Today is the birthday (1882) Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, a Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor who is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. I wrote a post on the premiere of the Rite of Spring 3 years ago, that was quite technical concerning the music, and also analyzed the riot that (supposedly) erupted: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/rite-of-spring/ My spate of posts on individual musical pieces back then served its purpose, but it did leave the composers a little short-changed. Here is my opportunity to spread out more broadly about Stravinsky. What I most especially want to do is to place Stravinsky in the broader cultural and intellectual landscape of his time. This endeavor is partly facilitated by the fact that Stravinsky, while immersing himself in the world of music, had a wide range of interests and friendships with individuals who spanned all manner of artistic and intellectual realms. This gives me the opportunity to stop and reflect on a critical time in the development of Western culture – what has become known as the modernist era.
Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital at the time and was brought up in Saint Petersburg. His parents were Fyodor Stravinsky (1843–1902), a well-known bass at the Kiev opera house and the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and Anna (née Kholodovsky; 1854-1939), a native of Kiev, one of four daughters of a high-ranking official in the Kiev Ministry of Estates. Stravinsky recalled his schooldays as being lonely, later saying that “I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me.” Stravinsky began piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory and attempting composition. By age 15, he had mastered Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor and finished a piano reduction of a string quartet by Glazunov, who reportedly considered Stravinsky unmusical and thought little of his skills.
Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected him to study law. Stravinsky enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901, but he attended fewer than 50 class sessions during his four years of study. In the summer of 1902, Stravinsky stayed with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his family in Heidelberg, where Rimsky-Korsakov, who was arguably the leading Russian composer at that time, suggested to Stravinsky that he should not enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire but instead study composing by taking private lessons, in large part because of his age. Stravinsky’s father died of cancer that year, by which time Stravinsky had already begun spending more time on his musical studies than on law. The university was closed for two months in 1905 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, and Stravinsky was prevented from taking his final law examinations and later received a half-course diploma in April 1906. Thereafter, he concentrated on studying music. In 1905, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, and continued until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.
In February 1909, two of Stravinsky’s orchestral works, the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) were performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg Serge Diaghilev heard them. Diaghilev was planning to present Russian opera and ballet in Paris, and was sufficiently impressed by Fireworks to commission Stravinsky to produce some orchestrations and then to compose a full-length ballet score, The Firebird. While in Paris as the principal composer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Stravinsky also collaborated with Pablo Picasso (Pulcinella, 1920), Jean Cocteau (Oedipus Rex, 1927), and George Balanchine (Apollon musagète, 1928). His interest in art propelled him to develop a strong relationship with Picasso, whom he met in 1917 From 1917 to 1920, the two engaged in an artistic dialogue in which they exchanged small-scale works of art, which included the famous portrait of Stravinsky by Picasso, and Stravinsky’s “Sketch of Music for the Clarinet.” This exchange was essential to establish how the artists would approach their collaborative space in Pulcinella. Stravinsky also had broad tastes in literature with a constant desire for new discoveries. The texts and literary sources for his work began with a period of interest in Russian folklore, which progressed to classical authors and the Latin liturgy and moved on to contemporary France, and eventually English literature, including W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and medieval English verse.
Although Stravinsky was not outspoken about his faith, he was a deeply religious man throughout some periods of his life. As a child, he was brought up by his parents in the Russian Orthodox Church. Baptized at birth, he later rebelled against the Church and abandoned it by the time he was around 14. Throughout the rise of his career he was estranged from Christianity and it was not until he reached his early forties that he experienced a spiritual crisis. After befriending a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Nicholas, after his move to Nice in 1924, he reconnected with his faith. He rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church and afterwards remained a committed Christian. In his late seventies, Stravinsky said:
I cannot now evaluate the events that, at the end of those thirty years, made me discover the necessity of religious belief. I was not reasoned into my disposition. Though I admire the structured thought of theology (Anselm’s proof in the Fides Quaerens Intellectum, for instance) it is to religion no more than counterpoint exercises are to music. I do not believe in bridges of reason or, indeed, in any form of extrapolation in religious matters. … I can say, however, that for some years before my actual “conversion”, a mood of acceptance had been cultivated in me by a reading of the Gospels and by other religious literature.
Looking at Stravinsky’s life and relationships does make us understand a little more about the creative process, particularly concerning how certain fundamental ideas percolate around all manner of spheres. It’s not surprising that musicians and choreographers collaborate: ballets need both, and they have to work together. At the turn of the 20th century, visual artists, musicians, poets, novelists, dancers, playwrights etc. all found ways to share ideas partly because there were some BIG IDEAS percolating in the intellectual world in general, changing attitudes in the physical sciences, natural sciences, medicine, and allied fields of inquiry. If you want to sum it up in a short (simplistic) way you could say that in every field of human endeavor the foundational rules were being challenged. What seemed to be rock solid notions such as time, motion, form, substance, were all shown to be much more mutable than they seemed. Time was relative; a vacuum was not empty; solid things were shown to be made of atoms, which could be split, and those atoms contained huge areas of nothing; human consciousness was partly unconscious. In a word, things are not what our senses lead us to believe they are. These ideas affected all inquiry. The sad fact is that 100 years later, the general population is as clueless concerning these ideas as they were at the turn of the 20th century. But artists, scientists, theologians . . . whatever, grasped them – and they talked to each other. My questions is, “Where did the BIG IDEAS come from in the first place?” It’s easy (and common) to think that the ideas come from scientific discovery and then spread from there, but I am not so sure. Breakthroughs in science do not just happen because scientists are moving along step by step until they achieve their goals. There has to be a flash of insight that is creative. In a sense the idea comes from nowhere, or, at the very least is an unexpected departure from normal ways of thinking.
It is alleged that Einstein came up with the basic principle of special relativity when he was on his way to work and when he glanced up at the town clock saw that he was going to be late and wondered what it would be like if he were traveling towards the clock at the speed of light. He initially conjectured that time would stop. From there he began digging deeper, and working on the equations that emerged from that initial inspiration. In a sense, the idea came out of nowhere – just a random bit of imagination. But where does imagination or creativity come from? As an anthropologist I tend to think that they are part of constant shifts that occur within culture, and they can emanate from different arenas at different times. Maybe, sometimes the wellspring is physics, at other times it is music, or visual art, or linguistics, or religion. No single area of human endeavor has a stranglehold on creativity and imagination. Stravinsky’s life and work shows that this ferment of new ideas was all around in his heyday, and he tapped into it. He was well-educated and well-traveled enough (and sociable enough), to be one of the focus points of this ferment.
When I posted on Rite of Spring, I posted this story about Stravinsky:
Stravinsky and Rachmaninov had been contemporaries in St Petersburg but they did not actually meet until they started dining together in California in the 1940s. Although in opposite camps when it came to modernism, Rachmaninov very much wanted to be friends with his fellow composer. One night Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, Four Norwegian Moods. To his surprise he heard footsteps on the porch outside. There towering over him – as he did over most people – was the lugubrious figure of Rachmaninov bearing a very large jar of natural honey. The explanation? At a recent meal Stravinsky had announced how much he loved honey and this determined Rachmaninov to bring some round, regardless of the hour.
On that post I gave a recipe for Russian honey cake, which you can use again for today. Or you can be a modernist: break all the rules. Soak 7 or 8 very thin slices of bread (crusts removed) in honey, stack them, sprinkle them with crushed nuts, and eat. Do something – anything – creative with honey, in Stravinsky’s memory. Just remember to break the rules. Recipes are not allowed. What you do must be original. Giving you too many ideas would be cheating.