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Hard Sell

Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons

stravinskySpent yesterday reading Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1939-40. I was particularly fascinated by his thoughts on the act of creation – he refers to himself as an ‘inventor of music’, and has no truck with those who rely on ‘inspiration’. Inspiration does happen, he argues, but within a work – one should not sit around waiting for it to happen. Instead one begins, and in the act of creating be open to internal and external surprises, which drive the work forward.

He is keen to separate the idea of invention from that of imagination – one can have an imagination without creating art, one can create art without what is normally called ‘imagination’. As a writer who, as far as I can see, is more or less completely free of an imagination, this is all terrifically encouraging…

Also encouraging is his analysis of the idea of ‘melody’, for which, in thinking about writing, I substituted the word ‘plot’. Melod, as the ne plus ultra of (classical) music, is a concept that only truly made sense from the mid-17th to the mid-19th, despite the continuing category error of conflating music and tonality. And even then, Stravinsky argues, the greatest of composers, Beethoven, is defined precisely by his struggle with melody – his inability to write a good tune drives his art (it is perhaps no coincidence that when he finally writes something you can hum – The Ode to Joy – it’s game over…). Again, my inability to write a good plot may not be fatal.

The last three lectures are a bit dull, railing against Soviet music, performances of his work, and music critics. Is there anything more dull than hearing an artist being cross at their critics? At least it’s in a book at not at the pub, but still, Igor, shrug it off cry baby!

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