Jonathan Cross examines Stravinsky’s relationship with the worlds of dance, opera and theatre, 50 years after his death in 1971. Repertoire ranges from iconic ballets including Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and Apollo to his neo-classical opera The Rake’s Progress and an intriguing collection of experimental works fusing music and theatre.
It is not an exaggeration to state that Stravinsky reinvented dance for the 20th century, turning the conventionalised 19th-century forms of classical ballet he inherited into something utterly modern. This was at first accidental in that the impresario Diaghilev had invited Stravinsky to write the music for The Firebird out of desperation after a string of more senior figures had declined. Even though Stravinsky had to adapt to a scenario that had already been developed by the choreographer Fokine, the result revealed his innate sense of the dramatic. Petrushka followed a year later. Both works united music, dance and design in ways not seen before in ballet. Stravinsky’s radical new music and Nijinsky’s controversial new dance style for The Rite of Spring shook the world in 1913 and it continues to challenge audiences and choreographers even today.
Other ballets based on Russian material followed during and after the First World War, including Renard and Les Noces. Pulcinella, whose music is derived from 18th-century Italian sources, marked a new ‘neoclassical’ departure for Stravinsky, an idea he continued to explore for the remainder of his life. His most powerful and productive association was with the dancer and choreographer George Balanchine, with whom he made such important works as Apollon musagète (Apollo), Jeu de cartes, Orpheus and Agon. Having established the New York City Ballet, Balanchine went on successfully to choreograph other of Stravinsky’s works not originally intended as ballets, such as the Scherzo à la russe, the Violin Concerto and Movements. The ritualistic and the rhythmic in so much of Stravinsky’s music means it is strongly predisposed to dance interpretation.
Stravinsky also produced many arrangements of his ballet music, bringing life to it in the concert hall as well as on the stage. He made a lucrative career conducting The Firebird Suite around the world; his very last podium appearance took place in May 1967 in Toronto with a performance of the Pulcinella Suite.
The love affair between Stravinsky and choreographers is ongoing and continues to straddle the worlds of classical and contemporary dance. From Massine to Béjart, MacMillan, Pina Bausch and Akram Khan, The Rite of Sping has certainly inspired an extraordinary renewal in contemporary dance. Beyond the generation of Balanchine, Ashton and Robbins, other choreographers who have re-interpreted Stravinsky include Richard Alston, Jirí Kylián, Hans van Manen, Peter Martins, Wayne McGregor, John Neumeier, Heinz Spoerli, Paul Taylor, Sasha Waltz and Christopher Wheeldon.
While Stravinsky’s music for the ballet punctuated his entire creative life, it was not the only kind of dramatic music with which he engaged. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that nearly all his works have some sort of ritualistic or theatrical dimension. His music is never ‘incidental’; rather, it is always fully integrated, such that the theatre springs from the music as much as the other way around. This should be of little surprise, since he grew up surrounded by theatre music. His father Fyodor was a famed principal bass at the Imperial (now Mariinsky) Opera in St Petersburg, where he sang all the major Russian and non-Russian roles. The young Stravinsky spent much time studying these scores in his father’s extensive library. One might argue that this early exposure eventually culminated in the opera The Rake’s Progress, which seems to play with the entirety of operatic history. It is a playful piece of theatre that critiques the forms and gestures of the past while remaining accessible in its espousal of simple forms, arching melodies and compelling drama.
Stravinsky explored opera of all shapes and sizes: from the early Nightingale, based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale, via his comic one-act opera Mavra, a joyful story of love and deception after Pushkin, to his late experiment in TV opera, The Flood, derived from medieval English mystery plays. Oedipus Rex, a powerful re-telling of Sophocles, is a formalised work that defines its hybrid nature as an ‘opera-oratorio’. And through Stravinsky’s engagement with Russian folklore he was able to create a new kind of small-scale music theatre that has proved highly influential on post-Second World War composers, Birtwistle, Kagel, Ligeti, Maxwell Davies and Weir among them. The Soldier’s Tale incorporates the protagonist’s violin into the very heart of the piece, while in Renard the singers are seated amidst the instrumentalists.
Elsewhere, even in works that have no obvious theatrical motivation, Stravinsky’s sense of the dramatic and the ritualistic is evident. The juxtaposition of starkly contrasting musical ideas in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments takes on a ceremonial aspect. Such rituals find later echoes in the contemplative Mass and the austerely beautiful A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer.
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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