Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 8.42: Odd connections

May 21, 2022

“Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.” – Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

This apt quotation from the great 20th-century composer demonstrates that he was well-informed about historical music, for the quote itself was obviously derived from a similar observation about tuning the lute by the great 18th-century lutenist, Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687 – 1750). Stravinsky was keenly aware that “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal,” and we take comfort that he also remarked that the lute was the most intimate and certainly the most personal of instruments.

Stravinsky’s uniquely modern compositional style was not to everyone’s taste; in fact it was found to be wanting among the Boston elite—and it was also found to be on the wrong side of Massachusetts law when he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1941. The composer was threatened with a $100 fine under Massachusetts law forbidding rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part, and at a subsequent 1944 radio performance, Boston police descended on the BSO venue and seized the parts to his arrangement from musician’s stands, preventing the music from being broadcast. The following account was from the earlier performance.

“At the start, the audience began to sing with the orchestra in customary manner, but soon the odd, somewhat dissonant harmonies…became evident. Eyebrows lifted, voices faltered, and before the close practically everyone gave up even trying to accompany the score. Earlier, Mr. Stravinsky … said he retained the melody but introduced different harmonies, suggesting Puritan times with chords in the old contrapuntal style. The composer described the orchestral sound as full, rich, more like a church hymn than a soldier’s marching song or a club song, as the anthem was originally. “I tried to express the religious feelings of the people of America.” But Bostonians found little religious feeling.”

– from H. Colin Slim, “Stravinsky’s Four Star-Spangled Banners and His 1941 Christmas Card”, The Musical Quarterly, Summer – Fall, 2006, Vol. 89, No. 2/3, pp. 321-447

Stravinsky may have appreciated the lute but he was not exactly politically-correct, and he had a reputation as having anti-Semitic leanings that conveniently bolstered his standing in prewar Germany. But he was also an avowed anti-communist, stating, “I loathe all communism, Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster, and also all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc.” On the other plucking hand, the venerable English leading lady of the lute revival, Diana Poulton, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party from as early as 1920.

“It had taken courage to remain a Communist in England after 1945 as the Cold War between the western powers and the Soviet bloc developed and deepened. There were several occasions, both during and after her years in the Party, when Diana’s membership had caused difficulty for her. One of her close friends and fellow researchers into the lute and its music was Michael Prynne, at one time Brigadier in the British army and, between 1951 and 1953, military attaché at the Moscow Embassy. Their friendship rang alarm bells for the ‘watchers’ from MI5. Diana and Michael were regular correspondents and shared the results of their researches in order to develop one another’s understanding of the lute. They often exchanged lute tablature by post between London and Moscow … MI5 were puzzled by the tablature, which to the uneducated eye does look very odd. Naturally suspicious about the reason why a known communist should be communicating with their military attaché in a sensitive embassy, they apparently spent hours trying to decipher this unusual and confusing ‘code’ before someone explained that it was just music and old music at that.”

Thea Abbott, Diana Poulton: The Lady with the Lute, Smokehouse Press, Norwich, 2014, ppg 130-131.

Early music enthusiasts today seem to find old music and politics an ungrateful mixture, but the two disciplines have been intertwined in the distant past and in more recent memory, and it should be no surprise that vocal proponents of early music feel compelled to speak out on contemporary issues, going to some lengths to equate the complex dynamics of the past with the first world problems of the present.

We normally feel inclined to keep our political opinions to ourselves, although subtle hints of our leanings may rise to the surface from time to time in these pages. Mainly, we like to grant historical figures a voice and the opportunity to share their timeless observations that often mean as much today as in the past. But we are informed thinking individuals, and we feel inclined to point out the bloody obvious fact that we no longer have leaders in government. Instead, we have followers who obey the deceptive dictates of their corporate donors, and who react grudgingly and belatedly to emergency situations only after following polling data that alerts them to the general level of outrage among citizens.

“The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”

“When once a Republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles; every other correction is either useless or a new evil.”

Thomas Jefferson

From → All posts

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: