standards of their time and, thus, to demolish these works. Slonimsky's book, by the way, has just been newly republished by W.W. Norton; it deserves a place under the pillow of every critic, amateur or employed.

But composers have to eat. It's depressing to read that Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and his Battle Symphony rode at the front of Vienna's hit parade while their composer toiled over his last string quartets. Does this necessarily mean, however, that either of these truly terrible works -- or the King Stephan Overture or the variations for piano on "God Save the King" -- deserves a place in the contemporary repertory? Isn't it important that we remain aware that Beethoven, like Homer, could nod now and then? (I have to admit, however, that the Battle Symphony goes well with the fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl.)

Not necessarily, I suggest, as I fondle my own list of personal detestations that ride on the coattails of their makers' better attempts. The Brahms German Requiem, it will surprise no regular reader to learn, rides high on that list; can this intensely gloom-ridden work, with its page upon page of clogged, aching counterpoint and its damp choral textures the consistency of last week's Kartoffel-knödel, have flowed from the same pen that would later shape the B-flat Piano Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet? Can it be that only a year separates the wet wool of Schumann's D-minor Symphony from the glorious exuberance of his Piano Quintet? Would Claude Debussy's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian stand a chance in the repertory were its composer not also the creator of La Mer and Pelléas? Or, to reverse the tide, how is it that the Fourth Symphony of Jan Sibelius manages to survive when its six companions, and all those gooey tone poems, are cut from fabric infinitely more drab, more "indigenously Nordic" as the record blurbs read -- and, thus, infinitely more popular?

I'm just asking. Keep the letters coming, folks.