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
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness