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Stravinsky the shapeshifter

Fifty years after his death, the Russian iconoclast remains indefinable – a stylistic chameleon who continues to confound his audiences. 

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Igor Stravinsky was a chronic self-reinventor. A stylistic and cultural shapeshifter, he was declared both the “most modern of modern” and a neoclassicist (he hated the word). He shook the earth with savage pagan dances and went in for intense serialism and religious orthodoxy, all while declaring that music wasn’t capable of expressing anything at all. What to believe? Are we allowed to love all these works that so intoxicatingly and possibly insincerely contradict each other? Because I do.

Stravinsky was born in 1882 in a wooden dacha on the Gulf of Finland. His childhood home in St Petersburg was across the street from the Mariinsky Theatre, where his father Fyodor was a singer in the Imperial Opera. Young Igor was fixated on the Russian operas of Mussorgsky, of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and his hero Tchaikovsky. His own early works follow in their footsteps; his breakthrough Paris ballets stand on their shoulders. He would eventually flee Europe and settle in Hollywood just as the Second World War broke out, reinventing himself once again in the New World.

Fifty years since the death of the Russian iconoclast, his influence towers on – as what, exactly, who knows. Stravinsky remains un-pin-downable, a wearer of many masks. He felt, I suppose, that was his prerogative as a cosmopolitan modern artist. But let me try to tell you about Stravinsky in just three notes. Actually, one note – C – but in three different guises, from three different decades.

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The first is the C that opens his ballet score The Rite of Spring. Alone in a vast orchestra, a solo bassoon suspends time. The note finally breaks into a wistful ornament before other wind instruments join in a weird, vegetal tangle. Then the chords: pulverising, juddering, gruntingly obstinate stacks, as though jammed in an implacable mechanism. This was 1913, the eve of war. (Theodor Adorno would later hear the Rite as an analogy for innocents sacrificed to totalitarianism.) At the notorious premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, factions of the Paris glitterati were aghast. According to a century of mythology that shrouds the event, the audience sniggered, then heckled, then completely lost it and turned on each other, until the music was so drowned by catcalls and fist fights that Stravinsky marched out, the police marched in and the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, yelled dance steps from the wings. So the story goes. With Stravinsky, the truth wears masks, too.

The composer had arrived in Paris three years earlier at the summons of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. France would be the making of Stravinsky’s taste for glamour. He was friends with Picasso and Cocteau, and allegedly lovers with Coco Chanel. His first technicolour ballet, The Firebird, made him a global celebrity – decades later, strangers on American trains would hail him as “Mr Fireberg”. His second ballet was the serrated pantomime Petrushka, which jolted his style into a new, folk-fibrous modernism. And then the fabulous – and possibly exaggerated – scandal of the Rite. Today, every orchestra plays the piece, every music theory class dissects it and every bassoonist practises the opening solo ad nauseam. Yet the blasted force unleashed by that lonely C will never subside.

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The second C is frankly a cheat because it’s the root of a whole chord. Here I follow Stravinsky’s lead in not giving a toss about my own rules. The chorale at the end of Symphonies of Wind Instruments is maybe my favourite passage in all Stravinsky’s work. He wrote the nine-minute piece after the death of Debussy, a composer he admired hugely, even if Debussy called him “a spoilt child… a young barbarian who wears flashy ties and treads on women’s toes as he kisses their hands”. The name hints at ancient ritual – symphonies plural, from the Greek for “sounding together” – and for seven minutes the music loops, snakes and swaggers. Stravinsky said it wasn’t meant to please anyone, which was just as well given the first audience – at Queen’s Hall in London in 1921 – didn’t like it much.

But in the last two minutes all that jagged posturing is wiped clean. There is no edge or artifice in this suddenly soft, solemn lament. All masks are down: in lilting twos and threes we hear a litany for the dead. With the final chord, tuba planting a rich C at its foundation, our Mr Modernsky reveals a longing for a world more solid, more graceful, more true than the one we all keep botching up.

The third C is a very high one, and a very loud one, and in fact one that belongs so entirely to another age that it’s hard to believe it came from Stravinsky’s pen, even though flagrantly confounding expectations was always his thing. This is the soprano’s top C at the end of Act One of The Rake’s Progress. Belting it out at the opera’s premiere at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1951 was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, diva of Mozartian and Straussian acclaim, and she brought down the house. The audience went wild and obliterated the orchestra’s fine chiselled closing bars.

What was Stravinsky up to writing a proper bel canto barnstormer? The idea initially came from his librettist, one WH Auden, whom he teamed up with at the suggestion of a neighbour in Beverly Hills, one Aldous Huxley. But it wasn’t all Auden, and it wasn’t all pastiche: Stravinsky had a nostalgic streak. Back home in St Petersburg, one of his first memories was hearing his father singing Glinka at the Mariinsky. Now, with him transplanted across the world, twice exiled, marooned from both Russia and Europe, the Rake’s bucolic scenes conflated memories of childhood summers with a more archetypal Arcadia that, postwar, felt cataclysmically trampled. Through the opera we watch Tom Rakewell making idiotic choices led by the devil, while Anne Trulove is as resolute as her high notes. Near the end, Tom dying in bedlam, they sing a love duet of granite-softening tenderness. Try pretending these supposed caricatures don’t have our hearts, however many layers of stylistic reference and irony Stravinsky put between him and his own. To hell with his claim that music expresses nothing. 

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This article appears in the 21 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical