Commentary Magazine

The Real Stravinsky

For a long time, Igor Stravinsky was widely considered to be the 20th century’s greatest composer. Le Sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”), his best-known score, was credited with having pulled down the pillars of romanticism—the 1913 premiere by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes actually triggered a riot in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris—and his later compositions were hardly less influential. A Russian émigré who held the Soviet Union in fathomless contempt, he spent most of his adult life in France and the U.S., cultivating an image of stylistic statelessness and claiming to be a citizen of the musical world; in return, composers throughout the West adopted his “international style” of tonal modernism.

Stravinsky’s reputation rested not merely on the quality of his music but also on the fact that he was the only modern composer to be a media idol. His involvement with ballet, the most glamorous of the arts, put him in the public eye early on. Thereafter, he was the willing subject of countless newspaper articles, magazine profiles, and TV documentaries; his music was even featured in a Hollywood movie, Walt Disney’s Fantasia. He coauthored eight highly quotable books in which he set forth his controversial theories about music, and produced theatrical works in collaboration with such famous writers as W. H. Auden, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide, thus engaging the attention of literary intellectuals who might otherwise have taken little note of his work.

None of this mattered, however, to the postwar avant-garde, which preferred the twelve-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Although Stravinsky’s conversion in the late 50’s to Schoenbergian serialism kept his avant-garde stock high for a little longer, by the time of his death in 1971 the plaudits of the mass media were out of sync with the opinions of musical tastemakers in Europe and America; these dismissed him as a diehard reactionary who had waited too long to acknowledge the historical inevitability of atonality. But the tastemakers were wrong, and with the restoration of tonality and the demise of the atonal avant-garde, Stravinsky’s music has once again returned to the limelight.

Not coincidentally, Stravinsky scholarship has in recent years become far more serious and penetrating, uncovering basic biographical facts the composer had sought to conceal. His early activities in prerevolutionary Russia, obscured by the inaccessibility of primary source materials and by his subsequent status as a Soviet “unperson,” had left Western researchers with little choice but to take his own statements at face value. But with the publication in 1996 of Richard Taruskin’s Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, it became possible at last to see him not as the self-made cosmopolitan of his own wishful thinking but as a composer whose sensibility remained profoundly Russian his whole life long.

Building on Taruskin’s pioneering work, the English critic and musicologist Stephen Walsh has now brought out Stravinsky, A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934,1 a superb first installment of a projected two-volume biography. This work, when it is finished, promises to be of landmark significance in reestablishing the real Stravinsky—rather than the “international” Stravinsky of myth—as the central figure in the history of modern music.



Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born in 1882, the third of four sons of a distinguished operatic basso. The Stravinsky family lived in St. Petersburg, Russia’s most artistically cultivated city, and young Igor was exposed to classical music from early childhood, starting piano lessons at the age of nine. He was not a prodigy, however, and his father discouraged him from the formal study of musical theory; it was not until 1902, shortly after his father’s death, that Igor began to work closely and intensively with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer of Scheherazade.

Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian nationalist who in old age had become an ultraconservative academic. Though his own technique was impeccable, the musical establishment over which he presided was provincial in the extreme. Stravinsky absorbed Rimsky-Korsakov’s methods with astonishing speed—particularly his brightly colored orchestral palette and interest in Russian folklore. But he was already too old to internalize fully the principles of classical sonata-allegro form, instead favoring the ad-hoc musical structures to which he had become accustomed through his early exposure to Russian, Italian, and French opera. This preference would later also facilitate his break with Austro-German tradition.

What “deprovincialized” Stravinsky was his association with Serge Diaghilev, the leader of a group of dilettante aesthetes who published a magazine called Mir isskustva (“The World of Art”) and had recently begun presenting seasons of Russian opera and ballet in Paris. The group’s aesthetic, as Walsh explains, was sharply at odds with the cultural orthodoxies of late Czarist Russia:

Mir isskustva embodied what amounted to a radical conservatism in its attitude to art and design; it sought to restore the “old” ideal of beauty to its place at the very center of artistic consideration. It concerned itself exclusively with questions of design, color, and form, and had no truck with social or political goals, did not bother its head about the psychology of perception or the existentialist agony, and did not believe . . . that the world could be changed for the better by right-minded art.

A born impresario who found in the Ballets Russes the ideal outlet for his creative energies, Diaghilev was looking for a young composer to supply “advanced” music for an all-Russian ballet to be choreographed by Michel Fokine. Stravinsky signed on, and the result was The Firebird, a Rimskian score whose 1910 premiere made him famous overnight, simultaneously establishing the Ballets Russes as a major force in the modern movement in art.

Dance suited Stravinsky—it brought out the innate rhythmic thrust that was central to his musical character—just as the iconoclastic cultural climate of prewar Paris suited his antiromantic streak. Accordingly, his next collaboration with Fokine, Petrushka (1911), in which Vaslav Nijinsky danced the title role of a melancholy puppet that comes to life, was a far more adventurous production, fusing Russian folk and popular tunes and cracklingly bitonal harmonies into an arrestingly fresh, unambiguously modern whole.

Stravinsky was hardly the only composer of his generation longing to escape from the claustrophobic cul-de-sac of post-Wagnerian romanticism, with its congested orchestral palette, ultrasaturated chromatic harmonies, and hyperelaborate formal structures. Claude Debussy had been trying to do the same thing for two decades, and Schoenberg had abandoned traditional tonality three years earlier. But it was the Stravinsky of Petrushka whose approach to modernism proved the most influential. That approach, Walsh points out,

heralded a complete change in the way musicians, and in particular creative musicians, thought about music. It freed rhythm once and for all from the old regularities, the old four-bar schemes, and allowed it to react directly to variations in the melodic phrase. In the same way, harmony, instead of obeying textbook grammatical rules, became simply a matter of sonority allied to melody. . . . The consequences of such freedoms would soon be very apparent in Stravinsky’s own work. The fact that, for the time being, he was able to present them in so highly palatable a form, at a time when modern music was increasingly taking refuge in private worlds of agonized expression and opaque language, is not the least achievement of this dazzling score.

In Le Sacre du printemps, Nijinsky’s ballet about a sacrificial virgin who dances herself to death to propitiate the ancient Russian gods of spring, Stravinsky would part company still more forcefully with romanticism. Instead of organically developing musical themes according to traditional concepts of tonality-based form, he assembled a suite of individual episodes in which tonal and bitonal harmonies are perceived by the listener as seemingly free-standing entities—more like the colors in a painting than the interlocking grammatical particles of a musical statement—through which are woven folksong-derived melodic fragments. (In one episode, the orchestra hammers out a single bitonal chord over and over again.) Forward momentum is not the product of harmonic tension and relaxation but arises from the violently assertive motor rhythms and ostinatos that propel the dancers on stage.

Even today, Sacre can sound shocking to ears unacquainted with the language of musical modernism. (“It haunts me like a beautiful nightmare,” Debussy told the composer after hearing it for the first time.) But although Stravinsky used tonality in a nonfunctional way, he did not abandon it: Sacre is still constructed out of recognizably tonal harmonic combinations, and its high level of dissonance can only be understood by reference to consonance. It is the work of a conservative who sought not to repeal the natural order but to revive and refresh it through radical means.



Stylistically speaking, the sensational premiere of Sacre left Stravinsky with nowhere to go. The next few years were spent working out the implications of his recent harmonic and rhythmic discoveries, a process that led to the composition of Les Noces (“The Wedding,” 1914-23), a ballet-cantata about a Russian peasant marriage ceremony in which the vocabulary of Sacre is used with immense skill and sophistication to evoke a religious ritual. But this piece, like Sacre before it, was too formally arbitrary—and too narrowly focused—to serve as the basis of a life’s work. The composer of Sacre had a language; what he needed now was a style. He found it by looking backward.

Stravinsky had already experimented with smaller, wind-dominated ensembles in L’Histoire du soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale,” 1918) and Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), and had explored 18th-century idioms in Pulcinella (1920), a Diaghilev ballet based on themes by the Italian baroque composer Giambattista Pergolesi. Now, in the Octet for Winds (1923), he coupled his motor rhythms and idiosyncratic tonal procedures with traditional sonata-allegro form in a wonderfully laconic piece whose crisp woodwind timbres he described as “dry, cold, and transparent, like an ‘extra dry’ champagne.”

In an article called “Some Ideas About My Octet”—the first of many such self-explanatory pieces he would publish in coming years—Stravinsky told why he had turned away from the violence and splendor of his Russian ballets:

My Octet is not an “emotive” work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves. . . . In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems; and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be in music of any real interest. The play of the musical elements is the thing.

Here once again, he was not alone; other composers had experimented with similar ideas. But it was Stravinsky’s adoption of musical “objectivity” that formed the basis of the tradition-oriented, essentially conservative style of modernism that soon came to be called “neoclassicism.” It was a style very much of its time—but also very deeply rooted in the particular circumstances of Stravinsky’s life.

World War I and the Russian Revolution had laid waste to the orderly world of Stravinsky’s youth, while the art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism of the Diaghilev group had become too decadent to serve as a basis for further development. It was at this moment that he encountered the artistic theories of the neo-Thomist Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose Art and Scholasticism (1920) posited a religious basis for the autonomy of art:

Art . . . remains outside the line of human conduct, with an end, rules, and values which are not those of the man but of the work to be produced. . . . Hence the despotic and all-absorbing power of art, as also its astonishing power of soothing: it frees from every human care, it establishes the artifex, artist or artisan, in a world apart, cloistered, defined, and absolute, in which to devote all the strength and intelligence of his manhood to the service of the thing which he is making.

Though Stravinsky was careful to point out that “I follow in my art an instinctive logic and . . . do not formulate its theory in any other way than ex post facto,” Maritain’s ideas gave focus to his own instincts. Three years after finishing the Octet, he rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church in which he had been baptized as a boy; by then, the innovations of the Octet had similarly coalesced into the musical style of his maturity. In the expansively lyrical Apollo (1929), his last ballet for Diaghilev (as well as his first collaboration with the great Russian choreographer George Balanchine), and the Symphony of Psalms (1930), a magnificently austere, Orthodox-flavored setting for chorus and orchestra of the Vulgate Latin translations of Psalms 39, 40, and 150, neoclassical modernism came decisively into its own.



For much of the following two decades, neoclassicism was the prevailing style of Western classical music. French composers such as Francis Poulenc found it all but indispensable in developing their own idioms, while the French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger introduced a generation of American pupils, most famously Aaron Copland, to its principles.

Meanwhile, Stravinsky himself poured forth a stream of memorable neoclassical works, including the masterful Violin Concerto (1934), Symphony in C (1940), and Symphony in Three Movements (1945); the hauntingly dark ballet score Orpheus (1947), written for Balanchine to choreograph; and such delectably fizzy pieces of “light music” as Scènes de bullet (1944) and Ebony Concerto (1945), the latter composed for the big band of the jazz clarinetist Woody Herman. He also coauthored two books, the poker-faced Autobiography (1936) and Poetics of Music (1942), a group of six lectures originally delivered at Harvard in which he expounded his Maritain-derived theory of musical objectivity.

For Stravinsky, musical order served as a substitute for the lost political order of prewar Europe. Fearing that “the fundamental laws of human equilibrium” were being revoked by politicians of the Left, he joined many of his fellow artists in flirting briefly but ardently with Italian fascism—he once described Mussolini as “the one man who counts today in the whole world”—and while there is no evidence that he found Hitler sympathetic, he continued to conduct in Germany until the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Even though his music figured later that year in the notorious Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) exhibition, it was not banned by the Nazis until 1940. By then, Stravinsky had already come to the conclusion that Paris was no place for an entartete composer; he emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, becoming a citizen in 1945.

After the war, he composed The Rake’s Progress (1951), a full-length opera set to a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, based on the series of engravings of William Hogarth. This consciously Mozartian work, Stravinsky’s longest composition, was a summa of the neoclassical idea. But it came at a time when a new generation of composers, longing to make their own mark and sharing in the widespread desire for radical change that followed the horrors of World War II, was starting to repudiate neoclassicism and take up the banner of Schoenbergian serialism.

Having spent the preceding four decades in the limelight, Stravinsky was keenly aware of this change in fashion; moreover, his own creative energies were flagging as he entered his eighth decade, and the completion of Rake had left him exhausted. It was around this time that he began working with a young American conductor named Robert Craft who was interested in serial music and who exposed the older composer to it systematically. As Craft has recalled of that period, “Stravinsky, for the first time in his life, suffered from a fear that his music was being superseded.”

The death in 1951 of Schoenberg, his longtime rival, freed Stravinsky to experiment with serialism. At first he proceeded with caution, composing Agon (1957), a polystylistic tour de force for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet that begins and ends diatonically but gradually works its way in the central pas de deux into a highly individual adaptation of twelve-tone technique. Later on, he embraced the method wholeheartedly, composing in a fully serial style for the remainder of his life, though the extreme concentration of the pieces he produced failed to conceal the diminished inspiration of an octogenarian.

From the early 50’s onward, Stravinsky also devoted more and more time to his conducting career, on which he had originally embarked in the 20’s to help support his large family. He recorded and re-recorded most of his major works. Simultaneously, he produced six published volumes of witty, often outrageous “conversations” with Craft in which he discreetly rewrote the story of his younger years to bring it more into line with his subsequent conversion to the gospel of objectivity. These were the years in which he became an icon-for-rent—the World’s Greatest Composer—while simultaneously falling out of favor with young avant-gardists who had no interest in his passion for order. Ill health finally forced him into retirement in 1967, and he died four years later, at once idolized and disdained.



Did Stravinsky embrace serialism solely to remain in vogue, or were there deeper causes? Late in life, he described himself to Craft as “a double émigré, born to a minor musical tradition and twice transplanted to other minor ones.” Taruskin cites this remark as evidence that Stravinsky “envied the Germans their traditions,” to the point where he eventually lost faith in the significance of his own break with them and even felt the need to conceal the Russianness of his early work.

Such uncertainties, though not unheard-of in the elderly, should not deceive us into doubting the triumphant success of Stravinsky’s revitalization of the classical style. Schoenberg had likewise determined to revive that style, but his approach was the exact opposite of Stravinsky’s. Taking for granted the permanent primacy of the Austro-German tradition, Schoenberg sought to energize it by filling its overfamiliar forms with nontonal content; Stravinsky, conversely, saw that what was exhausted was not tonality but the increasingly rigid language of post-Wagnerian Austro-German romanticism. This he jettisoned in the quintessentially Russian Petrushka and Sacre.

To be sure, Stravinsky’s rejection of romanticism would have meant nothing without the galvanizing example of his own music. Though he liked to play at being an intellectual, he did not write music to illustrate some abstract theory of art. Rather, he wrote it to be performed, heard, and danced—to give pleasure to body and mind alike. “Every measure that Igor Fyodorovich ever wrote is good for dancing,” Balanchine once said, and the literary critic Edmund Wilson paid tribute to the comparable effect of his music on the receptive intellect:

Stravinsky has meant a good deal to me—more than any other contemporary artist in any nonliterary art. It is inspiring for any kind of craftsman to have the spectacle of such a sustained career—the artist always himself and always doing something different, but always doing everything intensely with economy, perfect craftsmanship, and style. . . . I’m not in the least religious, but I think it’s significant and admirable that Stravinsky should begin every day with a prayer.

Nor was that daily prayer a pose. It echoes and re-echoes throughout the Symphony of Psalms, a reaffirmation of the glory of God that begins in astringent lamentation and ends in radiant certitude. Here, as in Stravinsky’s other supreme masterpieces—Sacre, Les Noces, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Apollo, the Symphonies in C and in Three Movements, Orpheus, Agon—one encounters unforgettably moving intimations of the divine order, enlivened by a surging, proliferating rhythmic vitality that gladdens the heart.

No doubt the media’s elevation of Stravinsky to the position of “composer of the century” was partly responsible for the postwar decline of his reputation. Musical modernism has been far too rich in noteworthy accomplishments to allow the singling-out of one “greatest composer,” and Stravinsky, despite his unique and permanent historical significance, was merely one of many musical giants who walked the earth between the wars. Still, there can be no doubt that his refined yet passionate music embodied much of what was best about the 20th century, or that it will be played—and loved—throughout centuries yet to come.



Stravinsky on CD: A Select Discography

Stravinsky spent much of the second half of his life touring as a conductor, in the process recording some of his works as many as three times each. The performances dating from the 40’s and early 50’s are usually the strongest, and many of these, including his 1940 recording with the New York Philharmonic of Le Sacre du printemps, have been reissued in two collections. Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky: The Mono Years, 1952-1955, contains pristinely remastered versions of L’Histoire du soldat, Pulcinella, the Octet for Winds, and the Symphony in C (Sony Classical MH2K 63325, two CD’s); the second, Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky: The American Recordings, offers dull-sounding transfers from the original 78’s of the Firebird Suite, Sacre, Scènes de ballet, Ebony Concerto, and the Symphony in Three Movements (Pearl GEMM CDS 9292, two CD’s).

While certain of Stravinsky’s own recordings (including most of the above-mentioned ones) are first-rate, others have long since been bettered. Unfortunately, more than a few of the finest Stravinsky performances by other artists are presently out of print. But these CD’s, arranged by date of composition and all available at press time, rank among the best:

1911: Pierre Monteux conducted the Ballets Russes premiere of Petrushka, and his beautifully controlled 1959 recording with the Boston Symphony is among the few to have been made by a distinguished symphonic conductor who also led staged performances of the ballet (RCA Victor Living Stereo 63303).

1913: Igor Markevitch, Diaghilev’s last protégé, made a 1959 recording of Le Sacre du printemps with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra that is memorable for its combination of tonal savagery and textual accuracy (Testament SBT-1076).

1914-23: Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Les Noces, featuring an ensemble of English singers and percussionists and the pianists Martha Argerich, Homero Francesch, Cyprien Katsaris, and Krystian Zimerman, is explosively robust (DGG-23251).

1920/1930: Many of Pierre Boulez’s Stravinsky recordings lack vitality, but his recent versions with the Berlin Philharmonic of Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Symphony of Psalms are both tonally lucid and rhythmically direct (DGG 57616).

1931: Itzhak Perlman’s full-blooded rendition of the Violin Concerto, incisively accompanied by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, remains unrivaled (DGG 47445).

1940/1946: The Symphony in C is available in an elegant yet vigorous performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony, coupled with an equally fine Symphony in Three Movements (Sony Classical SK 53275).

1947: The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performs Orpheus with a unanimity of ensemble rarely heard in more conventional performances (DGG 59644).

1951: The Rake’s Progress has been recorded several times, most recently—and most effectively—by the English tenor Ian Bostridge, the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and the London Symphony, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (DGG 59648, two CD’s).

1957: By far the best recording of Agon is the recent version by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony included in Stravinsky in America, a program of works composed after Stravinsky moved to the U.S. (RCA Victor Red Seal 68865).

In addition, Herbert von Karajan’s staggeringly virtuosic 1977 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic of Le Sacre du printemps has just been reissued in Europe as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s The Originals series, coupled with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. This CD can now be ordered directly from England via, and will be released in the U.S. later this year. An earlier CD, imported copies of which can still be found in some larger stores, paired Sacre with an exquisitely poetic Apollo. (Karajan’s 1966 Sacre, currently available from DGG in a coupling with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, should be avoided.)



The rest of these items can be purchased online by viewing this article on COMMENTARY’s website:



1 Knopf, 698 pp., $35.00.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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