Jonathan Cross offers perspectives on 20th century musical icon Igor Stravinsky, 50 years after his death in 1971, drawing upon the objective distance necessary to re-evaluate the composer and his remarkable oeuvre.
Igor Stravinsky died on 6 April 1971 aged 88 in his apartment on Fifth Avenue, New York. The quietness of his passing stood in stark contrast to the hullabaloo that quickly ensued. He was hailed as ‘the towering figure in twentieth century music’ (Guardian), ‘one of the great, original creative geniuses in the entire history of music’ (Washington Post), ‘the most modern of the moderns’ (New York Times). Tributes poured in from the international greats of the music and dance worlds who knew and had worked with him: Klemperer, Stokowski, Bernstein, Copland, Ashton and Balanchine among them. As composer and conductor, as well as an instantly recognisable personality, Stravinsky was at the time of his death already an international commodity, his music known and performed the world over.
In the fifty years since his death, Stravinsky’s principal works have become even more widely played and recorded. But how well do we actually know him and his music? His first great success, The Firebird, is certainly frequently performed as both ballet and concert score. The Rite of Spring excites audiences today as much as it did when its 1913 Paris premiere caused a commotion. Choirs on all five continents regularly sing his powerful Symphony of Psalms, while The Rake’s Progress, his only full-length opera, is never out of the repertoire. But these few examples give scant indication of the extraordinary range of the 120 or so works he composed across his long creative life. From the early Funeral Song, recently rediscovered, written in the stylistic shadows of Rimsky-Korsakov and Wagner, via such works as Les Noces, deeply embedded in the culture of his native Russia, and the so-called neoclassical works of the interwar years like Mavra, Oedipus Rex and the Symphony in C, to his late, great American achievements such as Orpheus, Agon and the Requiem Canticles: Stravinsky changed his stylistic mask as often as he crossed borders and took on new nationalities. He was born a Russian, he lived in Switzerland during the First World War, he eventually took French citizenship, he died a US citizen, and is buried in Italy, on Venice’s cemetery island. He lived through the most tumultuous times of war, revolutions, migration, and cultural and political change. Stravinsky’s music subtly registers these shifts and crises like that of no other composer of the century.
Who, then, is the ‘real’ Igor Stravinsky? Neonationalist, primitivist, ultra-modernist, neoclassicist, serialist? All these labels have been attached to his music at different times. It is often hard to believe that the composer who produced the violent Russian ritual of The Rite of Spring could also have written the playful Pulcinella just seven years later. Or that the chic French lines of Apollo, written in inter-war Paris, could have been produced by the same composer who in America adopted the pointillist style of the young avant-garde in his Movements for piano and orchestra. Yet this could also be said of Stravinsky’s great contemporary Picasso, whose work similarly documents the turbulence of the twentieth century in passing from fauvism through cubism and a kind of neoclassicism towards a refined late style. Beyond the surface, Picasso is always identifiably Picasso. Stravinsky, too, always remains indomitably Stravinsky. He once described himself as suffering from a rare form of kleptomania, taking musical ideas from wherever he encountered them, whether this was from Russian folksong, or from jazz, or from across the entire history of music. But whatever the materials, he always made them his own, reshaping them in his own image, bestowing on them his particular sensibility for form, rhythm, colour and drama. He constantly invites the listener to rehear the familiar with fresh ears.
During his own lifetime, Stravinsky worked hard to control his own image. He (or his carefully chosen spokespeople) would tell different stories about his music according to circumstance. The Rite of Spring, for instance, is subtitled ‘pictures from pagan Russia’ and we now know from studies of the sketches that it is littered with references to Eastern European folk melodies; yet Stravinsky claimed there was only one folk tune in the work, namely that which is heard at the very beginning on a high bassoon. Why did he lie? Perhaps because he wanted to remake the work as a concert piece, to wrest it away from his original collaborators on the ballet, and to give the impression the work was more universal than Russian. It suited Stravinsky’s reputation to allow myths of the ‘riot’ at the first performance of The Rite to circulate – even if true (which is doubtful) they had little to do with the music. In the 1920s and ’30s Stravinsky was arguing that music was essentially incapable of expressing anything at all, aligning himself with a post-war anti-Romantic aesthetic of ‘art for art’s sake’, producing abstract sonatas, concertos and symphonies. Yet what could be more touching than the chorus ‘Sur ce lit elle repose’ from the melodrama Perséphone, a disarmingly simple setting of André Gide’s text, but which the composer later confessed he had originally set to his own Russian words as a lullaby for his lover and future wife Vera. And having once damned the inventor of serial music Arnold Schoenberg as ‘a chemist of music more than an artistic creator’, in his seventies Stravinsky went on to adopt and adapt his arch-rival’s method.
With a large dose of hindsight, it is now possible for us to distance ourselves from Stravinsky’s own words and attempt to evaluate his output as a whole. The differences between pieces seem today less marked than they once did. Scholars have shown just how far the spirit of Russia seems to permeate all of the music of this son of St Petersburg. Listen closely to the endings of Firebird (1909–10), the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) and the Requiem Canticles (1965–6) and you will hear essentially the same voice speaking, a melancholic, lamenting voice infused with the sound of Russian bells. After all, despite keeping up with the latest Western fashions and becoming the darling of cosmopolitan inter-war Paris, despite not setting foot on his native soil for almost half a century, Stravinsky’s domestic language remained Russian, he lived mainly among Russian émigré communities, and he reconverted to the Orthodox faith. The opening Latin ‘Laudate Dominum’ of the Symphony of Psalms began life in ancient Slavonic as a setting of ‘Gospodi pomiluy’, a prayer to the Russian image of the infant Christ with orb and sceptre. Canticum Sacrum (1956) and Threni (1958) are both serial works and were written for premieres in Venice, yet they are also among the most ritualised of his late pieces; in their chanting, their processionals and their repetitions, they echo the laments and rituals of so many of Stravinsky’s earlier Russian works. To hear the Russianness in all of Stravinsky’s music is to acknowledge a life lived in exile. When Stravinsky finally returned to Russia in 1962, he was deeply moved. His long-time assistant Robert Craft wrote that Stravinsky regretted ‘his uprooting and exile more than anything else in his life’. The alienation felt by Stravinsky was an experience common to so many in the twentieth century; beyond its playful surfaces, his music speaks of that exile.
Igor Stravinsky bestrode the twentieth century like a colossus. With his roots deep in the nineteenth century, and with his influence extending to composers well into the twenty-first century, his music continues to demand our attention as one of the largest pieces in the jigsaw of modern art. His work is continually inventive, taking the recognisable and turning it into something new. His music dances: it is dynamic and colourful; it is often playful; but it is also often poignant and contemplative, lamenting the losses of his time. His music is always beautifully crafted, never a note out of place. Stravinsky’s music can make one laugh; it can make one weep; it can overwhelm. His music achieves meaning by standing back from a tormented, changing world, and reflecting on it, commenting on it. A half century since the composer’s death, the music of Igor Stravinsky remains as powerful and as necessary as it has always been.
Jonathan Cross is Professor of Musicology at the University of Oxford. His acclaimed volume The Stravinsky Legacy was published in 1998, he is editor of and contributor to the Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky (2003), and author of a critical biography of Stravinsky for Reaktion Press (2015).
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