English 272D
Wollaeger, Fall 1998
Modernism and Primitivism: Music
 
    Primitivism [in music] was a reaction from the overrefinement of such artists as Debussy and Ravel. Its adherents favored simple, clear-cut tunes of folk character that revolved around a central note and moved within a narrow compass; massive harmonies based on blocklike chords moving in parallel formation with harshly percussive effect; and a strong impulsion to a tonal center. Much in evidence were ostinato rhythms repeated with an almost obsessive effect and a rugged orchestration featuring massed sonorities which contrasted sharply with the coloristic subtleties of the Impressionists. [Yes, there was Impressionism in music, too.]
 
    Twentieth-century composers found inspiration not only in African music but also in the songs and dances of the borderlands of Western culturesoutheastern Europe, Asiatic Russia, and the Near East. Out of the unspoiled, vigorous folk music of these regions came rhythms of an elemental power that tapped fresh sources of feeling and imagination.  Milestones in this development were such pieces as Bartók's Allegro barbaro and Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).
    — from Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music

"Given the various elements present in Eliot's mind [he was deeply immersed in contemporary ethnography], it is hardly surprising that he found in the thundering drums of Stravinsky's ballet, Le Sacre du printemps, the equivalent of the myth he sought. Attending the ballet, Eliot sought to use the point of an umbrella in order to stop his neighbors laughing. The city man's rolled umbrella could easily become a spear. For Eliot Stravinsky's piece itself united city and savage, seeming to metamorphose ‘the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.' [Eliot, "London Letter," Dial, Oct. 1921, p. 452] This is hardly an average reaction to the piece, but the despairing Eliot was using Stravinsky's music to underpin his own endeavors in The Waste Land."
    — Robert Crawford, The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot, 139
 
Having attended more Russian ballet, Eliot wrote: "In art there should be interpenetration and metamorphosis. Even The Golden Bough can be read in two ways: as a collection of entertaining myths, or as a revelation of that vanished mind of which our mind is a continuation." [from same Dial noted above]

The ballet was presented in Paris in the spring of 1913. The opening night was one of the most scandalous in modern musical history; the revolutionary score touched off a near-riot. People hooted, screamed, slapped each other, and were persuaded that what they were hearing "constituted a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art."  A year later the composer was vindicated when Le Sacre, presented at a symphony concert under Pierre Monteux, was received with enthusiasm and established itself as one of the masterpieces of the new music. Today it is recognized as probably the single most influential score of our century.
    — from Machlis, Introduction to Music

Gertrude Stein on Le Sacre du printemps [Note how Stein demotes the importance of the musical event, making the minors details of those around her in the audience just as important. Here again is what she claims to have learned from Cezanne: every part of the painting should be equally important.]:
 

"Nijinsky did not dance in the Sacre du Printemps but he created the dance of those who did dance.

    We arrived in the box and sat down in the three front chairs leaving one chair behind.  Just in front of us in the seats below was Guillaume Apollinaire.* He was dressed in evening clothes and he was industriously kissing various important looking ladies' hands.  He was the first one of his crowd to come out into the great world wearing evening clothes and kissing hands.  We were very amused and very pleased to see him do it.  It was the first time we had seen him doing it.  After the war they all did these things but he was the only one to commence before the war.

    Just before the performance began the fourth chair in our box was occupied.  We looked around and there was a tall well-built young man, he might have been a dutchman, a scandinavian or an american and he wore a soft evening shirt with the tiniest pleats all over the front of it.  It was impressive, we had never even heard that they were wearing evening shirts like that.  That evening when we got home Gertrude Stein did a portrait of the unknown called a Portrait of One.

    The performance began. No sooner had it commenced when the excitement began. The scene now so well known with its brilliantly coloured background now no all extraordinary, outraged the Paris audience. No sooner did the music begin and the dancing than they began to hiss. The defenders began to applaud. We could hear nothing, as a matter of fact I never did hear any of the music of the Sacre du Printemps because it was the only time I ever saw it and one literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music."
    — from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas