Igor Stravinsky – The Poetics of Music (1942)

Stravinsky establishes immediately that he speaks of poetics in the Aristotelian sense, that of doing or making. Further, that technê, which applied to the rules of craft, was seen to include both the fine and applied arts.

In the context of these prefatory statements, Stravinsky considers that the creative work is never independent of the form in which it is manifested: “Every formal process proceeds from a principle….” To this, he aligns the observation that ignorance of the arts, though hardly a crime, is suspect when it claims sincerity, which is seldom an explanation and never an excuse. Concomitantly, sincerity becomes malevolence, which often associates with ignorance, when it offers ignorance as its “attenuating circumstance.”

Igor Stravinsky (Courtesy: www.artic.edu)

Igor Stravinsky (Courtesy: http://www.artic.edu)

“A renewal is fruitful only when it goes hand in hand with tradition.” Art is intrinsically constructive, whereas revolution is a “disruption of equilibrium.” It should be remembered that innovation is not equivalent to revolution, for the latter is a closed curve that returns to its point of origin. Daring may be without limits, but “mischief wrought by arbitrary acts” also is limitless. Creativity is not an appetite for the rewards of the earth, but the phenomenon of the natural world augmented by the “benefits of artifice,” and within this unification is the “general significance of art.” Moreover, not only does the past dissolve into fragments, the original integrity increasingly elusive, but also instinct fails us in the retention of the ancient understanding, for we lack what was the “indispensable element of investigation,” the immediacy and contemporaneity of the experience.

Caravaggio: Bacchus (1595)

Caravaggio: Bacchus (1595)

In this regard, form is an “obsession with regularity.” Even the isochronous elements of an artistic work serve to place the rules of the craft into relief, the two principles dominating the creative process being variety and unity; variety being “valid only as a means of attaining similarity,” the ultimate convergence the “definite point of repose.” The Dionysian elements that set the artistic imagination in motion “must finally be made to submit to the law: Apollo demands it.”

Art originates in the “foretaste of discovery,” the unknown intuitively grasped but not yet intelligible. In the practicing artist, the desire for the foretaste, if not constant, is habitual and periodic, for the discovery’s interfusion with hard work attracts an artist through its manifestation as a “premonition of an obligation,” and the leading by the premonition to the anticipation of pleasure. Stravinsky does not separate spiritual from psychological and physical effort; they are not hierarchical nor are they on different levels. (Charles Dickens makes the same observation in David Copperfield.) In fact, he asserts, as others often have, that both mind and body require continual exercise, for without cultivation it is both that atrophy.

Caravaggio: The Lute Player (1596)

Caravaggio: The Lute Player (1596)

When embarking upon a creation of a work of art, the goal is often indefinite, the process of artistic creation presupposing selection, that is, the technique of knowing what to eliminate and what to discard. This is informed not only by structure but also by a “beautiful continuity” that enables the “development of culture,” and so confirms it. The withdrawal of “universal centers of culture” into national or regional frameworks ensures their eventual disappearance, and the shattering of this universality “in deference to an anarchic individualism” generates nothing more than uniformity. Universality is a culture’s fecundity that is disseminated and communicated elsewhere; whereas cosmopolitanism, now increasingly commonplace, contains neither action nor doctrine, as it induces “the indifferent passivity of a sterile eclecticism.”

As criticism is itself an art, it too cannot escape criticism. It is not the examination of the why but of the how that reveals the failure or success of an work of art. “It is easier to question than to explain” or give answers. A general concept is incapable of evolution, for it exists as a closed circle. One can either remain within or step without. For those held within, both every question and every answer are predetermined.

The secret of interpretative perfection resides in the “consciousness of a law imposed upon [the interpreter] by the work” that is interpreted. The submission to technical mastery, an awareness of tradition, and the command of an aristocratic culture “that is not merely a question of acquired learning,” that is required of the creative artists is equally required of the interpreter. In extreme rigour is found freedom; and in the understanding of expression, in the final analysis, if not in the first instance, is found true success.

Rigour is not cumulatively quantitative. “The more one multiplies the points of emission, the more blurred will reception be … [for] beyond a certain degree of extension the impression of intensity diminishes and succeeds only in dulling the sensation.” Sound that is too loud diverts the attention of the ear; letters that are too large fail to attract the eye. Hence, participation is destroyed.

Raphael: The Parnassus (1509-10)

Raphael: The Parnassus (1509-10)

Active participation is rare, just as “the creator is a rare occurrence in the mass of humanity.” Such participation that arrives at a measure of union gives the illusion of identification with the creator.

“That is the meaning of Raphael’s famous adage: to understand is to equal.”


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