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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter P

Letter P

When Stravinsky's Firebird opened in Paris in 1910 the belle époque was nearing its close. During the years of peace and prosperity following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) the capital had seen artistic life expand and flourish with concert halls, theatres, music hall, exhibitions, bookshops and journals all increasing in number. A thriving café and cabaret culture allowed respected musicians and artists to try out new works in lively bohemian atmospheres: 'Le Chat Noir' in Montmartre - frequented by Paul Verlaine, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie - featured sketches, poetry, art on the walls, puppet shows and a 'shadow theatre' as well as music. It even had its own journal. Affordable weekday shows were balanced by the chic Friday evening slot that catered for snobbish Parisians and wealthy foreign aristocrats who came as much to be seen as to see. In addition there were private salons where concerts of avant-garde music were financed by rich patrons, the most notable being the American Princess de Polignac (born Winaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine business), whose request for a small piece to fit in her drawing-room resulted in Stravinsky's Renard (1915).

The Paris Opera Public concerts became less elitist. Sunday afternoon programmes attracted audiences of several thousand to venues such as the Théâtre Odéon and Palais de Trocadéro (built with a great Cavaillé-Coll organ for the 1878 Universal Exposition) and sometimes boasted huge numbers of performers too. But promoters aimed to educate as well as entertain. In 1885 conductor Edouard Colonne organised a series of concerts covering the 'history of music' with accompanying programmes of detailed printed information; since then 'programme notes' have become an expected part of the concert ritual. Paris's Opéra was well subsidised but its repertoire relatively static, with just two or three new works introduced each year. Smaller independent theatres could offer more enterprising programmes, however, thanks to a number of astute producer-impresarios such as Gabriel Astruc, who founded the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées in 1913 where The Rite of Spring formed part of its first season.

The Ballets Russes's impact on a culture dominated by the decadence of symbolism and the spontaneity of impressionism cannot be underestimated. But World War I left a legacy of disillusionment that also affected artistic life. As communism and fascism attracted those looking for order, others found relief in the absurdity of Dadaism, perhaps best expressed in Satie's avant-garde ballet Relâche (1924) which incorporated Réné Clair's surrealist film Entr'acte featuring Satie and Francis Picabia firing a cannon from the roof of the Louvre. It provoked a similar scandal to that of the Rite. Adopting Satie as their spiritual godfather the loosely linked group Les six forged their own stylistic paths, some absorbing the influence of jazz, others the growing vogue for music of the past that was already underway when Stravinsky developed his neo-classicism. Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, for whom Poulenc composed his Concert Champêtre in 1928, taught at the Schola Cantorum in Paris before establishing an École de musique ancienne in 1925. Through ferocious campaigning she re-established the harpsichord as a 20th-century concert instrument and, despite using heavy modern replicas, helped kindle interest in authentic performances of early music on period instruments. More influential still was Nadia Boulanger, who taught harmony at the École Normale, the American Institute in Fontainebleau and the Paris Conservatoire. Her pupils range from Mark Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Philip Glass. A champion of new works with a fondness for Stravinsky's music she conducted the première of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington in 1938.

By the time Stravinsky took French citizenship in 1934, Hitler had assumed power in Germany and Europe was well on the way towards war. Stravinsky emigrated to the USA in 1939, where he remained in exile for the rest of his life, like so many of his colleagues.

© Madeleine Ladell/BBC

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