In Stravinsky’s Octet, a heady contemplation of time
On Aug. 18, conductor Charles Dutoit curates a Tanglewood concert featuring two works of Igor Stravinsky: his 1918 “L'Histoire du Soldat” (“The Soldier's Tale”) and his 1923 Octet for wind instruments. The former, a tale of a soldier bartering his violin to the devil, echoes the catastrophe of World War I; the Octet, in turn, was Stravinsky's formal pledge of allegiance to neoclassicism, a seeming retreat into 18th-century rhetoric and manners. But the Octet, too, was a reaction to the war — if we take Stravinsky at his typically cryptic word.
Looking back on his career (with his amanuensis, Robert Craft), Stravinsky said that the Octet was sparked by a dream featuring a similar instrumental group playing “some very attractive music,” he recalled. “Though I strained to hear the music, I could not,” he continued, “but I remember my curiosity — in the dream — to know how many the musicians were.” To this, Stravinsky appended a curious footnote: “This confession exposes me to Minkowski's analysis of the counting mania as a time frustration, i.e., of the compulsion to count as a wish to force future time.”
Time was a fascination of Eugène Minkowski (1885-1972), the Polish-born French psychiatrist whose theories incorporated phenomenology, the philosophy of lived experience. Minkowski's psychiatry, in a way, recast psychological disorder as an imbalance in our consciousness of past, present, and future. Depression, for instance, dulls one's awareness of future time by suppressing future-directed emotions such as hope and desire.
Minkowski's fullest examination of the subject was in his 1933 monograph “Le Temps vécu” (“Lived Time”), but he had explored it for years. In an unpublished essay written just after the war, in which Minkowski served as a medical volunteer, he contrasted actively approaching the future with passively expecting it. Expectation “contains a factor of brutal arrest and renders the individual breathless,” Minkowski wrote: “the whole of becoming, concentrated outside the individual, swoops down on him in a powerful and hostile mass, attempting to annihilate him.” As scholar Stephen Kern incisively put it, Minkowski's description “reads like a phenomenology of life in the trenches.”
The “counting mania” Stravinsky cited could replace such suffocating expectation with preordained activity. One can hear the Octet's eager enumeration of classical patterns — sonata, variation, fugue — as generating Minkowski's future time by basing the music's forward trajectory not on surprise, but formal and structural necessity. In war's wake, Stravinsky's neoclassicism counted on old genres to turn back to the future.
Charles Dutoit directs members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and guests in music of Stravinsky at Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $18-$56. 888-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org