By the mid-20th century, a fierce musicological debate had fairly well cooled – i.e. Who was the most important composer of that age: Arnold Schoenberg for "rescuing Western music from obsolescence and repetition" by inventing a new system for composing known as the 12-tone dodecaphonic method, or Igor Stravinsky for remaining loyal to Western tonal music history while enlivening it with new tonal and rhythmic freedoms? In the end, audiences and fellow composers seemed to have chosen in favor of Stravinsky and, although he continues to be a controversial character to this day, he is generally considered to be the greatest composer of the 20th century. This year, 2021, is the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky's death – a perfect opportunity to review his legacy. But what sort of legacy do we have from him today?
The musical career of Igor Stravinsky divides rather neatly into three distinct periods, though they do not necessarily coincide with similar transitions in his private life. Born near St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1882, the son of a famous opera singer, the young Igor initially used his precise, logical and ambitious intellect to study law, but soon found himself taken with the fresh pseudo-orientalism he was hearing in the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, and then was taken-in by the master himself as a composition/orchestration pupil. In short order, under Rimsky's care, Stravinsky produced an impressive Eb symphony and an orchestral suite, Fireworks. Before long then, while still in his 20s, he would find himself in Paris and under the spell of another mentor, the ballet/theater empresario Diaghilev. Eventually, those three influences together – the Rimsky sound, the Diaghilev lure of glamor and cutting-edge culture, and his own hunger for achievement and perfection – would produce Stravinsky's break-out score, The Firebird (1910), full of dazzling orchestral details, resplendent exotic effects, and soaring melody. Result? Instant fame across Paris and the establishment of his own lifelong sense of self-confidence.
A second Diaghilev ballet, Petruschka (1911), about a puppet burlesque at a shrove-tide country fair, would rely more on Russian folk music, was orchestrated more sparely, and would experiment more with angular modulations, clashing chords, and a propulsive rhythmic pulse. Those latter elements, then, are what he would exploit to the absolute maximum in his third ballet score, the monumental and revolutionary Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring): Scenes from Pagan Russia (1913). There, the dance scenario enacted the "story" of a young village girl forced to dance herself into a frenzy, and unto death, before a stoic council of sages. The 30-year-old Stravinsky's shockingly violent discords, brutal broken rhythms and polyrhythms, and the insinuating harmonies in several different keys all at once, proclaimed a new century-in-sound and, seemingly, a whole new permissiveness in public performance. Met with such primitive cacophony and apparent chaos, audiences drew back as though to avoid injury, but they couldn't turn away.
Studying the score now, one is astonished by two observations. First, although this bold, volcanic piece of composing is polyrhythmic in the extreme (note the famous wild pages that climax Part One written in 6/4 time, yet none of the 32 simultaneous meters there has anything to do with 6/4; they're all divisions or syncopations of it), the diamond-sharp intellect of Stravinsky makes sure that the scoring of Le Sacre is as precise and orderly as anything in a classic fugue. Second, once you have steeled yourself against the sheer onslaught of volume, dissonance, surprise, persistence and seduction in this music, the realization comes that it is all tonal, even melodic – full of Russian melodies (well, phrases and fragments and motifs) – fully tuneful, fully singable if you don't mind the violence going on around you. (There are, of course, other influences as well: for instance, the impressionistic passage which opens Part II.) In truth, Le Sacre, along with his next Paris score, Les Noces: a Russian Wedding, are probably Stravinsky's most plainly Russian scores of all.
Anyway, the history of Western music paused dumbstruck in 1913 with the appearance of Le Sacre. Reportedly, there were protests and complaints in the audience that night of its premiere, but it's since been told that more people were upset by the crude "inelegant" choreography and ugly costumes of the ballet which "insulted the traditions of the dance" than by anything in the scoring. The music itself was quickly recognized as something new, something serious and, by virtue of its obvious workmanship, a masterwork. Stravinsky became world famous. Even Schoenberg could see that Western music itself would have to change. His own densely, lushly tonal tone poem from ten years earlier, Verklarte Nacht, while still persuasive, was rapidly becoming passé. He parried with an odd modernist quintet that included a female narrator, Pierrot Lunaire (1912) but even that did not seem to go as far as Stravinsky in addressing the musical revolution-at-hand and, regardless, a world war was brewing now and about to intervene in everyone's art.
Himself lacking Stravinsky's inexhaustible bag of tricks to draw on (the polyrhythms and polytonality, the folk elements, the ear for fresh orchestration, the wit and impatience), Schoenberg could feel the crisis of post-Wagner, post-Mahler music history coming upon him. He believed that Western music itself could not proceed any further in the traditional key-centered, harmonically-driven traditions of the Teutonic masters – as Bach had passed his keys on to Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms. So, he went into isolation for a while only to emerge circa 1923 with a whole original system of composing: "12-tone" or "serial" music wherein instead of composing in known key signatures – say, Mozart's G-Minor Symphony or whatever -- the composer would construct his or her own "key" by arranging twelve white-and-black notes on the piano in an order of personal choice and calling that, not the "key of the piece", but its "tone row". From now on, Schoenberg decided, new music would not rely on the traditional properties of harmony and old-fashioned note relationships. Each new piece would be born in its own unique universe from its own contrived tone row unrelated to any past music or any known note relationships. The music that resulted might sound strange, since none of the notes was allowed to have any ear-relation to another but, for the composer, the mathematical intricacies to be found in serial composing were, he felt, finally fully modern; their freedoms bracing and original.
Stravinsky, however, was on a different page. For the time being, he stuck with recognizable keys in his composing – sometimes many keys at once or all chopped up by primitive meters as we have seen – but tonal and made of traditional elements: so-called "music of the earth". He had spent the war years in Switzerland composing vocal works with Russian texts, culminating in the aforementioned Les Noces. His severe, ironic score L'Histoire du Soldat (Story of a Soldier) of 1918, was his own compromise with the war experience, making him feel and sound more Russian than ever. But the Russian Revolution prevented him from moving back to his homeland during any of those years and so he returned to Paris instead. There, he began to lead the life of a bon vivant, often seen around town in the company of fashion-star Coco Chanel and yet, by day, sticking religiously to his own disciplined work schedule: composing from ten o'clock till midday, then lunching alone, reading his mail, napping, reviewing what he had composed that morning and then either setting out for a night on the town or staying-in to think about how to orchestrate what he had been working on. His very handwriting was always as neat and disciplined and productive as that lifestyle and, so, one would begrudge him those flashy evenings on the Champs Elysees, living the life of a dandy.
1920 marks the end of his first composing period, dazzling the world with those works of youthful energy. In the second career period we are delineating, Stravinsky's sound shifted to what we can call a neoclassical style with works like Symphonies for Wind Instruments and the ballet Puncinella with its 18th century references a la commedia dell'arte. Openly tuneful works filled his 1920s – string ensemble pieces like Apollo Musagete and A Fairy's Kiss which is actually based in Tchaikovsky themes. And in this new/old neoclassical style, even the guarded expression of personal emotion was permitted sometimes, though Stravinsky was always skeptical of such expression. Indeed, shortly after Stravinsky's mentor and friend Diaghilev died, we have in this period the composer's emotionally potent Symphony of Psalms in 1930 with its combination of suffering and compassion, and the equally expressive Violin Concerto from 1931 with its lyrical and sorrowful "Cantilena" movement. Such outright effusions of feeling are particularly moving coming from Stravinsky given that he had always said that music is an "art object" – not a vehicle for emotion or even self-expression. And yet, one look into the score of his Symphony of Psalms reveals the dynamic markings he recommends for performance of the music: directions like "sweet" and "expressive". Those are hardly objective terms and their effect on the listener is all the more moving for their discretion, as though reluctant to disturb, yet wanting to commiserate.
Both the Violin Concerto and the Symphony of Psalms are neo-classical works which still remain fully modern and wholly Stravinskian in nature. Purists championed them as modern masterpieces, yet they held more than enough loyalty to tradition to be embraced by all audiences; an acceptance that Schoenberg's astringent, intricately mathematical and doggedly 12-tone works failed to achieve. And yet Stravinsky's kind of expressivity, so memorable for being so subtle, was definitely anti-sentimental. Critics charged him with avoiding true feeling, rejecting true emotion in favor of a constant ironic posture – taking the ingredients of tonal music, the grammar of classicism, the trappings of folk music, and his own formal intellectual stance, and constructing a diabolical robot of compositional perfection: an art object; fascinating, provocative on so many fronts, but ultimately insincere, even cynical – genius but, because of the way it withheld any personal investment, anti-art; non-music. The critic Theodore Adorno blasted Stravinsky for such stand-offishness and praised Schoenberg's 12-tone system instead because, although it was grounded in the artificial construct of an arbitrary tone row, it thereafter proceeded by the composer's choice of what to do next. It was internally driven, not a game of objective effects as he accused of Stravinsky.
And it is true that Stravinsky continued charging ahead with that 20th century sense of irony and emotional distance – the antithesis of romantic music – even writing some jokey pieces like his Circus Polka about a troupe of performing elephants, composing a series of piano rags, and some jazzy pieces like his Ebony Concerto written in the swing style of clarinetist Woody Herman. One has to come to terms, too, with his apparently impersonal reaction as an artist to the tragic year of 1938 when his daughter Ludmilla died and 1939 when both his mother and his wife passed away and yet his chief musical expression of the period was the upbeat Symphony in C wherein, as critic Max Harrison has put it, "signs of private sorrow or public grief can nowhere be found". Was this the old defiance coming out again and superseding sorrow, or was it his reaction against the changing life circumstances around him during that time as the second world war made trivia, by comparison, out of everyone's personal affairs?
He had begun that symphony in Europe but finished it only after moving to America, to Hollywood in fact in 1940, setting up a household not so far from where fellow ex-patriot Schoenberg had settled. Symphony in C may have been without the expected personal baggage of direct emotion, but it exchanged autobiography for a continuing sense of personal ambition and, yes, the defiant spirit, too. Note how each of his works with "symphony" in the title purposely defies the form: the Symphony of Psalms by adding chorus; the Symphony in C by ignoring its foundational key and straying into G and farther afield; and his Symphony in Three Movements (1945) by resembling a suite of separate themes rather than a unified symphony. When asked, he said that the kaleidoscopic outer movements of that latter work were "inspired by the eclectic effect of watching wartime newsreel films" and the inner movement had been suggested by his having seen the Hollywood film, Song of Bernadette, about a girl who claimed to have had visions of the virgin Mary(!)
Predictably, then, it wasn't long before Stravinsky was approached by the big Hollywood studios asking if he'd like to score some films for them. He declined, not because of pride or money demands, but for the lack of time they would be allowing him in which to compose. Still, he reportedly did sketch some musical ideas for such eventual films as The North Star (which Copland finally scored), a Paul Muni adventure Commandos Strike at Dawn, and the Orson Welles vehicle Jane Eyre.
Even as he adjusted to this new life amongst these rather bland and grasping West Coast Americans as he saw them, his neoclassical period of composing continued. His new wife, Vera Sudeikina, with whom he had cohabited for a long while already, helped to ground him throughout the 1940s. Thus, from that decade we have his Mass for Mixed Chorus, The Rake's Progress, an opera-like performance-piece with a text by W.H. Auden about 18th century London slum life, and the delightful Dances Concertantes (1942) which is full of inside jokes, music puns, a kind of tag-game between sections of the orchestra and other frivolities suggesting the composer's domestic contentment and his sense of relief at finding himself far from war in this fairy land of Hollywood. He was also comfortable enough to revisit the genre that had made him famous by composing Scenes des Ballet (1944) in celebration of the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation.
In 1951, Schoenberg passed away and only then did Stravinsky determine to undertake the third period of his own composing story, the abandonment of neoclassicism and the adoption of Schoenberg's 12-tone or serial music system. Fans considered it Igor's great betrayal – a defection from the nation of tonal music to the foreign land of serialism. As precise as his composing had always been, his brand of serial music actually reveled in the intricacy and exactitude required for a successful serial piece. But he was able to invest even these Schoenbergian works with a fully Stravinskian sound, cautiously at first: In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954) (though it has a row of only five notes instead of the required twelve) and Canticum Sacrum (1956); then soon more confidently (Threni; The Flood; Abraham and Isaac). Like Schoenberg's most famous pupil, Alban Berg, Stravinsky manipulated the serial rows he constructed so that certain consonant implications were emphasized – in other words, so that the traditional ear could find its way via a few tonal anchors– and he kept a strong sense of balletic rhythm under it all.
Towards the end of his life, Stravinsky seems to have become influenced more and more by a young interloper, the conductor/secretary, Robert Craft, who began acting as the maestro's chauffer, gopher, prod-in-the-back and, some said, corrosive controller. (Leonard Bernstein complained "Robert Craft, I could kill him! I mean he spoiled such a lovely relationship between Stravinsky and myself by trying to direct him in all things.") Others said that it was only because of Craft's prodding that Stravinsky finally tried his hand at serial music but, even as the elderly Igor settled into that comfortable life in the California sun and may have listened to some of the suggestions that Craft was putting forward, he surely never surrendered that self-confidence and self-command that had driven him over the years – it is unlikely that he would ever give up that iron will to the likes of Craft, surely not in the choice of what music to write next. He did become Americanized enough to compose Elegy for JFK on the killing of the US president and comfortable enough to write two such soft pieces as the peaceful Requiem Canticles and a vocal setting of the children's fable The Owl and the Pussycat.
Stravinsky died in 1971 and asked to be conveyed by gondola in Venice to a burial place next to his mentor and friend Diaghilev, a request that seems to me a ballet-of-sorts all its own.
As for the accusation that he only wrote "art objects" – impersonal, ironic music at one remove from self-expression-- it now seems accurate to say that to approach emotions only from an angle and indirectly -- well, wasn't that the very character of the 20th century? – irony, otherness, skeptical of romanticism? -- no gushing feelings like Puccini or Wagner or the lush-cum-slushy thick chords of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht? Wasn't it that very 20th century full of wars and scary new revelations in science and philosophy that caused people to shy away from open emotionalism and to keep their distance: real emotions deflected rather than displayed? T.S. Elliot was doing the same thing in poetry; Picasso in art. And doesn't that skepticism / reluctance / guardedness likewise characterize our own worrisome, self-defensive New Millennium?
Musically, what Stravinsky's legacy boasts is his exciting metric freedoms, his fluid polytonality, and his re-invention of the orchestra into sometimes a huge beast (though always more controlled and rational than Mahler's or Strauss's massed aggregations) and sometimes a shrewd, efficient ensemble (as clean and distinctive as any by Bach or Debussy). And that irony, the detachment: that's part of his legacy, too. The great British composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett once replied to my question about Stravinsky, "You know I've really never thought about it in this way before, but I don't know what Stravinsky ever led to. I mean, here was the most dazzling composer, and yet what has he led to but a lot of other composers imitating him?" That seems harsh, though. Certainly, subsequent composers like Poulenc and Honegger in France, Henze and Lutoslawski on the Continent, and much of Britain's music scene were influenced by him; why, the over-rated Carmina Burana by Carl Orff is practically a direct steal from Stravinsky's Les Noces. And of course, reams of film music can be called Stravinskian in ways and means. But it's fairer to say that such influences are natural – reactions to a strong exemplar, with Stravinsky as Mentor rather than as direct Model. And that kind of influence is still with us, now fifty years on.
John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America, National Public Radio and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.
Caps has also written several articles for mfiles on a range of film composers and film music topics.