Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was an innovative and controversial composer who passed through many musical phases in his long career. Here are some of his writings on music, including his famous claim that music does not express anything at all, and his reflections on mechanically reproduced music:
MUSIC AND EXPRESSION
I consider that music, by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. . . . Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention—in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have often come to confuse with its essential being.Music is the sole domain in which man realizes the present. By the imperfection of his nature, man is doomed to submit to the passage of time—to its categories of past and future—without ever being able to give substance and, therefore, stability, to the category of the present.
The phenomenon of music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including particularly the coordination between man and time. To be put into practice, its indispensable and single requirement is construction. Construction once completed, this order has been attained, and there is nothing more to be said. It would be futile to look for, or expect anything else from it. It is precisely this construction, this achieved order, which produces in us a unique emotion having nothing in common with our ordinary sensations and our responses to the impressions of daily life. One could not better define the sensation produced by music than by saying that it is identical with that evoked by contemplation of the interplay of architectural forms. Goethe thoroughly understood that when he called architecture frozen music.
LISTENING AND LOOKING AT MUSIC
I have always had a horror of listening to music with my eyes shut, with nothing for them to do. The sight of the gestures and movements of the various parts of the body producing the music is fundamentally necessary if it is to be grasped in all its fullness. All music created or composed demands some exteriorization for the perception of the listener. In other words, it must have an intermediary, an executant. That being an essential condition, without which music cannot wholly reach us, why wish to ignore it, or try to do so—why shut the eyes to this fact which is inherent in the very nature of musical art? Obviously one frequently prefers to turn away one’s eyes, or even close them, when the superfluity of the player’s gesticulations prevents the concentration of one’s faculties of hearing. But if the player’s movements are evoked solely by the exigencies of the music, and do not tend to make an impression on the listener by extramural devices, why not follow with the eye such movements as those of the drummer, the violinist or the trombonist, which facilitate one’s auditory perceptions? As a matter of fact, those who maintain that they only enjoy music to the full with their eyes shut do not hear better than when they have them open, but the absence of visual distractions enables them to abandon themselves to the reveries induced by the lullaby of its sounds, and that is really what they prefer to the music itself.
In the domain of music the importance and influence of its dissemination by mechanical means, such as the record and the radio—those redoubtable triumphs of modern science which will probably undergo still further development—make them worthy of the closest investigation. The facilities they offer to composers and executants alike for reaching great numbers of listeners, and the opportunities they give those listeners to acquaint themselves with works they have not heard, are obviously indisputable advantages. But one must not overlook the fact that such advantages are attended by serious danger. In Johann Sebastian Bach’s day, he had to walk ten miles to a neighboring town to hear Buxtehude play his works. Today anyone, living no matter where, has only to turn a knob or put on a record to hear what he likes, indeed, it is in just this incredible facility, this lack of necessity for any effort, that the evil of this so-called progress lies. For in music, more than in any other branch of art, understanding is given only to those who make an active effort. Passive receptivity is not enough. To listen to certain combinations of sound and automatically become accustomed to them, does not necessarily imply that they have been heard and understood. For one can listen without hearing, just as one can look without seeing. The absence of active effort and the liking acquired for this facility make for laziness. The radio has got rid of the necessity which existed in Bach’s day for getting out of one’s armchair. Nor are listeners any longer impelled to play themselves, or to spend time on learning an instrument in order to acquire a knowledge of musical literature. The wireless and the gramophone do all that. And thus the active faculties of listeners, without which one cannot assimilate music, gradually become atrophied from lack of use. This creeping paralysis entails very serious consequences. Oversaturated with sounds, blas6 even before combinations of the utmost, variety, listeners fall into a kind of torpor which deprives them of all power of discrimination and makes them indifferent to the quality of the pieces presented. It is more than likely that such irrational overfeeding will make them lose all appetite and relish for music. There will, of course, always be exceptions, individuals who will know how to select from the mass those things that appeal to them. But for the majority of listeners there is every reason to fear that, far from developing a love and understanding of music, the modern methods of dissemination will have a diametrically opposite effect—that is to say, the production of indifference, inability to understand, to appreciate, or to experience any worth-while reaction.
In addition, there is the musical deception that arises when a reproduction, whether on record or film or by wireless transmission from a distance, is substituted for actual playing. It is the same difference as between the ersatz and the authentic. The danger lies in the very fact that there is always a far greater consumption of the ersatz, which, it must be remembered, is far from being identical with its model. The continuous habit of listening to changed and sometimes distorted timbres spoils the ear, so that it gradually loses all capacity for enjoying natural musical sounds.
All these considerations may seem unexpected from one who has worked so much, and is still working, in this field. I think that I have sufficiently stressed the instructional value I unreservedly ascribe to this means of musical reproduction; but that does not prevent me from seeing its negative sides, and I anxiously ask myself whether they are sufficiently outweighed by the positive advantages to enable one to face them with impunity.
These selections, all originally from Stravinsky's 1935 autobiography Chroniques de ma vie, are taken from Morgenstern, Composers on Music (Pantheon, 1956), pp. 442-444.