Inside 20th-century music

Surely the two most household-ish names in all the modern arts are Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. Tomes have been written about them. Yet, after the huge Picasso retrospective of 1980 and the large quantity of concert programs and program notes devoted to Stravinsky's centenary this year, it is sometimes possible to feel that we don't, in fact, understand these two enigmatic creative figures any better after all. Or, if better, only a little.

That, I feel, is exactly what they intended.

To look first at the obvious, both made their initial splashes during the actual Modern Movement (1900-1914, roughly), then flitted from one ''period'' and style to another, well into the 1970s, leading their devoted disciples and imitators on a merry chase in which no one could guess where these gurus were going to light next.

But taking Stravinsky more particularly and more deeply, I find another impression surfacing from all the mystery and anonymity surrounding this composer, whom one conductor described as music's supreme faceur (''one who always wears a mask''). What I sense very much is the element of earnest search when I look at the boggling assortment of works, idioms and styles in his long and productive career. At this point in my thinking about Stravinsky, I get the distinct hint of a search for greater clarity and harmoniousness, growing partly , I feel,from his deep-seated religiousness.

I don't mean merely that the Symphony of Psalms (1930) is less dissonant and easier to ''swallow'' than the earlier Song of the Nightingale (1917). If one checks even later works, like Canticum Sacrum (1956) or The Flood (1961), he will discover that these again bristle with challenging sonorities and difficult-to-follow rhythmic patterns and textures.

No, what I am speaking of is the apparent search which filled his whole career - the search for better ways of handling the esoteric sounds in his musical materials (notes, chords, rhythms, metres, etc.), to which his extraordinary ear and complex personality led him. Two works, at either end of his career, epitomize this best for me. The first, his ballet The Rite of Spring , created that notorious riot at its Paris premier in 1913 - and for all the right reasons. It was, beyond a doubt, the supreme Modern Period musical work. It was the ultimate in the Modernist concept of revolution. In it, Stravinsky managed a total unleashing of the elements of dissonance, rhythmic complexity and wildly imaginative instrumentation. At last, no holds were barred, and he made the most jarring break with the past, on more fronts, that any musical work had ever made. In his own words, ''I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). . . .I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.'' Never before (or since) have such savage, grinding dissonances, or such barbaric rhythms, been used to such effect as in Le Sacre. And the work is beautiful - unmatched and unsequelled in these things even by Stravinsky himself.

The other work which interests me in itscontrast came 45 years later. The oratorio Threni (''The Lamentations of Jeremiah''), first played in 1958, is also a rugged work. But it is written in a strict 12-tone serial style, in which every pitch explains its presence by being part of a predetermined numeric system (serial composing's trait), with its original ''row'' of all 12 tones plus its inversion, retrograde and inversion of the retrograde. Threni is a fascinating piece, in its way. In addition to the grit and austerity lent by its harsh, unyielding serialism, it is also one of the best examples of the detached approach, the cool understatement, which marked virtually all of his music after World War I. Even Stravinsky's religious works, like this one, did not escape this poker-faced facade. But his own words partly explain that: ''. . . God must not be praised in fast, forte music . . . .''

From the wild abandon and shrill, orgiastic freedom of The Rite of Spring, to the tightly-reined, agonisingly controlled constructions of Threni, there is a grand contrast matched by few, if any, creative artists.

After the Modern Period was destroyed by World War I, virtually all of Stravinsky's works - the later ballets, the mini-operas, the symphonies, chamber music, concerti - came to be covered by a uniform veneer of impersonality. Through this we are expected to strain to see the chimeric figure of Stravinsky l'indifferent. But this is a seductive veil, divertingly thrown over what appears an intense quest. The veil is convincing if one fails to recognise that the Modern Period indelibly stamped, in the minds of those who flowered in it, a promise of freshness, clarity and grace.

I think Stravinsky preferred to masquerade as the musical Imperturbable One while seeking to regain, in his own way, that clarity and grace which seemed to abound so in the 20th century's first dozen years - when the artistic fires of himself and others were burning with a heat and a purity that was never the same again afterwards.

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