Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) seated at a piano, 1929. (Photo by Boris Roger Viollet via Getty Images/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

Modernists can be monarchists

There’s an assumption that atonalists must be anarchists, but musical radicals often have conservative politics


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When, in 1951, Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera took tea with the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, his biographer Robert Craft was present, and he was not impressed. Stravinsky bowed deeply; Vera curtsied, and — as Craft noticed, bewildered — “neither spoke until spoken to by the Princess Maria, to whom they listened attentively”. 

“I was astonished by their transformation in the presence of Romanoff royalty,” confessed Craft years later, in his book Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories. “By this time the Princess was an unknown and impoverished exile, yet the Stravinskys conducted themselves in a subservient manner that I would never have thought possible.”

Poor Craft. This self-described “secular humanist” from upstate New York spent 23 years as sidekick, assistant and Boswell to Stravinsky’s Johnson. He worked harder than any individual to construct and promote the legend of Stravinsky the great modernist master. 

Great modernists aren’t supposed to think like that, are they?

It was Craft who reconciled the Russian composer to the music of the Second Viennese School, and as a conductor, his recorded interpretations of Stravinsky’s music remain vital reference sources. And yet he could never quite grasp why Stravinsky — a refugee from Bolshevism, and a scion of the landed gentry whose father sang in the Imperial Opera — might be a royalist. 

“Incredibly, in Hollywood in 1945 he and Vera attended a thirty-year Panikhida service for the Romanoff dynasty,” he adds. To Craft — and you can almost see him shaking his bespectacled, all-American head — Stravinsky’s enduring respect for Russian royalty was literally beyond belief.

Great modernists aren’t supposed to think like that, are they? They’re meant to be radicals, revolutionaries — and in fairness, few composers have worked more diligently to present themselves in that light than Stravinsky, or found a more willing enabler than Craft. Meanwhile a profoundly conservative spirit was hiding in plain sight. I still remember my surprise when I first read that Stravinsky dedicated his Symphony in C — that brisk, brilliant deconstruction of art and emotion — “to the glory of God”. Craft witnessed him lying prostrated before the altar of a Los Angeles Russian Orthodox church for a full hour on the morning of his 68th birthday. The great musical iconoclast actually carried an ikon of Saint Gerasimus with him wherever he travelled. 

The more you poke behind the programme notes, the more of these (superficially) contradictory tales you’ll find. Seventy-two years after his death in exile in Los Angeles, Arnold Schoenberg’s reputation as the Big Bad of musical modernism is as potent as ever. At the box office, at least, he’s still perceived as the great wrecker: the man who exploded tonality and sent western classical music trundling off into the siding of obscurity. 

And yet in April 1924 — six years after defeat and revolution had sent crowns toppling from high-born heads all over German-speaking Europe — he can be found addressing Prince Egon of Fürstenburg (patron of a major new music festival at his ancestral seat at Donaueschingen) in terms worthy of a baroque Kapellmeister kneeling before his noble employer. 

In musical circles, however, it’s still the orthodoxy

“May it please Your Highness,” he begins. “May I, first and foremost, most respectfully thank you for the extremely gratifying words that your Highness has had the goodness to address to me?” The Festival at Donaueschingen, he continues, “is reminiscent of the fairest, bygone days of art when a prince stood as a protector before an artist, showing the rabble that art, a matter for princes, is beyond the judgement of common people.”

And so it all comes out. In fairness, Schoenberg never pretended that he was out to smash the system — maintaining, to the end of his life, that art was a question of evolution, not revolution, and that he wrote from an inner creative impulse as heartfelt as that of Brahms or Schumann. 

“No-one loves his predecessors more deeply, more fervently, more respectfully than the artist who gives us something truly new; for respect is awareness of one’s station, and love is a sense of community,” he wrote in the 1922 edition of his Harmonielehre. “An artist who has a good, new idea is not to be confused with a bomb thrower.”

But you wouldn’t think it, from much of the commentary on musical modernism. Why should Craft be so baffled by a monarchist modernist? Why does it feel so odd to see the creator of dodecaphony bow before a prince, and long for the days when artists and kings stood united in their disdain for the herd? Human beings, after all, exist in time and in society, and no-one but an imbecile or a psychopath goes through life with a single, inflexible set of political opinions. 

Take patriotism, for example a human impulse as natural and as changeable as falling in love. The fact that in 1914 avant-garde internationalists such as Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern uttered contemptuous denunciations of non-German music before enlisting in the Imperial and Royal Army of Emperor Franz Josef proves little, in itself, about their private philosophical and artistic beliefs. (Schoenberg used his social connections to swing a commission in Vienna’s elite Hoch- und Deutschmeister infantry regiment, for whom in 1916 he composed Die eiserne Brigade, the jauntiest imaginable military march).

So why the bewilderment? We seem to be dealing here with two separate but linked fallacies, both well entrenched. The first is what historians refer to as the “Whig” version of history. It is the idea that history is the story of progress: an inevitable, one-way journey towards a uniquely enlightened present. Among professional historians, it was pretty much discredited by the 1930s. 

In musical circles, however, it’s still the orthodoxy, and it’s common to see it suggested (this comes from a book published in 2022) that a given late-Romantic composer “backed away from the full-blown atonality that might have seemed the logical continuation of these beginnings”. (Clearly, it didn’t seem quite so logical to the composer). 

Or indeed that composers (such as Bartók, Shostakovich, Strauss or Sibelius) who didn’t follow the course charted by either Schoenberg or Stravinsky “lay outside the modernist mainstream” (that’s from a former Controller of BBC Radio 3). There’s a separate discussion about whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky represents the modernist One True Path, but agreement on the basic trend. Crispness, dissonance and provocation equal progress. Big tunes, luxuriant tonal harmonies and squishy emotions: very much the opposite. 

Certain composers get what you might call a modernist free pass.

The second fallacy will be familiar to anyone who has cultured, politically aware friends. Putting it very crudely indeed, whereas right-leaning people tend to regard left-wingers as merely mistaken, leftists view right-wingers as actively evil. Combine the latter position with the Whiggish assumptions of much music history and you’re left with the curious notion that modernism (along the prescribed lines) is progressive and therefore virtuous, and that other idioms are, at the very least, morally suspect. 

Add the progressive’s fondness for bundling their beliefs into a single all-inclusive package and it’s not long before you’re stating with a straight face that (say) a maverick Czech modernist like Janáček would have opposed Brexit. (He was a fanatical Slav nationalist, who responded with manic glee when Czechoslovakia broke away from the Habsburgs’ multicultural, multilingual free trade bloc and started erecting borders). 

And so certain composers get what you might call a modernist free pass. If their music makes the right sounds, the composer is simply assumed to hold the correct views. No further scrutiny is required. Under Nazi rule, Richard Strauss and Anton Webern both supped with a troublingly short spoon. But while Strauss the luscious late romantic is routinely badged as “problematic”; when you turn to Webern, the crystalline patron saint of the post-war avant-garde — well, it just doesn’t come up all that much. 

Stravinsky was a virtuoso tax-avoider and serial adulterer who urged his publishers to promote his music in Nazi Germany as a racially-pure alternative to “degenerate” Jewish composers. Again, we don’t tend to talk about that. At any rate, we’re still some way from prefacing every discussion of his music — as is now, invariably, the case with Richard Wagner — with the qualification that “of course, he was a dreadful man”.

Unprecedented individual freedom of expression crashes against ever harsher demands for intellectual conformity

Let’s hope we never do. Classical music has enough problems without telling audiences that they’re Bad People for enjoying The Firebird. Who could be so incurious — so incapable of empathy — that they require an artist from another culture and another time to conform precisely to their own political and ethical standpoint? In truth, I suspect, very few people beyond academia and the bearpit of social media. 

For the most part, this is angels-on-pinheads territory. Despite the (necessary) role of state subsidy, orchestras, opera houses and classical promoters still depend overwhelmingly upon ticket receipts. The concert-going public shows no sign of falling out of love with Wagner or Strauss, but only a grudging tolerance for Schoenberg, Webern or anything by Stravinsky later than The Rake’s Progress — whatever their intellectual prestige. (Personally, I’d say that the public is the loser there, but it’s their call, and rightly).

Scottish classical composer and conductor James MacMillan

Yet these off-the-peg assumptions can still have damaging effects. The Scottish composer, James MacMillan, has forged a highly original artistic path defined by (or as some would have it, despite) his deeply-held Catholic faith. In fact, MacMillan takes pleasure in pointing out that religious belief has shaped the work of musical modernists from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Messiaen and John Cage (who conceived his masterpiece 4’33” under the working title Silent Prayer). 

Last autumn he did something even more shocking — something that brought him public abuse and a loss of press coverage for his Cumnock Tryst community music festival. MacMillan’s transgression was to compose an anthem for the late Queen’s funeral entitled Who Shall Separate Us?

Never mind that these were wholly appropriate sentiments for a funeral, or that MacMillan’s setting was masterful in its poignancy and quiet power. They were swiftly interpreted by the terminally political as a coded statement of support for both monarchy and Union: no surprise to anyone who’s followed MacMillan’s public statements and artistic development over the last three decades, but apparently shocking — indeed, offensive — to some. 

It had simply been taken as read that MacMillan was an important modern composer and must therefore subscribe to the set menu of received leftish opinions. The truth will have come as a jolt to anyone who assumes that good art must necessarily affirm their own worldview. Rather less so if you believe that music is cut from the crooked timber of humanity, and is all the stronger for it. MacMillan quietly, politely re-stated his determination to speak to everyone “with an open mind and heart”.

No matter. MacMillan is big enough to take it, Stravinsky can certainly look after himself; and Strauss, Wagner and the rest need no-one’s help at all. Schoenberg — well, without question he deserves more love than he gets, and that will come only with open-minded and sympathetic listening. “I know unfortunately that I cannot expect my work to thrill you at this concert, and I must resign myself to that,” said Schoenberg to a German radio audience in 1931: and doesn’t that candour, that sadness, already make you want to meet him at least half way? 

We inhabit a period in which opinions solidify at the speed of a Google search, and unprecedented individual freedom of expression crashes against ever harsher demands for intellectual conformity. It can only help, surely, if we stop forcing composers into prescribed historical functions and try harder to understand them as people — difficult, inconsistent, complicated people — attempting to communicate with their equally difficult, inconsistent and complicated fellow-humans. 

If that means fewer grand narratives and more mischievous truths, that might be rather fun. It would certainly be more interesting. One way or another, though, we need to ruffle the feathers of anyone who insists that there can only be one version of musical history, and that it’s theirs. We need to remind them, and keep reminding them, of the one thing they really, really don’t want to hear: that it’s more complicated than that.

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