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October 24, 2003
Part III: Hollywood Strikes Back
Film Composer Attacks Stravinsky's "Cult of Inexpressiveness"
by David Raksin
Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part Da Capo series. Parts I and II (presented here on October 10 and 17, respectively) featured an article on the subject of film music by Igor Stravinsky from the September 1946 issue of The Musical Digest. The full text is available in our archives (see sidebar).
Part III below is a response to Stravinsky's perspective, published in the January 1948 issue of The Musical Digest, written by composer David Raksin at the request of the magazine's editorial staff. It is a lengthy piece, but its historical importance warrants its full presentation.
In writing of a man who was composing Le Sacre du Printemps the year I was born, I must first make clear my great admiration for his genius and for the music he has created. It is not with this that I would quarrel, but with his opinions on artistic matters that appear to be quite beyond his understanding.
In his interview with Ingolf Dahl, which appeared in the Musical Digest of September 1946, Mr. Stravinsky contends that "there is only one real function of film music namely to feed the composer." Aside from the fact that I have found this function a consistently useful one, there are other less personal reasons for holding it in respect.
One wishes, as he reads the oftentimes sad history of music, that it might have operated on behalf of Mozart and Schubert. The world has so often neglected its great men that one looks with pleasure at the composer who eats regularly as a result of the indulgence of a wealthy patron or of an organization (sometimes called commission), or by composing or orchestrating for the ballet. In a world where man does not live by double-fugues alone, perhaps the composer who works in films is most fortunate of all. At least he works as a composer and does not wear himself out teaching dolts, concertizing or kowtowing to concert-managers, dilettantes and other musical parasites.
While he may sometimes work with people whose intelligence is somewhat below that of Leonardo da Vinci, this is in no way different from the "Classic" position of the composer, who has always had to cope with employers or patrons who were fundamentally unmusical, from the Archbishop of Salzburg to Louis B. Mayer. The whole struggle of the new generation of American composers has been just this: that they should be able to live from their work as composers. If film music makes this possible, so much the better.
Mr. Stravinsky is absolutely horrified at the esthetics of film music. "I find it impossible to talk to film people about music," he says, "because we have no common meeting ground; their primitive and childish concept of music is not my concept." So long as he assumes the position of godhead in esthetic matters, there are, of course, no grounds for argument. What is primitive and childish is often open to question. Mr. Stravinsky appears to be using against film music the same arguments that were directed against his own ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps, when it first appeared. And if complexity and maturity be the opposites of the qualities that Mr. Stravinsky so despises, he will have great difficulty in convincing all critics that these are the typical qualities of his own music.
A popular, non-technical magazine is hardly the place to be quoting musical examples; otherwise it would be easy to set Mr. Stravinsky's words against his music. For now, it must be sufficient to wonder aloud how the second movement of his Symphony in Three Movements and parts of Scènes de Ballet fit in with his dicta. It has always been interesting to see how often an artist's stated principles are contradicted by his art.
It is an inevitable corollary of Mr. Stravinsky's esthetics that film music, as he sees it, cannot "be regarded under artistic considerations." He said no; I say yes. Impasse. But it is an impasse arising out of a dogmatic assumption with which he could trap the unwary. Evidently Mr. Stravinsky's definition of art is a restrictive one, and if he can maintain it, he has indeed succeeded where philosophers have been frustrated for centuries. He, of all people, should beware of such restrictive definitions. A genuine orthodoxy, sanctioned by theories and accomplishments of generations of great artists before his own time, might conceivably exclude most of his own art. Mr. Stravinsky's definitions must perforce be broad ones, lest he find himself a pariah among those to whom he would appear as a god. Neither Mr. Stravinsky nor I will decide these matters. They will be decided through the same process of selection that constantly refines and revitalizes our musical heritage. Such selective processes have a way of disregarding respectability, theories and venerable age, and of deferring only to essential worth.
The doctrine of essential worth, if I may presume so to dignify the idea, is not one that requires definition. It is quite satisfied with illustration. If one cannot say what it is, one can at least say what it does. It has freed artists from oppressive esthetic standards of both the past and present. It has repeatedly sent the status quo crashing into ruins. It has broken the charmed circle and destroyed the exclusiveness of the daisy chain. It has assured universality and immortality to any piece of music that is good, whether it be a symphony, a popular song or a sequence in a film score. More than that, it has made room in the contemporary musical scene for Mr. Stravinsky.
It is true, of course, that a sequence of film music may not measure up as a musical entity that is, it may not satisfy the logic of "pure" music. But it may, nevertheless, remain a good piece of film music; and as such, it may be as worthy of artistic consideration as other music for, say, the opera, or the ballet or the dramatic stage. If one were to quibble with Mr. Stravinsky's music as he quibbles with Hollywood's, it would be fair to ask just what "pure" logic is satisfied by the final bars of Petrouchka. By themselves they are hard to justify, but in the context of the ballet they are inevitable. So with film music: many a sequence derives its meaning from the context of the film and the rest of the music. The "wall-paper" theory of film music which Mr. Stravinsky so glibly expounds may help him to maintain the defensive position of a neo-classicist who does not wish his preconceived attitudes to be affected in any way by facts. But it cannot be other than ridiculous to the film-goer, to whom the function of film music is an actuality which he does not need to be convinced of, since he experiences it.
"Put music and drama together as individual entities," says Mr. Stravinsky, "put them together and let them alone, without compelling one to try to 'explain' and to react to the other." Then, contradicting himself, he explains that his ideal is "the chemical reaction where a new entity . . . results." Aside from the fact that Mr. Stravinsky thus rules out almost all of the operas the world has learned to love in favor of his own esoteric preferences, it seems sheer presumption to say arbitrarily that this reaction never occurs in film music. Anyone who has ever seen the silent footage of a film in its rough cut and then the final scored version can testify to the transformation. The expressiveness of film music has frequently been derided; too often it overstates the case. But to deny its eloquence requires an extreme degree of insensitivity.
Here one runs into another of Mr. Stravinsky's dogmas, the statement that "music explains nothing, music underlines nothing." This may be for Mr. Stravinsky a satisfactory defense of his own aversion to expressiveness. But it hardly conforms to the facts. Mr. Stravinsky's music may indeed be more expressive than he himself suspects. For even when he sets out to say nothing he succeeds in saying much about himself. And this is why he has come to be recognized as one of the great masters of our day. What we revere in his music is precisely what he has explained and underlined about himself, not what he has hidden from us.
Pursuing his idea, Mr. Stravinsky goes on to ask, "What is 'sad' music?" I confess that I find this question narrow, contemptuous, disillusioned, insensitive, precious and deaf. Does the man who grew up in the land of Tchaikovsky and Moussorgsky really ask what is sad music? Ask the artist who painted Guernica what is horror, the author of the Twenty-ninth Psalm what is exaltation. Mr. Stravinsky seems hardly the one to pause for an answer to such questions, for his esoteric point of view excludes the simple, direct and accessible aspects of art.
I do not hold to the extreme opposite of insisting that every note of music must have some "significance" social or otherwise in order to justify it. This approach to art is as intolerable as it is dull. But somehow it seems closer to the realities of life than a philosophy of detachment and scorn.
No one can quarrel with Mr. Stravinsky's prerogatives as an artist, or with his analyses of his own music. They are interesting but not final. Just as Mr. Stravinsky has searched deeply for the intrinsic quality of the music of Pergolesi in Pulcinella, so do we who listen to Stravinsky's music search for the meaning that it has for us. These meanings, I suspect, are far greater than Mr. Stravinsky prefers to acknowledge. Consider, for a moment, the Introduction to the second part of Le Sacre, or Jocasta's aria, Oracula, Oracula, from Oedipus Rex. Examples fall over themselves to be heard, but if I may hark back to an earlier paragraph of this article, let us forget the author of the Twenty-ninth Psalm, and ask the composer of the last movement of the Symphony of Psalms, with its Hallelujahs, what is exaltation?
That Mr. Stravinsky is not unaware of the significance of his music is demonstrated by his acceptance of Ingolf Dahl's program notes for the Symphony in C Major, which included the following sentence: "One day it will be universally recognized that the white house in the Hollywood hills, in which the Symphony was written and which was regarded by some as an ivory tower, was just as close to the core of the world at war as the place where Picasso painted Guernica." Many of us were greatly surprised when Mr. Stravinsky approved this passage; some questioned its validity, which now seems to this writer more apparent than it was at first. The important thing is that Mr. Stravinsky, by his approval, admits to this significance.
The difference between the meanings that a composer intends and the meanings that an audience infers constitutes the very richness of art. Speaking of his Scènes de Ballet, Mr. Stravinsky says, "the dramatic action was given by an evolution of plastic problems." This is undoubtedly true although one notes that he uses the word "dramatic" in describing the action. But it is not the whole truth. For not all of the problems of today's composers are plastic problems. Many of them are dynamic problems presented by events of the composer's inner and outer life. Expressive music does not have to dig very hard into the history of musical art to find examples in abundance. One can find them even in Mr. Stravinsky's music in the opening of the Symphony in Three Movements, for instance, in the outer movements of the Symphony of Psalms, in the Pas de Deux of Scènes de Ballet, with its sentimental trumpet solo. These may have been plastic problems to Mr. Stravinsky; but the finished product, as we hear it, is packed with feeling and emotion.
On the basis of his music, Mr. Stravinsky, who has fathered the latest cult of inexpressiveness (an earlier one was sired by Nero), seems himself not quite able to fulfill the membership qualifications. This may come as a great blow to him, but the gulf between his own music and that of the films is neither so wide nor so impassable as he would like to imagine. A man who writes such pretty thirds and sixths, whose music from the ballet, Firebird, is soon to be the subject of a tap dance in a film, and whose new ballad, Summer Moon, may soon be a contender for Hit Parade honors, is hardly in the best possible position to espouse austerity.
I must now point out again that I admire and respect Mr. Stravinsky as a great composer. But as a critic of music in films he leaves much to be desired. Any Hollywood composer can tell him what is really wrong with film music. Mr. Stravinsky himself has pointed out none of the real defects. He has succeeded only in expressing an esoteric and snobbish attitude.
"Music," says Mr. Stravinsky, "probably attended the creation of the universe." Certainly. It was background music.
© 1948 renewed, David Raksin
Reprinted by permission.
Editor's final note: According to Raksin, Stravinsky was dismayed at the rebuttal, exclaiming "What's with Raksin? Why does he attack me?" although the two ultimately remained friends. Recently recalling their public squabble, Raksin commented, "You know, he said music doesn't express anything. I do not agree with that. But the point is, he's Stravinsky and I'm not."
Part I: Igor Stravinsky on Film Music
Part II: Igor Stravinsky on Film Music
Part III: Hollywood Strikes Back