A centenary rite honors Igor Stravinsky
What Picasso was to the visual art of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky was to its music—an ever-evolving creator who came to be renowned almost as much for his vivid, if cantankerous, personality as for his pioneering work. Eleven years after his death, performances of Stravinsky’s music—including such works as Firebird and The Rite of Spring—bring in royalties that put him in a financial league with such popular music giants as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. But this year his music is even more in evidence than usual because of the 100th anniversary of his birth, near St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 17, 1882. Virtually every orchestra in the land is featuring the master’s music, and in New York there are three festivals—at the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and Carnegie Hall—with special tributes on the birthday itself. In addition, CBS Records has issued a 31-disc set of virtually all the recorded Stravinsky works, which sells for more than $300. PEOPLE asked Joan Peyser, a leading expert on 20th-century music and editor of The Musical Quarterly, to assay Stravinsky’s legacy. Twice a winner of the prestigious ASCAP-Deems Taylor A ward for excellence in music journalism, Peyser is the author of 20th Century Music: The Sense Behind the Sound. What follows is her appraisal of Stravinsky’s life and art.
Stravinsky was a kind of chameleon, in both his work and reputation. In the 1920s the Soviets held him in high regard. But after 1932 he was officially branded an “ideologist of the imperialistic bourgeoisie.” The Soviets claimed Stravinsky sold his national heritage for Western gold.
They may have had a point. From Firebird in 1910 to Les Noces of 1923, he was drawing on Russian folk music. When the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 took his money away and he settled in Western Europe, he lost interest in Russian music, turning for inspiration to Mozart and Bach. When World War II forced him to move to the United States, he tried to adopt an American style. He composed a polka for a circus elephant wearing a tutu, for Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey; turned Firebird into a pop song, Summer Moon; wrote the Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman, and even tried to compose scores for Hollywood films. (Stravinsky’s regard for money was awesome. According to his longtime assistant, Robert Craft, even when he was getting $10,000 per concert for conducting, he made a note of every dime he gave to beggars.)
Stravinsky’s personal life was tumultuous. In 1906 he married his first cousin, Catherine Nossenko, and they had four children. In 1921 he began an affair with actress Vera de Bosset; his wife not only knew about it but met and corresponded with her rival. The liaison went on for 19 years. After Catherine died in 1939, Stravinsky married Vera and the couple set up housekeeping in Los Angeles. Perhaps Stravinsky thrived on conflict: When he had just a simple twosome, he soon created a new triangle, inviting Craft, a conductor, to live with them. (Craft and Mrs. Stravinsky remain together today.) It worked. That was when he gave up his dabbling in Tin Pan Alley and began a new series of brilliant works.
The third of four boys, Stravinsky always recalled his St. Petersburg life as cruel. He remembered his father, a bass singe at the Imperial Opera House, as “nervous and irritable,” and his mother as “cold and unloving.” Both deprecated his musical talent, he said, and forced him to study law. In 1960 Stravinsky told Craft that his childhood was “a period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell.”
Immediately after his father died, he abandoned law for music. Then, when his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, died, he started using Rimsky’s methods of transforming Russian folk songs into art. He even stole some of his teacher’s melodies. That was typical. Something of an artistic cannibal, Stravinsky waited until the enemy died, then ingested his most identifiable parts, capturing his magical powers and annihilating his predecessor’s place in history in one blow. Inevitably, whatever Stravinsky took became more dazzling in his own works.
After attacking Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system for most of his career, Stravinsky embraced it in his 70th year, when Schoenberg died, and used it for the rest of his life. The war with Schoenberg had begun in 1912 when Stravinsky first heard Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which rejected traditional keys and harmonies. Years later Stravinsky remarked that he had been aware this was “the most prescient confrontation in my life.”
He met that challenge in 1913 with The Rite of Spring, a work as powerful and forward-looking in its way as Pierrot Lunaire, but one that did not abandon tonality. With its jagged, repeated chords, its irregular balance and orgiastic accents, The Rite of Spring soon established itself as the artistic landmark of the time. Without it, the music of this century would probably have taken an altogether different turn.
We do not know much about how Stravinsky’s mind worked except from a musical point of view. In the ’60s he acknowledged that his Autobiography and the Poetics of Music both were “written through other people.” Craft was his literary ghost at the end. But if others improvised on his ideas, no one trifled with the music he made. The impetus may have come from Rimsky or Schoenberg, but finally the art was irreducibly his own.
This small, slender man, with a dark interior, did more than any other 20th-century composer to lift our spirits and enhance our lives in ways that were unimaginable 100 years ago.