The Case Of Stravinsky

I think that the first serious piece of music I ever heard was the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. I can't be positive, but way back in grade 7 or 8 a substitute teacher played a recording of something wild for us and I have the dim feeling it was the Rite. Junior High is pretty late to be hearing serious music for the first time, but I grew up in a very isolated part of Canada where 'music education', if present at all, consisted of singing "The Caissons Keep Rolling Along" with piano accompaniment if the teacher could play, without if she or he could not. No, really! Radio, well there was CBC AM, but all I can remember is the farm report "hog bellies up 2/10ths this morning..." No, really! But back to Stravinsky. Here is the Wikipedia article.

It is odd, but the two 20th century composers that loom largest in my mind are both Russian: Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Very different, of course. Stravinsky was the big success story of 20th century composers. Often compared to Picasso, he experienced early and continuous success throughout his career. He was the only 20th century composer that the ordinary person was sure to have heard of. Much of this was Stravinsky's masterful self-promotion, but not all. He is a very fine composer, no doubt. But it may be time for a re-evaluation. His career started with a bang following a formula particularly useful to a 'progressive' artist: take a very established, but somewhat precious genre, like the ballet, and, uh, get all raunchy with it (my first choice of phrase was more extreme). Here is the beginning of Firebird, his first success in 1910.

This is great stuff: rhythmically energetic, crisp orchestration and nicely tied together. He followed this with another ballet, Petrushka in 1911.

Also great stuff. You have to recall that in 1910/11 audiences were used to Tchaikovsky and other romantic ballets. This sparkling, incisive and rhythmically insistent music was quite a shock. But the big shock came in 1913 with the Rite of Spring--pagan Russia!


Surprisingly quiet beginning, but Stravinsky at this point had to show his range as a composer and had to advance the language away from the past. He is using winds at the extremes of their range. The rhythms are just as insistent, but more complex, less obvious. All this is an introduction to the terrifically motoric section starting at 3:30. This is how it all ends:

Another great masterpiece of the 20th century. At the premiere of the Rite in Paris, the audience rioted with some booing, others cheering, fistfights and even seats being torn up. They really take their ballet seriously in Paris. I'll bet lots of composers now would pay to have a riot at one of their premieres.

One of the reasons Stravinsky was compared to Picasso is that he also had his stylistic phases. Not a blue period or pink period, but a ballets russes period followed by a neo-classic period. Much neo-classic style music sounds just like more traditional music (they tended to emulate the Classical or Baroque forms) with wrong notes. At least that is what it sounded like with most composers. But Stravinsky did it better. Here are the first few sections of L'Histoire du Soldat from 1918:

In 1930 he wrote a wonderful piece for chorus and orchestra, the Symphony of Psalms:

Another masterpiece of 20th century music.

There are a few troubling things about Stravinsky: his unrelenting self-promotion which included several volumes of conversations and essays. That's not so troubling, but the strong suspicion is that his collaborators did most of the writing. The books are also full of misrepresentations and outright lies--all to the end of magnifying Stravinsky. For example, musicologist Richard Taruskin has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Stravinsky make extensive use of Russian folk melodies in the Rite, something he vociferously denied. Stravinsky was also rather nasty to other composers. Succeeding as a composer in the 20th century was not a picnic and rivalries were ubiquitous.

I think that, while I love many pieces by Stravinsky, at the end of the day I find his music expert, fashionable and ultimately cold--with a few exceptions such as the Symphony of Psalms.