The inventive and influential Igor Stravinsky wrote some of the 20th-century’s most important scores, pieces that redefined music and broke new ground. The Russian composer is still widely known by only a handful of pieces, particularly the ballets he composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in the years leading up to World War I. Yet beyond the celebrated works are also lesser known masterpieces. Such is the richness of his compositional legacy that we can’t pretend to offer the full Stravinsky experience in just half a dozen works, but we can at least offer six suggested starting points for exploring his rich legacy.
Rite of Spring (1913)
All three of Stravinsky’s pre-World War I ballets are wonderful works, but start with the greatest masterpiece of the three: The Rite of Spring. It remains one of the most violent, visceral yet exciting pieces of music ever composed, let alone performed on the ballet stage.
The scandal which attended its premiere was largely caused by Vaslav Nijinsky’s grotesque and revolutionary choreography – such was the resulting hubbub that Stravinsky’s music could hardly be heard. When it was performed in concert the audience’s reaction was ecstatic and Stravinsky was carried shoulder high on the streets of Paris.
The Soldier’s Tale (1918)
Stravinsky originally intended this to be an easy-to-stage quasi-folktale ‘to be read, played and danced’. In choosing his instrumental ensemble – which includes a fiddler, clarinettist, cornet player, double bassist and a percussionist playing a prototype drum kit – Stravinsky took elements from the gypsy ensemble, klezmer band and jazz.
He transmuted all this into a soundworld that was very much his own, subsequently much imitated by various composers, both in France where he settled after the War, and much later in Hollywood.
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920; rev. 1947)
Stravinsky wrote this piece in a fairly piecemeal fashion, writing its concluding chorale first for a piano piece commissioned to commemorate Claude Debussy. Even in its final polished form, scored for an ensemble of woodwind and brass instruments, it sounds quite fragmentary on first encounter.
Yet the Symphonies of Wind Instruments is now rightly recognised as one of Stravinsky’s great modernist masterpieces. Cool and dispassionate, with only a few brief bursts of dance-like excitement towards its end, the effect of hearing it is like encountering abstract, monumental and quite separate sculptures in a garden; only gradually does one sense how they relate to one another as one walks around them.
Symphony of Psalms (1930)
The neo-classical movement Stravinsky spearheaded after World War I was sometimes flippantly known as ‘back to Bach’. Some grist to that mill may be found in this very unique work which Stravinsky composed to a commission to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
For all his revolutionary credentials, Stravinsky had a particular fondness for old-fashioned counterpoint and fugue, and as such had the greatest admiration for JS Bach which he demonstrates to the full in this work.
Essentially a choral work accompanied by an unusually constituted orchestra – there are no clarinets, and the strings consist only of cellos and basses – the colours appear to range from charcoal black through steely grey to a pearly iridescence. Against this stark background, the chorus sing a masterful double fugue in the second movement, and in the finale one of Stravinsky’s most sublime stretches of music.
The Rake’s Progress (1947-51)
Stravinsky’s sole full-length opera was inspired by the so-named series of paintings by William Hogarth. Indeed, he was so taken by the subject that he embarked on composing it even without a commission.
Stravinsky was fortunate in his librettist, WH Auden, who not only had a fluent technique able to match his musical demands but who also himself was a great lover of opera and shared Stravinsky’s relish of Mozart.
Much of the opera is light and brittle in manner, with some burlesque in the form of the bearded Baba the Turk, whom Tom Rakewell marries at the suggestion of the diabolical Nick Shadow. It is Tom’s scenes with Nick in particular which give a dark edge to the opera, and when they play cards in the graveyard scene the stakes – Tom literally playing for his soul – appear very real.
Requiem Canticles (1965-66)
Bells held a particular fascination and significance for Stravinsky (as indeed they do for many Russians). They were most openly celebrated in his ballet scored for four pianos and an array of percussion, Les noces (1923), and it is bells which cast their magical spell in the final part of this, his very last completed work.
Under the influence of Robert Craft, Stravinsky famously made a volte face and converted to the cause of serial composition. This had followed something of an arid period, and the tough gristle of the discipline required for serial composition did not immediately bear attractive fruit.
But by the time he came to compose the Requiem Canticles Stravinsky had rediscovered his ‘voice’ and favoured sonorities, and the result is music that intrigues and even enchants the ear.