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
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments