Myth of Igor, the Great Composer

Norman Lebrecht says an affair with Coco Chanel did Stravinsky’s PR, and hers, no harm at all

On Music

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Igor Stravinsky cast such a huge shadow over the cultural estate that when he died, 50 years ago this month, his publisher said that music would be as art was after Michelangelo. We can now confirm that he was right. In half a century, no composer has attained the fame and stature of Stravinsky, none has dined with ease at the Elysée and the White House. Stravinsky was the last of the Great Composers. Once he was gone, they locked the canon and threw away the key.

Before you contest that proposition, let’s raise a cheer for the closure of the canon. Across the world right now, from the BBC to the Boston Symphony, dead white male composers are being replaced with diverse unknowns amid a confessional wave of collective guilt at our colonial worship of the Great Composers cult. Stravinsky will have his privilege checked at this summer’s music festivals, and about time, too. But I still see newspaper critics saluting him as the “greatest” of his century.

It’s about time we took down Great Igor, at least a peg or two. Luck played a part in his ascendance. As a Rimsky-Korsakov student in St Petersburg he was recruited by Serge Diaghilev to his ballet renaissance project. Stravinsky’s first two Paris ballets — Firebird and Petrushka — were spectacularly popular. His third, The Rite of Spring, was spectacularly notorious. Stravinsky dined out on the May 1913 riots for the rest of his life. Had he written nothing more, he would be no less famous today.

It’s about time we took down Great Igor, at least a peg or two

Drawing on the rhythmic propulsion of Petrushka, he employed thunderous noise as the driving force of the Rite. The ensuing ructions established Igor as the angry young musician of modernism, the Picasso of percussion. He mixed cocktails with Cocteau and aphorisms with Apollinaire until war broke out, when he found there was not much left in his toolkit.

Removal from Russia dried up his sources, throwing him back on touristy folklore in Les Noces. When communism perpetuated his exile, he invented a “neo-classical” style, which was essentially pseudo-Mozart or Rossini with a twist of lemon and lime. His middle period was mostly pastiche. Were it not for the 1930 Symphony of Psalms, one could write it off as a slump. A ballet or three kept him in the spotlight and an affair with the fashion queen Coco Chanel did his PR, and hers, no harm at all. Everybody had heard of Stravinsky.

Moving to America, he wrote a jazz clarinet concerto for Woody Herman and two unimposing symphonies for orchestral millionaires. In 1951 his libidinous opera The Rake’s Progress made all the right world headlines without changing the weather.

The game-changer for Stravinsky was his conversion — through the aptly-named Robert Craft — to the serial atonality of the lately-deceased Arnold Schoenberg. This leap of calculating faith in “progress” enshrined Stravinsky as the Moses of post-modernism, patron saint to the nihilism of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and supreme arbiter of musical correctness. No composer could make a career from the 1960s on without a nod to godfather Stravinsky. No critic has, up to now, dared to take a pin to his balloon, and it’s really not that hard to burst.

Let’s subject him to comparison, for argument’s sake, with Serge Prokofiev, a Russian nine years his junior who rose by the same route, through the Diaghilev talent machine. Prokofiev announced his arrival with a ballistic piano concerto and Scythian Suite, mellowing into a 1918 Classical Symphony. In Bolshevik exile, he wrote The Love of Three Oranges for Chicago, a couple of symphonies for Serge Koussevitsky and an unstageable 1927 opera about libidinous nuns, The Fiery Angel.

America’s depression and Europe’s political gloom led to a nail-bitten decision to return to Russia in 1936. The move cost his first wife a long sentence in Siberia, among other inconveniences, but Prokofiev never ran dry of music no matter how harrowing his circumstances.

From Peter and the Wolf for a Moscow children’s theatre to War and Peace for the Bolshoi, every score that left his desk was polished to perfection and each was Prokofiev in every line, paying no dues to current doctrines. His fifth symphony is one of the defining works of the Second World War and the three sonatas he wrote for Richter and Gilels are summits of the piano repertoire.

Prokofiev was never a man they could send to the White House

Stalin brought him to his knees with threats and deprivations and his death in March 1953 on the same day as the dictator brought Russians out in tears. His music has never gone out of fashion or needed immense — seven symphonies, five piano concertos, six Stalin Prizes and a score for Ivan the Terrible. He wrote works of art, for art’s sake. At least a dozen scores — the violin concertos, the Cinderella ballet, Romeo and Juliet — are part of our common culture, meaningful to people of all ages, boomed out in football stadia and fitness gyms.

Blessed with a Mozartian gift for melody, Prokofiev was a citizen of his century. Nobody ever nominated him as its “greatest composer” — in part, because he did not need brand inflation and, in equal part, because the Great Composer is a construct of a music establishment that claims to know best what is good for music, what politicians and the public will pay for. Prokofiev was never a man they could send to the White House. He could not eat fish without spattering his shirt.

Examine Stravinsky’s manuscripts and you’ll see neatness in several colours, each note minutely in its place. With Prokofiev, chords wobble all over the staves, bursting to get off the page and into our ears. Great Composer that he is, Stravinsky’s music has not worn well. Much of it is aloof, elusive, strategic, cerebral and cold. Most is generally unplayed. This year’s roll-out might well be his last.

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