Full-length portrait of Igor Stravinsky (Stravinski) (1882-1971), Russian composer. Painting by Jacques Emile (Jacques-Emile) Blanche (1861-1942), 1915. Oil on canvas. 1,75 x 1,24 m. Orsay Museum, Paris (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Stravinsky’s reputation is in freefall

Norman Lebrecht re-examines the life and legacy of Stravinsky.

On Music

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Around the time I started writing about music, it was common — obligatory, in some quarters — to refer to Igor Stravinsky as the Great Composer of the Twentieth Century. Memories of the man were still fresh (he died in 1971) and his historic stature seemed secure.

Pierre Boulez said: “The death of Stravinsky means the final disappearance of a musical generation which gave music its basic shock at the beginning of this century.” His publisher Ernst Roth said: “After Stravinsky, it will be as it was after Michelangelo.”

These perceptions have since shrunk dramatically. Stravinsky, right now, is in freefall. In 2021, few summoned much enthusiasm for an anniversary retrospective that was quickly quelled by Covid.

Three ballets for Sergei Diaghilev’s company established Stravinsky’s promise as the voice of the future. Firebird and Petrushka were colourful crowd-pleasers. The Rite of Spring resulted in broken limbs. What followed was blockage. Stravinsky, running out of bricks for windows, changed his style, not once but twice, neither time successfully.

His neo-classicism is derivative, his late-onset serialism all but unlistenable. Middle-to-late Stravinsky works are often a contrivance to cover up loss of invention. The American critic Terry Teachout, a fervent admirer, made a telling admission: “Stylistically speaking, the sensational premiere of Sacre left Stravinsky with nowhere to go.”

It’s 110 years ago this May since that 1913 eruption left a fashionable Champs-Élysées crowd clutching its ears or battling protestors. A solo bassoon by way of introduction left none prepared for a bombardment of musical violence that displaced melody with rhythm, diatonic harmony with polytonality and courtly ballet with simulated copulation.

Sympathetic to fascism, anti-Semitic and ungenerous, Stravinsky was not a nice man nor a good one

Few doubted that this was the front line of the musical future. But what kind of future that would be depended on what the composer did next.

Stravinsky pretended at first to be shocked by the outrage he had provoked. Some of his friends believed he relished the notoriety and exploited it. For the rest of his life, Stravinsky played the Great Composer role to perfection without, however, providing enough of the substance.

Impoverished by the 1914 war and left homeless by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Stravinsky dressed at all times like a dandy, consorting with Coco Chanel and other trend-setters. His wife Catherine, her health failing, had to beg him by mail for bare necessities while her husband dined in style. Stravinsky eventually abandoned Catherine for slinky Vera Sudeikina.

Sympathetic to fascism, anti-Semitic and ungenerous, Stravinsky was not a nice man nor a good one. He delegated his image management to others. Diaghilev’s secretary Walter Nouvel wrote most of his “autobiography”; the French composer Roland-Manuel scripted his Harvard lectures; an American acolyte, Robert Craft, polemicised his later life. Many of Stravinsky’s best quotes are PR products.

In France, Stravinsky played the worldly philosopher — “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.” In America he hooked up with Walt Disney for Fantasia and was invited to a sleepover at the JFK White House. No other composer attained such peaks of personal celebrity. Fame was the art that Igor Stravinsky performed best.

His masterpieces can be counted on one hand. Foremost is the 1930 Symphony of Psalms, a work that melds aftershocks of the Rite with Byzantine chant and Bach-like chorales in a cacophony of beauty dedicated “to the glory of God”.

Three concertos — one each for piano and violin and a third for Woody Herman’s jazz clarinet — are simplified fare; the terse Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a winsome memorial for Claude Debussy, show that Stravinsky could squeeze novelty out of odd combinations.

Even at his most inspired, though, there is a coldness to the music that feels serpentine and repelling. In later years Stravinsky took to conducting his works inconcert, investing them with his considerable charisma. He was the first living composer to see his entire output released on record.

The flops far outweigh the hits. His operas Oedipus Rex and The Rake’s Progress fail to arouse emotional engagement or intellectual stimulus. His serialist Biblical oratorio Abraham and Isaac pales beside Arnold Schoenberg’s flawed Moses und Aron.

I have found it useful to compare Stravinsky to the one Parisian artist who equalled his celebrity. Pablo Picasso never stopped pushing against the known Picasso. He went from blue period to pink, cubism to neo-classicism (did Stravinsky copy his idea?), surrealism to faux-naivété.

Like Stravinsky, Picasso lived the life of the Great Artist but never at the expense of art. They worked together for Diaghilev on the neo-classical ballet Pulcinella. Late one night in Naples, the two were urinating on a wall when a policeman took them into custody, only to let them go when a janitor greeted them as “maestri”. Such are the casual rewards of superstardom.

Ernst Roth was absolutely right that the musical landscape would change after Stravinsky’s death, but not in the way he lamented. Stravinsky had so overplayed the Great Composer role that the title fell into disuse. There has never been another Great. Instead, we have enjoyed half a century of fine composers from A to Z, John Adams to Hans Zimmer, without distractions of historical magnitude.

I once had an all-night argument through the streets of Rotterdam with the conductor Valery Gergiev as to which was the better composer, Stravinsky or Prokofiev. As dawn broke, I conceded that Prokofiev had left us more works of lasting importance. Stravinsky, formerly the Great Composer, was a distant second best.

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