What if Stravinsky was not that great?

What if Stravinsky was not that great?

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norman lebrecht

March 25, 2021

From my new essay in The Critic:

Igor Stravinsky cast such a huge shadow over the cultural estate that when he died, 50 years ago this month, his publisher said that music would be as art was after Michelangelo. We can now confirm that he was right. In half a century, no composer has attained the fame and stature of Stravinsky, none has dined with ease at the Elysée and the White House. Stravinsky was the last of the Great Composers. Once he was gone, they locked the canon and threw away the key.

Before you contest that proposition, let’s raise a cheer for the closure of the canon. Across the world right now, from the BBC to the Boston Symphony, dead white male composers are being replaced with diverse unknowns amid a confessional wave of collective guilt at our colonial worship of the Great Composers cult. Stravinsky will have his privilege checked at this summer’s music festivals, and about time, too. But I still see newspaper critics saluting him as the “greatest” of his century.

It’s about time we took down Great Igor, at least a peg or two….

Read on here.

 

Comments

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “WHAT IF STRAVINSKY WAS NOT THAT GREAT?”
    Well, he wasn’t….

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Yes, he was…

      • Rogerio says:

        You can’t disassociate Stravinsky from America.
        The Americans have a knack of making things “greater” than they actually are.
        There were few composers in America in 1939. The Americans “nationalize” Stravinsky and BOOM!, he is great.
        Paris Hilton … BOOM!
        The Kardashians … POWWW!
        Donald Trump … BOOM!! … Fizzzz… plop.
        See what I mean?

        • Clarrieu says:

          No, sorry we don’t see what you mean. Firebird, Rossignol, Rite of Spring, Noces, all written before Stravinsky had anything to do with America. Every single one from these works makes him forever great.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          You are damn wrong. Stravinsky was never as ‘great’ as by the time he composed his Octet. This work’s première was virtually auctioned.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Must I preface every comment I make, “Pianofortissimo”, with the words “in my opinion”?
        Well, OK then, have it your way this time: IN MY OPINION, Stravinsky wasn’t all that great.
        It seems that a number of other commenters on this thread happen to agree with my opinion.

  • Rob says:

    “It’s about time we took down Great Igor, at least a peg or two.”

    I think you’re on your own here, Norman.

    • Joel Kemelhor says:

      If not completely on his own, Mr. Lebrecht is here in a churlish minority. While the 12-tone music remains unloved, there are so many post-Ballet Russes works by Stravinsky to be enjoyed and admired.
      Favorites from my record collection include: Oedipus Rex….Symphony of Psalms… L’Histoire du Soldat … Persephone … The Rake’s Progress …. Les Noces … Jeu de Cartes … Apollon Musagete … Dumbarton Oaks Concerto … Capriccio for Piano & Orchestra … Ragtime …

  • J Barcelo says:

    Could agree more. After those three great ballets, nothing Igor wrote is very popular or well-known. By some measures, Prokofiev was the greater composer: he wrote masterpieces in virtually every genre: opera, symphony, ballet, chamber, piano, concerto, film…and no composer, not even Shostakovich, added as much to the standard repertoire as Prokofiev. If only it wasn’t so damned hard to play!

  • I’d say there’s one composer who is more famous and whose music will last as long and perhaps longer that Igor’s: John Williams

    • Olassus says:

      “Once he was gone, they locked the canon and threw away the key.”

      Shostakovich, d. 1975
      Britten, d. 1976

    • James Weiss says:

      I must have missed all the symphonies, ballets, chamber pieces, and operas that John Williams wrote.

      • We’re talking about music, not specific genres. Norman’s posit was about Igor’s reputational longevity, not a particular work. Just music. Many may want to deny it but the reach and influence of film and its music now far outweighs any other artistic cultural manifestations save popular music. John Williams’ music has transcended its diegetic origins and entered the cultural mainstream. There was a time when one could say that was almost true about Stravinsky – almost – but no more. Like it or not, Williams has surpassed Stravinsky in global recognition and because of the medium in which he is productive, his music will be more recognizable than Stravinsky’s by far well into the future.

        A close second: Beethoven; everyone knows “ta-ta-ta-TAAAAA”.

      • The genre has nothing to do with it, although you’ve certainly missed the symphonies, overtures, and concerti Williams has written. It’s music and that’s all. My posit is debatable but squarely on target.

    • Peter Chun says:

      Come ON, people! John here’s just having a little fun with his own name! Lighten up! Sheesh!

  • Ed says:

    Comparing Prokofiev to Stravinsky? No Please.

  • Novagerio says:

    One can recognise Stravinsky by the way he colours a simple chord. He’s original, he’s his own man and he certainly has his place in music history. What an utter BS to discredit a master (!)

  • John Borstlap says:

    Prokofiev’s music is pure full-blooded musicianship, while the entire oeuvre of Stravinsky is born from experiment. And like every experimentator, S was necessarily insecure, trying this, trying that. Most of the time the result was fabulous and far more subtle, complex, and original than Prokofiev could ever have invented; and at times the result was abominable. But comparing his whole oeuvre with a balloon, threatened by a pin, is absurd.

    There are five Stravinsky’s, like brothers of a rather chaotic family: 1) the big Russian up till and including Rite; 2) the small Russian with the austere and absolutely NON-touristic Noces; 3) the light French neoclassicist with Octet, Apollon and Pulcinella; 4) the serious neoclassicist with the violin concerto, Persephone, Mass and Symphony of Psalms; and 5) the serialist with, well, plinky-plonk. Some works are not so great, but so what? if other works are unique master pieces? He will live on because of the great works.

    Also in small, seemingly un-ambitious pieces he could be top level, like his complex neoclassical septet, hardly ever played today but one of his very best works:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijSmRoPzMaY

    Stravinksy never wrote pastiches. He took an example and turned it into Stravinsky, simply following the age-old method of tradition. Even the Sacre is a traditional piece, developing the Russian tradition to its extremist point.

    Stravinsky represents an aesthetic entirely opposite of my own taste, but I love it passionately, simply because invention and courage is all over the place, and with a profundity hidden under a shining, brilliant surface (the 2nd middle movement of the vl concerto, the apotheosis of Apollon, the Symphony of Psalms). But I love Prokofiev too, for very different reasons, and in spite of his often acid and nihilistic tone.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      “Stravinsky never wrote pastiches.” What is Pulcinella then?

      • 18mebrumaire says:

        Well it’s not pastiche. Check the definition and check the score.

        • Alexander Hall says:

          That is not an answer. And please don’t tell me every note is pure Stravinsky.

          • John Borstlap says:

            For instance, there is a G sharp in Pulcinella that sounds very Stravinskian while the same note in Pergolesi sounds particularly Pergolesian. Notes get their musical meaning through context.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It is a new piece based upon Pergolesi material. And the two surprising aspects of it are that 1) it all sounds like Stravinsky while his changes are quite modest; and 2) the result is musically better than the original.

        A pastiche is a conscious attempt to sound like the model, to imitate it as closely as possible.

        • Nelson says:

          Well, it’s long been known NOT to be Pergolesi, but by a few others, including some trio sonatas by Domenico Gallo.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Or even more so, Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) and its suite, the Divertimento. I have to think Stravinsky would have willingly accepted the word pastiche for what he did there.

        But I agree, mostly, with John Borstlap’s “5 Stravinskys” analysis, with the proviso that it cannot be wholly chronological and that there are works hard to place in the categories he (Borstlap) makes available. There is for example much in the Symphony in 3 Movements, particularly the first movement, that hearkens back to the “Big Russian.” And some of the serialist pieces such as the Movements for Piano and Orchestra, or Agon which is at least somewhat serialist, I would argue are anything but plinky-plonk and are instantly identifiable as characteristic for the composer. Audiences would enjoy them more if the annotators of symphony program books wouldn’t poison the well by praising how serial they are in their notes.

        To the main thesis of NL’s posting however, I would only say that to my way of thinking, Stravinsky is really an under-rated composer, because no matter what superlative you come up with, it is inadequate.

      • fierywoman says:

        Listen to the original Pergolesi, then the Stravinsky. I once played them on the same program. Rather shocking how little of Stravinsky is in Pulcinella.

      • Novagerio says:

        Alexander Hall:
        “Stravinsky never wrote pastiches.” What is Pulcinella then?”
        Pulcinella is 100% Stravinsky, although the notes are occasionally by Pergolesi.

    • Alank says:

      Mr. Borstlap, Thank you for this very fine comment. You articulate my thoughts exactly and better than I would have written. I very much love much of Prokofiev’s music but I could not live without Stravinsky.

    • Max Raimi says:

      Possibly, I have a genetic abnormality, or maybe viola bias. But Prokofiev is far and away my least favorite great composer. He is an extraordinarily gifted melodist, but I think this works to his disadvantage. The thing about a gorgeous melody is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, within perhaps 16 bars–and then you are done.

      A very few composers–Schubert, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky at his best–could create truly seamless long structures with beautiful, intrinsically satisfying melodies. Prokofiev, on the other hand, finishes his gorgeous tune (which more often than not drives me crazy with its straitjacketed four-bar phrase regularity) and then resorts to one of two gambits. Either he repeats it, possibly with a different orchestration, or he does the Monty Python move: “And now for something completely different”.

      The other thing that I am particularly sensitive to as a violist is what I regard as wholly unsatisfying part writing. There is the nice tune, and often a well-constructed bass line, but the inner voices have no linear integrity. I swear to God, the woodblock part in his Fifth Symphony is more coherent than the viola part. We just jump around filling whatever notes in the chord need us, often creating a demented and wholly unsatisfying Alberti bass-like motor rhythm.

      I recognize that his writing for piano is innovative and often brilliant. My favorite piece of his is the “Fugitive Visions” where he plays to his strength–miniatures.

      I recognize that this is a distinctly minority view. As I say, maybe I just have a genetic abnormality.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    I think you’re right. Stravinsky’s music post-1913 really hasn’t aged well. Prokofiev, on the other hand, is astonishingly vital. His 3rd piano concerto is certainly one of the very best. His Visions Fugitives are, in their way, as impressive as Chopin’s preludes.

  • Paul Capon says:

    One can only wonder what would have become of Stravinsky if he had not met Mr. Croft…The Rakes Progress is a marvellous finale to his neo-classical period. What would his music have become, and others as well, if not for the third chapter in his musical metamorphosis. While I think the move by Stravinsky into serialism was calculated – as much in is life was – it has not proved to be the high point of his – or others – career. This does not disqualify him from being great, it only makes him more human; to both lead, and followed others, trying to re-invent himself in the prevail winds.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Also, Stravinsky was always anxious about his income. He could only hope to live on his writing and conducting, as long as he remained ‘famous’ and ‘great’ and ‘relevant’. To be relegated to the past would be a nightmare for him. After his sudden early fame, he stayed in France and had to support a family, a mistress and family members who had fled the Russian revolution. In the twenties he saw Debussy and Ravel – who had been friends of his – being talked about as ‘passé’, so he reinvented himself to remain avantgarde and ‘relevant’. He began playing and conducting his works because his new music did not get as popular as the early ballets, from which he did not earn any royalties from the many performances because of the revolution. So, his physical existence got wrapped-up with his music. Maybe, if he had found patrons like Beethoven, he would have cultivated quite different music, probably more ‘Russian’.

      When later in life he occasionally revisited his early Russian ballet style, the youthful petrushka spontaneity bubbles-up again as in the ‘feast scene’ of Le baiser de la Fée, and in the ‘Scherzo à la Russe’:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3lGqWjZDF4

      The piece is formed as a classical scherzo: A – B (canon) – A – C – A. Cold? Distant? Cerebral? I think that Stravinsky would have gone on writing this type of Russian music if he had no financial obligations and was really innerly free.

    • Rob Keeley says:

      Mr Craft [sic], certainly helped the Master through a difficult time after The Rake’s Progress and its indifferent reception at the time. But ‘Agon’, ‘Requiem Canticles’, the Aldous Huxley Variations are up there with the best of Stravinsky: all composers, I’d suggest need to ‘calculate’ their next move!

  • SMH says:

    What the hell are you talking about Norman? “dead white male composers are being replaced with diverse unknowns amid a confessional wave of collective guilt at our colonial worship of the Great Composers cult.” What a bunch of bullshit. Shall we take down all the Picassos, Monets and Rembrants too? Get rid of Kandinsky?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Picasso and Kandinsky could easily be missed, they were slightly crazy anyway.

      But Rembrandt is a more serious problem: a genius who had the impertinence to be a white male supporting a society that endorsed slavery and the suppression of women and roman catholics. Best would be to take all the paintings down to a cellar and only show them to visitors after an introductory short video explaining the plight of suppressed minorites in the 17th century, so that they won’t be offended by the disturbing works.

      • Saxon says:

        Perhaps Rembrandt self-identified as black and female. Believing this would mean the canon is not represented by white males.

        …this game is easy if you know how to play…

  • Bratsche brat says:

    Who gives a clunking toot about fame and stature when alive? Stravinsky had nothing whatsoever to compose in the second half of his life. Ligeti got better right to the end. Ligeti will easily outlast Stravinsky in the music history books 200 years from now.

  • Horbus Rohebian says:

    Little surprise that his initials form the dollar sign. No reflection on his music but money interested him greatly.

    • John Borstlap says:

      As explained above: his private circumstances nailed him to the notion of modernity and progress and relevance. Had he been a decent teacher at a conservatoire, and a shorter list of expenses, he would have been more free. And then, he got helplessly dependent on Robert Craft, a snob intellectual with remarkably mediocre musical gifts and thus interested in ‘atonal music’, who lured Stravinsky into the modernist desert to remain ‘relevant’. And yet, in the Requiem Canticles, this glassy celebration of nihilism and anxiety, he could express something of his own isolation:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzR6NK2YMwE

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Confusing, because 21 years ago NL wrote the essay below on Boulez 75th birthday saying that PB was small beer compared to Stravinsky

    https://myscena.org/norman-lebrecht/pierre-boulez-playing-with-propaganda/

    • John Borstlap says:

      But people can change their opinion, just like Stravinsky himself. And then, having more than one opinion about something is an act of generosity.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I really enjoy reading articles that challenge lazy conventional thinking, so Norman’s article suggesting a re-examination of artistic reputation is entirly appropriate. Where was Mahler before the revival at the end of the 1950s? Weinberg wasn’t even on the horizon. What now of the reputation of Salieri and Cherubini (whose sacred music, so rarely performed now, is magnificent)? Who is to say whether or not Boulez will be more than a tiny footnote in musical history a century from now? And what about the hysteria over Gorecki’s third symphony, a few decades ago? Who now yearns for the next live performance? As for contemporary composers, some critics fall over themselves to declare undying admiration for their unquestionable genius. A lot of it amounts to no more than musical masturbation – all technique with little substance. I think Stravinsky’s greatest contribution was in developing what he had learned from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov about the importance of orchestral colours. Some of the effects in his early works are simply magical. But do we really think that Les Noces is a great work? I would wish to raise several question-marks.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Of course Les Noces is a great work. It’s only flaw is its length, with the monotoneous, unrelenting sound of strict, dehumanizing chorusses, quasi-mechanical pianos and percussion. But heard together with the original ballet, this is much less of a problem:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsXR81dLjjE

      What the work wants to depict, is something thoroughly awful – the primitive mindset of early societies where the collective is everything. Which would again be a dominant mindset in the 20th century. And yet the music is full of life, of a kind.

      • Couperin says:

        Defender of Les Noces here ’til the day I die. Count me among the fortunate few who can see what a masterwork the piece is. We listen to and absorb every recording (and SO many of them are flawed, which could influence negative opinions of the work). We know the original choreography https://youtu.be/vsXR81dLjjE
        And, no way is it too long; too many conductors just don’t know to pace it. Check out the Reuss recording and follow with a score, it’s fantastic!

  • phf655 says:

    As far as closing the canon door after Stravinsky died, how about Britten and Shostakovich, who both outlived him, and were producing towering works while Stravinsky was producing works which history has already largely judged as ephemera. And there is much more immortal music that was written post-Sacre, such as the later works of Faure and Ravel.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The academic status of Fauré and Ravel seems to be rising again, although they have always been popular with singers/players and audiences. The canon has never existed, so it cannot be closed and locked…. What is perceived as a ‘canon’ is an academic invention and a programmers convention.

    • Kenny says:

      Who gets to decide what is IS “ephemera”? You? Asshole.

  • yujafan says:

    I choked at the sentence:
    “Across the world right now, from the BBC to the Boston Symphony, dead white male composers are being replaced with diverse unknowns amid a confessional wave of collective guilt at our colonial worship of the Great Composers cult.”
    Please answer, Norman, in detail, just how you think that you are free of the “colonial worship of the Great Composers cult”? Several decades of print and online publications would suggest that you are part of the problem you now protest against. As indeed are other commentators and critics, such as myself. But I listen to all without self-flagellation or regret.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In the Schwarzwald, close to the little town of Steinach, a monklike, state-subsidized settlement has been built where worshippers of Great Composers are given the opportunity for ritualistic self-flagellation after communal listening sessions of recordings. There are stories that Norman has been sighted there in 2016 and 2018, but I don’t think that can be true.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Surely the worst piece is ” Abraham and Isaac”, the Hebrew 12-tone piece – dedicated to the State of Israel in early 60s. Such intellectual snobbery. Seems not to have been performed much since

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      ‘Abraham and Isaac’ is very difficult to perform. The première recording conducted by Robert Craft was awful. The 1994 DG release conducted by Oliver Knussen is wonderful. it is arguably one of the most beautiful vocal works since Strauss’ last songs.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Oh dear!

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          I really think that ‘Abraham and Isaac’ (as well as the ‘Septet’) is the only noteworthy work by Stravinsky after his operatic masterwork ‘The Rake’s Progress’. Please listen to it again. (And I don’t mean it is in the same class as Strauss’ last songs, if there is any vocal work in this class.)

      • JJC says:

        Ah! Finally the name is mentioned, the elephant in the room, greatest by far of the 20th century, R. Strauss.

        • John Borstlap says:

          A rather odd elephant though, but who redeemed his bland late operas and his miscalculated involvement with the nazis with the Letzte Lieder. He is seldom seen as a 20C composer but he is, stubbornly staying himself – although that was not easy at the time.

  • Peter says:

    What’s the point in trying to compare Prokofiev to Stravinsky? Apples to oranges IMO. Both composers created plenty of works that have become “standard” repertoire, and both wrote plenty that will seldom get a performance these days. Each had a distinctive sound, so why pop either of their bubbles?

  • D** says:

    I’m with you, Norman, and I’m in the minority here, but that’s all right. If someone had asked me 50 years ago to list the greatest composers who ever lived, Stravinsky would have been there, high on my list. As others have pointed out, though, tastes change. I never get tired of hearing Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, but I honestly don’t think most of his music written after 1913 has aged well.

    In the last few years, I’ve heard live performances of his Symphony in Three Movements and violin concerto. The musicians played very well, but there was something about the music itself . . . it wasn’t unpleasant, but it seemed to be lacking something.

    It’s interesting that a number of composers living in the middle of the 20th century were touted at the time as the new “greats.” On this varied list, I’d include David Diamond, Roy Harris, Irving Fine, Arthur Berger, Ernest Bloch, Walter Piston, and Paul Hindemith. Their music isn’t unpleasant, and some of it is unjustly neglected, but on the whole, much of it hasn’t aged well.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s in the ears, not in the music.

      Even Bach did not ‘age well’ but his music got better understood long after his death.

  • french horn says:

    You can’t imagine the “classical music” of the XX th century without “Le Sacre” ! Of course, he was great !

    • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

      Agreed. Le Sacre is arguably the finest orchestral score of the century. But, as several commenters have mentioned, IS wrote nothing afterwards that matters as much in 2021. Some of his neoclassical works live on as remarkable collaborations with the great choreographer Balanchine (Duo Concertant, Violin Concerto) but don’t stand up well on their own.

  • John Marks says:

    This can be sung to the tune of “Eleanor Rigby”:

    Igor Stravinsky–
    Was a composer, but
    No-ot a very nice man–
    Avoid when you ca-an!

    You are welcome!

    PS: When to took the “Grout” music course as an undergraduate at Brown University, when I got to the point where that famous survey book claimed that Stravinsky’s “Agon” was the estate to which all modern music should aspire, I exclaimed “This is total nonsense!”

    PPS: I also figured out on my own that Stravinsky kept “revising” his popular works in a cynical ploy to protect his orchestral-parts income.

    • Alexander T says:

      Prokofiev wasn’t a very nice man either.

    • Richard Zencker says:

      Grout was the guy when I went to music school, and Agon was declared a masterpiece… a pre-med friend of mine wrote about the work, since it was written following a stroke. Today one rarely hears (sees?) it. I doubt the early ballets will fall out of the repertoire, and I think the revisions of them help to ensure that since they solve some performance problems. I also like Les Noces and various symphonic works but much of his later work (Agon included) left me clueless.

  • Criticus maximus says:

    He who could write the rite of spring, if I be right by rights should swing.

  • I mostly concur.

    But the canon didn’t close at Stravinsky’s death. Canon-accepted music really had not been composed since the death of Prokofiev.

    It really was over after 1953. It is hard to identify anything composed after, that can be the headline piece on a concert bill and not cause an empty house.

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      Err….Stockhausen Gruppen. Every performance I’ve been to these 40 years in UK and abroad has been sold out

    • John Borstlap says:

      I have written quite some canonic pieces. Only, maybe I had another canon in mind.

    • buxtehude says:

      How about 1959, if you want to play that game? Martinu wrote some of his most beautiful music, and a lot of it, up to his death in the summer of that year, as long as he was strong enough to hold a pencil, literally . . .

  • Jack says:

    “Stravinsky dined out on the May 1913 riots for the rest of his life.”

    Good line, Norman.

    It should perhaps also be noted that Stravinsky was insufferably arrogant, more so as he aged.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      He of course had the temerity to claim he was “the inventor of music”. No false modesty there!

    • John Borstlap says:

      I don’t think so. He got bothered by everybody in any circumstance, and such people draw-up a thick wall to protect themselves. Even I get arrogant when bothered by my PA again.

  • Nijinsky says:

    At one point, Bartok, having heard Stravinsky “explain” his music, which contained the conscious manipulation of this and then that form or device or who knows what, was a bit unnerved, because he just couldn’t do that when he composed. But that’s exactly that, and why Bartok’s music is as organic as it is. I don’t think a tree has to have gone to architectural school in order to learn how to grow towards the sun.

    Amongst the comments, especially you know who’s, I notice the same thing. When something speaks for itself, it really doesn’t need such explanation…

    • John Borstlap says:

      Good points. But Stravinsky thought he had to appear as an intellectual to be ‘of his time’ and avantgarde, it was the fashion. At home writing his music, he surely let his instinct speak.

    • Richard Zencker says:

      I think Bartók was unnerved by the disclosure of compositional methods, something he never did. That does not mean he did not indulge in the same type of formulaic manipulation of materials. There is all this “golden section” and symmetrical structure, as well as a harmonic language formed by the three possible diminished seventh chords (a little like Messiaen’s “modes of limited tranposition”). These qualities were not really noted until after the composer’s death; Bartók never spoke of it himself and had no composition students.

  • Paul Carlile says:

    Historically important as a poisoning influence for much of the 20th century, but musically vastly overrated. I long for the day when his synthetic, artificial fabrications will be heard no more! A very competent writer, mediocre executant, unable to compose a melody (he mostly pinched from the Russian Folk Song book -why not?), he was in the Right Place, Right Time with the Right People and developed a cult of modernism to keep ahead of trends.
    I have enjoyed the 3 Famous Ballets (Oiseau, Petrushka, Rite) from my youth but no longer wish to hear them; the first two being neo-Rimsky, Rite is a fluke, a phenomenon, a peak from where he had nowhere to go. I’ve enjoyed Les Noces in ballet performances…..and…possibly a phrase or two of Symf Psalms (altho Poulenc did this genre with real music!). Scherzo Fantastique is great; updated Rimsky at its best!
    My favorite story is of Strav plonking the Première of his concerto Piano/Winds: piano starts the second movement but Strav stayed silent…. Koussevitsky hisses from the podium: “why don’t you start?” “I’ve forgotten how it goes” replied the Greatest Composer Ever! Perfect demonstration of the hopelessly dry, artificial, synthetic rubbish he churned out; unmemorable and unworthy of memorising! Like margarine, flavorless and bad for the health.
    In case anyone suspects that i never hear these noises, just recently on car journeys, i’ve suffered Le baiser de la fée, the Vile-din concerto, Agon(y), Orpheus and Symphony in C….had to change radio channels a lot!
    Comparison with Prokofiev is interesting: One who was usually in The Wrong Place at Wrong Time, rubbing people up the Wrong Way! Without being always totally masterly in all his output, there is a true musician, full of original thematic invention, an individual voice and flavor, often hauntingly memorable and emotionally moving.
    Stravinsky didn’t poison everything; certain influences on other composers, notably Poulenc (who sometimes sounds like a musical Strav!), Martinu, the later Roussel… this could be beneficial, supposing that the other composer had his own voice already.
    The dustbin of musical history history awaits!

  • Ceasar says:

    I nominate Poulenc as the last great composer…

  • Mick the Knife says:

    Stravinsky accomplished something few composers do. He composed interesting music that you actually want to listen to. It goes way beyond the great ballets.

    • This is the most cogent comment yet. Each of us has our own canon, our own Greatest but there is no ultimate judge…except perhaps persistence of musical memory and our private enjoyment. Contrary to Norman’s claim elsewhere about Stravinsky being the font of 20th century music, this is, sadly, not true; Debussy has that claim and without him there would be no 20th century music at all! As for Wagner, right up there as the Greatest,
      he had no followers save Humperdinck and Strauss. Wagner was the end of the Romantic period and Debussy was the father of the 20th century, not always understood as such. Yes, Stravinsky and Wagner were nasty, but who cares? They’re dead!!!
      You can’t teach them a moral lesson any more!! For me whatever composer I am listening to at the moment is the Greatest. And for me that is Brahms!!!! Also an inspiration to atonal and dodecaphonic composers like Schoenberg and even Milton Babbitt. In fact Brahms saw a manuscript of an early Schoenberg piece and they were in Vienna at the same time but never met. Imagine had Brahms lived into the 20th century…..Schoenberg modeled Verklaerte Nacht on Brahms’ G major string sextet by the way.Indeed Brahms was far more of an influence than most people know.

  • Peter Chun says:

    Norman, I agree with you CHALLENGING Stravinsky as the “greatest” of the 20th Century, but NOT for the reasons you suggest. No one HAS to be right, whether you’re FOR or AGAINST Stravinsky, but the reasons have to be good—yours aren’t…

  • Gerald Martin says:

    I enjoy Stravinsky (not so much after the three ballets); but I do wonder if he would have been as popular if Columbia Records hadn’t adopted him as their favorite living composer throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    “The Rake’s Progress” is such a negligible work by such a “not great” composer, no opera company has ever bothered to stage it, or record company record it.

  • Chris Daisley says:

    Strauss had the measure of Stravinsky when he complimented him on waking up the audience with a bang – my memory is vague as to the exact words. Of course Stravinsky tried to say that he attended a performance of Ariadne because of Hofmannsthal’s libretto and sneered at the music. Yeah, right. Still, I love Stravinsky’s tergiversation when asked who was the greatest composer of the 19th century. He couldn’t decide between Czerny and Gounod.

  • Baffled in Buffalo says:

    I think that in this Lebrecht piece a fine essay on the subject “Prokofiev doesn’t get enough respect” is struggling to escape from the confines of what is imho a petty denigration of the lifelong accomplishments of Igor Stravinsky. It is interesting to learn that Prokofiev was apparently someone who was likely to get food on his tie, as opposed to the suave I.S., and this held P. back in certain ways. (Perhaps an inability, if such it was, to create eloquent verbal artefacts like Stravinsky’s Harvard Lectures, published as _Poetics of Music_, also held demoted P.?) Anyway, what would be very interesting to me, from Lebrecht or someone else, is a detailed discussion of the reputations of ALL THREE of those great Russian contemporaries, I.S., S.P., and Dimitri Shostakovich. Personally, as a nonprofessional music enthusiast with 20th Century Classical Music interests from Britten to Boulez to Reich, of those 3 Russians I have felt the _least_ pressure and responsibility to explore the music of Prokofiev, but NL’s essay _does_ shame into wanting to learn more.

  • Alexander T says:

    “Prokofiev never ran dry of music…..”
    Yes, that is so. However, nothing he ever wrote is as good as Stravinsky’s best work.

  • Alexander T says:

    Ps: the two greatest influences on 20th-century music were, IMO, Debussy and Schoenberg.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Meyerbeer was all the craze, during the romantic period, pretty much forgotten now. I don’t know how much Stravinsky will have the same fate, but there certainly are other composers from that time that in no way at all are lesser, composers I favor much more. I don’t really understand the Rite of Spring, other than it is even redundant and morose, dotted with spooky thrills of dissonance, something akin to the superstition of exactly what it’s about. The sacrifice of a virgin. But the agony of what one has to endure surrounded by such backward relentlessly superstition and utterly crazy behavior, and the soft peace that’s beyond such idiocy, I don’t see that there…..

    Not that in this day and age there aren’t comparable rituals. It says a lot about Diaghilev that he would ask Stravinsky to compose for such a topic, Stravinsky wanted to work on Petrouchka, a puppet he saw frustrating the orchestra with cascades of arpeggios where the orchestra would retaliate with trumpet blasts, but no Diaghilev wanted a ritual sacrifice.

    I like Petrouchka better, and I like Firebird even better than that.

  • A Pianist says:

    Since no one has yet, may I jump in with Histoire du Soldat? Well after the “three ballets” but last I knew this was one of the more celebrated and widespread pieces of the century. What a fascinating, innovative piece, especially in the rhythmic conceptions. I also have fond memories of a Met production of Rake’s Progress — totally worked.

    And since others are dropping their less-known Stravs in here: I nominate the Concerto for Piano and Winds.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Norman, Norman, Norman, . . . it’s a poor tactic to ‘take down’ Stravinsky by pumping up Prokofiev. Both were great and the world has plenty of space for music from both of them. And by way, Prokofiev wrote his fair share of clunkers as well. Why do things always have to presented as either/or situations?

    I can accept that Stravinky’s “Symphony in C” is an ‘unimposing’ work, but the “Symphony in Three Movements”?!? . . . Really? . . . Have you truly studied it? I think it’s one of the great symphonies of the 20th Century, pretty much on par with Prokofiev’s 5th, which you praised to the hilt. Certainly the Stravinsky is far more rhythmically inventive, and just as colorful (to my ears). Prokofiev’s fifth is epic, while the Stravinsky is succinct. Both are equally driven.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Well done Norman! You have put the cat among the pigeons. As a composer he was willing to reinvent himself. That is a positive thing. The Symphony of Psalms and the Symphony in Three Movements are two symphonies that are often played and it is to his credit that he was willing to try different styles..

    It’s hard to judge these things, but some of his works will remain in thr repertoire as will some of Prokofiev’s. Not all of Prokofiev’s symphonies are of equal worth. His cantata, Alexander Nevsky, and his ballet music are probably greater masterpieces than his operas.

    There are plenty of one or two hit wonders around, so Stravinsky has certainly a much higher place than most.

    Probably his greatest achievement was the riots at Paris in 1913 after the premiere of the Rite of Spring. Nobody ever dared to rubbish a new work ever again, including the rest of his output, in case they ended up on the wrong side of history. Until Norman has prompted this reappraisal.

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