Rock Around the Croc: Igor Stravinsky and Rhythm as Theme

Happy Sunday you glorious bumblebees on the stamens of life’s great buttercup. It’s time once again to talk about the wonderful world of music, as we continue our journey through 20th Century Modernism with our featured artist is Igor Stravinsky. Shall we? Let’s shall!

Last week in my post about Claude Debussy I mentioned that a loose collection of avant-garde composers calling themselves Les Apaches began collecting themselves around him in Paris, and one of those Apaches was Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Although he was raised in a musical family, and despite taking a very early interest in the music of Tchaikovsky and Alexander Glazunov, his parents intended for him to study law. He did in fact enroll in law school, but took private music lessons. While at law school, he met the son of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, then considered the leading Russian composer, and through him the composer himself. Rimsky-Korsakov did not recommend Stravinsky attempt to enroll at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, but to continue with private theory lessons. After the death of Stravinsky’s father, the young man began taking lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov twice a week, and came to view him as a second father.

By 1909, a year after the death of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky had written and published a small collection of pieces, and that year he debuted two of his pieces, the Scherzo Fantastique and Fireworks.

This performance turned out to be a major turning point in his career, because in attendance was a man named Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballet Russe. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write the music for his ballet company, suggesting as the theme a blend of two Russian folk stories that are now known as The Firebird. The timing was perfect. Parisian audiences at the time were obsessed with Russian culture and with musical experimentalism, and Stravinsky could deliver both.

In the story, Prince Ivan goes hunting in the woods but strays into the realm of Koschei the Immortal, and evil monster who has preserved his soul by hiding it in an egg. Ivan finds and captures the Firebird, who pleads with him for her freedom. Ivan lets her go, and in gratitude she promises to return when he calls and assist him in time of danger. Ivan then finds thirteen princesses who have been put under Koschei’s spells, and he falls in love with one of them. He goes to Koschei to ask for permission to marry her, but Koschei refuses, and sends his minions to attack the prince. Ivan summons the Firebird for help. The creature sings a song called The Infernal Dance which sends the minions into a frenzy, and they dance themselves into exhaustion. The Firebird then sings a lullaby (the “Berceuse”) which puts them all to sleep. She then tells Ivan where to find Koschei’s magic egg, he destroys it, the spell is broken, and he marries the princess. The end.

The video I’ve just linked is the 1919 Firebird Suite. The word “suite” means this is a collection of dance pieces that have been taken from the opera and published as stand-alone music. It contains five parts: Introduction, The Princess’ Rondo, the Infernal Dance, the Berceuse, and the Finale. You should listen to the whole thing, but if you’re pressed for time, I strongly recommend parts 3 and 4 at a minimum.

The Infernal Dance section begins with a huge fortissimo chord across all instruments, a huge shock to the listener because of how quiet and peaceful the previous section had been. The bass voices come in with a syncopated rhythm to give the whole a jarring feel (syncopation means the notes are coming between the beats, not on them) which is perfect for a frenzied dance designed to exhaust the evil creatures. That opening chord became a widely used sample in 1980s and 1990s music, especially in new jack swing.

The Firebird was such a hit that Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose two more ballets, the first being Petrushka (1911) and the second, far and away Stravinsk’s most famous work, The Rites of Spring (1913), which nearly caused a riot at its premiere. At the time primitivism was a driving force in European art. For example, here’s a 1907 painting by Pablo Picasso entitled “Head of a Man,” inspired by African tribal masks then on tour in French museums:

Diaghilev and Stravinsky had the idea of a ballet that revolved around a Bronze Age tribe enacting a yearly fertility ritual. In order to bring this idea to life, Stravinsky decided to discard traditional western tonal ideas – it’s hard to imagine cave men composing music in a C Major key, for example – and explore approaches that would emphasize the primal element. We’ll get into that in just a moment. Here’s the recording, which is in two main parts (Adoration of the Earth, and The Sacrifice) which are broken into seven and six sections, respectively.

For those of you who aren’t interested in listening to the whole thing, I direct your attention to Part I, second section, entitled Dance of the Adolescents, which is the most famous part of the ballet:

Just as Claude Debussy before him realized he could elevate timbre to its own musical theme, Stravinsky elevated rhythm as a musical theme. He does this with the driving, highly asymmetrical beat. I have commented more than once in this series about how language affects the musical composition, and what Stravinsky and his Russian predecessors realized was that the Russian language is so asymmetrical, so different from the western European rhythms, that a truly authentic Russian music could and should reflect that. As you listen to the opening of the Dance of the Adolescents, try to predict when the accented notes will come in, and then admit you failed miserably because you can’t unless you’re looking at the score or you’ve practices a whole bunch.

As a bit of an aside, I’ve tried to imagine being a cellist in Paris in 1913, being given this score and thinking “what the heck is this nonsense?” Not only is it completely, radically new to a western European’s ears, but remember that this is a ballet, and some poor choreographer has to teach people to dance to something that defies absolutely everything they’ve ever known about beat. It’s not just this section – when I listened to the whole suite this week, over and over again I found myself realizing just how completely weird all of this is. At the end of the ballet, one of the young girls is chosen as the sacrificial victim, and she dances herself to death to ensure a bounteous harvest.

Also in 1913, Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Claude Debussy to write a ballet called “Jeux,” which had the great misfortune of premiering two weeks before The Rites of Spring. The sensation caused by Stravinsky’s work completely eclipsed Debussy’s. I can’t say for certain what Debussy thought of Stravinsky as a person (in 1915, Debussy dedicated the third movement of a piano piece to him), he also made some cutting remarks about him periodically, which I strongly suspect arose from jealousy. Indeed, Debussy had a habit of cutting down the famous composers who came in his wake.

With the outbreak of World War I, Stravinsky found he could no longer return to his homeland, and also sank into deep financial problems, as he could not collect his royalties from performances by the Ballet Russe. Also due to the war, getting large-scale concert works performed became difficult or impossible, so Stravinsky and other composers took to writing greatly scaled-back works instead. Here is Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet:

Following the war, he moved around France, making money from revivals of his ballets, a contract with piano-manufacturer Pleyel, and financial assistance from wealthy benefactors including Coco Chanel. Inn 1921, he began an affair with a woman named Vera de Bosset, and he led a double life with Vera despite his wife, Katya, knowing about it. The affair lasted until Kayta’s death in 1939. Here is Stravinsky’s 1924 Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, performed on a stage that looks weird because of social distancing:

The Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments was composed during Stravinsky’s neo-Classical period, which I think is fascinating. This is a man who won his international reputation by completely undermining musical conventions in radical ways, but while his contemporaries like Arnold Schoenberg wanted to continue in the direction of pushing boundaries and knocking down fundamental assumptions of western music, Stravinsky moved in the completely opposite direction. His aim was not to copy the old masters like Bach, but rather to update the old musical forms and ask, in effect, what would Joseph Haydn compose if he were alive today? So in the Concerto, the note choice still sounds very much like Stravinsky, but the composition as a whole follows the old concerto formulas. This is also one of several pieces for which Stravinsky kept the performance rights, so he could tour the music around without other pianists screwing it up with their interpretations. His tours during these years included not only Europe but South America and the United States. He wrote a Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and accepted a chair at Harvard, where he delivered lectures on music in the 1939-40 school year.

In the 1940s, Stravinsky lived in southern California, first in Beverly Hills and later in Hollywood, where at first he maintained contact with the Russian emigre community, but later found himself drawn to other expatriates, and he liked to drink heavily with Aldous Huxley (ten years after Huxley published Brave New World, and about twelve years before he published The Doors of Perception). Also during this period his music began to be associated with the film industry, beginning with Fantasia:

Interesting that the Dance of the Adolescents, originally a frenzied, hormone-driven gyration has been reworked to synch with exploding volcanoes at the creation of the Earth.

Stravinsky lived the rest of his life, until 1971, in the United States, principally in California. He lived on the same street as the Austrian emigree Arnold Schoenberg, who we’ll get to study next week, and although both had their reputations as acclaimed composers, they did not associate with one another, as it seems Stravinsky disapproved of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Even so, after Schoenberg’s death in 1951, some of Stravinsky’s compositions began incorporating twelve-tone, in his third and final musical period. He wrote funeral works for Dylan Thomas and John F. Kennedy.

Following a final visit to Switzerland to sort out some family affairs, he moved to New York, where he spent the next year and a half in failing health, finally passing away from heart failure. I listened to a video of Stravinsky’s life this past week, and the commentator observed “his lifetime of hard drinking finally caught up with him,” which struck me as a very strange thing to say about an 88-year-old man. I mean sure, heavy drinking can have a seriously negative effect on your health, but if you live to 88, it’s hard to say it was the alcohol that killed him.

I started this post about Stravinsky because he is a famous composer of the 20th Century/Modernism Period, but I’m ending it with a much, much deeper appreciation for his music. There’s so much in here that the books have to tell me is radical and new, because to my ears it sounds, maybe a little weird, but still not outside of the norm. That’s because the man’s influence is so profound that the bizarre became the normal, and there’s not a single passage in anything I’ve linked that couldn’t easily fit into a movie score somewhere.

Here’s Riders on the Storm, by the Doors:

I like a lot of stuff by the Doors, but I picked this one because of how the shimmering music interacts with the haunting lyrics (which in turn are enhanced wonderfully by the cool microphone effects): “There’s a killer on the road/his brain is squirming like a toad … if you give this man a ride/sweet family will die.”

The Doors get a nod this time around because they took their band name from a book by Aldous Huxley, who was Stravinsky’s drinking buddy.

Now let’s get back to Stravinsky’s use of rhythm as a musical theme. Some of you have figured out that I like to rock out. The heart and soul of rock music is the rhythm. There’s so much you can do with rhythm alone, even if you’re banging out the same note over and over, to move the song along and give it driving power. Let’s listen to a few examples. My favorite Motely Crue song is Dr. Feelgood. For the first thirty seconds, the bass plays one repeated note, but it’s the specific pattern of the rhythm that provides the boom:

Up next is Disposable Heros, by Metallica. After the intro, the rhythm guitar and bass come in and play a pattern that repeats over and over throughout the song, interrupted only by a couple of double-time feel sections, including the pre-choruses. Musically, in terms of chord changes, is boring as crap. But it’s the unique rhythm that makes it memorable:

Contrast that with the main riff of the vastly inferior Whiplash (starting at about thirty seconds):

Now playing that fast, getting a consistent rhythm, is really hard to do. But it’s also not very interesting to listen to. Again, after that into, you get eight iterations of chugging E power chords followed by a three-note chromatic descent. Then eight more iterations of the E power chords with a single accent note at the end. Hey, it was their first album, how much can you expect? The point is, there’s a right way to turn rhythm into a musical element, and then there’s stuff like Whiplash.

Okay, just one more. I’ve never been a Pantera fan. Philip Anselmo’s – um, singing certainly doesn’t seem to be the right word – does nothing for me, and as skilled as Dimebag Darrell is on the guitar, I’ve never liked how thin his tone is. Even so, the rhythm on Throes of Rejection is butt-kicking awesome. If I could cut the vocal line out of this song, I might be able to listen to it:

One last thing before I sign off. While I was listening to Stravinsky this week, YouTube decided I needed to listen to some Bulgarian Orthodox chant as well. So I turned some on while I was cleaning the apartment, and it turned out that YouTube was right. I won’t comment on the music itself, because I did no research whatsoever on Bulgarian Orthodox chant, but I thought it was lovely, contemplative music.

And that’s it for the week. I hope you learned something interesting, listened to something you enjoyed, and skipped the Pantera link entirely. Have a blessed Sunday, and have a virtual hug from me.

51 Comments

  1. Igor is on the list of my favorite hunchbacks

  2. Interesting poat, Croc. I’m gonna listen to some of this throughout the day.

    This morning has the feel of a slow do-little Sunday but I must resist. Got stuffs to do.

    Two gallon-size ziploc bags full of winecap mushrooms in the fridge. Not sure if I should cook and freeze them, or dehydrate. Either way I can stick them in Winter food, I guess. I think freezing will give me better texture but then it takes up room in the freezer. Guess I can do a little of both and see which wins when I use them in the cold months.

    Still more mushrooms popping out of the woodchip bed every time I look out there. Woot!

  3. Local mystery. A 14 year old boy was shot in the leg. Police were called and an accidental shooting was reported. Cops show up and find two other 14 year old boys on scene. Their story? A guy dressed in all black came into the house, shot the kid and left.

  4. Sounds like a real whodunit

  5. There’s really no mystery, Jimbro.

    Dressed in all black = ninja, obviously

  6. Ninjas don’t use guns.

  7. Or do they….?

  8. Ninja accidentally shot him.

  9. Police found several shuriken scattered around the scene lending evidence for the boys’ story

  10. It could have been an off-duty cop.

  11. Were the kids black?

    Cop Theory only works if cop was white and kids were black.

  12. Two gallon-size ziploc bags full of winecap mushrooms

    YAAAAAY! First successful harvest?

    Also -1 Anole Lizard, can’t tell if it was a 2022 or 2021 model , cold snap got him I’m guessing. Sitting on my gravity chair on the back patio. At least he died doing what I love to do, sit on the back patio.

  13. *cue Scooby-Doo intro theme*

    There’s (3) 14 year olds who learned the 4 basic rules the hard way.
    1) Always pointed in safe direction
    2) Treat every firearm as loaded
    3) Keep your finger off the trigger
    4) Always lie to the police

  14. Ah, “The Rite of Spring” we meet again.

  15. OMG, how big of a fail is this movie? the preview gets cringier the more you watch it. Shockingly it bombed at the box office.

  16. As horrible as it is, watch it until the end. The last line … wtf is wrong with these people?

  17. “” As horrible as it is, watch it until the end. “”
    That’s as good direction as “” I think this is rotten – smell it , no really smell it “”

  18. And speaking of smell – my sense of smell still hasn’t come back. 4 months post chyna-flu and no nose.
    At least I don’t have to worry about being crop dusted.

  19. And I can’t get caught up in the old “whoever smelt it dealt “ fiasco.

  20. No, it’s like a train wreck.

  21. I saw an article describing the movie “Bros” and simply reading the subhead was enough for me to click out of it. Definitely a movie with niche appeal, like Hotspur’s ballsack

  22. the old “whoever smelt it dealt “ fiasco
    ——
    Destined to be a Red Cross Volunteer Reject. After days of wondering where the sewer line break was Jam’s fellow volunteers discover it was in him all along

  23. the final line of the trailer is something like “Remember when heterosexuality was a thing” and they all laugh. That’s the basic jist of it.

  24. My gay friends are thrilled that there is finally a romcom for them. They get very emotional about it. Jim Parsons has a gay romcom coming out soon, as well. I started watching Fantasia on my iPad. I usually fall asleep during The Nutcracker Suite and wake up during Rite of Spring. Having my tablet fall on my face woke me up 🤪

  25. My gay friends are thrilled that there is finally a romcom for them.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_%26_Out_(film)

  26. “Stupid heteros” theme isn’t really a good vibe.

  27. The Birdcage.

  28. 702 and tied with Ruth, #2 rbis all time. amazing

  29. break in to programming for that espn.

  30. Yep, Pupster, I have never grown mushrooms before. It’s pretty amazing. They just show up overnight like gangbusters. I was worried that they were only forming on the edges of the bed but then some started popping up out of the center a couple days ago.

    After posting my comment this morning I picked another big bag full, some of which were portobello sized. The smaller round ones that haven’t fanned out yet are better eating. Brought a big bag to Mom’s and still had plenty to sizzle down in a little butter and rosemary shmaltz and pack away in the freezer for winter use. They make a nice tasty brown gravy all on their own. Anything else that sprouts now will be dehydrated for making mushroom powder for spice mixes.

    This is the first flush after inoculating the chips last November. For sure they were set back by the drought, although I did think to water their area once in a while. Essited to see what they do in Spring.

  31. Fun Fungus Fact: the largest living organism on Earth is the vast fungus that lurks beneath the Black Forest. It’s all one thing.

    There is indeed a humongous fungus among us.

  32. Most of the gays I work with weren’t alive for most of those movies. Older Hispanic CoW calls a few of the young gheys “Tutti and Frutti”. He calls the sushi chef “Sushi”. They guy is Mexican.

  33. Jimbro, if you are around the Pats game is must see tv.

  34. I keep checking on twitter for updates, 24-24!

  35. Zappe is going to be a good QB.

  36. Mac Jones ought to be nervous

  37. Lots of fun games today. Starting with Viking/Saints. Steelers lost, but Pickett got to play and be a game changer.

  38. Beasn, the bat virus gain of function research is a joke. MFers testified about viruses with 60% mortality. Gnome boy needs to be in prison and financially destroyed…to begin with.

  39. Spent the weekend with my 87 yo mom. As she gets older she gets more candid about family history. It’s interesting. She told me today that a girl who was the niece of her best friend showed her titties to my younger brother the summer before he turned 17. Which means he saw titties at an earlier age than I did. Imagine having to find out this embarrassing fact from my mom 40+ years after the fact instead of from my brother the next day.

    After I left mom’s place I called him to verify that it really happened and wasn’t just mom’s fading memory. He verified it and also added that he probably could’ve lost his virginity with her but she smoked so he declined. Yeah, we’re kinda weird. I asked him why he never told me about it and he said he didn’t want to embarrass me.

  40. If you turn than down because she smokes, you might be gay.

  41. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

  42. My older brother had no standards when it came to intimate partners. For some reason, my younger brother and I had such strict standards that it probably worked against us. Back then, I wouldn’t flirt with a girl unless she was way out of my league. Which is why I was one month shy of my nineteenth birthday before I saw my first set of boobs without having to pay a cover charge first.

  43. Pretty sure the North American honey mushroom is even bigger than the Schwarzwald one.

    https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/world-s-largest-organism-2

  44. Pendejo, I may or may not have recorded stories from older relatives. I did. Those people were wild. I still believe my Tio Pedro was Spanish Pete in Al Capone lore.

  45. https://9gag.com/gag/aXnEr6D

  46. Little old lady with a blue plastic squirt gun: tee hee!
    Store employee: ALLAHSUPER SOAKER CARROTBAR

    https://9gag.com/gag/aOxyxOM

  47. Really would have sworn it was the Black Forest but a search turns up nothing. Trivia fail.

    In Other News in Casa Mitch we have a security system, cable, fiber internet, WiFi and ethernet wired in every room. Tomorrow, I shop for appliances and arrange for the other utilities. Also hope to find out when the movers will show up. Getting ahold of them is unnervingly difficult sometimes.

  48. Dalton’s ethics remain praiseworthy.

  49. MMM 513


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