Summing up the importance and influence of the 20th century’s greatest classical composer in a brief essay is an interesting challenge. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a beacon to music lovers throughout his entire creative life. Other luminaries during the same period basked in the spotlight, and received the adulation of music lovers: the Russians Sergey Rachmaninoff and Dmitry Shostakovich,
Copland and Gershwin in America, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten in England. Each composer had his following, but none in the public eye except Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg were acknowledged trendsetters and progressives, propelling music to new frontiers of technique and expression.
Today, Stravinsky’s neoclassicism - his adoption of musical style models from the 17th-19th centuries - is viewed as historicism: mining the past for still-usable materials and sources of inspiration. At its inception, neoclassicism was considered a disrespectfully calculated affront to the venerated, inviolable legacy of classical music. A smothering reverence for musical tradition, though, has its dangers: that’s a sure means to insulate it and lock it away forever. This kind of preservation, over time, can lead to extinction. The creativity modern composers bring to their works by using past models is beneficial, and is good for art, as renewal. Read Harold Bloom’s "The Anxiety of Influence.
Stravinsky had no such qualms, and excavated the past freely and without guilt. So was born a deconstructed classicism. Stravinsky’s imagination and creative genius gave us a peculiar alchemy: The past made souped-up and vernacularized - a trampling of vaunted tradition.
Neoclassicism, at first, was music to accompany the Jazz Age of the 1920s, but also had the potential to make a profound impression in serious works composed during the somber Depression years. Listen to the "Symphony of Psalms," composed in 1930, for the other, deeply religious side of Stravinsky’s genius.
Stravinsky and Schoenberg (1874-1951) were archrivals. For nearly 20 years, both lived in Hollywood, of all places, and made it a point of pride never to meet or communicate. Schoenberg’s great legacy was his creation of the 12-tone, or serial, method of composition, which stood at the artistic antipodes of neoclassicism. Think of it - the two greatest 20th century classical composers living within a few miles of each other, their giant egos consumed by jealousy at the prestige of the other, silently at war.
In spite of their animus, Stravinsky, at least, felt he could belatedly take up Schoenberg’s approach to composition as a means of expanding his musical options. Of course, he would not give Schoenberg the satisfaction of knowing that he had "crossed over" by adopting the serial method; he waited until 1955, after Schoenberg died several years earlier, to make the change.
Stravinsky’s final period continued until 1968, with such succinct masterpieces as "In Memoriam Dylan Thomas," "Agon," "Canticum Sacrum," "Threni," "A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer" and "The Flood." As always with Stravinsky, his "aural fingerprint" is always discernable, whatever the style.
In a recent column by New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini, he assessed composers with the goal of naming "the top 10 classical composers in history." He put Stravinsky as number six on the list, after Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Debussy. Agree or not, up or down, there’s no doubt that Stravinsky belongs there.
Schoenberg, by the way, didn’t make the list; he would be devastated, and very angry.
Yet, it’s a curious fact that, unlike the others on the list, you don’t hear much Stravinsky in concert (even less of Schoenberg).
Except for the three early ballets - "Firebird," Petrushka" and "Rite of Spring," - all which long ago have entered the classical canon and are widely performed - most of Stravinsky’s considerable output remains unfamiliar to music lovers - especially so the last works.
Such is the nature of this kind of reflexive, unthinking fame, which is based only upon the most obvious and visible artifacts, leaving the rest waiting to be discovered by the curious and intrepid among us - or not.
In my darker moments, I feel that the history of classical music ended with the deaths of Stravinsky (1971,) Dmitry Shostakovich (1975) and Benjamin Britten (1976). If, in 1965 you were to ask: "Who is the world’s greatest living composer," Stravinsky would be almost universally so named. Can you ask that question today, and would it mean the same thing? Each of the three, above, was a giant, their works bringing the best of the classical heritage forward, while also forging a new creative link and joining it to the long chain of being that is classical music.