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)

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'