Source and sorcery

'Tenous, weak and vapid' or 'a little piece of magic'?
David Bruce looks sympathetically at The Fairy's Kiss
First published in The Musical Times, August 1996

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For a work that sits directly between two of Stravinsky’s most celebrated scores, Appolo and the Symphony of psalms, The Fairy’s Kiss suffers from a curiously low critical reputation. Paul Griffiths speaks of its ‘creative humility’; the Stravinsky expert Eric Walter describes it as ‘tenous, weak and vapid’; and Peter van den Toorn’s voluminous The music of Igor Stravinsky fails to mention it at all. What are we to make of this critical disapprival and this apparently sudden and brief decline in Stravinsky’s creative powers? Was the piece written, as White would have it ‘against time and with a sense of strain’; or should we side with Diaghilev’s famous tirade against the piece after the opening night: “Stravinsky, our famour Igor…has given himself up entirely to the love of God and cash.’; or is the critical backlash unjustified – an onslaught against something that, in its glorification of Tchaikovsky and the romantic tradition has simply been out of sync with the zeitgeist? To answer some of these questions we must first look at the reasons Stravinsky might have had for choosing to base The fairy’s kiss on Tchaikovsky’s music and at the nature of the relationship between the two composers.

Stravinsky derived several melodies, some harmonic progressions and other fragments of the fairy’s kiss from various early Tchaikovsky piano pieces and songs, as well as some more generalised stylistic traits from other works, notably the ballets and the Fifth Symphony. He first heard Tchaikovsky’s music as a young boy in St Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre (Stravinsky’s father actually knew Tchaikovsky and, according to Stravinsky’s Expositions, was even one of the coffin-beareres at the funeral). A life-long love affair began there and, aside from The fairy’s kiss itself, Stravinsky dedicated Mavra to Tchaikovsky (along with Pushkin and Glinka); made two sets of arrangements of music from Sleeping Beauty (the only straight ones of his life); and was a regular conductor of his works. Tchaikovsky is the only composer not to fall foul of Stravinsky’s regular habit of aligning himself with others from the past who suited his current purpose, only to jettison them when they were no longer required.

One reason for the rapport was doubtless that the two composers had much in common, not least of which was an ambivalent attitiude to their mutual Russian homeland. Tchaikovksy was always a very westernised Russian, his passion far greater for Bizet, Saint-Saens or Mozart than for his Russian nationalist contemporaries in The Five; Stravinsky’s distance from Russia, of course, had a physical reality from 1914 onwards. Both had an early ‘Russian’ phase before moving on to other interests, and yet neither composer could ever entirely forgo their Russian inheritance. It is no coincidence that both returned to Russian elements towards the very end of their creative lives – Stravinsky in the Requiem Canticles; Tchaikovsky in the quotation of part of the ‘Russian requiem’ in his Sixth Symphony.

If there are generalised traits to the Russian character, David Brown suggests that there is one cardinal flaw…inertia. This has, Brown suggests, affected not just the country’s politics, which is characterised by ‘long periods of stasis, followed by short, sometimes very violent periods of activity’, but also its creative artists. Brown argues that this tendency manifests itself on the one hand in highly sectionalised forms, in which essentially static ‘set-pieces’ are bridged by brief outbursts of activity (for example, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov; or the first part of Dostoyevsky’s The idiot, with its frequent use of long, converstational chapters devoid of any action); and on the other, in the characteristically Russian ‘static’ melody, in which few pitches are used as a ‘protoshape’ to vary over and over. Such national tendencies, if we accept that they exist (as they seem to) are evidently things that both Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky had either to fight against or to embrace. In terms of form, it is obviously rather difficult here to enter into a discussion of the wide-ranging and constantly developing formal tactics ....

(I will type more of it in when I get time....D.B.)

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