Jun 172018
 

Today is the birthday (1882) Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, a Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor who is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. I wrote a post on the premiere of the Rite of Spring 3 years ago, that was quite technical concerning the music, and also analyzed the riot that (supposedly) erupted: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/rite-of-spring/  My spate of posts on individual musical pieces back then served its purpose, but it did leave the composers a little short-changed. Here is my opportunity to spread out more broadly about Stravinsky. What I most especially want to do is to place Stravinsky in the broader cultural and intellectual landscape of his time. This endeavor is partly facilitated by the fact that Stravinsky, while immersing himself in the world of music, had a wide range of interests and friendships with individuals who spanned all manner of artistic and intellectual realms. This gives me the opportunity to stop and reflect on a critical time in the development of Western culture – what has become known as the modernist era.

Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital at the time and was brought up in Saint Petersburg. His parents were Fyodor Stravinsky (1843–1902), a well-known bass at the Kiev opera house and the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and Anna (née Kholodovsky; 1854-1939), a native of Kiev, one of four daughters of a high-ranking official in the Kiev Ministry of Estates. Stravinsky recalled his schooldays as being lonely, later saying that “I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me.” Stravinsky began piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory and attempting composition. By age 15, he had mastered Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor and finished a piano reduction of a string quartet by Glazunov, who reportedly considered Stravinsky unmusical and thought little of his skills.

Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov

Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected him to study law. Stravinsky enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901, but he attended fewer than 50 class sessions during his four years of study. In the summer of 1902, Stravinsky stayed with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his family in Heidelberg, where Rimsky-Korsakov, who was arguably the leading Russian composer at that time, suggested to Stravinsky that he should not enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire but instead study composing by taking private lessons, in large part because of his age. Stravinsky’s father died of cancer that year, by which time Stravinsky had already begun spending more time on his musical studies than on law. The university was closed for two months in 1905 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, and Stravinsky was prevented from taking his final law examinations and later received a half-course diploma in April 1906. Thereafter, he concentrated on studying music. In 1905, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, and continued until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.

Diaghilev and Stravinsky

In February 1909, two of Stravinsky’s orchestral works, the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) were performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg Serge Diaghilev heard them. Diaghilev was planning to present Russian opera and ballet in Paris, and was sufficiently impressed by Fireworks to commission Stravinsky to produce some orchestrations and then to compose a full-length ballet score, The Firebird. While in Paris as the principal composer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Stravinsky also collaborated with Pablo Picasso (Pulcinella, 1920), Jean Cocteau (Oedipus Rex, 1927), and George Balanchine (Apollon musagète, 1928). His interest in art propelled him to develop a strong relationship with Picasso, whom he met in 1917 From 1917 to 1920, the two engaged in an artistic dialogue in which they exchanged small-scale works of art, which included the famous portrait of Stravinsky by Picasso, and Stravinsky’s “Sketch of Music for the Clarinet.” This exchange was essential to establish how the artists would approach their collaborative space in Pulcinella. Stravinsky also had broad tastes in literature with a constant desire for new discoveries. The texts and literary sources for his work began with a period of interest in Russian folklore, which progressed to classical authors and the Latin liturgy and moved on to contemporary France, and eventually English literature, including W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and medieval English verse.

Although Stravinsky was not outspoken about his faith, he was a deeply religious man throughout some periods of his life. As a child, he was brought up by his parents in the Russian Orthodox Church. Baptized at birth, he later rebelled against the Church and abandoned it by the time he was around 14. Throughout the rise of his career he was estranged from Christianity and it was not until he reached his early forties that he experienced a spiritual crisis. After befriending a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Nicholas, after his move to Nice in 1924, he reconnected with his faith. He rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church and afterwards remained a committed Christian. In his late seventies, Stravinsky said:

I cannot now evaluate the events that, at the end of those thirty years, made me discover the necessity of religious belief. I was not reasoned into my disposition. Though I admire the structured thought of theology (Anselm’s proof in the Fides Quaerens Intellectum, for instance) it is to religion no more than counterpoint exercises are to music. I do not believe in bridges of reason or, indeed, in any form of extrapolation in religious matters. … I can say, however, that for some years before my actual “conversion”, a mood of acceptance had been cultivated in me by a reading of the Gospels and by other religious literature.

Looking at Stravinsky’s life and relationships does make us understand a little more about the creative process, particularly concerning how certain fundamental ideas percolate around all manner of spheres. It’s not surprising that musicians and choreographers collaborate: ballets need both, and they have to work together. At the turn of the 20th century, visual artists, musicians, poets, novelists, dancers, playwrights etc. all found ways to share ideas partly because there were some BIG IDEAS percolating in the intellectual world in general, changing attitudes in the physical sciences, natural sciences, medicine, and allied fields of inquiry. If you want to sum it up in a short (simplistic) way you could say that in every field of human endeavor the foundational rules were being challenged. What seemed to be rock solid notions such as time, motion, form, substance, were all shown to be much more mutable than they seemed. Time was relative; a vacuum was not empty; solid things were shown to be made of atoms, which could be split, and those atoms contained huge areas of nothing; human consciousness was partly unconscious. In a word, things are not what our senses lead us to believe they are. These ideas affected all inquiry. The sad fact is that 100 years later, the general population is as clueless concerning these ideas as they were at the turn of the 20th century. But artists, scientists, theologians . . . whatever, grasped them – and they talked to each other. My questions is, “Where did the BIG IDEAS come from in the first place?” It’s easy (and common) to think that the ideas come from scientific discovery and then spread from there, but I am not so sure. Breakthroughs in science do not just happen because scientists are moving along step by step until they achieve their goals. There has to be a flash of insight that is creative. In a sense the idea comes from nowhere, or, at the very least is an unexpected departure from normal ways of thinking.

It is alleged that Einstein came up with the basic principle of special relativity when he was on his way to work and when he glanced up at the town clock saw that he was going to be late and wondered what it would be like if he were traveling towards the clock at the speed of light. He initially conjectured that time would stop. From there he began digging deeper, and working on the equations that emerged from that initial inspiration. In a sense, the idea came out of nowhere – just a random bit of imagination. But where does imagination or creativity come from? As an anthropologist I tend to think that they are part of constant shifts that occur within culture, and they can emanate from different arenas at different times. Maybe, sometimes the wellspring is physics, at other times it is music, or visual art, or linguistics, or religion. No single area of human endeavor has a stranglehold on creativity and imagination. Stravinsky’s life and work shows that this ferment of new ideas was all around in his heyday, and he tapped into it. He was well-educated and well-traveled enough (and sociable enough), to be one of the focus points of this ferment.

When I posted on Rite of Spring, I posted this story about Stravinsky:

Stravinsky and Rachmaninov had been contemporaries in St Petersburg but they did not actually meet until they started dining together in California in the 1940s. Although in opposite camps when it came to modernism, Rachmaninov very much wanted to be friends with his fellow composer. One night Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, Four Norwegian Moods. To his surprise he heard footsteps on the porch outside. There towering over him – as he did over most people – was the lugubrious figure of Rachmaninov bearing a very large jar of natural honey. The explanation? At a recent meal Stravinsky had announced how much he loved honey and this determined Rachmaninov to bring some round, regardless of the hour.

On that post I gave a recipe for Russian honey cake, which you can use again for today. Or you can be a modernist: break all the rules. Soak 7 or 8 very thin slices of bread (crusts removed) in honey, stack them, sprinkle them with crushed nuts, and eat. Do something – anything – creative with honey, in Stravinsky’s memory. Just remember to break the rules. Recipes are not allowed. What you do must be original. Giving you too many ideas would be cheating.

 

Apr 212016
 

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Today is the birthday (1864) of Karl Emil Maximilian “Max” Weber, Prussian-German social theorist who was a major figure in the development of social research. Weber is sometimes grouped with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx as the founders of sociology. I could quibble about how sociology got created, but I won’t argue about Weber being a towering figure.  His work has had a lasting influence on mine. It’s impossible for me to summarize his work adequately in a short post, but I’ll try to keep it simple – which means, inevitably, simplistic.

Weber was a key proponent of methodological antipositivism, that is, he believed that social action cannot be understood empirically (scientifically) but must be delved through interpretive means (what he called Verstehen), based on understanding the purpose and meaning that individuals attach to their own actions. Unlike Durkheim, he did not believe in monocausality but proposed that for any outcome there can be multiple causes.

Weber is best known for his thesis combining economic sociology and the sociology of religion, as exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he proposes that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major “elective affinities” associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state. He argues that it was the basic beliefs of Protestantism that led to capitalism, and that, in fact, the spirit of capitalism is spawned by, and identical with Protestant religious values.

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Weber was born in Erfurt, Province of Saxony, Prussia. He was the oldest of the seven children of Max Weber Sr., a wealthy and prominent civil servant and member of the National Liberal Party, and his wife Helene (Fallenstein), who partly descended from French Huguenot immigrants and held strong moral absolutist ideas. Weber Sr.’s involvement in public life immersed his home in both politics and academia, as his salon welcomed many prominent scholars and public figures. The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Weber’s 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled “About the course of German history, with special reference to the positions of the Emperor and the Pope”, and “About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations.” I just love it.

In class, bored and unimpressed with the teachers – who in turn resented what they perceived as a disrespectful attitude – he secretly read all forty volumes of Goethe, a major influence on his later thought and methodology. Before entering university, he devoured classical works. Over time, Weber was also significantly affected by the marital tension between his father, “a man who enjoyed earthly pleasures,” and his mother, a devout Calvinist “who sought to lead an ascetic life.” How many great thinkers were moved to greatness by the dysfunction of their parents? Freud for starters !!!

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Weber’s main intellectual concern was understanding the processes of rationalization, secularization, and “disenchantment” that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity, and which he saw as the result of a new way of thinking about the world. Continuing my journey into mind-numbingly simplistic analysis, Weber and Marx can be seen as polar opposites: Marx saw evolving intellectual developments in society as the product of changing material circumstances historically, whereas Weber saw the evolution of intellectual processes as primary and material circumstances as secondary. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg affair, I’m afraid. Was Protestantism the outgrowth of the development of capitalism, or the other way around? I’m not going to take sides; I see them as co-evolving processes.

But then we come to a more intriguing question: was the rise of rational science in the 17th century a good thing or a bad thing? From a strictly technological point of view, it had numerous benefits: improved medicine, efficient transport, computers, iPhones . . . etc. etc. etc. But what was the cost? Well, we can start with pollution and move on from there. But for Weber the cost was catastrophic intellectually and, hence, socially. The monolithic faith in science as the answer to ALL problems led to the “disenchantment” of the West. The word “disenchantment” does not do justice to the original German word “Entzauberung” which we can translate literally as “un-magic-ing” or “despiritualizing.” In this case we should think of “enchantment” as equivalent to “full of magic” – where “magic” is the opposite of “natural.” The modern, secular, scientific mind dismisses prayer, God, elves, fairies, spirituality, and all the rest of it, and, according to Weber, we are the poorer for it. I agree.

Western science can do many great things, but it goes too far when it claims to be the sole guardian of THE TRUTH, and that in time science will solve all of our problems. There are vast realms of human experience that cannot be understood by the scientific method – love, art, beauty . . . what have you. The general public in the West tends to be torn in this area. Some reject the rational completely, some the spiritual. But most sit somewhere in the middle. People happily use laptops and go to the doctor if they feel sick, but they also love Harry Potter, use tarot cards, and visit ashrams.

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The problem, as Weber sees it, is that rational science has overplayed its hand, so that the rational has crept into the fundamental fabric of society – and we don’t like it. Efficiency has become our god. From an industrial point of view, if we can turn out billions of identical, cheap, affordable smartphones we all benefit because we can chat to friends all over the world, look up arcane information whenever we want, listen to endless stores of music, play games . . . and so forth. But in the process we are increasingly dehumanized. The phones themselves are mass produced in factories by workers who have no identity or individuality, and who work for slave wages. Furthermore the phones themselves suck us into a world where individuality is also lost. OK – being simplistic once more, but you get the point.

So let’s turn to cooking. In a recent post I gave this recipe for eierstich, an egg custard from Weber’s native Saxony, that is often cut into fancy shapes as a garnish for soups:

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You can make the eierstich, egg custard, in several ways. Beat together 1 cup of milk or cream, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, plus a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and salt. Don’t be so vigorous that a froth forms. Pour the mix into sealable plastic pouches, close them tightly, and place in boiling water for 10 minutes, or until the custard is firm. Unseal the pouches and cut the custard into small pieces. I have little decorative cutters for this job. Keep warm.

I call this kind of recipe “heuristic” as opposed to “scientific.” “Scientific” recipes are what you find in standard cookbooks, where each begins with a list of ingredients with precise measurements (often in Imperial and metric), given in the order in which they are used, followed by careful, step-by-step instructions. Such recipes can be useful, but they do not replicate real, human, flesh-and-blood process. This example of mine doesn’t either but it’s a bit closer.

Several years ago my son decided to roast a goose for Christmas dinner.  I had moved to Argentina and he was alone in our house in New York. I had roasted a goose every single Christmas up to that point, and he did not want to miss out just because I was away. So he asked me for the “recipe.” How do you explain how to roast a goose when you’ve got 35 years of experience behind you? I tried to write down the instructions for him and wrote 3 pages (single spaced), and still felt my description was inadequate.  It was.  He followed my instructions, but then called me three times on Christmas Day with additional questions as the goose was cooking.

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A recipe assumes a wealth of knowledge that is not captured by the mere wording. We also know that two people can follow the same recipe with identical ingredients and equipment, and come up with vastly different products. Over and over again I showed my girlfriend (now my ex) how to make an Argentine tortilla, and supervised her many times as she made them herself. I also made instructional videos for her – all to no avail. She can make something edible, but her tortillas are nothing like mine – same ingredients from the same store, same kitchen – different spirits.