Igor Stravinsky
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Stravinsky's Last Word

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny examines Stravinsky's concept of "contemporary forever" and how it relates to commissioning and performing new work.

published Sunday, December 1, 2013


Dallas —  The year 2013 has celebrated many famous musical and artistic anniversaries, including the 200th anniversary of the births of Verdi and Wagner and the 100th for Britten. It is also the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, following as it did the first performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in 1912. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show in New York City, in which Marcel Duchamp exhibited Nude Descending a Staircase (No 2)—provoking controversy and perhaps even riots. It is said that former President Teddy Roosevelt compared the work (favorably, or un) to a Navaho rug decorating his bathroom. By 1913 Duchamp was also working on preliminary materials for one of the most celebrated works of modern art—the so-called “Large Glass”—begun the previous year. Roughly a century after their creation, two of these works have become accepted and popular masterpieces in the historical development of visual and musical art (Nude and Rite of Spring), and two are still challenging even our contemporary perceptions of these art forms (The Large Glass and Pierrot). What drives the difference? And what can we learn for the commissioning and performing of contemporary operas?

Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, oil on canvas, 57 7/8" x 35 1/8" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

It is Stravinsky, I think, who said it best. Writing about Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, the final movement of one of Beethoven’s last quartets, he said in Dialogues and a Diary (with Robert Craft), “How right Beethoven’s friends were when they convinced him to detach it from Opus 130, for it must stand by itself, this absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” Written in 1825, the Grosse Fugue persistently challenges listeners because of its unique musical structure; its unprecedented and aggressive—even brutal—dissonance; its awkward melodic leaps and turgid rhythms; and its abrupt changes of mood and texture. Arguably, the phrase structure and dissonance anticipates much more radical works, such as those Schoenberg himself popularized (and works by Bartok and Boulez, as well). Even Beethoven, not generally one to heed other people’s artistic advice, decided to write a less challenging final movement to the Opus 130 Quartet which, sadly, turned out to be the last music he completed.

I find this idea of an artistic work that remains “contemporary forever” both extremely powerful and thought provoking, although it is easier to explain and defend what is not contemporary forever, than what is. Duchamp’s Nude was considered radical at its first showing in part because it showcased a nude figure, a subject deemed “inappropriate” by the cubists. (My favorite quote from the time was, “A nude never descends the stairs—she reclines”). Duchamp, never one to shy away from challenging other people’s expectations, was undoubtedly aware of the controversy his work would create. Today, for all of the work’s revolutionary place in history, it is now widely accepted and admired as a hugely influential work of “mainstream” art. By contrast, The Large Glass, which Duchamp worked on intermittently between 1915 and 1923, with preparatory work going back to 1912, continues to provoke and inspire viewers even today. Duchamp was fond of wordplay in titles to his works, and the full name of the work is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). As the website of the Philadelphia Museum notes, “[it] has gradually become the subject of a vast scholarly literature and the object of pilgrimages for countless visitors drawn to its witty, intelligent and vastly liberating redefinition of what a work of art can be.”

The finished work of The Large Glass represented the culmination of many preparatory drawings and writings—in themselves an enormous and complementary creative output. As part of these materials, Duchamp created a companion musical work in 1913 entitled “Erratum Musical.” Employing aleatoric (chance-based) techniques, Duchamp anticipated quite remarkably John Cage’s work of the early 1950s. Duchamp’s composition relies on a process involving a large funnel, a number of open-connected wagons, and numbered balls. Each numbered ball corresponds to a pitch for an instrument selected by the performer. The wagons are pulled beneath the funnel which deposits the balls into the wagons. Once all of the balls have been dropped, the performer pulls them out one at a time, noting the sequence of the balls, and the performer then plays the notes so selected. There are further rules determining the duration of the notes. My favorite recording of the work is a 1977 performance by Donald Knaack, who uses percussion instruments made from glass. As the performer notes, “glass was chosen because of Duchamp’s interest and work with glass and transparency.” The work is surprisingly evocative, and holds the listener’s interest very well for a full fifteen minutes (not always guaranteed in aleatoric compositions). I find other performances of this work performed on piano less satisfactory, but they do generate through their random processes patterns that sound remarkably like twelve-tone rows invented by Schoenberg in 1921.

In that same vein, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is now widely accepted as a masterpiece, and regularly performed in symphony concert programs, while Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is still brilliant, raw, and confusing. During an excellent performance of the work I attended last summer during the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, featuring Lucy Shelton, one man politely but firmly walked out about a third a way through; if he were with us today, Schoenberg would undoubtedly have savored the fact that his work could still provoke such a visceral reaction.

For me, what makes these, or any other works of music, literature, or visual art “contemporary forever” is that they operate at the limit—or perhaps even beyond—of their audience’s ability to fully process their meaning. “Contemporary Forever” works require a deep structure, with multiple layers of meaning, and—obviously—meticulous construction. I believe that they are often the self-conscious result of an artist wanting to break through existing artistic expectations. In Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the structure of the number of movements (21, divided into three sections) and associated numerological elements (of which Schoenberg was so fond), and the ways in which the orchestration varies from movement to movement with just five players, are just minor examples of the layers upon layers of structure and detail incorporated by the composer. Bride contains multiple visual sub-elements, including the bride, nine bachelors, a chocolate grinder, sieves, capillary tubes, and…a water mill (I'll bet you thought I was going to say "the kitchen sink"). As the description of the work from web-link from the Philadelphia Museum notes, “Every visual element of the Glass is the result of meticulous studies, calculations, and experiments.” Lastly, even our greatest artists are incapable of producing a steady stream of "Contemporary Forever" works. Duchamp’s Large Glass falls into that rarified category, but many of his trail-blazing sculptures no longer have the capacity to shock, as they once did (e.g. his “Readymades" such as the famous bicycle wheel and stool).

In the operatic art form most works that have stood the test of time are not what I would describe as “contemporary forever.” Think of Carmen, which at its premiere created a scandal—women sweating and smoking, the very idea!—but I think no one would argue that this work, for all its musical and theatrical merits, is "contemporary forever" today. Verdi’s La traviata, with its verismo depiction of a famous French courtesan, was shocking at its 1853 premiere, but the passage of time has led to its wide acceptance as romantic rather than scandalous. Professor Joseph Kerman’s famous comment about Puccini’s Tosca being a “shabby little shocker” notwithstanding, virtually no one would be tempted to call this work “contemporary forever.” Works that I would include in this category are Ligeti’s anti-opera Le Grand Macabre, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, and Britten’s Turn of the Screw, all of which receive at least occasional performances. While the musical structure of Berg’s Wozzeck is no longer “contemporary forever,” the orchestration and the style of the vocal writing has a persistent freshness more than 90 years after its completion in 1922—and it remains one of my favorite operas.

So what about the operas that are regarded as “contemporary forever”? These represent a unique programming challenge for General Directors because, on the one hand, most General Directors I know strive to program a range of operas, from the most popular to the more challenging; and on the other hand, the very nature of a CF work means that it will appeal to a niche audience—which translates into reduced ticket revenues. In the area of commissions, too, if a General Director elects to commission a work that aspires to provoke and challenge his core audience, he or she will undoubtedly understand the likelihood that ticket sales will fall short of those for a more accessible new opera. That being said, I personally believe that, within the limitations of budgets, it is essential for opera companies to continue to present boldly and self-consciously innovative works. Over time, audiences will, at least in some cases, develop a familiarity and comfort with such works. With repeat experiences, they may begin to look forward to and enjoy the challenge—just as someone may take visceral pleasure in a strenuous mountain hike that tests the limits of their endurance.

However, the bottom line is: "Contemporary Forever" operas and art works have earned the right to expect our continued support, even at the risk of losing a few of our valued patrons. We should thank Igor Stravinsky, himself an extraordinary innovator, for pointing the way.


Photo: WikiMedia Commons
A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Stravinsky's Last Word
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny examines Stravinsky's concept of "contemporary forever" and how it relates to commissioning and performing new work.
by Keith Cerny

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