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Igor Stravinsky
1882-1971

 


His Rite of Spring heralded the century. After that, he never stopped reinventing himself — or modern music
By PHILIP GLASS for Time Magazine
 

 

Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, on May 29, 1913, was the setting of the most notorious event in the musical history of this century — the world premiere of The Rite of Spring. Trouble began with the playing of the first notes, in the ultrahigh register of the bassoon, as the renowned composer Camille Saint-Saens conspicuously walked out, complaining loudly of the misuse of the instrument. Soon other protests became so loud that the dancers could barely hear their cues. Fights broke out in the audience. Thus Modernism arrived in music, its calling card delivered by the 30-year-old Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Born in 1882 in Oranienbaum, Russia, a city southwest of St. Petersburg, Stravinsky was rooted in the nationalistic school that drew inspiration from Russia's beautifully expressive folk music. His father was an opera singer who performed in Kiev and St. Petersburg, but his greatest musical influence was his teacher, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. The colourful, fantastic orchestration that Stravinsky brought to his folk song-inspired melodies was clearly derived from Rimsky-Korsakov. But the primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive he added was entirely his own. The result was a music never before heard in a theater or concert hall.

In 1910 Serge Diaghilev, then director of the world-famous Ballets Russes, invited Stravinsky to compose works for his company's upcoming season at the Paris Opera. The Firebird, the first to appear, was a sensation. Petrushka and The Rite of Spring quickly followed. Soon Stravinsky's audaciously innovative works confirmed his status as the leading composer of the day, a position he hardly relinquished until his death nearly 60 years later.

After leaving Russia, Stravinsky lived for a while in Switzerland and then moved to Paris. In 1939 he fled the war in Europe for the U.S., settling in Hollywood. In 1969 he moved to New York City. (The story goes that when asked why he made such a move at his advanced age, he replied, "To mutate faster.") Over the years, Stravinsky experimented with virtually every technique of 20th century music: tonal, polytonal and 12-tone serialism. He reinvented and personalized each form while adapting the melodic styles of earlier eras to the new times. In the end, his own musical voice always prevailed.

In 1947 Stravinsky befriended Robert Craft, a 23-year-old conductor who was to become his chronicler, interpreter and, oddly, his mentor in some ways. It was Craft who persuaded Stravinsky to take a more sympathetic view of Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone school, which led to Stravinsky's last great stylistic development.

In his long career, there was scarcely a musical form that Stravinsky did not turn his hand to. He regularly produced symphonies, concertos, oratorios and an almost bewildering variety of choral works. For me, however, Stravinsky was at his most sublime when he wrote for the theatre. There were operas, including The Rake's Progress, composed for a libretto by W.H. Auden and one of a handful of 20th century operas that have found a secure place in the repertory. The ballets also continued; the last of his masterpieces, Agon (composed for another Russian choreographer, George Balanchine), came in 1957.

I heard him conduct only once, during a program in his honor in 1959 at New York City's Town Hall. What an event that was! Stravinsky led a performance of Les Noces, a vocal/theater work accompanied by four pianos — played by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss and Roger Sessions. Each brought his own charisma to the event, but all seemed to be in awe of Stravinsky — as if he appeared before them with one foot on earth and the other planted firmly on Olympus.

He was electrifying for me too. He conducted with an energy and vividness that completely conveyed his every musical intention. Seeing him at that moment, embodying his work in demeanour and gestures, is one of my most treasured musical memories. Here was Stravinsky, a musical revolutionary whose own evolution never stopped. There is not a composer who lived during his time or is alive today who was not touched, and sometimes transformed, by his work.
 


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Russian composer, later of French (1934) and American (1945) nationality. The son of a leading bass at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov (1902-8), who was an influence on his early music, though so were Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glazunov and (from 1907-8) Debussy and Dukas. This colourful mixture of sources lies behind The Firebird (1910), commissioned by Dyagilev for his Ballets Russes. Stravinsky went with the company to Paris in 1910 and spent much of his time in France from then onwards, continuing his association with Dyagilev in Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

These scores show an extraordinary development. Both use folktunes, but not in any symphonic manner: Stravinsky's forms are additive rather than symphonic, created from placing blocks of material together without disguising the joins. The binding energy is much more rhythmic than harmonic, and the driving pulsations of The Rite marked a crucial change in the nature of Western music. Stravinsky, however, left it to others to use that change in the most obvious manner. He himself, after completing his Chinese opera The Nightingale, turned aside from large resources to concentrate on chamber forces and the piano.

Partly this was a result of World War I, which disrupted the activities of the Ballets Russes and caused Stravinsky to seek refuge in Switzerland. He was not to return to Russia until 1962, though his works of 1914-18 are almost exclusively concerned with Russian folk tales and songs: they include the choral ballet Les noces (‘The Wedding’), the smaller sung and danced fable Renard, a short play doubly formalized with spoken narration and instrumental music (The Soldier's Tale) and several groups of songs. In The Wedding, where block form is geared to highly mechanical rhythm to give an objective ceremonial effect, it took him some while to find an appropriately objective instrumentation; he eventually set it with pianos and percussion. Meanwhile, for the revived Ballets Russes, he produced a startling transformation of 18th-century Italian music (ascribed to Pergolesi) in Pulcinella (1920), which opened the way to a long period of ‘neo-classicism’, or re-exploring past forms, styles and gestures with the irony of non-developmental material being placed in developmental moulds. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments, an apotheosis of the wartime ‘Russian’ style, was thus followed by the short number-opera Mavra, the Octet for wind, and three works he wrote to help him earn his living as a pianist: the Piano Concerto, the Sonata and the Serenade in A.

During this period of the early 1920s he avoided string instruments because of their expressive nuances, preferring the clear articulation of wind, percussion, piano and even pianola. But he returned to the full orchestra to achieve the starkly presented Handel-Verdi imagery of the opera-oratorio Oedipus rex, and then wrote for strings alone in Apollon musagète (1928), the last of his works to be presented by Dyagilev. All this while he was living in France, and Apollon, with its Lullian echoes, suggests an identification with French classicism which also marks the Duo concertant for violin and piano and the stage work on which he collaborated with Gide: Perséphone, a classical rite of spring. However, his Russianness remained deep. He orchestrated pieces by Tchaikovsky, now established as his chosen ancestor, to make the ballet Le baiser de la fée, and in 1926 he rejoined the Orthodox Church. The Symphony of Psalms was the first major work in which his ritual music engaged with the Christian tradition.

The other important works of the 1930s, apart from Perséphone, are all instrumental, and include the Violin Concerto, the Concerto for two pianos, the post-Brandenburg ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ Concerto and the Symphony in C, which disrupts diatonic normality on its home ground. It was during the composition of this work, in 1939, that Stravinsky moved to the USA, followed by Vera Sudeikina, whom he had loved since 1921 and who was to be his second wife (his first wife and his mother had both died earlier the same year). In 1940 they settled in Hollywood, which was henceforth their home. Various film projects ensued, though all foundered, perhaps inevitably: the Hollywood cinema of the period demanded grand continuity; Stravinsky's patterned discontinuities were much better suited to dancing. He had a more suitable collaborator in Balanchine, with whom he had worked since Apollon, and for whom in America he composed Orpheus and Agon. Meanwhile music intended for films went into orchestral pieces, including the Symphony in Three Movements (1945).

The later 1940s were devoted to The Rake's Progress, a parable using the conventions of Mozart's mature comedies and composed to a libretto by Auden and Kallman. Early in its composition, in 1948, Stravinsky met Robert Craft, who soon became a member of his household and whose enthusiasm for Schoenberg and Webern (as well as Stravinsky) probably helped make possible the gradual achievement of a highly personal serial style after The Rake. The process was completed in 1953 during the composition of the brilliant, tightly patterned Agon, though most of the serial works are religious or commemorative, being sacred cantatas (Canticum sacrum, Threni, Requiem Canticles) or elegies (In memoriam Dylan Thomas, Elegy for J. F. K.). All these were written after Stravinsky's 70th birthday, and he continued to compose into his mid-80s, also conducting concerts and making many gramophone records of his music. During this period, too, he and Craft published several volumes of conversations.
 


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The Russian-born composer Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971) identified himself as an "inventor of music." The novelty, power, and elegance of his works won worldwide admiration before he was 30. Throughout his life he continued to surprise admirers with transformations of his style that stimulated controversy.

Every aspect of music was renewed again and again in the work of Igor Stravinsky. Rhythm was the most striking ingredient, and his novel rhythms were most widely imitated. His instrumentation and his ways of writing for voices were also distinctive and influential. His harmonies and forms were more elusive. He recognized melody as the "most essential" element. Even if his rhythm and his sheer sound sometimes seemed independent of melody, stimulating composers like Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to explore further possibilities of such independence, Stravinsky's own works constituted integral melodies, as much as Claude Debussy's or Ludwig van Beethoven's or Carlo Gesualdo's, if not quite Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's. Stravinsky constantly subordinated all "technical apparatus" to what he recognized in 1939 as "a general revision of both the basic values and the primordial elements of the art of music," a revision continuing throughout his life. "The so-called crisis of means," he insisted in 1966, "is interior."


Beginnings in Russia

Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum near St. Petersburg on June 17, 1882. Although his father was a star singer of the Imperial Opera, he rather expected the boy to become a bureaucrat. Igor finished a university law course before he made the decision to become a musician. By this time he was a good amateur pianist, an occasional professional accompanist, an avid reader of avant-garde scores from France and Germany, and, of course, a connoisseur of Italian, French, and Russian opera.

The closest friend of Stravinsky's youth was Stephan Mitusov, stepson of a prince. Stravinsky acknowledged that Mitusov was "a kind of literary and theatrical tutor to me at one of the greatest moments in the Russian theater." Mitusov translated the poems of Paul Verlaine that Stravinsky set to music in 1910, and he arranged the libretto of Stravinsky's opera The Nightingale (1908-1914).

One of Stravinsky's classmates at the university was Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, son of the composer, whose reputation as master orchestrator and teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory surpassed the fame of his operas. Stravinsky became Rimsky's apprentice; he did not enter classes at the conservatory but worked privately and intensely at his home. For the sake of the most advanced craftsmanship, Stravinsky gladly submerged his independent taste, confident that he could exercise it later. As demonstration of his learning, with few original features, he composed his Symphony in E-flat (1905-1907), dedicated to his teacher. For Madame Rimsky, there was a charming Pastorale (1907) for wordless voice and piano, later to become a favourite in various instrumental arrangements. For a wedding present to Rimsky's daughter Nadia and his favourite pupil, Maximilian Steinberg, Stravinsky composed a brilliant short fantasy for orchestra, Fireworks (1908). When Rimsky died in the same year, Stravinsky wrote a funeral dirge which he later recalled as the best of his early works; it was not published, and the manuscript was lost.


Scandal, Glory, and Misunderstanding in France

The great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, hearing Fireworks, recognized both the mastery and the budding originality. He at once enlisted Stravinsky to make some orchestral arrangements of Chopin for the season of Russian ballets that he was producing in Paris. Then Diaghilev assigned him bigger tasks, for which Stravinsky postponed his opera Nightingale. Diaghilev soon brought him into the center of an illustrious group of artists in Paris and during the next few years evoked his utmost daring in collaborations with Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky, among others.

Each of Stravinsky's three ballets for Diaghilev's company scandalized the first audiences. Each quickly became a classic. Each is unique. Firebird (1910) surpasses all Rimsky's variegated splendour and sweetness. Petrushka (1911) brings a new fusion of irony and pathos to the piano, the trumpet, and the dance. The Rite of Spring (1912-1913) is a frenzied breakthrough of 20th-century affinities to prehistoric mankind. Genteel audiences were provoked to riotous protest. The three ballets together made Stravinsky's influence on all the arts enormous and established him alongside older composers like Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg as a leader of a heroic musical generation.

Among countless testimonials to the power of the Rite, one by John Dos Passos is typical: to him it seemed "just about the height of what could be accomplished on the stage…. Stravinsky's music got into our blood. For months his rhythms underlay everything we heard, his prancing figures moved behind everything we saw…. The ballet would do for our time what tragedy had done for the Greeks."

The young hero was a small man with a big face. Stravinsky's elegant clothes, his thin hair brushed straight back, and a very thin moustache contrasted with his bulging nose, readily grinning or smacking lips, busy bright eyes, and huge ears. In speech and action he exuded aggressive energy, like that of the Rite of Spring, matched and controlled by correspondingly fastidious craftsmanship. Nijinsky described him as "like an emperor … but cleverer."

World War I interrupted the expansion of Diaghilev's enterprise, and the Russian Revolution uprooted Stravinsky from the home to which he had been returning from Paris. During the war he lived in Switzerland, where he collaborated with the poet C. F. Ramuz on a series of astonishing works based on folklore and, to some extent, on popular music, including ragtime. The most surprising and appealing of these was The Soldier's Tale (1918) for narrator, three dancers, and seven instrumentalists. This work deeply influenced Bertold Brecht, Jean Cocteau, and other dramatists of the 1920s, as well as composers and performers of each later generation. Stravinsky's new turn to concision and counterpoint in The Soldier's Tale was often compared with the contemporary trend of his new friend, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who was to work with him on his next Diaghilev assignment, Pulcinella (1920).

But another ballet, begun in 1914, composed in 1917, and finally orchestrated only in 1923, was the grandest fulfillment of these years: Svadebka (Les Noces, or The Little Wedding) for chorus and four solo singers in the pit, with four pianos and percussion. Here the barbaric power of the Rite and the modern concision of The Soldier's Tale met in an austere affirmation of love - too austere to be recognized as affirmation by many people. Alongside these very diverse major works were several smaller ones, for voices and for instruments in various combinations, all of which won frequent performance only much later. Outstanding among these was a memorial to Debussy, Symphonies for Wind Instruments.

A short comic opera, Mavra (1922), revealed a new lyricism in Stravinsky's complicated development. Mavra was a declaration of continuity with the Russian traditions of Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Glinka, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Though it was not a popular success (to Stravinsky's great disappointment), it influenced young men like Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Kurt Weill, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich as much as had the Rite. For them, as for their contemporary Paul Hindemith, Stravinsky seemed now to have left not only Ravel but Schoenberg and his school in a backwater of history; Stravinsky belonged with the young. Stravinsky's instrumental works of the 1920s, including the Piano Concerto, the Octet for winds, the Sonata, and the Serenade in a for piano solo, justified the slogan "Back to Bach," though just what Stravinsky meant by the slogan was seldom fully grasped despite his meticulous qualifications.

An opera-oratorio, Oedipus Rex (1927), and a "white" ballet, Apollo (1928), both defined and transcended the "neoclassicism" that was much talked about between the wars. That Stravinsky's taste was by no means so narrow as this fashionable label suggests is indicated by the next ballet, The Fairy's Kiss (1928), a new tribute to Tchaikovsky, making use of themes from Tchaikovsky's songs and piano pieces. The Divertimento for orchestra and the Capriccio for piano and orchestra likewise testify to Stravinsky's continuing versatility. But these works dissatisfied some admirers of Mavra as much as those of the Rite, without winning the bigger audience of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, not to mention the ever-growing mass of consumers of other music.

The death of Diaghilev in the year the Great Depression began (1929) marked the end of an epoch, the extinction of a social focus for much of Stravinsky's work. Though he was to become a French citizen in 1934, he was not able to win in France the recognition and security he needed. He found some solace with friends like the French poet Paul Valéry, the philosopher Jacques Maritain, and the philosopher-critic Pierre Souvchinsky. These thinkers, more than any musician, helped him seek order and discipline "at a time," as he wrote, "when the status of man is undergoing profound upheavals. Modern man is progressively losing his understanding of values and his sense of proportions." Stravinsky reaffirmed membership in the Orthodox Church, which he had neglected since adolescence.

The Symphony of Psalms (1930) for chorus of men and boys and orchestra without violins became the most widely known of all Stravinsky's works after the Rite. At first its gravity seemed incongruous with the worldliness of the ballets; after it got to be familiar, it was often recommended as a good starting point for acquaintance with Stravinsky's work as a whole.

The theatrical works Persephone (1934) and A Game of Cards (1936) were as obviously unique as the Symphony of Psalms. They were somewhat subordinate to a series of purely instrumental works on a grand scale: the Violin Concerto (1931), Duo concertante for violin and piano (1932), Concerto for two pianos (1935), Concerto for chamber orchestra ("Dumbarton Oaks," 1938), and Symphony in C (1940). If composers like Arthur Honegger, Bohuslav Martinu, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Benjamin Britten abstracted from Stravinsky's procedures models for their own various recurring problems, this was irrelevant to the lasting values of the Stravinsky works, for he continued to set himself fresh problems and to find fresh solutions.

The true sequel to the Symphony of Psalms was to be liturgical. From 1942 to 1948 Stravinsky worked intermittently on an uncommissioned setting of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass for chorus and winds. He had been spurred to this work by Mozart's Masses but not in any obvious way; rather, he said, "As I played through these rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin, I knew I had to write a Mass of my own, but a real one." And on another occasion he said, "One composes a march to facilitate marching men, so with my Credo I hope to provide an aid to the text. The Credo is the longest movement. There is so much to believe."

Stravinsky's tone in language matches the aggressive originality of his music. His originality, nevertheless, is at the service of orthodox belief, and his polemics are written "not in my own defense, but in order to defend in words all music and its principles, just as I defend them in a different way with my compositions."


Renewals in America

When he settled in the United States in 1939, Stravinsky renewed his interest in popular music long enough to compose several short pieces culminating in the Ebony Concerto (1946) for Woody Herman's band. His arrangement of the Star-spangled Banner (1944) was too severe to become a favourite. Several projects for film music were begun, and though none was completed, the music for them found various proper forms; most expansive, and at moments reminiscent of the Rite, was the Symphony in Three Movements (1945).

A collaboration happier even than that with Diaghilev developed with the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. The first fruit of this collaboration was Orpheus (1948). From then on, though Agon (1957) was the only later piece composed especially for dance, the ballet made use of many old and new works, illuminating and popularizing them, gratifying and inspiring the composer as did comparatively few other performances of his work. Apollo and Orpheus rivalled the Firebird in the New York City Ballet repertory, and the symphonies, concertos, and miscellaneous pieces came to life.

At last Stravinsky was able to undertake a full-length opera, The Rake's Progress (1948-1951). This was a fulfillment not merely of his celebrated anti-Wagnerian stylistic principles but also of capacities and aspirations that had seemed only natural at the outset of his career and of his mature ethical and religious concerns. On the advice of his friend Aldous Huxley, he applied to the poet W. H. Auden for a libretto, to be based on his own vision derived from William Hogarth's prints of The Rake's Progress. Auden's work, in collaboration with Chester Kallman, provided an ideal "fable," embodying elements of farce, melodrama, pastoral, and allegory. The music includes some of Stravinsky's most melodious ideas, contrasting with bold dry recitative, colorful choruses, and concise episodes for the Mozartean orchestra. Performed all over the world, The Rake's Progress was especially successful in versions designed by Ingmar Bergman and Gian Carlo Menotti.

The young conductor Robert Craft became a devoted aide of Stravinsky while he worked on the opera. Soon Craft's pioneering work with the music of Anton Webern aroused Stravinsky's interest. During the 1950s, alongside several younger composers in Europe and America, Stravinsky deeply studied Webern and gradually absorbed new elements into his own still evolving, still very individual, style. Some old friends, like Poulenc, unable to keep up the pace, felt betrayed. But now, as in the 1920s, Stravinsky belonged with the young.

The Cantata on medieval English poems (1952) and the Septet (1953) show a new density of contrapuntal ingenuity in the service of wonderfully lively expression. The moving Song with dirge canons in memory of Dylan Thomas (1954) is still more densely made, with every note accountable as part of a five-note series continually varied. In the oratorio Canticum sacrum in honor of St. Mark (1956), there are passages with Webernish sounds and silences, melodies made mostly of wide skips, and series of twelve notes treated according to Schoenberg's technique. Similar passages in Agon (1953-1957), a plotless ballet for twelve dancers, are combined with references to 16th-century dances and strong C-major cadences in a fantastic synthesis.

Threni, i.e., Lamentations of Jeremiah (1958) for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra appeared as a major historical landmark, for in this work Stravinsky made the twelve-tone technique a "point of departure" throughout, as he continued to do in later compositions. Of these the largest ones are settings of religious texts: A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), The Flood (1962), Abraham and Isaac (1963), and Requiem Canticles (1966). Some smaller vocal works deserve a place beside the larger ones: the unaccompanied Anthem on stanzas from T. S. Eliot's Quartets, The dove descending breaks the air (1962), the setting for voice and three clarinets of Auden's Elegy for J. F. K. (1964), and even the song for voice and piano on Edward Lear's poem The Owl and the Pussycat (1968). In each of these works the complexities of rhythm and sound, as well as the fascinating harmony and counterpoint, serve to clarify and intensify the meanings of the texts.

Stravinsky's major instrumental works after the Septet were the Movements for piano and orchestra (1959) and the Variations for orchestra (1964), both of which were interpreted in ballets by Balanchine that could disarm any candid critic of the music. Both were "major" despite a brevity worthy of Webern - the Movements about 10 minutes, the Variations less than 5. Balanchine simply had the Variations played three times, with the threefold dance accumulating power.

Stravinsky died on April 6, 1971, in New York City. He was buried with pomp in Venice.


Assessments of the Composer

The poet Herbert Read declared in 1962 that Stravinsky was "the most representative artist of our own 20th century." The critic François Michel a year earlier gave a reason for calling him "the greatest musician of our epoch" - he was "the only one who could transform its characteristic defects, which he took upon himself, into ways of seeing the truths of all time." The publisher Ernst Roth in 1967 went further, hailing Stravinsky as "the most prophetic of all men of our time. His life is like a symbol of future mankind."

That same year Stravinsky characteristically made fun of "the natural desire to cling to an old man in hopes that he can point the road to the future. What is needed, of course, is simply any road that offers enough mileage and a good enough safety record. And my road … will soon become a detour, I realize … but I hardly mind that. Detours are often pleasant to travel, far more so than those super-turnpikes on which the traffic has yet to discover that the race is not always to the swift."


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008