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Lessons from Music History

Lesson 8 - Igor Stravinsky and Integrity (1882-1971)


~Served with vodka and caviar~

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     It is 1913, and a ballet performance in Paris is agitating its audience into extreme pandemonium. Greeting the ballet’s first notes from a solo bassoon are rancorous catcalls from parts of the audience. Others bellow back, defending the peculiar music and dance on the stage. Soon the orchestra is all but drowned out by the riotous din, but still the musicians and dancers persevere.

     The music’s rhythmic poser so overcomes one man in the audience that he begins beating his fists on the head of the man sitting in front of him.  In the aisles, tuxedo-clad Frenchmen punch each other like ruffians.  The Austrian Ambassador laughs aloud in scorn; a princess storms out of the theater, fuming that she’s been made a fool of; and a duel is arranged between two strangers who disagree about the music.

     Famous musicians in the audience react with similar passions. In the middle of the maelstrom Saint-Saens is heard repeating over and over “He is crazy, he is crazy!” Capu screams that the music is a huge fraud, but Ravel shouts “Genius!” Roland-Manuel boldly defends the music and gets his collar torn from his shirt, while Debussy pleads futilely with everyone to quiet down so he can hear. Backstage, trying valiantly to hold back more fights, stand the diminutive composer.  The premiere of his Rite of Spring becomes a turning point in Western art, and Igor Stravinsky emerges as the musical master of his century.


[A Note From Barbara: It’s time for another Lesson from Music History, and Stravinsky was on my heart. After reading Patrick’s chapter on Igor, I didn’t want to omit anything. So, I typed the 2002 words for you.  We lived near Washington, D.C., and Patrick spent hundreds of hours in the music department of the Library of Congress, searching through books, letters, and an enormous amount of documents to write Spiritual Lives of Great Composers. Every quote is noted and referenced. If you are interested in finding the sources, you can buy the book, first published by Zondervan in 1992, on Amazon. The chapters include: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Gounod, Franck, Bruckner, Brahms, Dvorak, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Ives, and Messiaen.]


    There was practically no genre of music beyond the command of Igor Stravinsky, widely considered the most important composer of the twentieth century.  He wrote ballet and chamber music, opera, choral, and orchestral music, and that’s not all. He composed a polka for Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus and a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman.

     Born in a suburb of St. Petersburg, Russia, Stravinsky received scant encouragement to follow in the musical footsteps of his father, a successful opera singer. Like several composers before him, Stravinsky found himself steered firmly toward the study of law—a more stable and secure way to make a living, so his father believed.  Stravinsky obliged his parents, but he continued to compose music whenever he could. Eventually, his devotion to music prevailed and he abandoned his legal studies.

     In his early twenties, Stravinsky became the private student of Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakoff.  Soon, his genius came to be recognized by the musical world.  He gained international attention with the premieres of three great ballets, commissioned by Diaghilev, the renowned director of the Russian Ballet.  These works, Firebird, Petrushka, and the indomitable Rite of Spring, subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia”, remain in the repertoire of every major orchestra in the world today.

      Stravinsky’s early ballets explore secular and even pagan subjects that offer no clue as to the personal religious faith he possessed later in life.  These great works were written when Stravinsky was in his thirties and had long since abandoned the Russian Orthodox faith of his upbringing. Yet in the mid 1920’s, Stravinsky experienced a permanent conversion to Christianity.

     In the church of his childhood, Stravinsky had been required to read the Bible.  He began criticizing and rebelling against the church when he reached his teens, and he parted ways with orthodoxy for nearly three decades. Yet late in life he would explain, “For some years before my conversion a mood of acceptance had been cultivated in me by reading of the Gospels and by other religious literature.”

     Two incidents appeared to assure his newfound faith in Christ.  One was an immediate and convincing answer to a private prayer, and the other was a healing experience.  Stravinsky developed a painful abscess on his right forefinger and its insistent throbbing threatened to keep him from performing his Piano Sonata.  He prayed about the problem but fully expected the concert would have to be cancelled.

      The pain hounded him all the way to the stage.  Later he explained to his friend Robert Craft: “My finger was still festering when I walked onto the stage at the Teatro La Fevice, and I addressed the audience, apologizing in advance for what would have to be a poor performance. I sat down, removed the little bandage, felt the pain had suddenly stopped, and discovered that the finger was—miraculously healed.”

     Soon, Stravinsky began to speak openly of his convictions.  In an interview in Brussels, the composer stated: “The more one separated oneself from the canons of the Christian church, the further one distances oneself from the truth…Art is made of itself, and one cannot create upon a creation even though we are ourselves graftings of Jesus Christ.”

     He dedicated his next major composition, the Symphony of Psalms, to the glory of God.  Like so many of the biblical passages this work contains, the Symphony of Psalms expresses an awakening sense of distance from the Creator, and the human choice to return to the Creator. “The first movement was written in a state of religious and musical ebullience”, Stravinsky explained.  The second movement, Psalm 40, “is a prayer that the new canticle may be put into our mouths. The Alleluia (third movement) is that canticle.”

     Francis Routh, one of Stravinsky’s biographers, insisted, “No composer could write such a work without a very secure, rock-like religious faith.”  Another biographer, Alexandre Tansman wrote, “He is a believer in the full sense of the term.” Stravinsky’s colleague and principal biographer Robert Craft agrees. He has written, “Having lived for more than a quarter of a century with Stravinsky, and much of that under the same roof, I knew him to be, as the saying goes, profoundly religious.”

     The composer had strong opinions abut the purpose and use of music. “The church knew what the psalmist knew: Music praises God. Music is as well or better able to praise Him than the building of the church and all its decorations; it is the church’s greatest ornament.” When asked if one must be a believer to compose church music, Stravinsky asserted, “Certainly, and not merely a believer in ‘symbolic figures’, but in the person of the Lord, the person of the Devil, and the miracles of the church.”

      Stravinsky had his quirks, and some of them found expression in the way he integrated faith into his life. He grumbled about the “you who’s” in new translations of the Bible, and he always prayed in the Slavonic language of the Russian liturgy. Other eccentricities were innocuous and endearing. Stravinsky often balanced an extra pair of glasses on top of his head in case he lost the pair he was wearing!

     Once his biographer Craft accompanied the composer to his Orthodox Church. As soon as he entered, Stravinsky prostrated himself flat on the floor before the altar and prayed. For two hours, the two men knelt on a hard, uncushioned floor. After taking the sacraments, Stravinsky again prayed with his head touching the floor.

     The composer certainly loved his church, yet he retained a sense of honest detachment from it.  He wrote Three Sacred Choruses to be used in its liturgy, stating that the work was “inspired by the bad music and worse singing in the Russian Church”. Harboring no sectarian prejudice, he also wrote a Catholic Mass which he believed, “appeals directly to the spirit.” Other works based on sacred texts include: The Flood, The Tower of Babel, Abraham and Isaac, Requiem Canticles, Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, Threni, Canticum Sacrum, a Credo, an Ave Maria, and a Pater Noster.

     In his work, Stravinsky found expression for his views on Christianity.  In his working notes to The Flood, for instance, he described Noah ‘as an Old Testament Christ-figure, like Melchizedek”. He seemed especially preoccupied with the nature of evil, writing, “As Satan’s falsetto aria with flutes is a prolepsis of Christianity, Satan must now be shown as Anti-Christ.” He went on to make a thought-provoking theological observation, noting that Lucifer is “inclined to take his position for granted, which is why true Christians can overcome him.”

     Throughout his life, Stravinsky was known for his integrity and candor. Concerning his genius, he wrote, “I regard my talents as God-given, and I have always prayed to Him for strength to use them. When in early childhood I discovered that I had been made the custodian of musical aptitudes I pledged myself to God to be worthy of their development, though, of course, I have broken the pledge and received uncovenanted mercies all m life, and though the custodian has all too often kept faith on his all-too-worldly terms”.

     Stravinsky faced up to his own imperfections without flinching.  In his personal writings entitled Thoughts of an Octogenarian, he observed, “I was born out of time in the sense that by temperament and talent I would have been more suited for the life of a small Bach, living in anonymity and composing regularly for an established service and for God. I did weather the world I was born to, weathered it well, you will say, and I have survived—though not uncorrupted.”

     Once he replied to what he considered an unfair criticism of the vocal writing of his sacred music, commenting dryly, “One hopes to worship God with a little art if one has any, and if one hasn’t, and cannot recognize it in others, then one can at least burn a little incense.” Concerning the origin of his innovative compositions, he was almost blunt in his modesty: “Only God can create. I make music from music.


     Some Thoughts on Stravinsky: Integrity


     Stravinsky’s many years as a composer were lived in the public eye. His life and his work have endured more scrutiny than any serious composer of this century.  Yet the more one studies this man, the more he appears as a Gibralter who remained unshaken by the opinions and pressures of the world around him. To maintain his personal integrity, he spent decades “going against the grain.” He managed to preserve a basic consistency that was rarely seen in the lives of his artistic colleagues.

     To begin with, Stravinsky was a musical pathfinder, establishing bold new concepts, yet remaining unruffled by the often venomous criticism his innovations provoked. He was not an imitator; he followed his own lead, single-handedly creating whole schools of musical thought. After stretching the bounds of complexity in his early ballets, he championed neoclassicism, and later even tried his hand at serial compositions. Yet none of these moves came about because of exterior pressures or intimidations. Stravinsky leaves the impression that if he ever used a device that was common among other composers, it was due to coincidence rather than imitation.

     His spiritual life reflected his moral integrity. When he later came to believe the truth of Christianity, Stravinsky did not hesitate to declare himself openly a convert. He even wrote his famous collaborator, Diaghilev, to explain his new convictions and ask forgiveness for any wrong he may have ever committed against him. He seemed to consider honest acknowledgment to be the only consistent choice before him.  His religious beliefs, which might have drawn ridicule from the world, were repeatedly asserted without hesitation or apology.

     After his conversion, Stravinsky led a consistent spiritual life and adhered to it without compromise to its standards. Many first-hand evidences of his religious congruity are told with respect by colleagues who did not share his faith. In their presence, the composer worshiped unblushingly, showed displeasure or even irritation at things he considered blasphemous, and spoke openly about his Christian faith and its effect on his life and work.

     Stravinsky held deep convictions, and he could be adamant about them. This was not due to a quarrelsome spirit but, rather, to his unconquerable integrity. Yet with all the controversy his music created, he still welcomed an encouraging word. When a friend informed Stravinsky that he was preparing a biography about him, the composer answered, “If you are really writing a book about me, say what you have to say”. Then he added with a smile, “But please be kind”.

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