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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter I

Letter I
Stravinsky's Impact

Stravinsky is perhaps the only leading modernist composer of last century to enjoy a large popular following. His Rite of Spring was the great modernist outrage of 1913, pushing beyond the limits of what was considered acceptable as music - the only close rival was Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, which had appeared the previous year. The first performance notoriously caused a riot in the theatre, and there were scuffles between the supporters and detractors of the music. And yet by 1940, Walt Disney had included a section of The Rite in his Fantasia. From that moment, it entered mass culture as a masterpiece of serious modern music. In the 70s, for instance, the Introduction to Part II is clearly referenced in John Williams's score for Star Wars, and several references to The Rite also occur in his scores for Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the 80s, the Pet Shop Boys could sing "I feel like taking all my clothes off dancing to The Rite of Spring" without being hopelessly obscure. One U.S. punk band of the 80s even called itself The Rites of Spring - appropriately enough, they sacrificed their instruments at the end of their live performances. Schoenberg has had no such luck, in spite of the best efforts of Björk as an ambassador for Pierrot lunaire.

It was undoubtedly Diaghilev who gave Stravinsky to the courage to move rapidly forward as a modernist, while at the same time drawing his audience along with him. The reputation of Diaghilev's Ballets russes was such that each season required something new to astonish the Parisian public. In 1910 it was the Firebird, with its strange and unprecedented orchestral sonorities, while in 1911 it was Petrushka with its cinematic montage of little blocks of musical material, and in 1913 it was the turn of the Rite, which abandoned traditional harmony, instead drawing its coherence from the hypnotic power of its rhythms. The result was a glorious unstoppable, machine-like racket, pierced by sudden unpredictable accents with the jolt of electric shocks - the thrill has hardly worn off after five generations. In each of these early ballets, Stravinsky worked out his method, his technique, and his own magical ingredient: he could take any scrap of material and tinker with it rhythmically, creating many variants with different accents. He could add and subtract notes, and then put the building-blocks together, trying them out in different permutations. It was almost a game. Soon he could take any existing music apart, whether a folksong or a ragtime dance - and put the pieces back together upside-down and back-to front, creating something akin to a cubist version of the original.

This method opened up great possibilities. He could take inspiration from virtually anything, the trashier the better, like the Russian nonsense songs in Renard, and make a work that sparkled with intellect and wit while grabbing the listener's attention with frequent visceral shocks. Quite by accident, another commission from Diaghilev for a respectful arrangement of some 18th-century pieces gave Stravinsky the idea of applying the method to "classic" European material. And why not? Pergolesi was out of copyright, so why not have some fun with his music that would otherwise continue gathering dust. The inspired result was the new ballet Pulcinella. Although it could hardly have seemed so at the time, this was turning point not just in Stravinsky's career, but for the history of 20th-century music. The ground of musical modernism was torn away from the alien sonorities of atonality and serialism, and brought "back to Bach", albeit through the cogs and wheels of the Stravinsky recycling machine. The reassuring quality of the familiar combined with the excitement of the new - this was what the institutions of concert music needed if they were to retain any vitality.

Stravinsky certainly enjoyed his celebrity, and attempted to stay on top of the game for many years. He consciously created for himself the persona of the thoroughly anti-Romantic, modernist artist. He claimed that music cannot express anything at all and took steps to ensure his music would cause his audience to emote unduly. Sometimes he deliberately set himself difficult tasks, working with highly-charged expressive styles like Tchaikovsky or Verdi. No matter how much he cut up such material, the two-bar units still emanated emotional energy and made us pity even his distant, petrified protagonist in Oedipus Rex. Did he finally give up his anti-expressive game, perhaps, in The Rake's Progress? In spite of its thoroughgoing neoclassicism, this is, after all, one of the most moving of 20th century operas.

Stravinsky's successors have much to thank him for. He showed the power of repetition, opening the way for the minimalists. He broke the taboos of originality, so that "stealing" from classics or popular sources became acceptable, opening the door to so-called "postmodernism" in music. He invented so many new tricks in harmony and rhythm that the scholars are still picking their way through them. And finally, he gave his public a wealth of music that appeals to the brain, but sets feet tapping as well.
© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

Read other people's comments

Dr Alec Kellaway, London
Thank you all so much for the Stravinsky / Tchaikovsky week; it has been inspirational. Thanks for the comments on Radio 3, the mix of music, and this Website. The impact of Stravinsky has been profound: not only was he prolific, but highly innovative in a range of styles. Your explanation of the Late period, featuring Requiem Canticles on Friday evening, was excellent. Thanks again. Incidentally, I did post some comments about the USA, Religion and also the Late period, on Thursday evening. So there HAVE been comments on this Website.

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