Stravinsky and C.-F. Ramuz: A Primitive Classicism

By Gordon, Tom | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1983 | Go to article overview

Stravinsky and C.-F. Ramuz: A Primitive Classicism


Gordon, Tom, Canadian University Music Review


Aside from a taste for fine paper and simple wines, there were few obvious links between Stravinsky and his Swiss literary collaborator and friend, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. Stravinsky was extroverted, socially adept, and direct; Ramuz was introverted, dour, and self-effacing. But from the moment they met there was an immediate empathy. Ramuz mythologized it in his famous Souvenirs sur Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky's testament is found in the extended catalogue of works in which he invited Ramuz's collaboration.1

The close interaction between composer and poet resulted not only in an inventory of greater and lesser works, but also in a mutually evolving aesthetic. Transcending ethnic differences, Ramuz and Stravinsky enshrined both the elemental and the classic within the same aesthetic. If, at the end of his Swiss exile, Stravinsky rejected Ramuz's provincial limitations, the more literal classicism that he evolved in the twenties still owed much to the discipline and freedom from convention they had developed together. The new classicism was defined, in part, in the transposition of traditions of art into new forms. Stravinsky learned that process in the transposition of the elemental materials of folk music or peasant imagery into art.2 Furthermore, the cornerstone work of Stravinsky's new classicism is universally acknowledged as L'Histoire du soldat, the single result of the Ramuz-Stravinsky collaborations in which the writer participated fully in the determination of the work.

The gentle Vaudois countryside with its cast of peasants provided the setting for most of Ramuz's fiction, but not his birth and childhood. He was born in Lausanne, on 24 September 1878, the son of a merchant. Though a burgher by birth, Ramuz was a peasant by ancestry and inclination. In the vineyards that had been tended by his mother's people for generations, on the soil that his paternal grandparents had worked, Ramuz found the sole concrete truths that he could nurture into art, and through which he envisioned the birth of a primitive classicism. Ramuz was well into adulthood before he could accept that the sensations he experienced in the Vaudois countryside were a more vital education than the strictures he dutifully accepted at the Gymnasium and Université de Lausanne. His formal education was classical and doctrinaire. He so capably mastered composition in perfect alexandrines that he persuaded his family to allow him a career in the precarious field of literature. But the classical postures he had acquired were inadequate when the irregular rhythms of Vaudois peasant life naturally suggested a freer poetical form. As early as December 1901 Ramuz found himself questioning the necessity of rigorous discipline:

What does it matter if the numerical symmetry of the syllables is always faithful, the rhymes always return, even if it is contrary to preconceived theories and my lively taste for the regular? . . . After all, all interior harmony (the word is ridiculous) being perceptible to anyone, why forbid any research out of fear of the vulgar and uncouth simply under the pretext of rules of prosody and definitive rhythm (Ramuz 1943: 63)?3

The simple recognition that a freer poetic style brought authenticity to his subject matter was not enough to free Ramuz from the metres that had become ingrained in his poetic voice. Remarkably self-aware, even during his apprenticeship, Ramuz recognized that part of his creative struggle would grow from the dichotomy within: the academic versus the elemental. On 28 April 1905 he entered in his diary:

I would like to achieve pure sensation: to paint complex things with very simple words; not to describe, but to evoke, and sometimes even to go so far as to break syntax and grammar. I do not try it yet, because of the remnants of my education, but I lean that way (ibid.: 15O).4

Ten years later, through the example of a painter and in collaboration with a composer, Ramuz resolved the dichotomy within. …

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