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Stravinsky’s Ear-Stretching, Joy-Giving Legacy

May 28, 2013

The first time I heard Stravinsky’s name was when I was eleven or twelve and saw Fantasia, the original, good 1940 version. I had no context, no awareness of what else he had composed or what it sounded like, and of course no idea that what Stokowski served up in that film was far removed from The Rite of Spring as Stravinsky had written it. I was both excited and puzzled by this music, which was so unlike any I had ever heard before. I spoke about it to my mother, who, like a lot of intellectual and artistic types, disapproved of Fantasia without having seen it, but she did recall that some time in the 1920s Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic had brought the Firebird Suite to Breslau, where my parents lived, and how adventurous that had made them feel. My own first encounter with Stravinsky’s music in the dingy Cosmopolitan Theater in Cambridge, England, was the start of a lifelong love affair.

By a pleasing chance, just as I was about to start on the first version of this piece a few years ago, an old opera program fell out of a score. It was from a performance in Rome of Boulevard Solitude,a reworking of the Manon Lescaut story by the then very young Hans Werner Henze. The date on the program was April 7, 1954, forty-five years to the day before its surprise reappearance. I was then in Italy on a Fulbright fellowship, far more interested in the new music of Luigi Dallapiccola, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, Goffredo Petrassi, and Giacinto Scelsi than in that of Bartolino da Padova, the fourteenth-century minor master (very minor) about whom I was supposed to be writing a doctoral dissertation.

For some reason Boulevard Solitude scandalized the first-night audience, but as we learned, first through rumors that circulated in the house during the evening, then in more detail in the next morning’s papers, the real scandal had occurred in the lobby: Igor Stravinsky, in town for a concert with the Rome Radio Orchestra, had been refused admission. The Rome Opera had a strict rule that any man sitting in the orchestra or in a box had to wear black tie, and Stravinsky had shown up in a plain dark suit. Reporting this silly event, the music critic of one of the Roman newspapers asked: “For Petrushka, might the Maestro not have been forgiven the dinner jacket, or the black tie for the Symphony of Psalms?”

Indeed. And recalling that writer’s question now, I go to Robert Craft’s Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship and reread the account of his and Vera Stravinsky’s visit to the composer’s grave on the funeral isle of San Michele just off Venice, three weeks after his death in April 1971. “And again,” writes Craft, “we follow the path to the Orthodox section, where lilacs and oleander are in bloom, and it is full springtime except for the man who created a spring of his own that of all mortally begotten versions will give Nature its longest run for everlasting joy. . . . It is impossible to believe that the man whose immortal celebration of the resurrection of nature, and all his other continuations of the highest humanizing art of man, lies beneath that mound of earth.”

Forty-two years have passed since that death and that funeral—a full generation—and for students, even for the younger members of our orchestras, Igor Stravinsky is already a remote classic, almost as remote and almost as classic as Brahms (who died only thirty-one years before I was born). What a feeling of emptiness Stravinsky’s death left! He was nearly eighty-nine, and it was no secret that he was exceedingly frail, that he had not composed since 1966, the year he completed the Requiem Canticles and The Owl and the Pussycat, and that he had conducted for the last time (the Pulcinella Suite in Toronto in May 1967). On that occasion Craft noted in his diary “the special warmth of the audience, whose applause had distinctly said, ‘This is the last time we see Igor Stravinsky.’”

But still, what a jolt it was, the news of his death, a death about which I learned in such a strange way. Wearing my Boston Globe music critic hat, I was accompanying a European tour of the Boston Symphony. At one point I jumped ship for a few days to visit a friend who was a singer at the Düsseldorf Opera. While I was waiting for a performance of Eugene Onegin to begin, an opera in which Fyodor Stravinsky, the composer’s father, had been a famous Gremin, my neighbor turned to me and asked, “Where do you suppose Stravinsky will be buried?” It seemed a strange opening gambit for a conversation, and only gradually did the reason for the question become clear to me. It was April 6, 1971, and I still remember the surreal experience of sitting in that theater, the sounds of Tchaikovsky filling the room, but those of Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Le Rossignol, L’Histoire du soldat, The Wedding, Persephone, Oedipus Rex, Apollo,the two symphonies from the 1940s, the Mass, Orpheus, Agon, Threni,and I don’t know what else playing in my head as a counterpoint both funèbre and happy. It filled me with such happiness that this wonderful music existed, that I had been allowed to hear it and even sing some of it, that I had even been granted the extra magic of here and there, most often on the podium, once at JFK airport, once for a handshake at a reception in Rome, seeing the tiny man who had invented these amazing sounds, who indeed liked to think of himself as an inventor rather than a composer, who had created worlds, who had changed the face of music.

And I wondered, now what? Again I turn to Robert Craft’s diary in which he quotes some of the messages that arrived after Stravinsky’s death: “‘This is the first time since Guillaume de Machaut that the world is without a great composer.’ Claudio Arrau cables from London: ‘Now he joins the immortals where in any case he has already been for fifty years.’ But perhaps the most nearly perfect of them all, from Luciano Berio, simply says, ‘Adieu père Igor et merci.’ ” It is tempting to bristle at the message about Machaut. Some wonderful composers were left alive in April 1971, but every one of them, even Messiaen, would have acknowledged that Stravinsky was in another league.

I loved typing that sentence that had both the Requiem Canticles and The Owl and the Pussycat in it, the one a hieratic act of mourning for a woman he did not know and at the same time a memorial for friends who died during its composition, Edgard Varèse, Alberto Giacometti, and Evelyn Waugh; the other, one of countless messages of love, musical and otherwise, to Vera Stravinsky, who had come into his life in 1921 and whom he married in 1940, a year after the death of his first wife. The pairing of the Mass for the Dead and Edward Lear might seem incongruous, but each composition—or invention—is completely characteristic, personal, authentic, and in each the whole artist is involved, and the whole man. And how beautifully those two works, the canticle and the little song for soprano and piano, begin to give us some idea of Stravinsky’s range.

Both are a long way from The Firebird and Petrushka, even from The Rite of Spring. Few composers traveled so far in a lifetime. There was a fan who told Stravinsky how much she loved The Firebird, Petrushka, and even The Rite of Spring,then wailed, “But why did you stop?” To which Stravinsky replied, “Why did you stop?” That admirer of the early ballets was not alone. In my teens—this must have been in reading I did on my own; in college I don’t think Stravinsky was even mentioned in Music 101—I was instructed that Stravinsky had indeed “stopped” after The Rite of Spring in 1913, that he had run dry and taken refuge in mannerism and masquerade.

I had thought that with so much post-Rite Stravinsky having become central repertory this canard had died, but it seems there is still some life in that tough old duck. Browsing in a bookstore, I took a look at The Picasso Papers by Rosalind Krauss, one of our most provocative art critics. Like Stravinsky, Picasso has been accused of having no center, of being like one of those dressmakers’ wire forms, decorated by one costume and disguise after another, and much of Krauss’s book appeared to be accusatorial in just that spirit. I wondered whether I would find Stravinsky in The Picasso Papers, and sure enough, there he was, described as writing in his so-called neoclassical works, a label that would account for a large number of important works from Pulcinella in 1920 to The Rake’s Progress in 1951, “borrowed music of the pastiche,” which Krauss goes on to characterize as “fake modernism, which is nothing but a betrayal of real modernist procedures.” She actually bases her severe judgment not on her own listening to Stravinsky’s music but on the strictures of Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, a passionately polemical Stravinsky-hater—and Schoenberg booster—at a time, one that now seems remote indeed, when those two composers were perceived, by themselves among others, as representing irreconcilable opposites.

Of course we find pastiche in Stravinsky. Pulcinella is a delightful example, one in which he changed the rules about the relationship to another composer’s works. It is a reworking of eighteenth-century pieces all believed at the time to be by Pergolesi, undertaken as an exuberant declaration of “how I would have proceeded if I had come up with these themes.” Stravinsky, moreover, was absolutely right when he observed that Pulcinella was Pergolesi’s best piece. In 1928, for a dance score, The Fairy’s Kiss, Stravinsky enjoyed himself with similar reinventions of mostly obscure Tchaikovsky, a composer he loved deeply. Still later he added new strands of counterpoint to Bach’s last organ work, the Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch (“with the Master’s permission,” says the score in German), and fashioned exquisite pulcinellizations of madrigals and sacred pieces by that sixteenth-century maverick, Carlo Gesualdo. And let us not forget that brilliant one-minute firework, the Greeting Prelude for the eightieth birthday of Pierre Monteux, who had conducted the first performances of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. That spirited salute is a bouquet of canons on guess what tune.

Stravinsky always found the absorption of pre-existing material stimulating. It also got him into trouble from time to time. Not only had he erroneously assumed that Happy Birthday was a folk song in the public domain, but years earlier he had, under the same mistaken assumption, put into Petrushka a song he had heard a barrel-organ play outside his window. When, in 1944, he led the Boston Symphony in his new orchestration and harmonization of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he found himself in violation of a Massachusetts law forbidding “tampering with national property.” He was arrested, and his Boston Police Department mug shot is surely one of the oddest among the thousands of images of this extraordinarily photogenic man.

The strangest case of Stravinsky’s tampering with national property, as it turns out, is The Rite of Spring,a work that left as huge and indelible a mark on twentieth-century music as the Beethoven Ninth and Tristan had on that of the nineteenth century. The Rite of Spring—and isn’t it remarkable how that phrase and variants of it have entered the English language?—stands as a symbol of musical modernism and its rhythms can still jolt you. It is also full of tunes: There is plenty to hum and whistle as you leave the hall. Stravinsky declared that, while what the bassoon plays at the beginning of the work is a folk song, all the other melodies were his own. Not so. Most of them come from published collections of folk music, including ones assembled by his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. It was the musicologist Richard Taruskin who blew Stravinsky’s cover, and his researches culminated in a double tome, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions,that is one of the most exciting books on music to have come out in the last half-century, and for reasons that go far beyond the issue of the composer’s prevarications.

Through much of his life, in countless interviews, but more weightily in his ghost-written Chronicles of My Life and the famous, also ghost-written, Harvard lectures on The Poetics of Music,Stravinsky followed a strong urge to explain, justify, and ever more to invent and reinvent himself. One thinks of Wagner, a composer with an even greater penchant for explanation, justification, invention, and reinvention, and one, moreover, who did it without ghostwriters. Stravinsky on Stravinsky can be as unreliable as Wagner on Wagner.

Whatever Stravinsky did and whatever he pretended in his long life as an inventor and explorer, it allowed him to turn out masterpiece after masterpiece in incredible profusion and with incredible confidence and joy. To have been his contemporary was a joyous privilege. My awareness of him as a living composer who was still writing began with my first radio hearing of the 1940 Symphony in C, an experience as puzzling in its way as The Rite had been in Fantasia because to my inexperienced ear the Symphony seemed to sound nothing like The Rite.

My first actual sight of Stravinsky was at Carnegie Hall during my freshman year at Princeton. It was January 1946, and the occasion was the first performance of the Symphony in Three Movements, with Stravinsky conducting the New York Philharmonic, for whom he had written it. The new 1945 version of the Firebird Suite was on the program and, I believe, Scènes de ballet. The last time I saw him was in the summer of 1962 at one of those Lewisohn Stadium concerts that were for so many years such a precious and beloved source of summer refreshment for New Yorkers. That concert followed what was by then a familiar pattern: Robert Craft led most of the program (it included The Rite of Spring), and then Stravinsky came out to conclude the evening, most often and on that occasion with the 1919 Firebird Suite (which, he said, he had conducted well over a thousand times, but that another thousand would not suffice to erase the memory of the terror the first had caused him).

In those sixteen and a half years Stravinsky’s standing had changed entirely. I still remember how excited I was in 1946 at the thought of seeing him in the flesh—I could hardly have been more fevered with anticipation had it been Beethoven or Brahms—and how shocked I was to observe that the Philharmonic’s subscription audience didn’t seem to give much of a damn and that the applause for the new symphony was pretty perfunctory. It was no better, or maybe even worse, at a Carnegie Hall concert by the Boston Symphony a few years later when he conducted what in my years of working at program-planning for symphony orchestras I used to call a suicide program, one without a guaranteed hit. I believe then we had the Concerto in D for Strings, the Piano Concerto (the soloist was Stravinsky’s son Soulima, and if you ever wanted to see genetics at work. . . .), and the new ballet score Orpheus.

In the 1940s Stravinsky was at the nadir of his reputation. The legend of his having long ago run dry had taken hold. Then, very late in the game he became transmuted into Grand Old Man. The publication in 1957 of his first book of conversations with Robert Craft had something to do with that, and so did a few television documentaries. One exception to the astounding lack of interest in Stravinsky in the 1940s and fifties, or even respect for him, was the ballet audience. They—we, I should say—always loved him, and when he appeared in the pit at the mosque that had so bizarrely become the New York City Center to conduct the final number at one of the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky evenings, there was an instant sense of festivity, and the cheering was loud and long. Another happy memory: attending rehearsals for that wonderful company’s first production of Agon, with choreography of course by George Balanchine. Leon Barzin, the company’s music director, conducted, but Stravinsky was a watchful and swift-moving presence in the auditorium. At one point he wanted a more emphatic portamento from the violas and, with a wicked smile, he leaned over the edge of the orchestra pit and said, “Like Ormandy.”

What was Stravinsky like as a conductor? He certainly understood how the pieces went (he rarely conducted music other than his own). He did not underline what did not need underlining and even when he took interpretive risks—I recall an unforgettable Symphony of Psalms at Saint Thomas’s Church in New York with a finale vastly slower than what the score indicates—the result never came across as eccentric, self-indulgent, or, in that very dangerous page of the Psalms, sentimental. His best performances had an exhilarating toughness and ruggedness. Famously, he fussed a lot about wanting no “interpretation,” just get the notes and the rhythms right. If, however, you go to the pieces he recorded more than once, and the Symphony in Three Movements is a good example, you quickly hear that he was anything other than an unyielding, unchanging, mechanical conductor of his own music.

Like Schoenberg and Copland, Stravinsky had one of the twentieth century’s great composer faces. He was imperturbably elegant when he walked onto the stage, and even in his last years, when he used a cane and had become tinier than ever, he was a courtly host to his audience. When he turned to face the orchestra he hunched over, sank his head into the score as though the notes even of Firebird were startling news to him, and conducted with symmetrical motions of both arms. No question, his technique was limited, and he knew it. There is a rehearsal tape where at a transition with a difficult meter change he coolly tells the orchestra, “I’m sorry, I cannot help you here.” With no other conductor was it so hard to figure out how what you heard was somehow the result of the awkward and constricted performance you saw. Still, especially in his later years, his presence could impart magic to an occasion. There was that special crash of applause when he appeared in the door, and those evenings were events.

Robert Shaw liked to remind us that creation did not stop after the Sixth Day and that the power to create is one of the great gifts granted us as human beings. Igor Stravinsky’s immense, light-shedding, ear-stretching, joy-giving legacy was perhaps the most potent evidence in the sad twentieth century of the human creative gift.—Michael Steinberg

This article is excerpted from For the Love of Music, a collection of articles by Michael Steinberg and Larry Rothe (Oxford University Press).

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

In June, the San Francisco Symphony performs music of Stravinsky:

June 19 and 20 at 8pm—MTT and the Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s Agon, the Violin Concerto in D major (featuring Gil Shaham), and The Rite of Spring (1947 version)

June 21 and 22 at 8pm—The Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble joins MTT and the Orchestra in tradition Russian folk songs, ahead of SFS performances of Stravinsky’s Renard,  Les Noces, and The Rite of Spring