The Rolls-Royce of Composers


by Robert Evett

After one of the most funereal of those tributes that they were forever giving Stravinsky in his last years, he remarked, “It made me feel like a kind of musical Rolls-Royce, the best and most expensive composer running.” The car, it appears, has survived the man, but if nobody left among us is strong enough to call himself “the greatest living composer,” or something of the like, so much the better.

While Stravinsky was alive, it was impossible to look at his work without seeing it in the light he generated as a public figure. He was a celebrity, a luminary in the international intellectual jet-set, a culture-hero. He also served as a bellwether of fashion, and for almost sixty years exerted a powerful influence on other composers and on trend, though not in the sense that music popularizers often suggest.

A few hours after his death. I heard a radio announcer refer to him as “the Father of Modern Classical Music.” The inanity of this ascription is exaggerated by the crudeness of the language in which it is couched, but it is the kind of thing people will say about Stravinsky.

The truth is that Stravinsky was only one of many people born ninety years ago, give or take a few years, who participated in the radical movements in the arts that germinated shortly before and flowered shortly after the First World War. It is a matter of real concern whether these movements were the result of a deterministic process that we do not yet understand, or a reflection of technological or social change, or the aesthetic counterpart of a general breakdown in the religious and moral values of Western civilization, or merely the collective whim of some talented, iconoclastic, and eccentric young men; but which of these conditions was the dominant one has successfully eluded all the speculations to date. And it does not matter who, in the race for novel techniques, actually won. For Stravinsky, the important thing is that he was in the right place—Paris—at the right time—1913—and that the piece, Le Sacre du printemps, had the right effect.

In the course of his work, Stravinsky went through three metamorphoses that are of such broad implications that it is possible to speculate on what would have happened in music if they had not taken place.

First, there was the writing of Le Sacre. The vast body of critical literature about it tends to suggest, not very cautiously, that quite apart from the compelling qualities of the piece itself, it deflected the course of music.

The technical innovations in it are not all that far-reaching. It was, and remains, most radical in point of form, and I don’t know of any analysis that adequately accounts for the way in which it unfolds. Perhaps some current notions about organic form could be traced back to Le Sucre, but it gives the impression of being the only thing of its kind and consequently, in this one regard, a work of no appreciable technical influence.

Its most startling deviation from the conventional music of the period is in rhythm. Between the end of the Renaissance and the early twentieth century, all of the ruling rhythmic units within musical form in Occidental art-music were regular, and music was as easy to analyze in point of rhythm as is conventional poetry. The twentieth century changed all that, but it was not Stravinsky who did the changing. Debussy (who was a sort of father figure to Stravinsky) had, in such works as Fêtes and the scherzo of the String Quartet, anticipated the rhythms that were so characteristic of Le Sacre, and Bartók, though he was an obscure figure in the boondocks of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was working toward a greatly expanded system of musical metrics. It would be possible to develop this argument at almost endless length, but the point remains the same: the old metrical limitations in music were dissolving in and around 1910, and would have done so even without Le Sacre.

As for harmony: there are chords in Le Sacre—and Petrushka, too— that would have been unrecognizable to Brahms. However, these chords are merely an extension of the existing tonal system. Whether this was an advantage, as I think it was, or a disadvantage, depends on one’s overall view of musical progress. In any case, a far more radical harmony was already current in Vienna. Schoenberg’s fifteen songs to texts from Stefan George’s Buch der hängenden Gärten, completed in 1909, though they are hardly known to the general public and have never had a wide audience, were the pieces that set the harmonic course of the Viennese trinity, and as things have fallen out, have been more influential on music composed since 1950 (including Stravinsky’s own) than Le Sacre.

The special significance of Le Sacre is that it put Stravinsky on stage. Being a man of the theater, he knew how to exploit his position, not only to his own best advantage but also to the advantage of everybody else in the modernist movement, no matter what his style. Then, too, Le Sacre had a quality, apparent from the beginning, of commanding the complete attention of the listener, whether that attention was friendly or hostile. In his later music, Stravinsky never again produced a piece which lent itself so readily to promotion at the level of mass culture.

What happened next was the development of an anti-Romantic postimpressionism that was called neoclassicism. The label is misleading since there is not necessarily anything “classical” about the music so designated, but it was in his tonal neoclassical period—from, say, L’Histoire du soldat (1918) to The Rake’s Progress (1951)—that Stravinsky picked up his enormous following. During this period, Stravinsky’s brand of eclecticism led him to fetch up musical materials from an extremely wide variety of sources—eighteenthcentury vocal music, Gregorian chant, ragtime and jazz—and to handle them in a range of styles, from the mild (as in Apollon and Oedipus Rex) to the severe (as in the Serenade for Piano, the Symphony of Psalms, the Mass).

In this phase, Stravinsky exerted discernible influence on three distinct categories of composers. First, on men of independent mind and comparable stature. Prokofiev, Milhaud, the Ravel of the Violin Sonata and the Chansons madécasses come to mind. In these and similar instances, there was some cross-pollination. I’m not proposing for a second that Ravel ever became a Stravinskian in the sense that Stravinsky later became a Webernian, but rather that Ravel’s awareness of Stravinsky was an in fecundating and fruitful one that actually influenced the style and substance of some of Ravel’s best music.

Second, there were composers who briefly fell into Stravinsky’s orbit and then fell out again. Some of the music of Hindemith’s youth, most especially the pair of Kammermusiken, Op. 24, which are still played a lot, fall into this category, and so does the Harpsichord Concerto of Manuel de Falla. Even some of the early music of Shostakovich (the First Piano Concerto, The Golden Age) shows some Stravinsky influence.

Third, and far most important, are the composers who either altered their mature styles, as Roussel and Casella did, or created them from scratch, as many of the younger composers did, to conform to the aesthetics of Stravinskian neoclassicism.

Long before 1940, the modernist movement in Europe and in Europe’s sphere of influence was divided into two apparently irreconcilable camps: the dominant but disunited tonalists, and the nontonalists, relatively weak, but united under the aegis of Schoenberg. Many tonal composers of originality and merit lacked charismatic leadership, and Stravinsky had plenty of it. The result was that he was the most powerful figure among the tonalists. Assuming that, in 1945, at the time of Bartok’s death, there were 4000 composers in the world with artistic ambitions, at least 90 percent of them would have been tonalists, and of them, about half either under the influence of Stravinsky or not hostile to it.

At its best, Stravinsky’s influence shows up somewhat indirectly. Clean line and transparency of texture are characteristics of his that can be of great use to composers who, on other matters of style, are their own masters.

At worst, he emerges as a Pied Piper figure. Among modern composers (this was, of course, as true 200 years ago as it is now), the majority have very little individuality, and if they are swallowed up in some sort of mass movement, it is no great loss. To such composers, Stravinsky was undoubtedly a guide; whether they would have been better off with another guide is a matter of very little moment. The curious thing is that Stravinsky’s influence, far from being confined to his camp followers, was felt by so many composers of real stature.

As for Stravinsky’s rapprochement with Viennese serialism: it is clear from this distance that by the late forties the powerful trends in European music were away from Stravinsky, away from tonality, and toward radically different compositional techniques. André Hodeir, the John the Baptist of French atonality, has asserted (and I assume still holds) that Stravinsky, having looked on beauty once and only once (in Le Sacre), had turned his back on it and was beyond all hope of redemption. It is certain that Boulez and other young apostles of Webern did not look for Stravinsky’s advice or support.

Want it or not, they got it. Stravinsky began to explore Schoenberg’s method of writing with 12 tones and, in a few years, adopted it. Stravinsky’s defection did not heal the breach between the rival factions in Western music, but it did have two immediate effects. First, it dragged his followers into the Viennese orbit; second, it left the remaining tonal composers without the authority of a generally acknowledged leader.

That Stravinsky should try his hand at writing “antitonal” music (he coined the term to describe the Movements for Piano and Orchestra) is no odder and no more inconsistent than that he should have experimented with ragtime. But in view of the gravity of the issues, it appeared that the most celebrated exponent of the older tradition was, by abandoning it, declaring it bankrupt. Actually, with only a couple of exceptions, Stravinsky’s last works are clearly marked with the composer’s stamp, and in spite of their brand of chromaticism, are not all that different in style or sound from some of the music he was writing a few years earlier. However, giving his blessing to Schoenberg and his school was surely the most influential gesture Stravinsky ever made.

When a man is cut down at sixtyfive or seventy or some other normally attainable age, his reputation, and sometimes his work, undergoes a radical revaluation and may even disappear for a while. When Bartok died, his stock went up; when Hindemith died, his went down to zero. It is unlikely that anything so extreme will happen to Stravinsky, at least in the immediate future. This is partly because toward the end his output trickled down to nothing at all. His last big public success, the Requiem Canticles, dates from 1966, and even before that, people spoke of him as if his canon were complete.

Now that he is among the honored dead, he will find himself in a rank with some of the others, and I suspect that it will be among composers for the theater.

He has something in common with Rossini in that a great deal of his music is light and hardly any of it truly tragic. Like Rossini, he attained a vast celebrity during his lifetime, and it would not be ironical if, like Rossini, he turned out to be so much a man of his time that the future permitted most of his work to fall into oblivion.

Yet Stravinsky was by no means a merely fashionable composer. He had an intellectual commitment to his art and an abiding concern with technique. He was not as revolutionary as Wagner, but he was considerably more versatile. Since the men and their work were so utterly dissimilar, it would be pointless to try to push them into the same mold, but as figures of influence and power they are alike.

He will also stand some comparison with Verdi. I think that Stravinsky was much the stronger composer, but they are alike in that they both had long lives, that their most popular works were early, that in old age they sold out to the enemy (Verdi, after all, became something of a Wagnerian toward the end), and that they both wrote substantial religious works in their final styles.

Most of all, Stravinsky calls up the image of Handel. Both men spent their adult lives in exile, both were adored by the public, both were comfortable outside the theater as well as in it, both were sensitive to what was expected of them as men of fashion, both were marvelous craftsmen, both had a hair for the theatrical in real life.

Handel, in his blindness, had a young associate, John Christopher Smith, who attended to his personal needs, took care of his contracts and correspondence, committed his music to the page, trained choruses and orchestras, and prepared concerts which Handel himself conducted from the harpsichord.

Robert Craft would probably hate the comparison, but he was in many ways Stravinsky’s John Christopher Smith. Like Smith, he has spent all of his adult life until now in close association with a musical superstar who, because of the increasing infirmities of age, could not have functioned without his help.

In preparing the books that he produced in collaboration with the composer, Craft has made a gift to the world that is, I think, unique. They give Stravinsky a charm that is entirely lacking in his earlier autobiography and the Poetics of Music. In the books written jointly with Craft, Stravinsky becomes attractive rather as Max Beerbohm is attractive. In the event that his music has its ups and downs like anybody else’s during his posthumous career, the books can be counted on to keep his memory fragrant.