Mark Laporta on Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes

Lost in the ebb and flow of Modernist fashion chic are a few musical works that, by defying easy categorization, appear to have been consigned to oblivion. Or if they haven’t been completely obscured, ignored and abjured, they’ve earned the deathly stigma of “light.”

Stravinsky’s 1942 ballet/non-ballet falls into this category unfairly, if for no other reason than its remarkable technical polish and many quirky, unpredictable twists and turns. Yes, it’s full of good humor and concerns itself not once with The Human Condition. I also can’t help wondering if the work’s “reception” would have been different if it’s title didn’t include the word “Danses.”

But I don’t agree that the lack of a philosophical program makes the piece light or trivial. For starters, who’s to say that The Human Condition is best, or only, summarized by the tragic aspects of Life, the Universe and Everything? I could easily make the case that optimism and good humor are the only reason we’ve survived this long, even though it would require me to climb out of my trash can to say so.

Regardless, the neglect of this work, by a musical world fixated on the composer’s three famous ballets and his miraculous conversion to imitation serialism, seems unjustified on purely musical grounds.

Whereas if you dig up a scholarly essay on the piece, you will encounter a series of debates on whether such-and-such note cluster is secretly or overtly a dominant, to dwell on the work’s category label is to miss the music entirely.

For there, in plain ear-shot, are more or less the same sonoric and continuity gambits as pop up in The Big Three. Minus, that is, shock value for its own sake and, let’s be honest, a slavish dependence on ostinati.

Otherwise, it’s all there, the fragmentation of formal space, the topographic approach to orchestration, that infallible ear for rhythm and his signature textural innovations that later composers imitate at their peril.

I for one, am still flabbergasted to think how much of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass can be spun out of the inner parts of this and other works by Stravinsky.

And yet nothing by either composer is likely to be heard in fifty years. That’s because Stravinsky’s indelible sound is the result of a unique thought process and is not in any sense a “technique.”

Ultimately, I suppose, it’s for the best that everything the composer wrote, had written for him or didn’t realize was being written for him by Robert Craft, is almost entirely beside the point. The answer to any question you may have about Stravinsky is “Stravinsky,” and your only hope of learning his secrets is to learn how to think like him, whatever that means.

In terms of the work itself, and aside from its place in the pantheon, Danses Concertantes contains many memorable moments. From tuneful tunes, to continuity fake-outs that never get old, to a surprisingly rich array of harmonies, this piece is rivaled only by Symphony in Three Movements, and not consistently.

The latter, hamstrung by its composite origins and the need to live up to its loaded category name, has a tad more functional note-spinning to contend with. Which is not to suggest in any way that I wouldn’t give up Hershey’s chocolate for the rest of my life to have written it.

In any case, the distinctive traits of Danses Concertantes jump out at you right away. For starters, there’s the fact that Stravinsky achieves nearly the same degree of taut intensity with this smaller ensemble as he did with his massive turn-of-the-century orchestras.

Equally characteristic of the earlier works is the music’s inexorable drive forward, even when the composer takes one of his many leisurely detours. And this, I think, may relate to one reason Stravinsky walked away from his potentially very lucrative Russian franchise.

Leaving aside the obvious social disruption of WWI and the Russian Revolution, in his neo-whatever works I have the impression he was searching for a musical voice more aligned with his relaxed baseline personality. “Maidens” dancing themselves to death? Broken-hearted puppets? Magical birds 1 and 2? These were perhaps uncomfortable masks for a jovial, social soul who liked fine wines, snappy conversation and a game of cards before bed.

Yes, extrapolation of this kind can be self-deceiving, but this is what the music itself is telling me. Seen from this vantage point, Stravinsky’s “descent” into neo-classicism takes on a different cast. That’s not to say there isn’t much in Apollo, Oedipus, Persephone, Mavra, the Concerto for Two Pianos and several other of these pieces that makes me squirm.

But by the 1940s, the cumulative effect of those experiments brought about a novel synthesis of trends and tendencies that perhaps were a better conduit for his authentic voice. These same attributes are also reflected in the Ode. Jeu des Cartes and Orpheus fall under the same umbrella, though the exuberant goofiness of the former and the somber mystery of the latter tip this delicate balance quite a bit.

And running through it all, including the pieces that rattle my trash can lid, is Stravinsky’s ability to think and hear in sound volumes and rhythmic densities rather than note-shapes and harmonies. For Stravinsky, it seems to me, a piece of music is a mapping out of those “subcutaneous” attributes.

He heard, in other words, more like a medical imaging device sees. Instead of a nose, a heat signature. Instead of a heart, a blur of magnetic resonance. When he composed, he listened at that deeper level, to create a total, cumulative effect. Good luck studying that in Composition 404.

A highlight of the piece is the variation movement, whose witty inventiveness doubles as an abbreviated catalogue of the composer’s most characteristic textures. Missing are Petrushka’s manic piano and Le Sacre’s “Anacin hammer” pounding — unless, in the latter case, you want to count the manicured thumps of the variation’s final cadence.

In a way, this movement is a microcosm of Stravinsky’s aural preoccupations, echos of which can still be heard some years later in Agon, before the composer’s exploration of hexachordal rotation led him into new territory.

In 1942, however, when his celebrated late phase was some distance away, there was already more than enough here for later composers to emulate. Beneath the work’s cheery surface lies a steely logic few proponents of greater “complexitude” can claim to match. How did Stravinsky create this novel blend of grace and gravitas? There’s only one answer.


Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available  in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.

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