Experiencing Stravinsky: A Listener’s Companion
by Robin Maconie
The Scarecrow Press, Inc
£27.95 Hard Cover (£20.50 Kindle Edition) 244pp.
Experiencing Stravinsky by Robin Maconie is a challenging book. Its focus
lies somewhere between analysis and introduction. ‘Descriptive’
would be the best adjective. The reader will immediately notice that there is
not a single musical example given between the covers of this book. There are
no charts or diagrams illustrating formal divisions of works, harmonic structures
or serial processes. They will also note that this book is not a ‘biography’,
although there is plenty of biographical information given. Whilst much space
is devoted to discussion of individual works, these are not programme notes
as such. The main thrust of the book is, I believe, a study in aesthetics.
The author uses allusion, analogy, imaginary conversations and quotations from
the writings and interviews of the composer to try to understand the major works
in the Stravinsky canon. He considers the music from a ‘holistic’
point of view. What political events affected the composer? What was the impact
of mechanical devices such are the piano-player, the gramophone, reel-to-reel
tape recorders and even computers on the composer’s music? And perhaps
most significantly, what was the impact of Hollywood?
Igor Stravinsky’s life was lived out during years of massive change -from
a time when there were no automobiles, no aircraft, no recorded music and no
radio, to man landing on the Moon, Concorde, the beginning of the information
technology revolution and the wide-spread dissemination of music by record and
tape. Politically, he lived through two World Wars, a number of revolutions,
the American Dream and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Artistically, Stravinsky
collaborated with diverse artistic talent that included Diaghilev, Disney, Picasso
and Chaplin. All these factors impacted on Stravinsky’s music. It is the
composer’s response to these events that forms the main study of this
This is not the place to do a full literature review of books concerning Igor
Stravinsky; however I propose to mention a few volumes that I have considered
useful in gaining an understanding of his life and music. The most helpful book
from the point of view of the serious listener is Eric Walter White’s
The Composer and his Works, published in 1966 and revised and updated
in 1979. I always refer to this book before listening to any work, favourite
or new discovery (for me). It is basically written in two massive sections -
‘The Man’ and ‘A Register of Works’. In spite of the
fact that supporting information is somewhat dated and that much has been achieved
in Stravinsky scholarship in the past 33 years, this is still a hugely relevant
book. The most current biographical studies are the three volumes by Stephen
Walsh - The Music of Stravinsky (1988), Stravinsky: A Creative Spring:
Russia and France, 1882-1934 (1999) and Stravinsky: The Second Exile:
France and America, 1934-1971 (2006). It is strange that these three essential
volumes are not mentioned in the bibliography of the present book.
A more basic introduction, which has been on my shelf for nearly 40 years, is
Francis John Routh’s Stravinsky (1975/1977) in the Master Musician
Series. Enthusiasts of Stravinsky’s music will want to explore the vast
range of primary material available, including autobiographical works such as
Memories and Commentaries (1960), Stravinsky in Conversation with
Robert Craft (1959), Expositions and Developments (1962), Dialogues
and a Diary (1963), Themes and Episodes (1966), and Retrospectives
and Conclusions (1969). Stravinsky's letters have been published as Selected
Correspondence in three volumes (1982-1985) and edited by Robert Craft.
Experiencing Stravinsky is a relatively short book covering the ground
in 243 pages. After the ‘series foreword’ by Gregg Akkerman - this
book would appear to be the first in the series - the author introduces his
subject and the methodology for approaching it. In the main part this book examines
the composer’s work chronologically: ten chapters are devoted to exploring
the music of different periods of the composer’s opus. All references
and notes are placed towards the end. There is a ‘select’ bibliography
which ranges quite a distance from Stravinskian matters - including references
to a book by Woody Allen, a study of Maori music by Johannes Andersen and William
Ellis’ An Authentic Narrative of a Voyage Performed by Captain Cook
and Captain Clarke (1783). With the above-noted omissions all the most important
books appear to be included. The ‘Select Listening’ listings are
derived from the author’s personal ‘reference collection’
and are ‘intended to draw attention to rare, meritorious, historic and
unusual items.’ Some of these items are not included in the essential
Sony Composer’s Edition. Finally, there is a comprehensive index which
includes people and place. Stravinsky’s musical works are listed in strict
Robin Maconie was born in 1942 in Auckland, New Zealand and is ideally qualified
to write this book. He studied analysis with Olivier Messiaen in 1963-4 at the
Paris Conservatoire. Later his studies turned to film music with Bernd-Alois
Zimmermann and electronic music under Herbert Eimart at Cologne Conservatory.
In addition, Maconie was a composition student under Karlheinz Stockhausen and
Henri Pousseur. He has led an active musical life both academically and as a
composer with appointments to the University of Auckland, The University of
Surrey and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, USA. He now lives
and works in New Zealand. Maconie has written widely on music and has published
a number of books. I was unable to find any examples of his compositions on
the ‘net or in the CD listings.
One of the hardest things to decide when reviewing this book is just who the
intended readership is. On the one hand scholars and enthusiasts will have access
to most of the major biographical and musical studies. On the other hand, interested
listeners will typically approach Stravinsky’s music through CD liner
notes, concert programme notes and one or two ‘primers’ such as
Neil Wenborn’s volume in the ‘Illustrated Lives’ series: there
is plenty of information about the music on the Internet. For the moment, the
answer to this dilemma is answered by the advertising blurb - ‘Robin Maconie
takes a fresh approach to understanding this great composer’s works, explaining
what makes Stravinsky’s sound so unique and what we, as listeners, need
to know in order to appreciate the variety and brilliance of his compositions’.
This assumption demands to be explored.
In 1972 I was introduced to Stravinsky’s music by way of Feu d’Artifice
(Fireworks) Op.4 (1908). If we examine the author’s dealing of this work
it will give us a good idea of the approach of the book.
Robin Maconie begins by suggesting that Fireworks could be described
as an ‘impressionistic tone poem’ presented as ‘a series of
connected hinged panels, like a Japanese screen.’ So far so good. The
author then proceeds to make an allusion to the paintings of James McNeill Whistler
and that painter’s reference to Japanese art. He suggests that
the music is ‘deliberately exotic’ ‘playing on a sense of
constant tension between dark and light, earth and sky, weight and buoyancy,
gravity and flight.’ There follows a short description of the musical
progress. For example, there is the ‘dramatic opening,’ the ‘music
simply appears: up there, in the distance, its rich but spare and lightweight
combination of motifs suggests a minimalist arrangement of brush marks on a
Japanese screen.’ He then suggests that this is a ‘direct challenge
to the bucolic world of Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un
faune and the languid flute is compared to the to the ‘insolent fire
siren and violin figures as unintelligible graffiti against the night sky’.
Further down the text we have allusions to ‘exotic Scriabinesque chromatics,’
‘three-voice’ upward glissandi in imitation of Schoenberg. There
is a reference to the orchestration as being ‘cartoon-like’ (Katzenjammer
Kids). Maconie concludes by describing the ‘unprecedented density of information’
the ‘skill in impressionistic texture creation’ and finally a similitude
to ‘a wide-screen movie in such high definition that the observer is visually
Immediately the listener has to deal with references to Whistler, Debussy, Scriabin
and Schoenberg … and I have never heard of the Katzenjammer Kids.
Either the author assumes that the reader will have these allusions to ‘hand’
or else they will take the trouble to look them up. I found this approach a
little too dense and demanding. An introduction should introduce - not force
the reader to make a detailed study and reflection on the text before moving
on to the music.
Maconie’s description of the work makes no reference to Rimsky-Korsakov
who is the true artistic muse behind Fireworks. The ‘sitz in leben’
is not discussed: the work was composed for the marriage of Rimsky’s daughter
Nadezhda to the composer Maximilian Steinberg, in celebration. The formal structure
is not mentioned. Finally the most important feature of Fireworks is
ignored - the abandonment of the ‘four square’ barring of the music
in favour of a more flexible and asymmetrical structure. Aesthetically there
is no attempt to place this work in Stravinsky’s canon. Was it representative
of his later style? Was it a ‘dead end’? Are there intimations of
Petrushka and the Firebird? The most interesting historical fact
is that it was this work that brought the composer to the notice of Diaghilev
and was the precursor to a historically important collaboration. Finally, it
is useful to note that this work was used for a ‘futurist’ ballet
What Robin Maconie has achieved is to supplement my understanding of
this work. He has thrown in a number of allusions and analogies which may or
may not help me towards further appreciate and that is useful. What he has not
done is to present the basic information (who, what, when, where, why and how)
about Fireworks that I would deem necessary to approach this work for
the first time. I derived value from the two pages of his discussion, but then
again I have known this work for 40-odd years, have heard it countless times,
have read it up and followed it in score.
So I guess the readers who will enjoy this book are the keen Stravinsky enthusiasts
who demand more opinion, students writing term papers and scholars looking for
inspiration. It will not, I believe, help the person approaching the composer
for the first time.
The book is a quality production. It is certainly good to have this as a default
hardback: I understand that there is no ‘limp cover’ version available.
The publisher has released a Kindle version. I am not convinced that this is
the ideal way of studying a book such as this, however one must not object to
progress. I felt that the text was clear and the general layout fine. I was
a little disappointed that there were no musical examples, as I believe that
the ‘typical’ reader of this book will be able to appreciate this
form of illustration. Talking of illustrations, I guess that I was surprised
that the book contained no photographs. Even half a dozen would have added value.
Some books of this kind include a CD of examples - I think of the Unlocking
the Masters series published by Amadeus Press. This could have been a useful
aid to understanding.
Price-wise this book represents value for money: its cost of £27.95 is
largely what I would expect from such a book.
It will make a useful addition to the shelves of Stravinsky enthusiasts. From
an academic point of view, many copies will be purchased for music libraries.
For the lay listener, it would seem that it has not quite managed to achieve
what it sets out to do. The review on Amazon suggests that ‘Maconie has
provided nothing less than an operating manual to getting the most out of Stravinsky’s
music.’ I believe that although in some ways this statement is true, the
general reader is not likely to be over-impressed, but saturated. The specialist
will read, digest and debate much of this very useful information and opinion;
these readers will simply be using this material to further their understanding
of the music rather than gaining a basic knowledge.
The supplementary knowledge required to engage with this text is considerable.
I found that references to history, art, politics, film studies and other composers’
music assumed a much greater understanding of the 20th century intellectual
achievement than many music-lovers will possess. I am not suggesting that a
book such as this should be dumbed-down, but I do wonder if an author can assume
that someone wishing to enjoy the music of Stravinsky on its own terms can expect
readers to have this vast supplementary knowledge.
A useful addition to the shelves of Stravinsky enthusiasts.