Loretta Barnard scales the soaring heights of the adaptable, yet unique composer Igor Stravinsky.
The opening night of a new ballet from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was always an event in Paris. The opening night of The Rite of Spring in May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was no exception.
The expectant audience knew the new work would be a little left field – no Swan Lakes or Sleeping Beauties. They’d been titillated at the openly erotic performance of dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, in Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune the year before and they’d puzzled over the unusual new music composed by Igor Stravinsky for the ballets The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911).
As an impresario and artistic visionary, Diaghilev pushed boundaries, made new art – did things never done before. This was why his creation, the Ballets Russes, was so successful across Europe in the second two decades of the twentieth century.
But on this night, there was a full-blown riot. At the ballet! With all those posh ballet-going types! What the?
First off, the story was about pagan sacrifice, the costumes were totally off the planet, the choreography was provocative…and then, there was the music.
The Rite of Spring opens with a haunting bassoon solo and moves into musical territory utterly divorced from what audiences had ever heard before. The piece Danses des Adolescentes really put them off, what with all those barbaric rhythms. Primal and pulsating, the ballet’s rhythms were just too much for the audience and they let fly.
Soon, they made so much noise that the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra. What a night!
It’s over 100 years since that première, and Stravinsky’s music still sounds fresh, electrifying and utterly modern. It’s a triumph of twentieth-century composition.
Born in Russia in 1882, Igor Stravinsky was about 20 and studying law, when he became a pupil of composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. (When he died in 1908, Stravinsky wrote Funeral Song in his memory. That work was thought to be irretrievably lost, but in one of those marvellous stories about lost works being found, the manuscript turned up in late 2015 in St Petersburg. Musicologists were beside themselves with excitement, but I digress.)
Stravinsky began working with Diaghilev around 1909 and over the next few years, he cemented his reputation for innovation. It helped that the Ballets Russes was a groundbreaking company always on the lookout for something sensational and exciting, and Stravinsky obliged. His music sometimes scandalised or befuddled listeners, but one thing’s for sure – it always challenged them.
Over the course of his almost 89 years, he continued to explore the musical terrain, producing a plethora of compositions, including operas, ballets, concertos, sonatas, oratorios and instrumental works.
As a composer, he was constantly reinventing himself. He had three distinct musical “periods” usually referred to as the Russian period, where his works were inspired by Russian folklore and musical motifs; the neoclassical period, where he drew on the great instrumentations of composers like Mozart, Bach and Haydn (Stravinsky’s three symphonies are from this period); and the serial period, where he embraced the 12-tone model devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.
He absorbed jazz influences, notably in The Soldier’s Tale (1918), and Ebony Concerto (1946), composed for the Woody Herman Orchestra. Here’s a recording of that band with Stravinsky himself conducting:
Among Stravinsky’s more popular works are Symphony of Psalms (1930), a spiritual work intended as “an organic whole” where orchestra and chorus have totally equal footing; Pulcinella (1919); Mavra (1922); The Rake’s Progress (completed 1951); and Canticum Sacrum (1955).
His early ballets are probably the most beloved of his works, and in spite of its dramatic debut, The Rite of Spring is easily one of the most significant compositions of the last century.
Some listeners find Stravinsky’s music inaccessible and perhaps it does take a bit of getting used to if you’re new to it. Start with Stravinsky conducting a performance of The Firebird – the music in this short clip has a heavy sensuality and a kind of melancholy.
Stravinsky was fiercely Russian but also a man of the world. He lived in Switzerland, moved to France (he held French citizenship for a time in the 1930s) and later emigrated to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1945.
Stravinsky’s use of dissonance, unexpected harmonies, radical accentuations and experimental rhythms made him a hugely influential composer. His rhythms, in particular, revolutionised composition and reverberate still.
Igor Stravinsky died in 1971 in New York. His oeuvre continues to inspire composers to greater heights and listeners to greater consciousness.