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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

Stravinsky's serial technique can be sampled at its ripest in his last major work, the Requiem Canticles of 1966. (Only one composition would follow in 1967, a cute but inconsequential setting for voice and piano of Edward Lear's children's poem, “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.”) This fifteen-minute setting—for contralto and bass soloists, small chorus, and small orchestra—of several short selections from the text of the Mass of the Dead, was completed when the composer himself was eighty-four years old and infirm, and expected that it would be his final work.

Nevertheless, its musical technique remained faithful to the questing spirit of modernism. Stravinsky actually tried a few novel devices out in it for the first time, and several aspects of the work made it at first an enigma for analysts. That was a point of pride for Stravinsky, as for most modernists, since it gave him the sense (particularly important to Stravinsky since his crisis of the early fifties) of being out in front again. “No theorist,” Stravinsky boasted in published conversation with Robert Craft, “could determine the spelling of the flute solo near the beginning [of Movements], or the derivation of the three Fs announcing the last movement simply by knowing the original order”19 of the series. The three Fs were just three “zero pitches” from an array like the one in Ex. 3-10;but of course when Stravinsky issued his challenge the only published analysis of such an array was in a long-forgotten (except by Stravinsky) article of Krenek's.

The riddle of the Requiem Canticles was why Stravinsky used two different series in alternation for the various sections of this short work, while many longer works (Schoenberg's evening-length opera Moses und Aron, for instance) managed to achieve all the variety they needed within the constraints of a single series. Sampling the last three sections of the work will suggest an answer. They sum up the three textures or media found within the Requiem Canticles. The Lacrimosa is an accompanied vocal solo; Libera me is choral and chordal; the Postlude, also chordal, is an instrumental commentary.

Requiem for a HeavyweightRequiem for a HeavyweightRequiem for a Heavyweight

ex. 3-12 Igor Stravinsky, Requiem Canticles, Lacrimosa

In the Lacrimosa (Ex. 3-12), the musical material is drawn almost entirely from a “rotational” array like the one in Ex. 3-10, constructed on the inverted retrograde of the second series (see Ex. 3-13). The contralto part begins at the lower right and simply snakes its way up the right-hand column, then across to the left-hand column and down, reading the cyclically permuted and transposed hexachords alternately right-to-left and left-to-right. Meanwhile, the sustained accompanying chords are simply the ten verticals, beginning with those of the second hexachord straightforwardly presented from 1 to 5, and continuing in similar fashion with those of the first. (The multiply doubled G that intervenes at the end of the example is nothing but the second hexachord's “zero” pitch.) The few remaining notes in the piece are derived from another row form, unrotated and untransposed.

The Libera me (Ex. 3-14) is derived from a similar rotational array based on the inverted retrograde of the first series, handled much more “freely” (that is, selectively) so as to generate the consonant harmonies that give this chorus, which simulates an actual Orthodox panikhida or service for the dead, its “antique” or “liturgical” effect. This movement is especially poignant, not only in its prefiguring the composer's own panikhida, five years later, where it was indeed performed, but also because it shows Stravinsky, by dint of an especially elaborate strategy, wresting from the serial method a kind of harmony he might have composed especially easily, without qualm or strain, at an earlier phase of his career. The harmony in the Lacrimosa, too, is ingeniously retrospective, Stravinsky having structured the second series so that five pitches in each of its hexachords are referable to a single octatonic scale—a feature that lends a peculiarly familiar color to the melodic writing and the supporting harmonies alike.

It is in the concluding Postlude (Ex. 3-15) that the two series are used concurrently, as if in synthesis. In a disarmingly artless maneuver, Stravinsky let the two series (Ex. 3-16) simply run side by side together with their inversions to generate the strings of four-part harmonies played by the “mallet percussion” instruments (celesta doubling tubular chimes and vibraphone). The horn F at the beginning is the “zero pitch” from which the four set forms all proceed. Given the intervallic similarity of the two sets, what emerges is a near palindromic sequence of (by definition) self-inverting harmonies symmetrically disposed around the F that starts each of the row forms on its way, here treated as a pedal so that it sounds in harmony with the chords whose symmetrical structures it completes. The chord progressions that follow, less strictly fashioned than the first but sharing its properties, are derived from the combined retrogrades and inverted retrogrades, and from the combined primes and retrogrades. The more complex chords sustained by flutes, piano, and harp are “bitonal” combinations of verticals derived from the two sets.

Requiem for a Heavyweight

ex. 3-13 Igor Stravinsky, Requiem Canticles, source array for Lacrimosa

Requiem for a Heavyweight

ex. 3-14 Igor Stravinsky, Requiem Canticles, Libera me

Only by deploying in tandem a pair of sets with a common starting point or “zero pitch” could Stravinsky have generated such an impressive array of self-inverting harmonies—minor seventh chords, augmented triads, whole-tone segments, French sixths, diminished triads and sevenths, plus others without common-practice standing—all motivated by a new syntax to govern their progression. The technique—novel enough, however simple, to elude analytical detection for more than two decades—enabled a new point of contact with a harmonic vocabulary that had provided the stylistic bedrock of Stravinsky's early maximalistic ballets, as a comparison with a characteristic passage from The Firebird (Ex. 3-17), composed fifty-six years earlier, will confirm.


(19) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Memories and Commentaries (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), p. 100.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 The Apex. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003005.xml