Tuesday, July 24, 2007

One of the Greatest Modern Composers: Stravinsky

Frank Luger headshot by Frank Luger

When I was in my pre-teens, my parents had arranged for me to take piano lessons. I was not particularly good at it, except for manual dexterity; but I had little ear for music, and even less patience for learning the delicate technicalities. It took about six months of ‘torture’ before my training was abandoned as hopeless. However, during that time, my private tutor, who was no lesser personage than Gabriella Bartók, the niece of the world-famous composer Béla Bartók, had often admonished me and tried to motivate me by insisting that I should aim at nothing less than excellence. She used to cite the examples of famous Hungarian musical geniuses, such as Liszt, Kodály, and Bartók; and, since this was already during the Stalinist times, for political ‘correctness’ she also cited such great names as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, and very often, Stravinsky.

She had never met the other three Russians, but she had trained for a while with Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971) in her youth; and so she was in position to tell me many stories, even amusing anecdotes. Now, it has been a generation (30 years) that Stravinsky died (Gabriella Bartók died even earlier, due to breast cancer, if I remember correctly); therefore, as a bit of commemoration, let me relate what I recall of her Stravinsky stories, interlaced, spiced, and completed with actual historical details.

While vacationing in Heidelberg, Germany, on a hot Summer afternoon in 1902, Rimsky-Korsakov was approached by a 20-year old law student from the University of St-Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad, now back to its old name). Introducing himself as the son of one of Russia’s foremost opera stars, the youth begged the composer to listen to a piece he had recently written and to tell him whether or not it showed any of the talent necessary for a career in music. Taken by surprise by the young man’s insistence but being delighted with his evident enthusiasm for music, Rimsky-Korsakov agreed to a hearing. The student played the piano for about half an hour, then respectfully awaited the ’verdict’ of the already famous composer.

“Young man, your music is quite nice,” Rimsky-Korsakov reportedly told him; “but in all fairness to you, I would suggest that you continue with your law studies. However, should your interest in music remain, you might perhaps enroll in some formal courses in counterpoint and harmony. Then, maybe, you will come back and play for me again and I will be able to give you a more favorable assessment.”

His hopes dashed for the moment, the crestfallen Stravinsky took the advice and returned to his law books. Music, however, soon gained the upper hand again. Writing a piano sonata, a year later he called on Rimsky-Korsakov a second time. The composer greeted him warmly and listened to his music intently, apparently impressed with what he was hearing. Occasionally he asked Stravinsky to repeat a specific passage, nodding and keeping time to the music when it was played. Then came the second verdict:

“You asked me once before if you had any ability whatsoever and I told you to continue with your law studies. I’ve just changed my mind. You are wasting your talents with law. Come to me tomorrow morning- early, mind you- and we will begin your training in serious instrumentation.”

In later years Stravinsky was to recall, the weeks and months he spent with Rimsky-Korsakov were among the happiest in his life. As a teacher, the composer was merciless. He drove his young apprentice and drove him very hard. Anything short of perfection brought down his wrath. Perfection, itself, he dismissed with scarcely a word of praise. “A man’s music,” Rimsky-Korsakov used to explain, “should always be perfect, so why should we applaud something that is so basic to successful composing.”

Prompted by such admonishings, late in 1907 Stravinsky completed his first large work, the “Symphony in E-flat major.” Performed in St-Petersburg on January 22, 1908, it instantly met with critical acclaim. A second work finished soon afterward and named “Le Faune et la bergère” (Fauna and the shepherdess) did not fare as well, but it did prove to be more than sufficient to bolster Stravinsky’s rising stature in the world of music.

Galvanized into action, confident as he had never been before, tireless in his work, Stravinsky threw himself into his music. Secretly, he began to compose a new orchestral work, which he hoped to present as a gift to Rimsky-Korsakov upon the forthcoming marriage of the master’s daughter. Called “Fireworks”, it was finished just a week before the wedding. Delighted with his surprise, Stravinsky packed up his score and shipped it off to his revered master. However, by some irony of fate, Rimsky-Korsakov was never to see it. On the day that it arrived, he died. One of the world’s greatest composers had passed on and for Igor Stravinsky, the loss was a terrible blow. Friend, teacher, and colleague, Rimsky-Korsakov had been the young composer’s guide and inspiration.

Presented in St-Petersburg, “Fireworks” exerted a profound influence on the future of the rising composer. In the audience, the night of its debut, was Serge Diaghilev, soon to become famous as the mastermind behind the magnificent ‘Ballet Russe’ [Russian Ballet, later almost synonymous with ‘Bolshoi’ even though ‘Bolshoi’ was the name of the largest (as it means “big” or “great” in Russian) and most elegant theater in Moscow during and after Stalin]. Hearing Stravinsky’s music, Diaghilev invited the composer to orchestrate two Chopin pieces for a forthcoming ballet performance. Stravinsky did, and the results were so outstanding that he was commissioned to undertake a major work revolving around an old Russian myth- the tale of the Fire-Bird.

It took Stravinsky nearly a year to complete his task, but at last, on June 25, 1910, “L’Oiseau de Feu” or “The Fire-Bird”, was presented at the Paris Opera. The audience went wild with delight. Stravinsky was given an incredible ovation. Debussy, hearing the score, rose at the conclusion of the ballet and hurled himself into Stravinsky’s arms. Gabriel Pierne, who conducted that evening, later declared, “The Fire-Bird” is music such as I have never heard before. The world will not soon forget it. Mark my words. Igor Stravinsky will someday help free the musical thought of today and lead it in new directions.” And so it proved. “The Fire-Bird” established Stravinsky’s reputation and carried his name to music lovers around the globe. Elated with his triumph, the composer immediately plunged into a new work. Titled “Petrouchka”, it was first seen in Paris in 1911. To ensure its success, Diaghilev had seen to it that Nijinsky and Karsavina were the ballet’s principal dancers, that the finest supporting cast to be found anywhere was on hand, and that the settings were of unmatched beauty.

Paris received “Petrouchka” with even more enthusiasm than that attending the debut of “The Fire-Bird”. The city’s newspapers, next morning, hailed Stravinsky as a personage of music equal in stature to France’s beloved Claude Debussy. And Debussy himself declared, “That man injects a vital force into music that will carry him- and music- very far”.

Following “Petrouchka” came “The Rite of Spring”, a ballet which perhaps evoked one of the most fantastic exhibitions in the history of music. Presented on May 29, 1913, rarely has a composition ever carried its audience away so completely. Even for Igor Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring” marked a monumental turning point in his career. His success established, the piece shook the musical world to its very roots and made him one of the most loved or most despised, most defended or most maligned figures in the history of his art. In rapid succession, he proceeded to compose such works as the opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex”; the ballet “Apollon Musagete”; the suite “Pulcinella”; and the ballet “L’Histoire de Soldat” (Soldier’s History).

Visiting the United States for the first time in 1925, Stravinsky was much impressed with what he saw. Musical America, on the other hand, was just as impressed with what it saw in him and welcomed the composer with open arms. The various tours on which he embarked in the years that followed were all highly successful, so much so, as a matter of fact, that when Stravinsky completed his ballet “Jeu de Cartes” (Card Game) , he decided it would be given its premiere in New York. Presented in 1937; the audience proved to be every bit as enthusiastic as the Parisian groups that had greeted the ballets “The Fire-Bird” and “Petrouchka”. With the onset of World War II, Stravinsky abandoned his home in the outskirts of Paris. Traveling to the United States and eventually settling in California, be became a naturalized American citizen and plunged back into his work. His major American works have included the magnificent opera “Rake’s Progress”; the ballet “Orpheus”; and the controversial “symphony in Three Movements”.

This is where I should stop the storytelling, because my own musical training had stopped in the mid-1950’s. Stravinsky had lived and produced until his death in 1971, but I know nothing of his late period in life. At any rate, it is generally recognized that already in the mid-1950’s he was acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest modern composers. Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky had achieved his aims while he was still alive, regardless of difficulties; and thus had been successful in avoiding merely posthumous recognition, the lamentable fate of many great artists.


1 comment:

Justin Zijlstra said...

I love the sound of the Rite.

But Mozarts Requiem is more soothing.

I even feel a laugh at times.

Still I like both.

Sigh, Why is this not a ritual?