Saturday, August 5, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 3

Continuing this series consisting largely of notes on Taruskin's mammoth volume on Stravinsky. We ended the last post with an excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko that illustrates the use of octatonic vocabulary and how it can be integrated into a tonal context. Taruskin goes on to point out that a tradition had developed in Russian music since Glinka of "differentiating the human and fantastic worlds by contrast between diatonic and chromatic harmony, the chromatic/fantastic being of the third-related kind (whole-tone or octatonic) to play off against the fifth relations of the human music." [op. cit. p. 275]

If you will recall, the octatonic scale has two different versions, one beginning with the tone and the other with the semitone:

The second one is quite useful melodically, suggesting the Phrygian mode, but the first fits better into a harmonic context as it is congruent with the Dorian or minor scales at least until the fifth degree. Rimsky-Korsakov's sketches reveal his understanding of this as he uses one for harmony and the other for melody. Combining them also gives you access to all twelve pitches! Here is Taruskin's example showing how the two versions can be combined. The slurs above connect the melody notes and the ones below, the harmony notes:

The symmetrical division at the tritone of the scale beginning with the tone was often found in Russian music and even labeled as the "diminished mode" by Boleslav Yavorsky, gives rise to the idea of a static, stable "tonic" harmony with the tritone.

The influence of Liszt and Wagner comes and goes in late 19th century Russian music and Taruskin quotes a fascinating passage from a letter of Rimsky-Korsakov written in 1901 after he had been spending some time studying the score to Siegfried
Could my musical ear be better than Wagner's? ... No, of course, not better; maybe even worse; but I have a musical conscience, to which I am obedient, and Wagner frittered his conscience away in his quest for grandiosity and novelty... [op. cit. p. 289, emphasis in the original]
One of the fruits of Rimsky-Korsakov's study was his opera Kashchey the Deathless whose "tonic" was the tritone C and F#. Rimsky-Korsakov sought to organize and tame what he regarded as Wagner's "incoherent voice leading." The downside of Rimsky-Korsakov's approach was "a penchant for melodic/harmonic sequences that may have been unequaled in any music since the days of Corelli and Vivaldi ... Virtually nothing happens in a late Rimsky-Korsakov opera that is not immediately and literally restated a third or a tritone away." [op. cit. p. 297] I'm quite proud that I heard this and remarked on it in a post in May when I attended the Teatro Real production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. In that post I commented:
The brilliance of the orchestration was no surprise, nor were the chromatic orientalisms usually associated with Shemakha. Russian composers often feel themselves as being caught between European and Asian worlds. What I did find surprising was that Rimsky-Korsakov relies so heavily on melodic sequences and not very creative ones, at that. After a while they got to be a bit predictable: write a short melodic idea, repeat it, repeat it again on a different pitch. I will have to listen to more of him and see if this is a common trait.
Rimsky-Korsakov's influence on his students was huge and by the generation of Belyayevets just before Stravinsky the use of the "Korsakovian" scale was legion. Prokofiev even picked it up as we can see in the opera Love for Three Oranges and the Fifth Piano Sonata. Stravinsky's years of apprenticeship were passed in an environment permeated by the octatonic scale and its harmony. Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov's harmony text offers exercises in "false progressions" that covers both the major and minor third circles.

And that takes us to the end of Taruskin's discussion of Rimsky-Korsakov and its relevance to the development of Stravinsky. Next we take up the early Russian compositions of the young Stravinsky.

Let's end with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Night on Mount Triglav," from the opera Mlada that is full of passages in the diminished mode:

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