On Film Music: Stravinsky vs. Raksin


This article is from Film Music Society (including the picture above), I so love it that I decide to copy it in its entirety. For the original see


Igor Stravinsky on Film Music
What is the function of music in moving pictures? What, you ask, are the particular problems involved in music for the screen? I can answer both questions briefly. And I must answer them bluntly. There are no musical problems in the film. And there is only one real function of film music – namely, to feed the composer! In all frankness I find it impossible to talk to film people about music because we have no common meeting ground; their primitive and childish concept of music is not my concept. They have the mistaken notion that music, in "helping" and "explaining" the cinematic shadow-play, could be regarded under artistic considerations. It cannot be.
Do not misunderstand me. I realize that music is an indispensable adjunct to the sound film. It has got to bridge holes; it has got to fill the emptiness of the screen and supply the loudspeakers with more or less pleasant sounds. The film could not get along without it, just as I myself could not get along without having the empty spaces of my living-room walls covered with wall paper. But you would not ask me, would you, to regard my wall paper as I would regard painting, or apply aesthetic standards to it?
Misconceptions arise at the very outset of such a discussion when it is asserted that music will help the drama by underlining and describing the characters and the action. Well, that is precisely the same fallacy which has so disastrously affected the true opera through the "Musikdrama." Music explains nothing; music underlines nothing. When it attempts to explain, to narrate, or to underline something, the effect is both embarrassing and harmful.
What, for example, is "sad" music? There is no sad music, there are only conventions to which part of the western world has unthinkingly become accustomed through repeated associations. These conventions tell us that Allegro stands for rushing action, Adagio for tragedy, suspension harmonies for sentimental feeling, etc. I do not like to base premises on wrong deductions, and these conventions are far removed from the essential core of music.
And – to ask a question myself – why take film music seriously? The film people admit themselves that at its most satisfactory it should not be heard as such. Here I agree. I believe that it should not hinder or hurt the action and that it should fill its wallpaper function by having the same relationship to the drama that restaurant music has to the conversation at the individual restaurant table. Or that somebody's piano playing in my living-room has to the book I am reading.
The orchestral sounds in films, then, would be like a perfume which is indefinable there. But let it be clearly understood that such perfume "explains" nothing; and, moreover, I can not accept it as music. Mozart once said: "Music is there to delight us, that is its calling." In other words, music is too high an art to be a servant to other arts; it is too high to be absorbed only by the subconscious mind of the spectator, if it still wants to be considered as music.
Furthermore, the fact that some good composers have composed for the screen does not alter these basic considerations. Decent composers will offer the films decent pages of background score; they will supply more "listenable" sounds than other composers; but even they are subject to the basic rules of the film which, of course, are primarily commercial. The film makers know that they need music, but they prefer music which is not very new. When, for commercial reasons, they employ a composer of repute they want him to write this kind of "not very new" music – which, of course, results in nothing but musical disaster.

I have been asked whether my own music, written for the ballet and the stage, would not be comparable in its dramatic connotation to music in the films. It cannot be compared at all. The days of Petrouchka are long past, and whatever few elements of realistic description can be found in its pages fail to be representative of my thinking now. My music expresses nothing of realistic character, and neither does the dance. The ballet consists of movements which have their own aesthetic and logic, and if one of those movements should happen to be a visualization of the words "I Love You," then this reference to the external world would play the same role in the dance (and in my music) that a guitar in a Picasso still-life would play: something of the world is caught as pretext or clothing for the inherent abstraction. Dancers have nothing to narrate and neither has my music. Even in older ballets like Giselle, descriptiveness has been removed – by virtue of its naiveté, its unpretentious traditionalism and its simplicity – to a level of objectivity and pure art-play.
My music for the stage, then, never tries to "explain" the action, but rather it lives side by side with the visual movement, happily married to it, as one individual to another. In Scènes de Ballet the dramatic action was given by an evolution of plastic problems, and both dance and music had to be constructed on the architectural feeling for contrast and similarity.
The danger in the visualization of music on the screen – and a very real danger it is – is that the film has always tried to "describe" the music. That is absurd. When Balanchine did a choreography to my Danses Concertantes (originally written as a piece of concert music) he approached the problem architecturally and not descriptively. And his success was extraordinary for one great reason: he went to the roots of the musical form, of the jeu musical, and recreated it in forms of movements. Only if the films should ever adopt an attitude of this kind is it possible that a satisfying and interesting art form would result.
The dramatic impact of my Histoire du Soldat has been cited by various critics. There, too, the result was achieved, not by trying to write music which, in the background, tried to explain the dramatic action, or to carry the action forward descriptively, the procedure followed in the cinema. Rather was it the simultaneity of stage, narration, and music which was the object, resulting in the dramatic power of the whole. Put music and drama together as individual entities, put them together and let them alone, without compelling one to try to "explain" and to react to the other. To borrow a term from chemistry: my ideal is the chemical reaction, where a new entity, a third body, results from uniting two different but equally important elements, music and drama; it is not the chemical mixture where, as in the films, to the preordained whole just the ingredient of music is added, resulting in nothing either new or creative. The entire working methods of dramatic film exemplify this.
All these reflections are not to be taken as a point-blank refusal on my part ever to work for the film. I do not work for money, but I need it, as everybody does. Chesterton tells about Charles Dickens' visit to America. The people who had invited him to lecture here were astonished, it seems, about his interest in fees and contracts. "Money is not a shocking thing to an artist," Dickens insisted. Likewise there will be nothing shocking to me in offering my professional capacities to a film studio for remuneration.
If I am asked whether the dissemination of good concert music in the cinema will help to create a more understanding mass audience, I can only answer that here again we must beware of dangerous misconceptions. My first premise is that good music must be heard by and for itself, and not with the crutch of any visual medium. If you start to explain the "meaning" of music you are on the wrong path. Such absurd "meanings" will invariably be established by the image, if only through automatic association. That is an extreme disservice to music. Listeners will never be able to hear music by and for itself, but only for what it represents under the given circumstances and given instructions. Music can be useful, I repeat, only when it is taken for itself. It has to play its own role if it is to be understood at all. And for music to be useful to the individual we must above all teach the self-sufficiency of music, and you will agree that the cinema is a poor place for that! Even under the best conditions it is impossible for the human brain to follow the ear and the eye at the same time.
And even listening is itself not enough, granted that it be understood in its best sense; the training of the ear. To listen only is too passive and it creates a taste and judgment which are too general, too indiscriminate. Only in limited degree can music be helped through increased listening; much more important is the making of music. The playing of an instrument, actual production of some kind or another, will make music accessible and helpful to the individual, not the passive consumption in the darkness of a neighborhood theatre.
And it is the individual that matters, never the mass. The "mass," in relationship to art, is a quantitative term which has never once entered into my consideration. When Disney used Sacre du Printemps for Fantasia he told me: "Think of the number of people who will thus be able to hear your music!" Well, the number of people who will consume music is doubtless of interest to somebody like [impresario] Mr. [Sol] Hurok, but it is of no interest to me. The broad mass adds nothing to the art, it cannot raise the level, and the artist who aims consciously at "mass-appeal" can do so only by lowering his own level. The soul of each individual who listens to my music is important to me, and not the mass feeling of a group. Music cannot be helped through an increase in quantity of listeners, be this increase effected by the films or any other medium, but only through an increase in the quality of listening, the quality of the individual soul.
In my autobiography I described the dangers of mechanical music distribution; and I still believe, as I then did, that "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 . . . produce indifference, inability to understand, to appreciate, or to undergo any worthy reaction. In addition, there is the musical deception arising from the substitution for the actual playing of a reproduction, whether on record or film or by wireless transmission. It is the same difference as that between the synthetic and the authentic. The danger lied in the fact that there is always a far greater consumption of the synthetic which, it must always be remembered, is far from being identical with its mode. The continuous habit of listening to changed and sometimes distorted timbres dulls and degrades the ear, so that it gradually loses all capacity for enjoying natural musical sounds."
In summary, then, my ideas on music and the moving pictures are brief and definite:
The current cinematic concept of music is foreign to me; I express myself in a different way. What common language can one have with the films? They have recourse to music for reasons of sentiment. They use it like remembrances, like odors, like perfumes which evoke remembrances. As for myself, I need music for hygienic purposes, for the health of my soul. Without music in its best sense there is chaos. For my part, music is a force which gives reason to things, a force which creates organization, which attunes things. Music probably attended the creation of the universe. LOGOS.

Raksin’s response Jan 1948 The Musical Digest

I live in a land where deference towards one's elders is scarcely the rule; young people grow up to think in terms of a man's essential worth rather than his seniority. "Essential worth" is, of course, a fancy generalization. It is a variable, a term that permits too many subjective responses. Nevertheless, the essential worth of a man like Igor Stravinsky is hardly disputable – when he is writing music. In the role of critic, however, his greatness is questionable. His recent pronouncements make this abundantly clear.
In writing of a man who was composing Le Sacre du Printemps the year I was born, I must first make clear my great admiration for his genius and for the music he has created. It is not with this that I would quarrel, but with his opinions on artistic matters that appear to be quite beyond his understanding.
In his interview with Ingolf Dahl, which appeared in the Musical Digest of September 1946, Mr. Stravinsky contends that "there is only one real function of film music – namely to feed the composer." Aside from the fact that I have found this function a consistently useful one, there are other less personal reasons for holding it in respect.

Mr. Stravinsky's music may indeed be more expressive than he himself suspects. For even when he sets out to say nothing he succeeds in saying much about himself.

One wishes, as he reads the oftentimes sad history of music, that it might have operated on behalf of Mozart and Schubert. The world has so often neglected its great men that one looks with pleasure at the composer who eats regularly as a result of the indulgence of a wealthy patron or of an organization (sometimes called commission), or by composing or orchestrating for the ballet. In a world where man does not live by double-fugues alone, perhaps the composer who works in films is most fortunate of all. At least he works as a composer and does not wear himself out teaching dolts, concertizing or kowtowing to concert-managers, dilettantes and other musical parasites.
While he may sometimes work with people whose intelligence is somewhat below that of Leonardo da Vinci, this is in no way different from the "Classic" position of the composer, who has always had to cope with employers or patrons who were fundamentally unmusical, from the Archbishop of Salzburg to Louis B. Mayer. The whole struggle of the new generation of American composers has been just this: that they should be able to live from their work as composers. If film music makes this possible, so much the better.
Mr. Stravinsky is absolutely horrified at the esthetics of film music. "I find it impossible to talk to film people about music," he says, "because we have no common meeting ground; their primitive and childish concept of music is not my concept." So long as he assumes the position of godhead in esthetic matters, there are, of course, no grounds for argument. What is primitive and childish is often open to question. Mr. Stravinsky appears to be using against film music the same arguments that were directed against his own ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps, when it first appeared. And if complexity and maturity be the opposites of the qualities that Mr. Stravinsky so despises, he will have great difficulty in convincing all critics that these are the typical qualities of his own music.
A popular, non-technical magazine is hardly the place to be quoting musical examples; otherwise it would be easy to set Mr. Stravinsky's words against his music. For now, it must be sufficient to wonder aloud how the second movement of his Symphony in Three Movements and parts of Scènes de Ballet fit in with his dicta. It has always been interesting to see how often an artist's stated principles are contradicted by his art.
It is an inevitable corollary of Mr. Stravinsky's esthetics that film music, as he sees it, cannot "be regarded under artistic considerations." He said no; I say yes. Impasse. But it is an impasse arising out of a dogmatic assumption with which he could trap the unwary. Evidently Mr. Stravinsky's definition of art is a restrictive one, and if he can maintain it, he has indeed succeeded where philosophers have been frustrated for centuries. He, of all people, should beware of such restrictive definitions. A genuine orthodoxy, sanctioned by theories and accomplishments of generations of great artists before his own time, might conceivably exclude most of his own art. Mr. Stravinsky's definitions must perforce be broad ones, lest he find himself a pariah among those to whom he would appear as a god. Neither Mr. Stravinsky nor I will decide these matters. They will be decided through the same process of selection that constantly refines and revitalizes our musical heritage. Such selective processes have a way of disregarding respectability, theories and venerable age, and of deferring only to essential worth.
The doctrine of essential worth, if I may presume so to dignify the idea, is not one that requires definition. It is quite satisfied with illustration. If one cannot say what it is, one can at least say what it does. It has freed artists from oppressive esthetic standards of both the past and present. It has repeatedly sent the status quo crashing into ruins. It has broken the charmed circle and destroyed the exclusiveness of the daisy chain. It has assured universality and immortality to any piece of music that is good, whether it be a symphony, a popular song or a sequence in a film score. More than that, it has made room in the contemporary musical scene for Mr. Stravinsky.
It is true, of course, that a sequence of film music may not measure up as a musical entity – that is, it may not satisfy the logic of "pure" music. But it may, nevertheless, remain a good piece of film music; and as such, it may be as worthy of artistic consideration as other music for, say, the opera, or the ballet or the dramatic stage. If one were to quibble with Mr. Stravinsky's music as he quibbles with Hollywood's, it would be fair to ask just what "pure" logic is satisfied by the final bars of Petrouchka. By themselves they are hard to justify, but in the context of the ballet they are inevitable. So with film music: many a sequence derives its meaning from the context of the film and the rest of the music. The "wall-paper" theory of film music which Mr. Stravinsky so glibly expounds may help him to maintain the defensive position of a neo-classicist who does not wish his preconceived attitudes to be affected in any way by facts. But it cannot be other than ridiculous to the film-goer, to whom the function of film music is an actuality which he does not need to be convinced of, since he experiences it.

Does the man who grew up in the land of Tchaikovsky and Moussorgsky really ask what is sad music? Ask the artist who painted Guernica what is horror, the author of the Twenty-ninth Psalm what is exaltation.

"Put music and drama together as individual entities," says Mr. Stravinsky, "put them together and let them alone, without compelling one to try to 'explain' and to react to the other." Then, contradicting himself, he explains that his ideal is "the chemical reaction where a new entity . . . results." Aside from the fact that Mr. Stravinsky thus rules out almost all of the operas the world has learned to love in favor of his own esoteric preferences, it seems sheer presumption to say arbitrarily that this reaction never occurs in film music. Anyone who has ever seen the silent footage of a film in its rough cut and then the final scored version can testify to the transformation. The expressiveness of film music has frequently been derided; too often it overstates the case. But to deny its eloquence requires an extreme degree of insensitivity.
Here one runs into another of Mr. Stravinsky's dogmas, the statement that "music explains nothing, music underlines nothing." This may be for Mr. Stravinsky a satisfactory defense of his own aversion to expressiveness. But it hardly conforms to the facts. Mr. Stravinsky's music may indeed be more expressive than he himself suspects. For even when he sets out to say nothing he succeeds in saying much about himself. And this is why he has come to be recognized as one of the great masters of our day. What we revere in his music is precisely what he has explained and underlined about himself, not what he has hidden from us.
Pursuing his idea, Mr. Stravinsky goes on to ask, "What is 'sad' music?" I confess that I find this question narrow, contemptuous, disillusioned, insensitive, precious – and deaf. Does the man who grew up in the land of Tchaikovsky and Moussorgsky really ask what is sad music? Ask the artist who painted Guernica what is horror, the author of the Twenty-ninth Psalm what is exaltation. Mr. Stravinsky seems hardly the one to pause for an answer to such questions, for his esoteric point of view excludes the simple, direct and accessible aspects of art.
I do not hold to the extreme opposite of insisting that every note of music must have some "significance" – social or otherwise – in order to justify it. This approach to art is as intolerable as it is dull. But somehow it seems closer to the realities of life than a philosophy of detachment and scorn.
No one can quarrel with Mr. Stravinsky's prerogatives as an artist, or with his analyses of his own music. They are interesting but not final. Just as Mr. Stravinsky has searched deeply for the intrinsic quality of the music of Pergolesi in Pulcinella, so do we who listen to Stravinsky's music search for the meaning that it has for us. These meanings, I suspect, are far greater than Mr. Stravinsky prefers to acknowledge. Consider, for a moment, the Introduction to the second part of Le Sacre, or Jocasta's aria, Oracula, Oracula, from Oedipus Rex. Examples fall over themselves to be heard, but if I may hark back to an earlier paragraph of this article, let us forget the author of the Twenty-ninth Psalm, and ask the composer of the last movement of the Symphony of Psalms, with its Hallelujahs, what is exaltation?
That Mr. Stravinsky is not unaware of the significance of his music is demonstrated by his acceptance of Ingolf Dahl's program notes for the Symphony in C Major, which included the following sentence: "One day it will be universally recognized that the white house in the Hollywood hills, in which the Symphony was written and which was regarded by some as an ivory tower, was just as close to the core of the world at war as the place where Picasso painted Guernica." Many of us were greatly surprised when Mr. Stravinsky approved this passage; some questioned its validity, which now seems to this writer more apparent than it was at first. The important thing is that Mr. Stravinsky, by his approval, admits to this significance.
The difference between the meanings that a composer intends and the meanings that an audience infers constitutes the very richness of art. Speaking of his Scènes de Ballet, Mr. Stravinsky says, "the dramatic action was given by an evolution of plastic problems." This is undoubtedly true – although one notes that he uses the word "dramatic" in describing the action. But it is not the whole truth. For not all of the problems of today's composers are plastic problems. Many of them are dynamic problems presented by events of the composer's inner and outer life. Expressive music does not have to dig very hard into the history of musical art to find examples in abundance. One can find them even in Mr. Stravinsky's music – in the opening of the Symphony in Three Movements, for instance, in the outer movements of the Symphony of Psalms, in the Pas de Deux of Scènes de Ballet, with its sentimental trumpet solo. These may have been plastic problems to Mr. Stravinsky; but the finished product, as we hear it, is packed with feeling and emotion.
On the basis of his music, Mr. Stravinsky, who has fathered the latest cult of inexpressiveness (an earlier one was sired by Nero), seems himself not quite able to fulfill the membership qualifications. This may come as a great blow to him, but the gulf between his own music and that of the films is neither so wide nor so impassable as he would like to imagine. A man who writes such pretty thirds and sixths, whose music from the ballet, Firebird, is soon to be the subject of a tap dance in a film, and whose new ballad, Summer Moon, may soon be a contender for Hit Parade honors, is hardly in the best possible position to espouse austerity.
I must now point out again that I admire and respect Mr. Stravinsky as a great composer. But as a critic of music in films he leaves much to be desired. Any Hollywood composer can tell him what is really wrong with film music. Mr. Stravinsky himself has pointed out none of the real defects. He has succeeded only in expressing an esoteric and snobbish attitude.
"Music," says Mr. Stravinsky, "probably attended the creation of the universe." Certainly. It was background music.

Editor's final note: According to Raksin, Stravinsky was dismayed at the rebuttal, exclaiming "What's with Raksin? Why does he attack me?" – although the two ultimately remained friends. Recently recalling their public squabble, Raksin commented, "You know, he said music doesn't express anything. I do not agree with that. But the point is, he's Stravinsky and I'm not."


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