Building Blocks: Repetition and Continuity in the Music of Stravinsky

Building Blocks: Repetition and Continuity in the Music of Stravinsky

Building Blocks: Repetition and Continuity in the Music of Stravinsky

Building Blocks: Repetition and Continuity in the Music of Stravinsky


A pioneer of musical modernism, Igor Stravinsky marked a significant turn in compositional method. He broke free from traditional styles and contemporary trends in the early part of the twentieth century to achieve an entirely new and truly modern aesthetic. Striking a remarkable concurrence of stasis and discontinuity, Stravinsky crafted large-scale compositions out of short repeating melodies, juxtaposed these primary motives with contrasting and varying fragments, and layered onfixed ostinati which repeated at their own rates throughout the piece. Previous scholarship on Stravinsky focuses on the disparate and independent nature of such textures, conceiving them as separated and deadlocked, unable to escape their repetitions, and having no goal. This connects Stravinsky'sprocedures with the more radical music of subsequent composers for whom disconnection has served as a primary aesthetic. Yet, from the perspective of his later works, the static and discontinuous depictions of Stravinsky's music seem incomplete and perhaps even simplistic. The "building blocks" of his novel textures often consist of tunes with identifiable intervallic shapes, goal pitches, and defining durational patterns-organizations that engender continuity and connection. In other words, although its basic materials are combined into new, often dissonant and usually repetitive textures, those materialsstill originate in, and depend upon, traditional concepts of melody, harmony, and pulsation. Presenting an innovative analytical model for Stravinsky's compositions, Building Blocks seeks a fuller perspective, and enables a fresh, insightful approach to this music and the theoretical constructs behind it. Author Gretchen Horlacher portrays the whole of Stravinsky's repertoire as radical or modern not because it eschews continuity and connection, but because it places them in relation to their opposites: the music holds our interest because undeniable references towardcontinuity are dynamically coordinated (rather than subsumed) with stasis and discontinuity. From this vantage point, Stravinsky's music becomes a commentary on the nature of time: the music draws into relation the tension between time as it is punctuated by fixed reference and as it flows from one event toanother. It is quintessentially modern because of its inherent emphasis on multiple vantage points. A sensitive and sophisticated approach to the work of this iconic composer, Building Blocks will appeal to students and scholars of Stravinsky and his music, scholars of musical modernism and twentieth century music, and to a more limited extent, to performers-particularly conductors, pianists, and orchestral instrumentalists.


Melody is … the musical singing of a cadenced phrase.

Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, 40

Although it is dangerous to begin with a remark by a composer notorious for manipulating words to suit nearly any purpose, the application of Stravinsky’s words to his own music has fascinating ramifications. For it is commonplace to describe Stravinsky’s melodies as essentially repetitive, perhaps even immune from considerations of shape which arise in the construction of phrase and cadence. As evidence, commentators list the composer’s frequent use of ostinato and his penchant for layering repeating strata, and from these techniques they see in his work a form best described by words such as block and superimposition, terms associated more with assemblage than shape. Moreover, this vantage leads to characterizations of the music as broadly discontinuous, static, or deadlocked.

This book takes the notion of shaping melody through time as one fundamental criterion by which to describe, and to measure, Stravinsky’s repetitions. Starting with the idea that a repeated musical idea (such as the short melodies so common in the composer’s music) has a beginning and an end, and that its iterations appear over a definite span and in a definite order, I delineate attributes by which the composer’s repetitions may be gauged. the measurement of melodic repetition takes place as a melody occurs singly, as it occurs in multiple iterations, or in conjunction with other musical fragments . . .

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