Jonathan Cross examines Stravinsky’s relationship with myth, faith and memory, 50 years after his death in 1971. Repertoire includes Oedipus Rex, Symphony of Psalms and a sequence of memorials stretching from Funeral Song to his own Requiem Canticles.
Storytelling lies at the heart of the work of Igor Stravinsky. Taking inspiration from ancient myths and rituals – Russian folklore, stories of the Greeks, primitive and religious ritual practices – Stravinsky remade these tales to speak forcefully of his own age. Petrushka for instance, half man, half puppet, is an alienated figure of modern times; the primitive sacrifice of The Rite of Spring uncannily anticipated a world on the brink of catastrophe; Orpheus mourns not just for the loss of his lover Eurydice but for the losses of so many to war and revolution across the 20th century.
Stravinsky’s early interest in Russian tales and rituals should hardly surprise us. His ‘nationalism’ was part of a wider movement among artists in late-19th century St Petersburg. But with the encouragement of impresario Diaghilev, Stravinsky was able to make these materials suitable for export. Firebird, his first great success, took the fairytale musical world of Rimsky-Korsakov and reconfigured it for an eager Paris audience. Likewise, the scenario, design and music of The Rite of Spring was an invention of a pagan Russia, rooted in folk culture certainly, but looking decidedly forwards to a radical, modernist future. During the war years spent in Switzerland, cut off from his native land, Stravinsky found solace in telling all sorts of stories – about a Russian soldier and his violin in The Soldier’s Tale; about a wily Russian fox disguised as a nun in Renard; and about a Russian wedding in Les Noces.
Stravinsky was brought up in the Orthodox faith. He drifted away as a young man, but in the 1920s he returned, in part encouraged by the re-conversion to Catholicism of those around him in Paris, most notably Jean Cocteau, and in part because he found himself amidst émigré Russian communities in France. His faith, one might say, was part of sustaining his sense of being Russian in exile. In 1926, while composing Oedipus Rex, he wrote to Diaghilev: ‘I have not been a Communicant in twenty years, and it is because of an extreme spiritual need that I am going to take communion now.’ The first major artistic statement of his renewal of faith was the Symphony of Psalms, dedicated ‘to the glory of God’. It sets the seemingly personal verse, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord: and he inclined to me and heard my cry’. Though the work sets the words of the Latin psalms, there is nonetheless still something strikingly Russian about it, as if it represents the memory of the Russia now lost to him in exile. Stravinsky even claimed that he began work by setting the texts not in Latin but in ancient Slavonic: the ‘Laudate dominum’ of Psalm 150 began as ‘Gospodi pomiluy’.
The remainder of his creative life was punctuated by sacred, ritual pieces such as the Mass (intended for liturgical use) and the Requiem Canticles, as well engaging with the Hebrew Old Testament in late pieces such as Abraham and Isaac, Threni and The Flood.
Stravinsky’s gradual turn away from explicitly Russian sources in the 1920s and towards classical myth was, one might say, entirely in keeping with his so-called neo-classical turn away from his Russian musical upbringing towards the music of Western Europe. This was first heard in Paris in the Italianate Pulcinella. And his first work to engage explicitly with Greek mythology was Oedipus Rex, to a text by Cocteau, which also alludes to a range of musical models including Handel and Gluck, Verdi and Puccini. Later works built on Greek myths include Apollo, Persephone, Orpheus and Agon. These myths gave Stravinsky more than just stories to tell. They helped him come to terms with who he was, a Russian-cum-Frenchman-cum-American. As Neil Macgregor, former Director of the British Museum, has written, ‘… these are no longer the myths of the Greeks. By now, they are ours, and we have made then into the myths we need, the stories through which we seek to understand ourselves.’
One particular aspect of Stravinsky’s ritual pieces are the many memorials he wrote. Indeed, they bookend his creative life. The recently rediscovered Funeral Song – thought lost for over a century, but re-premiered in St Petersburg in December 2016 – is a moving tribute to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, whom Stravinsky considered a second father. His final major composition is the Requiem Canticles, commissioned in memory of a Princeton University benefactress and premiered in 1966. However, Vera Stravinsky later claimed that ‘he and we knew he was writing it for himself’. It was performed at Stravinsky’s own funeral just five years later in Venice. In between, poignant rituals of lament are dotted across Stravinsky’s output, in memory of particular individuals (such as the chorale in memoriam Debussy that closes the Symphonies of Wind Instruments), or sounded by the weeping of the mythical Orpheus for Eurydice at the start and end of the ballet that bears his name. In later years Stravinsky wrote a series of memorials for his lost friends and acquaintances, including an Elegy for JFK, Variations ‘Aldous Huxley in Memoriam’, and the powerful In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, which sets Thomas’s famous elegiac poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. While on the surface Stravinsky’s music often appears playful and ironic, there is also a lamenting character that lies behind much of it, bringing a darker colour to so many of his works.
Jonathan Cross is Professor of Musicology at the University of Oxford. His acclaimed volume The Stravinsky Legacy was published in 1998, he is editor of and contributor to the Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky (2003), and author of a critical biography of Stravinsky for Reaktion Press (2015).
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