Mixed Meter Mysterium

Kyle Gann has called The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky by Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger one of the most brilliant books on music ever written. I agree. While it was first published over 25 years ago, it still feels like the future of analysis and criticism: sassy, thorough, incomplete, opinionated, Apollonian.

Early on, in a wonderful chapter called “America on Sunday,” Andriessen and Schönberger defend Danses Concertantes, a work that I had previously dismissed as lightweight.

Strange, after the final chord, everything disappeared–what remained was a feeling of discomfort and the desire to pat somebody a little too hard on the back. When he had put the record on, he knew (since he knew the piece): this is going to be good. But why good, how good–he still could not imagine even while the needle was falling into the groove.

It would be nice to know which recording Andriessen and Schönberger are enjoying so much. None of three professional renderings I own treat Danses Concertantes as particularly political (“The world is reduced to the paradise in which a select group of emigres debate peremptorily about the necessity, yes, perhaps even the inevitabiliy, of acculturation”) or emotional (“The vulgar trumpet solos, especially the second one, after the buzzing, fifth-less G-flat chord, seemed to have dropped from Heaven”).

Andriessen and Schönberger are professional classical composers: When listening to an uninspired Stravinsky recording they can probably fill in the blanks better than I can. But surely it is time for an orchestral take on Danses Concertantes with the The Apollonian Clockwork as part of the context. (The recent recording of Danses by Dennis Russell Davies with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra has a typically anonymous and incorrect liner note by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich: “With its lively and exhilarating outer movements and a gently lyrical middle movement, it resembles an Italian Baroque concerto or early Classical symphony.”)

As Andriessen and Schönberger suggest, Nabokov was Stravinsky’s opposite number, a displaced Russian aristocrat enthralled with Paris and America. Many Stravinky and Nabokov works seem to wander up the same skewed Escher-esque print: “First, you are a perfect technician. Then you parody the effect of technique in an amused way. In doing so, you reveal a new, utterly sincere emotion that requires mastering a new technique. After perfecting this technique, you parody it in an amused way. In doing so, you reveal a new emotion that requires mastering a new technique….”

Stravinsky himself might not agree with this analysis, of course. But certainly Stravinsky was interested in complex emotions. In the first volume of his excellent biography, Stephen Walsh quotes the young Stravinsky’s derision of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. “I find that the only quality in this symphony is the inflexibility of utter barefaced platitude… Fancy that for two hours you are made to understand that two times two is four, to the accompaniment of E-flat major performed fffff by 800 people.” I love Mahler, too—but admit that his emotional spectrum can be understood by any 17-year old. As I near 40, I appreciate that the shades of grey in Stravinsky can seem more truthful than the certainties of Mahler.

Joseph Kerman understands the nuances of Stravinsky’s ironies better than most. In Concerto Conversations, Kerman offers a long and astonishing analysis of the Concerto for Piano and Winds.

The bi-faceted piano of the Concerto for Piano and Winds much of the time behaves like a dancing puppet. Disciplined at the end of the first movement, this exasperating character turns up again in the last movement full of fight. But in the slow movement the piano has tried to sing and even (in the cadenzas) to speak. Octatonic flourishes introduce the two cadenzas, recalling those splendid octatonic fanfares which cry out in the ballet as the emblem of Petrushka’s humanity. In the concerto, just as in the ballet, humanization entails human pathos. Near the end of the third movement the piano’s failure in the second is recalled and compounded. Like Petrushka, the inspirited piano is cut down.

The action is less graphic than in the ballet, naturally, and it reaches a different, almost opposite outcome. In the very short codetta of the concerto finale, it is the dancing puppet that returns: Petrushka proclaiming his subhumanity.

After re-reading Kerman, I listened to most of the readily-available recordings by celebrated pianists: Béroff, Pollini, Bishop, Kovacevich, Entremont, Mustonen, Crossley. With the exception of Béroff, who really does sound like he delightedly cannot believe what nonsense he is playing, everyone else’s interpretation is in line with David Dubal’s description of the Concerto in The Art of the Piano: “Its dry, nonlegato figures, with ever-changing metrics, are intriguing.”

I don’t mean to dismiss Dubal any more than all those celebrated pianists. But unlike Dubal, Joseph Kerman sees the wheels within wheels, and surely his is a more interesting approach to Stravinsky’s more seemingly blank-faced works. (In Pollini’s recently released live version, the pianist is very young and offers little psychological insight. The orchestra, however, can barely get through the work, which makes for an intriguing and at times enchanting vulnerability.)

We need enthusiastic commentators like Kerman, Andriessen and Schönberger partly because Stravinsky himself constantly battled against the kinds of insights they offer. “The music is just an object that expresses nothing” was his mantra, as when he wrote of his Octet, “In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems, and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be of any interest in music.”

Perhaps he is not just showing us his unease with the public perception of his work, but also something of his distance from performance in general. At the least, Stravinsky’s “music is only an object” stance would be more compelling if he had left a more impressive discography as conductor or pianist.

Almost his entire canon was recorded under his stewardship for Columbia and is now available in a budget box of 22 CDs.  Some things are wonderful, like The Rite, the second part of Persephone, the Octet, and Movements (still the best I’ve heard: Charles Rosen’s belief is palpable, if undercut by obvious edits). But many other works are given uncharismatic and even mistake-ridden performances. I opened up the score of Ode while listening to Stravinsky’s recording and couldn’t believe how poor the ensemble was. Couldn’t they afford to at least try a second take?

One of the great moments on the box shows that Stravinsky wasn’t always so objective. While the Ebony Concerto is not jazz, it is a deconstructed big band piece, and therefore a great introduction to Stravinsky for a jazz musician.

It is barely a concerto, though, for the clarinetist is featured only occasionally. In the middle movement, the soloist only plays a couple of phrases! Clearly, Stravinsky didn’t trust the work’s commissioner, Woody Herman.

On the box it is Benny Goodman, a real virtuoso. He didn’t play the middle movement, however; Charles Russo stood in instead.

But perhaps because the star was out of the room, it’s the best movement. It is played much slower than the given tempo marking, the saxophones use a real jazz sound and phrase with some swing, and the hapless harpist plays a huge wrong note the second time through. (Perfect.) The final result is possibly the bluesiest classical recording in existence.

Ebony Concerto and other selected works aside, serious emotional involvement is scarce on the big box. According to Charles Joseph’s penetrating Stravinsky Inside Out, “Aria II” in the Violin Concerto was an apology to Stravinsky’s first wife for his long-term public mistress; when the composer listened to it in concert he would cry. The Columbia version with Isaac Stern is fine, but I sense no tears.

Apparently, Stravinsky’s conducting technique was not great. I can’t speak to that—I recommend Peter Hill’s book on The Rite of Spring, and the chapter “Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky” by Nicholas Cook in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky—but I have spent serious time listening to Stravinsky play piano. He certainly has enough basic piano technique to play his own music. But something is often missing.

Maybe Stravinsky practiced the wrong things. According to Joseph, Stravinsky’s library included heavily marked manuals of technique by Isidor Phillip and Carl Czerny. Stravinsky’s piano music obviously bears the imprint of this kind of mindless fiddling. That sound is compelling in the finished product—Kerman details the influence of Czerny on the Concerto—but the idea of spending hours and hours a day practicing Phillip and Czerny for real (which apparently both the composer and his son did for months at a stretch) is disturbing.

To be comfortable on stage or on record, you need to practice an emotional relationship to the piece. Did Stravinsky ever do this? I suspect not. Practice routines aside, many of the best artists find that performance completes the circuit and actually enables them to play at their highest level. Performance is an act of vulnerability, and that vulnerability seems like an uncomfortable space for Stravinsky.

You can hear his nervousness on the recording of Serenade in A.  But for all his talk of “little or no pedal” (an injunction that seems correct for this piece), Stravinsky frequently blurs the counterpoint in the fastest and hardest movement, “Rondoletto,” just like a timid piano student worried about getting through in one piece. (The only really obvious wrong notes are at the end of the “Cadenza Finale.”)

The best Stravinsky piano recording is the first version of Duo Concertant with close associate Samuel Druskin, a violinist who helped Stravinsky write the work. Charles Joseph seems to prefer the later version with Josef Szigeti, but for me, the one with Druskin is better in every way, not least in basic ensemble togetherness. Their “Dithyramb” is a magical cantilena suspended in ancient atmosphere.

In the very first gesture of Duo Concertant there is an unusual dynamic marking, especially for Stravinsky: pianississimo for the repeated notes at the keyboard. This is very hard to do, and in both recordings, Stravinsky plays something more like mezzo-forte.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Mezzo-forte is the Stravinsky dynamic. Eduard Steuermann, in an interview with Gunther Schuller, reported that Schoenberg said, “‘He [Stravinsky] always writes mezzo-forte, and how well it sounds.’  (Schoenberg always advised his students never to write mezzo-forte, but either forte or piano.)”

In the valedictory Requiem Canticles, the last movement is nothing but bells and percussion, repeatedly marked “mf,” even the final note.

Anyway, back to Duo, where the repeated notes sound just fine at mf.  However, in the recent recording by Thomas Adés and Anthony Marwood, Adés takes care to deliver the repetitions at a true ppp. Since this special effect is frequently found in Adés’s own music—Darknesse Visible is a good example—we therefore have a rare occasion when we can hear one composer’s natural sensibility coming to the fore when interpreting another composer.

In the pianistic sweepstakes, there is no competition between Stravinsky and Adés. Adés is more gifted in every way. (And I highly doubt that Adés wastes his time playing much Phillip or Czerny!) However, that ease of execution can be almost inappropriate for certain works of Stravinsky. Perhaps the Adés/Marwood set could benefit from just a shade more sweat and effort.

It depends on the piece, of course. Three Scenes from Petrushka or the two-player Rite of Spring can take all the fireworks commanded by the fiercest virtuosos. But other works seem to want something plebeian or “house music” in atmosphere.

Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andrei Gavrilov made a terrific recording of the Rite that soars along at mind-blowing speed. But the same disc’s Concerto for Two Pianos is almost too brilliant.

In the hands of Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky, the Concerto for Two Pianos is not just crystal clear but also rugged and surreal. But not too surreal: the Kontarskys make this stern work also seem like something that could be sight-read after dinner by two members of a musical household.

Unfortunately, Stravinsky’s own version of the Concerto for Two Pianos with son Soulima is hampered by a cloudy recording. Father and son also follow the composer’s metronome mark for the second movement, which makes it too fast. Everyone else plays it a little slower, which seems correct. Indeed, I’d like to hear a version that is too slow, like the absent Benny Goodman movement from the Ebony Concerto.

Back to Stravinsky’s own performances: Apart from the Concerto for Two Pianos, the Serenade in A, and the Duo Concertant, the only bigger work recorded with the composer at the keyboard is a hard-to-hear Capriccio.

There is a piano roll of the Piano Sonata, but I’ve yet to hear a really good transfer of it. Someday one should be made, because Stravinsky’s love of piano rolls is well-documented. For a while it even seemed to be his preferred medium. In a magazine published by the Berliner Staatsoper, he said:

A pianola speaks the truth. Or more accurately, it repeats exactly that truth that I have worked so long and hard to articulate. A pianola is not affected by life’s hardships, and no emotionally willful musician can force his temperament upon it. It plays quite straight — and by this means it exactly achieves the task I have given it.

The above quote is from the liner notes of the fascinating pianola recording of Les Noces by Rex Lawson, who goes on to suggest,

Pianists in the 1990s have become used to Stravinsky’s styles, so that they are nowadays more sensitive to the needs of his music. Pianolists, in the full knowledge that they CAN greatly influence the musical results for what they are pedaling, need to tread a delicate line between utter flatness and overemphasis, allowing the music’s innate excitement, pathos, and fervor and humor to surface as naturally as possible. Playing the rolls of Les Noces without accents, without the imperceptible hesitations that human ears need for apparently regular rhythms, without all the indicated dynamic variations, would result in a grotesque, jerky greyness, and in retrospect Stravinsky’s own playing and conducting speak more loudly than his 1928 interview in confirming that his music is anything but monotone.

Lawson is of course correct, but!—for me at least—both of Stravinsky’s recordings of Les Noces are pretty unsatisfying, especially rhythmically. The vocalists aren’t all that strong, either, a common problem on the 22 CD box.

The best versions of Les Noces I know are Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated DG recording and the extremely unconventional rendition with the Pokrovsky Ensemble. I will never forget Mark Morris blasting me with the latter at work many years ago. Dmitry Pokrovsky combines his talented group of authentic Russian singers with a computer. (The instrument is not specified beyond “Apple Macintosh,” probably it functions like a Disklavier.)  It’s hard to say what is more shocking, the insane precision of the computer/piano or the raucous bray of the peasants/singers.

The Pokrovsky Ensemble is committed to finding the folklore in Stravinsky: alongside Les Noces, the Ensemble performs arrangements of Russian folksongs. This context is especially valuable since the composer’s own relationship to his folk sources was so complicated.

Not every composer was so stingy. Bartók’s emotional connection and folklore come through not just on his piano records but even in his piano rolls. Despite its stunning complexity (he has even invented new meters to express certain advanced tempo relationships), Thomas Adés dances and sways easily with his own music. Rachmaninoff and Rzewski and many other composer-pianists and composer-conductors obviously understand their own folklore.

Did Stravinsky understand his own folklore? After the inspired act of composition was done, Stravinsky often seemed to need to read his own music. And sometimes he read it badly! Otto Klemperer is quoted in Walsh describing the composer conducting Oedipus Rex: “There was a passage he simply couldn’t get right.”

This brings to mind Stravinsky’s famous barring and re-barring of mixed-meter moments in the early ballets. The book Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring: The Beginnings of a Musical Language by Pieter C. van den Toorn goes deeply into the question of where the “one” is in Stravinsky’s more convoluted phrases, and can be found online here.

This is surely controversial, but I reject the Stravinsky barrings that give precedence to mixed-meter melodies over steady ground bass. A good example is a familiar passage from A Soldier’s Tale, where the obvious 2/4 is denied security by the intrusion of 3/8.


I come from a different academy. When discussing Elvin Jones in the liner notes of The Real McCoy, McCoy Tyner says: “No matter how many polyrhythms are in the air, Elvin’s time at the bottom stays groovy.”

This ideal is found not just in jazz but in any advanced folkloric music across the globe, where the question, “How hard is it to read or count?” is secondary to, “How does the quarter note (or other basic measurement) feel?”

As a great musician, the second question surely concerned Stravinsky. But his cause is not helped by, say, this barring of two “empty” bars of “Mystic Circles” from the Rite:

Mystic circle
Gah! This is two bars of four, not a bar of five and a bar of four! The best musical point would be to make that dry ostinato as grooving, secure, and mysterious as possible—a target that becomes much harder to reach when you have to count a silent “1” and come in on “2” of a bar of five. Same thing with the 3/8 of Soldier’s Tale: isn’t the feel of the march more important than the mixed meter on top?

Perhaps I’m overreaching. I spoke with one virtuoso pianist who felt that the awkwardness of Stravinsky’s barring was crucial to how his melodies were phrased. A fine conductor told me to go easy here, that Stravinsky was in the wilds of invention, cutting it all up and remaking it anew.

Those are good points. This is indeed cubist music. Stravinsky and Picasso’s connection is just as palpable as that of Stravinsky and Nabokov. And of course, in movements that have no ground bass reducible to a folk beat—like “Sacrificial Dance,” which Stravinsky said he could play before he could notate—the barring has to become instantly “odd.”

However, the question of “groove” is never really addressed in Stravinsky literature. “Mechanical vs. rubato” is discussed, but not how a quarter-note pulse feels.

Any folkloric American musician would surely disagree with Steven Walsh’s comments on Les Noces in The Music of Stravinsky:

In reducing the elements of his style to the barest minimum, Stravinsky placed nearly total reliance on the two parameters for which he possessed a unique instinct: colour (both of timbre and chording) and rhythm. But where The Rite of Spring had laid stress on rhythm as something extraordinary and sensational, The Wedding asserts the normality of rhythm as a medium for musical expression and structure. It says, in effect, that since music is before anything else movement, movement on its own can be used to convey the subtlest inflexions of which music is capable. This may seem like a routine observation, but it is one which even twentieth-century music, with its frequent concentration on rhythmic constructs, has often failed to understand. So much of the music of our own day, including pop and jazz, has seen rhythm as an emphasis on the purely animal (or, alternatively, as a medium for denying contrast or change), that it is still something of a shock to experience music which treats rhythm as a vehicle for refined, intellectual and subtly emotional utterance.

So, jazz and pop are just beating in the woods like animals, huh? No “refined, intellectual and subtly emotional” rhythms to be found? Really. I suggest taking this up with Elvin Jones…

Regrettably, Walsh is only mirroring the composer, who in Conversations spouts this nonsense about jazz:

The point of interest is instrumental virtuosity, instrumental personality, not melody, not harmony, and certainly not rhythm. Rhythm doesn’t exist really because no rhythmic proportion or relaxation exists. Instead there is “beat.” The players beat all the time, merely to keep up and to know which side of the beat they are on.

To his credit, Stravinsky does admire jazz, even going so far in Dialogues as to namecheck Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and Charlie Christian. He also notes that “Ebony” in Ebony Concerto means African, not the clarinet.

Walsh and Stravinsky are hardly the only classical musicians unable to understand the complexity of jazz rhythm. To be fair, in order to play Stravinsky well, you don’t need to know anything about that kind of complexity—although Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger gain points by dismissing Stravinsky’s “jazz” as unlearned in their chapter “Ragtime.”

Jazz aside, Stravinsky’s own rhythmic folklore is seldom addressed. In the one hundred pages Richard Taruskin spends on the Rite in Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, only ten of them are devoted to rhythm. As usual with Taruskin, much of what he says is interesting:

The rhythmic novelties in The Rite are of two distinct types. One is the hypnotic type: the “immobile” ostinato, sometimes quite literally hypnotic, as when the elders charm the Chosen One to perform her dance of death. That is what their Ritual Action is all about…

The other is the “invincible and elemental” kind, and it was truly an innovation–for Western art music, that is; in Russian folklore it had been a fixture from time immemorial. This is the rhythm of irregularly spaced downbeats, requiring a correspondingly variable metric barring in the notation. There had been such a thing in Russian art music before Stravinsky, and even in Stravinsky’s own earlier music. But in The Rite Stravinsky took the device to unprecedented heights, both in terms of the complexity of the patterns involved and in terms of the violence with which he articulated the variable metric stresses.

Taruskin also finds a marvelous moment in the sketchbooks where “in a burst of enthusiasm generated by his own ostinati, Stravinsky scrawled what might well serve as a general motto for The Rite of Spring: ‘There is music wherever there is rhythm, as there is life wherever there beats a pulse.’”


That scrawl is above “Dance of the Earth.” In the preceding movement, “Procession of the Sage,” Stravinsky channels Africa and puts a massive 4 and a massive 6 in direct opposition. There’s even a backbeat in the drums, which probably means that this is the section that Wynton Marsalis is citing to Stanley Crouch in the Crouch essay, “Jazz Criticism and the Effect on the Art Form.”

Ours is a century in which percussion and polyrhythm are fundamental to its identity, in which the machinery of the age and the activities of the people parallel the multilinear densities and rhythms of the very rain forest that could have easily been the inspiration for Africa’s drum choirs, with their broad sense of sound and their involvement with perpetual rhythmic motion…. As Wynton Marsalis points out, “Stravinsky turned European music over with a backbeat. Check it out. What they thought was weird and primitive was just a Negro beat on the bass drum.”

Naturally, there is no “just” about that bass drum beat. Suffice it to say that if the orchestra isn’t swinging during “Procession of the Sage,” they will never swing.

Much of Taruskin’s work is high-level, but his hundred pages on the Rite still trigger my instinctive distrust of academic musicology. Mostly, Taruskin discusses harmony. Fine—although that is the most obvious layer both to sift and to misunderstand. (Allen Forte’s book analyzing The Rite’s harmony in terms of set theory is an ivory-tower pursuit if there ever was one.)

There’s also serious spade work done on folk-melody borrowings. Great, although a glance at Stravinsky’s sources leaves one rather more impressed with the composer. One always reads that the first bassoon melody is borrowed from a Lithuanian folk tune. Stravinsky admitted this himself. But look at the tune and see what Stravinsky does with it!


Still, in all Taruskin’s hundred pages, only a single footnote might prove helpful to a modern-day interpreter seeking to render the score with the right folkloric feel:

A striking example of a wedding band extemporizing at full tilt on a naigrïsh called “Timon’ya” (a close relative of Glinka’s Kamarinskaya tune) may be heard in the set Muzîkal’nïy fol’klor nardov SSSR, issued in conjunction with the Seventh International Music Congress in Moscow (Melodiya D-030833/36.)

Okay! This sounds like it could be helpful. Unfortunately, I’ve looked high and low, and this record is nowhere. Taruskin sends the reader in search of a unicorn. Typical academia!

I don’t mean to be too harsh about Taruskin or Walsh—their understanding of Stravinsky is profound. We need to keep reading them. But there’s plenty of room to look at how Stravinsky’s music should feel. In Mahler, for instance, ländler movements should not be performed with exactly even beats. The same goes for Chopin’s Mazurkas or Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. To be considered a great exponent of any of these composer’s styles, you must understand the rhythmic folklore.

There’s rhythmic folklore in Stravinsky, even if the composer himself frequently denied it in his pronouncements and performances. While there are probably no really uneven beats (as in Mahler, Chopin, or Liszt) there’s surely something that undulates or projects an emotional rhythm. Elliot Carter and Leo Smit both talk about Stravinsky at the piano in rehearsal—not in performance, but in rehearsal—and how his playing was extraordinarily moving. Smit heard a reduction of Jeu de Cartes in 1936:

In some unaccountable way, without technique (he sometimes glissandoed what should have been fingered scales), without beauty of tone (he poked the keys with his large bony fingers, muting the dynamics with the left pedal while tapping rhythmically on the right pedal), and keeping time by vigorous gasping counting, he succeeded in conveying the meaning of the musical thought with extraordinary clarity… By the time he had finished playing, I felt that I had been initiated into the most secret of Mysteries.

In Dialogues, Stravinsky reviews three recordings of The Rite: by Karajan with the Berlin Phil, Boulez with Orchestre National de la RTF, and Robert Craft with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. At the end, he offers this cryptic analysis of the latter:

As a mere tape of a concert neither performance nor engineering can stand comparison with the two edited recordings. But whereas the music sounds French in the French recording, and German in the German, the Russians make it sound Russian, which is just right. (I have no space to explain these nationalizations in musical terms.)

Peter Hill also praises this recording (“Emphasises the traditions from which the Rite sprang, the traditions of Russian art music and folk music which are so clearly in the players’ blood”) and  even tells where to find it, in the British Library.

The next time I’m in London I will try to look it up, although that will be too late for this weekend’s debut of TBP’s Rite.

In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross says that The Rite of Spring “prophesied a new type of popular art—low-down yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined.”

Part of the story Alex’s book tells is how that prophesy failed to come true: the populist side of classical music never took off. The Rite‘s prophesy was borne out in a lot of thrilling American folkoric music: jazz, rock, hip-hop, musical theatre, etc.

Reid Anderson made me laugh: in rehearsal, I mentioned that Peter Schickele said The Rite of Spring was so influential that much of 20th-century classical music could be called “The Rewrite of Spring.”

Reid shook his head. “No: The Rite hasn’t been influential enough.”

It’s true! There wasn’t enough red-blooded, folkloric rhythm infused into the concert music of the last century. Sure, there was some. But not enough.

The Rite has it in spades; so much so, in fact, that I have yet to hear a really unsatisfying performance on record. Some of the older recordings are not great in every detail, but something folkloric almost always shines through somewhere. (Stravinsky’s first in 1929 has a really swinging example of the “empty” bars of 5/4 and 4/4 excerpted above.)

Obviously, I love all sorts of 20th-century classical music. I don’t need it to be anything else than whatever it needs to be. But I wonder about the distance from folklore that the music has traveled: I wonder about what’s been lost.

Currently, there’s a movement to put rock and electronica folklore into classical composition. I expect this to have a big payoff at some point—and that time may even be now.

Here’s my caveat, however: make sure that rock, electronica, or whatever non-traditional source really is your folklore! Because it can be a little too easy to just “be into rock” or whatever when writing contemporary classical music. Can the composer sub in a working band?

Remember Stravinsky! He had that earthy groove since birth. He denied it and did everything he could to keep others from getting it… but he had it, which is one reason why The Rite and most of his other masterpieces will only continue to gain in stature.

Bonus Track from 2015:

Once a Rake, Always a Rake


Imaginary Rake

Two nights ago Sarah and I went to the Met, where we got rather VIP treatment thanks to Jason Haaheim and Rob Knopper, two of the Met Opera Orchestra percussionists.

Previously Jason and Rob interviewed me for Met Opera Orchestra blog about TBP playing The Rite of Spring, so it was only appropriate for us all to convene for a viewing of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.


The Rake is Stravinsky’s final word on 20th-century neo-classicism, a style which he not only more or less invented but also took to its greatest height. For his only evening-length opera, Stravinsky wanted to work with  W.H. Auden, a poet who shared the composer’s love of reinventing the past. (Auden also brought in his lover Chester Kallman to help with libretto.) Their inspiration was a famous series of images by William Hogarth, and each scene can be viewed as a kind of tableaux, with even less narrative storytelling than in conventional opera.

Earlier compact Stravinskyian fusions of drama, song, and music in Les Noces and Oedipus Rex are undoubtedly more instantly gripping, perhaps because they are less obviously based in pastiche. Still, the Rake really works, especially when seen in the proper high-quality production featured at the Met.

One of my recent obsessions is the meta horror masterpiece Cabin in the Woods. On YouTube, GoodBadFlicks amazes with “Every Reference in Cabin in the Woods.”

Before the opera I told Sarah that, “The Rake’s Progress is Cabin in the Woods.”

Perhaps that’s not an ideal comparison, but at any rate The Rake’s Progress deserves a through unpacking in the style of GoodBadFlicks. One can tell that Igor had tremendous fun engaging with and dismantling the whole opera playbook. Some borrowings are totally obvious: Monteverdi overtures, Handel continuo, Mozart counterpoint, Bellini melody. Past the surface, I suspect that there is hardly a note in The Rake that doesn’t exist without a direct antecedent somewhere.

It still all sounds just like Stravinsky, of course. His plunderings are not insincere, although naturally they are frequently sardonic. (Imagine some early conductor’s face when he realizes he has to cue a harpsichord continuo in a work of Grand Opera.) In the end, though, the effect is heartfelt. Indeed, the most amusing ironies offset the generally downbeat emotions to the furtherance of both.

Not long ago I attended Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Met. This was a monochromatic nightmare, with the only relief being a stage set that seemed lifted out of a classic Hitchcock movie. At some point there was no way to feel worse, so the result became a bit tiresome.

In the Rake, after so much bright chatter, the concluding lost arias in the insane asylum had  bizarre gravitas, a feeling that somehow carried over into the coda, where the cast cheekily breaks the fourth wall and offers up an unconvincing moral. I felt sadder at the end of the Rake then at the end of Bluebeard. If you aren’t crying at the end of an opera, they are doing it wrong.

An obvious standout in this production is Stephanie Blythe as the outsize and hilarious Baba the Turk. Gerald Finley’s menacing Shadow was also fabulous. James Levine is one of the most celebrated opera conductors, and the sounds from the pit were at times truly exquisite.

Afterwards, Jason and Rob took us around the building. We only saw a fraction of the small city, which is six floors and on the busiest days employ 4000 people.


 (Jason, Sarah, and Rob at the poker game in the musician’s quarters, which has been ongoing for nearly a century)