Classical music: The self-created composer

Between 1909 and 1923 the young Igor Stravinksy composed his four great Russian ballets - The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and The Wedding. In the process he transformed both himself and 20th-century music.
At the end of March 1912, in a tiny anteroom of a pension on Lake Geneva, the 29-year-old Igor Stravinsky tore himself away from the upright piano upon which he had been pounding out the sketches of his latest ballet score all winter, to write excitedly home to a friend in St Petersburg: "My God, what a joy it will be when I finally hear it. Come, my dear, come. When you hear it, you will understand everything. It seems to me that not two, but 20 years have passed since I composed Firebird."

In fact Stravinsky had already begun to think about The Rite of Spring while he was still finishing The Firebird early in 1910, and would perhaps have delivered it in 1911 had the composition of Petrushka not intervened. To have progressed from the relatively derivative Firebird by way of the innovatory Petrushka to the revolutionary Rite in just three years was indeed extraordinary, the more so given that Stravinsky had attempted his first large-scale form, a clumsily sub-Schumann piano sonata, only five years before. How are we to account for the rise for the none-too- promising 22-year-old composer of the Sonata to world fame in less than a decade?

Of course, it was a supreme stroke of luck when Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario who was desperately seeking an available composer for the Firebird ballet that he hoped to stage in his Paris season of 1910, turned to Stravinsky more or less as a last resort. And the international exposure this brought the young composer undoubtedly forced the pace of his musical development. Yet there are hints enough in his works before Firebird of a productive tension in his musical mentality which uniquely fitted him to seize the moment.

Essentially this seems to have sprung from a simultaneous impulse to appropriate and to reject. Stravinsky's delight in pinching and recomposing other people's music, which he himself described as "a rare form of kleptomania", has always been recognised. Whether fabricating an initial persona for himself out of bits of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Ravel or his own teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, in the 1900s; or progressing to more authentic folk materials in the 1910s; or, in exile following the Russian Revolution, seeking to remake himself as a Western composer through the assimilation of its entire musical history, Stravinsky's music from first to last was generated out of pre-existent sources and procedures and is notoriously strewn with stylistic cribs and allusions.

Yet if this compulsion originally arose out of feelings of musical inadequacy deriving, in turn, from what seems to have been a rather unloved upbringing, it was more than countered by an urge to cast off: "The real answer to your question about my childhood," he told Robert Craft, "is that it was a period of waiting for a moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell." And as with the stuffier aspects of his professional- class background, so with his musical heritage. Inhibited from expressing his personal emotions as Late Romantic composers were supposed to do, and realising that he had little aptitude for the organic flow and tonal elaboration of a contemporary such as Rachmaninov, Stravinsky could be said to have found himself as a composer by deliberately excluding all such expressive and technical aims from his music.

Even so, a lesser talent could well have come apart under such conflicting impulses. It was Stravinsky's singular genius to show that appropriation and rejection could be one: that, far from weakly submitting to the influence of the past in his use of Russian folk idioms or Baroque cliches, such elements could be so completely recomposed that their original sources would for ever afterwards sound like incipient Stravinsky. And we can hear this remarkable aesthetic emerging in the great Russian ballets. In accepting the commission for The Firebird he was still the junior partner; the scenario and dance sequence were already worked out and he was expected to supply an accompaniment to what the choreographer Michel Fokine described as his "choreographic poem". Accordingly he preoccupied himself with definitively exploring that Russian tradition, running back to Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla, of evoking human characters by diatonic music and magical ones by a tri-tone-dominated chromaticism, and with ripping off elements of Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin with the evident intention of outdoing them.

With Petrushka - for which the initial idea was his own - he was more primus inter pares, working out the concept with Diaghilev, Fokine and the designer Alexandre Benois. And though he had to accept aspects of the choreography that he disliked, he was substantially able to reject the more standard dance structures and Russian exoticisms of The Firebird for a kind of collage-like continuity in which gestural figures and snippets of popular music are, as it were, pasted across textures of ostinato patterns, which are superimposed in layers during the crowd scenes. Any real sense of organic growth or - except for a few moments - of Romantic phrasing, is now excluded from his language.

In The Rite of Spring, the exclusions are far more radical: nothing is admitted which could possibly compromise or blur its impact. Gone is all trace of conventionally picturesque scoring; gone, except for a few passages, is even much in the way of Petrushka - like textural superimpositions. Stravinsky is here well on the way to an anti-organic idea of form comprising sequences of uniform textural blocks. Gone, above all, is any trace of the 19th-century concept of rhythm as a flexible interplay between metre, phrasing and harmony: it is replaced by rigid, irregularly subdivided pulses reinforced by harmony, dynamics and scoring. Yet, the extent to which Stravinsky later sought to play down the contributions of Nicolas Roerich's ethnically accurate costumes and Nijinsky's anti-Classical choreography to the famously scandalous Parisian premiere in 1913 suggests that he was still irked by the compromises of collaboration.

It was in the fourth of his great Russian ballets, the danced cantata The Wedding (Les Noces), that he at last fully realised himself - as might be more widely recognised, had its premiere not been delayed until 1923. Conceived as he was completing the Rite and completed in sketch by 1915, this was essentially Stravinsky's concept alone, with a scenario and text assembled from old Russian wedding customs, set in a vocal idiom entirely comprising pulverised and reconstituted folk and orthodox chant idioms and accompanied by vampings and carillons in a rigid, grid-like scheme of tempo relationships. And in its eventual staging, these were to be exactly matched by Natalia Goncharova's plain designs and the anti-individualistic groupings of Nijinsky's choreography.

What, apart from the exigencies of war and exile, meanwhile held up the staging was Stravinsky's uncertainty about the scoring. Having ditched the last remaining Late Romantic feature of the Rite - its giant symphony orchestra - he finally homed in on an unprecedentedly stark ensemble of four pianos and six percussionists. If the result is almost frightening in its unity, it also triumphantly proved Stravinsky's implication that the impersonal, the ritualistic, even the mechanistic approach could "contain" an intensity and depth of feeling, of joy, sorrow, humour and awe, as great as any Romantic music drama by his ultimate antitype, Richard Wagner.

By 1923, Stravinsky had already set off on his alternative, so-called Neo-Classical adventure, which some have felt to represent a betrayal of his Russian heritage. But could he have carried the idiom of The Wedding any further? And had he not, by then, already remade himself several times over?

The Stravinsky Evening is on Radio 3 tonight, 7.15pm-11.30pm. It takes in, at 7.30pm, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, box office 0161-907 9000 (live relay) and at 7.30pm, Barbican, box office 0171-638 8891 (delayed relay 10.15pm)