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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter G

Letter G

Changing places played an important role in Stravinsky's art. He began his journey in St Petersburg, the westernized Russian capital, as a student of Rimsky-Korsakov - this made him a natural heir to legacy of the great Russian nationalist music school. Russian nationalist music had sporadically won its advocates in the West, but it never took off until the enterprising Diaghilev found the right way to present it. Diaghilev's Parisian audiences were delighted, especially Russian-Oriental exotica in the Scheherezade vein. Stravinsky's commission for the Firebird ballet was an attempt to capitalise on this: a Russian fairy-tale danced by top Russian artists, accompanied by a brilliantly orchestrated Orientalist score - a model example of Diaghilev's expertise in the cultural export market. This trade in exoticised Russianness continued through to the eve of the War: Petrushka's drunken St Petersburg, and The Rite of Spring's primitive Russian savages.

The war and the Russian revolution of 1917 radically changed Stravinsky's situation. First, there was an artistic problem: Western audiences could hardly be expected to buy into the same exotic images of Russia after all that had happened. But secondly there was a personal problem: Stravinsky had seen himself as a cosmopolitan Russian working abroad, but now he came to realise that he would have to live as a permanent exile. He now moved in the demi-monde of Russian émigré circles, full of aristocrats down on their luck, hopeless monarchists, nationalist schemers, anti-semitic conspiracy theorists, would-be fascists and charlatans. Under the influence of his friend Souvtchinsky, he found himself attracted to the unhinged world of the Russian "Eurasianists". The Eurasia of their writings was a bizarre utopia in which Russia reversed the long process of Westernization and exulted in its authentic oriental barbarism and despotism. As the Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin recently suggested, the compositions of this period can be seen as a musical quest for Eurasia: he abandons conventional Western genres and orchestral forces, and invents his own "Eurasian" versions, he takes up archaic Russian folk texts, and he even adopts archaic Slavonic lettering for the title pages of each new work. This was purely the product of the ideas in his head, as he watched the world change around him from his isolation in peaceful Switzerland. There was no commercial stimulus, no demands or deadlines from Diaghilev. The crowning achievement of this period is the ballet Les Noces, with its folk ritual, its incomprehensible texts, its strange harmonies, and a special percussive, tinkling sonority - this was the perfect realisation in music of the Eurasian utopia of the émigré fantasists.

Eurasia was a specifically "White" fantasy - it depended on the hope that the Bolsheviks would ultimately be defeated. Once this prospect faded, Stravinsky abandoned both Eurasia and the real Russia, immersing himself instead in French culture. He moved to Paris, collaborated with Cocteau and Picasso, and even flirted with Catholicism. His neoclassicism of the 1920s was an oblique celebration of Western civilisation, exemplified in Apollon musagéte with its cultural tour from ancient Greece to the French Enlightenment. The only Russian to make an appearance is the cosmopolitan Tchaikovsky, who had long been rejected by the purists of Russian nationalism.

True to his counter-Revolutionary loyalties, Stravinsky believed that Fascism was needed to defend Western civilisation, and he developed a vigorous admiration for Mussolini. But he failed to observe the subtle difference between Mussolini's and Hitler's cultural politics, imagining that he could win support from the Nazis when he performed in Berlin in 1938. How galling it was to find that the ungrateful Nazis lumped his music together with Schoenberg's in the category of "degenerate art"!

Although he could, like Cocteau and others, have lived out the war years in Paris, he eventually moved to the U.S. for personal, rather than political reasons. In 1945, Stravinsky found himself parcelled together with the new wave of mostly Jewish European émigrés, and indeed he found himself collaborated with six Jewish composers, on the (recently re-discovered) Genesis suite, including his long-standing adversary Schoenberg. The use of The Rite of Spring in Disney's Fantasia persuaded him that he should place himself at the service the movie industry in order to become a true American composer. He even settled in Hollywood for a time, but all his efforts were in vain. As a patriotic U.S. citizen, he even went on an official tour of Israel in 1962 and dedicated his next work, Abraham and Isaac, based on Hebrew scripture, "to the nation of Israel" (although even this gesture failed to spare him from posthumous accusations of life-long anti-Semitism). His visit to the Soviet Union in the same year was a curious mixture of homecoming and American cultural ambassadorship, and proved to be a great symbolic successes in one of the temporary thaws during the Cold War. Stravinsky lived out the remainder of his life in the U.S. as an American composer of distinctive serialist works, and on his death in 1971, he was buried in Venice, close to Diaghilev's tomb.
© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

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    Tchaikovsky Experience

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    10 February 2007 11 February 2007 12 February 2007 13 February 2007 14 February 2007 15 February 2007 16 February 2007

    Biographical A to Z

    Comprehensive guides to the lives of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky

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