Russian Soul: Profiling Igor Stravinsky

Classic Arts Features   Russian Soul: Profiling Igor Stravinsky
Cinema can change anything. Consider Igor Stravinsky in last summer's Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel, the sultry French biopic that depicted the brief dalliance the two radical trendsetters shared in Jazz Age Paris: man of passion, sexy, smoldering, irresistible Russian hunk.


"Love inspired them. Passion consumed them," the trailer enthused. Ooh la la.

Not quite the cool, calculating, cosmopolitan, the ultra-modern composer, the Stravinsky of the acerbic wit, the suave demeanor, the rail-thin dandy. Not the Stravinsky that distanced himself and his music from any inquiries into meaning, or, perish the thought, the emotions roiling beneath. That Stravinsky made proclamations such as "I consider music by its very nature powerless to express anything." And certainly not the Stravinsky who made his wife deliver his mistress her monthly allowance: while the great man waited in the car. That Stravinsky is too much the cool customer for the movies.

An essential composer in the St. Louis Symphony's season-long Russian Festival: Symphony in Three Movements in October; The Fairy's Kiss, Symphony No. 1, and Three Sacred Choruses in November: the very Russianness of Stravinsky has been a topic for critical debate. Stravinsky deflected such discussion, especially as he entered what is known as the neo-classical stage of his career. Stravinsky struck the pose of a composer of "pure music." He would smartly expound upon the architectural structure of his works and derisively avoid concepts of "extramusical content." And it is that Stravinsky, the cerebral and pure artist, who is best known.

Yet the Stravinsky who first came to fame through his collaborations with Sergey Diaghilev's Ballet Russe (Russian Ballet): The Firebird, Petrushka, and, most notoriously, The Rite of Spring: made the most of his Russian identity. Stravinsky historian Richard Taruskin, who has done more than any other scholar in exposing Stravinsky's Russianness, writes that when the composer was young and unknown, he "rode the crest of a craze for Russian music and scenic art." Stravinsky and Diaghilev made art for Parisians who saw "Russianness as sexy, violent exoticism." Stravinsky himself would trumpet the atavistic appeal of his homeland, its "beautiful, healthy barbarism, big with the seed that will impregnate the thinking of the world." How could Coco Chanel stay away?

Stravinsky spent his early life in western Russia, in a region near the present-day border between Poland and Ukraine. He absorbed the folk tunes of the region, as well as the religious music of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is surprising to hear Taruskin describe Stravinksky: the modern composer who assaulted musical decorum with The Rite: as "musically Russian in a very old-fashioned way." B_la Bart‹k: who actively explored folk idioms and invested them into his music: was one of the few who got Stravinsky's folk influences early on, calling The Rite "a kind of apotheosis of Russian rural music."

With this understanding of Stravinsky, his relationship with his first influential teacher, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, comes into clearer focus. The elder Rimsky-Korsakov was a member of the "Five," a group of Russian composers that took a nationalist turn, making a music that extolled its Russian roots, and to varying degrees eschewed the influences of the West (Modest Mussorgsky, whose Pictures at an Exhibition will be heard later this season, is the other most recognizable member of the Five). The young Stravinsky found a compatriot in Rimsky-Korsakov; they shared a musical language.

Why would Stravinsky play so coy about his influences? In part, Stravinsky was positioning himself within a drastically altered environment. Stravinsky, unlike his countrymen Serge Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, chose exile to escape World War I and the Russian Revolution. Stravinsky saw worlds shatter, and the aftermath demanded new artistic responses. Nationalist echoes, as trumpeted by the Five, were deemed repugnant following a world war that was the disgrace of nations.

As artists of the post-World War I generation would turn away from nationalist tendencies, they would also turn from romanticism, which came to be perceived as part of the apparatus that would drive people toward war. Stravinsky's contemporary, T.S. Eliot, would most famously state the case with regard to poetry, and his pronouncement holds up as a model for modern art and the modern artist: "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." The romantic's inclination to express emotions, the soul ("music by its very nature [is] powerless to express anything") gives way to irony, strategies of form and style, or to be defined in a phrase that would emerge in the next post-war period, "the birth of the cool."

Yet for all of his strategies and deflections, his shifts in musical styles, his fling with Coco, his Hollywood and Upper East Side addresses, Russia remained in his work and in his life. In 1962, on an emotional 80th-birthday return to his homeland, the suave composer would let his guard down. In an interview with Pravda in Moscow, Stravinsky admitted, "I have spoken Russian all my life. I think in Russian, my way of expressing myself is Russian. Perhaps this is not immediately apparent in my music, but it is latent there, a part of its hidden nature."

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