Much has been written about Stravinsky’s harmonic systems, mainly by Kholopov, a 20th Century Russian theoretician, who avoided the term bitonality and used the term polarity to describe goals of musical motion rather than harmony. The purpose of this article is to describe what is audience friendly (both a general and sophisticated audience) and listenable in works of Stravinsky and why. As we approach the border of non-tonality there are many techniques which resonate with a normal musical audience, even if we actually straddle the border of tonality. My conclusion after years of composing and playing is that what we call serial atonality is not audience friendly and I doubt that it will ever be. Comprehension in language is in large part due to repetition – of words, syntax, similar sentences and expressions; and comprehension in music depends on repetition of harmonic patterns, sequences, cadences and recognizable melodic ideas.
For example, in the works of Stravinsky, if one listens to the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments or the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and then listen to his serial Movements for Piano and Orchestra, the first two, to a normal audience appear as not only friendly but works of genius or at least big talent, whereas the third appears just the opposite. What is it in the works of Stravinsky up to about 1951 that have a general audience appeal? The answer is that up to his atonal period (1951), almost everything he wrote has a melodic kernel, often like a folk song that is memorable. And even though surrounded by wild and often atonal accompaniments, one remembers the little tune fragments. Except for Glorification of the Chosen Victim there is not a single section of The Rite of Spring that does not have these little melodic fragments.
To expand on this I’m going to discuss each section of his monumental work The Rite of Spring, circa 1912, and describe its compositional process. Stravinsky, who was always a contrapuntal composer, said:
It seems to me that pure counterpoint is the only material from which it is possible to hammer out strong and stable musical forms… Forms built on a modulating development or on harmonic transitory passages are unstable and always have an incoherent character… Not harmony but counterpoint represents the true constructive material.
In The Rite of Spring Stravinsky utilizes the following few, rather easily stated techniques:
- Folk tunes derived from Russian and Lithuanian folk song
- Long pedal points
- Whole sections based on one chord
- Parallel major and minor thirds on top of each other
- One to four bar chaconne bass lines, on top of which are differing harmonies and in the case of Procession of the Wise Elder, a four bar passacaglia theme which brings us, with only one interruption, to the ending of the first half
- Major and minor triads a half step away from other major and minor triads start the second half
I am now going through the composition in order (using the piano reduction and numbers by Leyetchkiss, published by Schirmers). The Adoration of the Earth, the opening tune which is actually a dead ringer for a famous Edith Piaf song La Vie en Rose of the 1940s, is like half of a theme dwelling on an ‘a’ and never descending in the typical classical style. It is accompanied by parallel fourths.
The point of this archetype is that as long as the tune is memorable any accompaniment against it still leaves the memorability of the tune as what I call listener friendly. Indeed one can play almost any parallel fourths against it substituting for what Stravinsky wrote and still get the same effect. At number 9 another half melody recurs; again I posit that any accompaniment against it, as long as it is not traditional, can produce an unusual and arresting effect.
In this case it has nothing to do with the melody itself but is more like a wild improvisation. At number 13, Dances of the Young Girls, the entire section is built on two 7th chords a half-step apart.
For the next 83 bars one can clearly hear this one big chord. At number 25 against the same chord is now a memorable melody, again without an internal descent and again which sounds like a folk tune.
The texture at number 31 moves away from this initial big chord and starts to move away with differing chords, but with all the chords moving very slowly.
This is in distinction to most harmonic movement of the classical period which is far faster. Stravinsky uses this as one of his favorite techniques, just listen to the opening of Petrushka.
In The Mock Abduction again the section is built on basically one chord. At number 43 we have again parallel major thirds against parallel minor thirds.
At number 49 is one of his chaconnes, this time occupying only one bar, again with what sounds like a folk tune placed against it.
At number 49 there appear to be two chords which form the basis for the movement.
In Games of the Rival Clans, the section is derived from a giant 13th chord: GBDFACE.
At number 62 the section is built on top of a double pedal point: E and F#.
This continues until two measures after number 64 where it breaks into a four bar passacaglia tune…
…which occupies us until number 72 where the passacaglia idea now becomes shortened down to one bar, which material forms the basis of the section until the end of part one.
In the beginning of part two the technique used is triads against other triads a half-step below or half-step above. At number 86 Stravinsky shows us one more of his techniques: repeating a phrase, but by repeating also the first note or first little phrase so it is sounded twice.
At number 91, Mystical Circles of the Young Girls, the technique used is again major against minor thirds.
At number 104 the technique is the one chord idea upon which the section is based.
At number 121, The Summoning of the Ancients, the section is based on a D pedal point…
…which continues into the next section that slowly moves to other pedal points starting at number 132…
…but returns to a quite prominent D pedal point at number 142, Sacrificial Dance which ends the work.
The chords most commonly used by Stravinsky are triads ‘stuffed’ with other notes of the scales such as diminished 7ths with an added step or fourth above, or both and any chord with added half steps above and/or below any notes of the chord as well as shifting normal bass parts, a tiny bit ahead or behind.
In the next part of this article I will demonstrate how one ‘composes’ a Stravinsky-style work up to 1950!
— Tony Newman