Stravinsky’s Svadebka/Les noces—an assault of nonsense syllables, snatches of conversation, and ritual fragments—is a cubist reconstruction of a Russian peasant wedding. Despite its invocation of Christian saints, the work might be Neolithic or even Australopithicine, so backward-looking is its range of auditory allusion.
All of the action is accompanied by chatter, out of which a whoop or intelligible phrase may emerge—we hear pet names, silly games, much commentary on the wine and beer, and some veiled sexual talk; it is the auditory equivalent of the strips of newsprint that Picasso glued to some of his canvases.
This according to Stravinsky: The music box and the nightingale by Daniel Albright (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1989).
This year marks the 110th anniversary of cubism! Above and below, Bronislava Nijinska’s original choreography for the work.
Like many operas, Stravinsky’s The rake’s progress is deeply flawed, confused, and contradictory. It presents an overextended musical pastiche, an overly clever libretto by W.H. Auden, and a grim view of human nature.
Yet the scenes of act 3 encompass comedy, dramatic tension, and lyrical pathos, and the opera redeems itself because it moves into its own Bedlam, the land of opera. Although the character of Baba the Turk remains enigmatic in the theater, she embodies the spirit of the opera. Baba was Auden’s way of asserting the power of art over nature.
This according to “Redeeming the rake” by David Schiff (The Atlantic monthly CCLXXX/5 [November 1997] pp. 136–139).
Above, Baba portrayed by Leah-Marian Jones; below, by Dagmar Pecková.
Robert Craft progressed with remarkable speed from being Stravinsky’s assistant to serving as his adviser, collaborator, and defender.
While Craft has been castigated for suppressing or misstating information, his actions must be viewed in the context of his complicated relationship with the composer, which has no clear parallel in music history. Craft was ethically bound both to interpret Stravinsky to the outside world and to ensure his status as a 20th-century hero.
This according to “Boswellizing an icon: Stravinsky, Craft, and the historian’s dilemma” by Charles M. Joseph, an essay included in Stravinsky inside out (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 233–265).
Today is Craft’s 90th birthday! Below, he recalls Stravinsky’s California years.
Historians have based their explanations for the tumultuous 1913 première of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps on the accounts (none published before 1935) of the participants—Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Monteux.
Due to these accounts, for years it has been believed that either the choreography or the revolutionary score was the cause of the riot in the audience, and that the uproar was a spontaneous reaction to the performance.
However, an examination of contemporary newspaper and journal reviews and an understanding of the personal and political characteristics of Sergei Diaghilev reveals that the riot was actually anticipated and encouraged by the management of the Ballets Russes. The earliest reviews published in Paris offer a wealth of material relating to cultural values of the age.
This according to “The riot at the Rite: Not so surprising after all” by Truman C. Bullard, an article included in Essays on music for Charles Warren Fox (Rochester: Eastman School of Music, 1979, pp. 206–211).
Today is the 100th anniversary of Le sacre’s premiere! Above, a photograph from the original Ballets Russes production; below, part of the BBC’s dramatization from 2009.
Stravinsky has been widely characterized as enigmatic, a composer whose stylistic transformations were impossible to anticipate. He cultivated this image, not in a disingenuous way, but because his eccentricity was central to his self-definition.
More than any composer of 20th-century art music, Stravinsky was able to make the leap from a rarefied intellectual world to the status of a pop icon, widely respected by people who largely did not understand his music. He needed to be public, accepted, and popular, and a surprisingly large proportion of his archival documents reflects his efforts toward these goals.
Television producers in Europe and North America found in Stravinsky the ideal nonconformist film icon: droll, quirky, conversational, contentious, and pedestaled as the epitome of the rebellious hero. He was drawn to them as well, as a natural performer who needed and commanded the spotlight.
This according to “Truths and illusions: Rethinking what we know” and “Film documentaries: The composer on and off camera” by Charles M. Joseph, two essays included in Stravinsky inside out (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 1–34 and 162–195, respectively).
Below, the composer works the camera with some of his favorite things to say about Le sacre du printemps.
Although Stravinsky’s transplantation to the glamour-conscious culture of Los Angeles may have seemed completely out of character, he genuinely thrived there. Still, his inability to relinquish control made it impossible for him to work as a film composer, despite his efforts to break into the business.
The notable exceptions are his associations with Walt Disney, who used excerpts from the composer’s works for several films—most notably Le sacre du Printemps for Fantasia—before they had a falling-out over financial arrangements.
This according to “The would-be Hollywood composer: Stravinsky, the literati, and the dream factory” by Charles M. Joseph, an essay included in Stravinsky inside out (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 100–131). Below, the Rite of spring segment in its entirety.
Even before he signed a contract with the Columbia Gramophone Company in 1928, Stravinsky was firmly convinced of the importance of documenting his performance wishes through recording; in the early 1920s he was already making piano rolls for the Pleyel firm.
In a brief 1930 essay originally published in German—“Meine Stellung zur Schallplatte” (Kultur und Schallplatte 1 [March 1930] p. 65)—he even anticipated a compositional development that would be facilitated more than a decade later with the advent of magnetic tape:
“It would be of the greatest interest to create music specifically for the phonograph, a music whose true image—its original sound—could only be preserved through mechanical reproduction. This would well be the ultimate goal for the phonographic composers of the future.”
The article is reproduced in an English translation in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). Below, Stravinsky in a 1955 Columbia Records recording session.
Stravinsky’s collaborations with the Ballets Russes were only a part of his life between 1910 and 1914; he was also involved with the Parisian avant-garde group known as Les Apaches (The Apaches), an interdisciplinary society that included Ravel, Falla, and the poet Léon-Paul Fargue.
Les Apaches’ support was vital for Stravinsky’s composition of Le sacre du printemps, and its aesthetic preoccupations helped to motivate his decision to set Trois poésies de la lyrique japonaise.
This according to “Stravinsky and The Apaches” by Jann Pasler (The musical times CXXIII/1672 [June 1982] pp. 403-407).
Today is Stravinsky’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer at work in Paris in 1911; below, Evelyn Lear sings the Trois poésies with members of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Craft.
Stravinsky the global dancer: A chronology of choreography to the music of Igor Stravinsky is a free online database that aims to list all dances choreographed to Stravinsky’s works, with references to about 100 compositions, about 1250 dances, and about 700 choreographers. Compiled by Stephanie Jordan and Larraine Nicholas, it is searchable by title of composition, year of composition, year of choreography, name of choreographer, dance company, and country.
Jordan’s “The demons in a database: Interrogating Stravinsky the global dancer” (Dance research XXII/1 [summer 2004] pp. 57–83) presents analyses of findings in the database regarding the distribution of new Stravinsky dance productions over the years, incidence of choreographing the narrative vs. the concert scores, distribution by choreographer, and distribution by country, along with case studies of the choreographic histories of Le sacre du printemps, Apollo, and Agon.
Above, the composer in his Ballets Russes days with Serge Diaghilev and Serge Lifar, who originated the role of Apollo. Below, the Houston Ballet performs an excerpt from Balanchine’s choreography for that work.