Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (b. 5/17 June 1882; d. 6 April 1971) is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential musical personalities of the 20th century, his musical innovations concerning rhythm, harmony, melody and sound texture from his early works also making him a pioneer of new music. The 20th century has been marked by tumultuous events and the conflictual and agitated atmosphere surrounding certain nations during the first decade pushed artists towards a nationalist attitude.
In the pre-World War Russia there were two school of composition: the St. Petersburg nationalistic school led by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the Moscow school, which followed Tchaikovsky’s Western tradition. Igor Stravinsky came from the Russian National School, having studied with RimskyKorsakov, of whom he “was a fervent admirer”, as the composer says in his 1936 autobiography. However, Otto Deri states that in Stravinsky’s later dialogues with Robert Craft, the composer implies that “the most important tools of composition he had to discover for himself” (1968: 169).
According to Stephen Walsh, we can see Stravinsky as one of the “most multi-faceted” composers of the 20th century, as he went through almost every significant stylistic movement of the century (see Grove Music Online). His works are generally divided into three stylistic periods: a Russian period (his early-composed pieces), a neoclassical period (1920-1951) and a serial period (his proto-serial works of the 1950s and the later serial works written in his final years).
The two most important innovations of the 20th century music are certainly atonality and the broader use of rhythm’s resources. The latter started to emerge around 1910 in Stravinsky’s early ballets, commissioned by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The first one to be produced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was L’Oiseau du Feu (The Firebird), which premiered in Paris in 1910 and was met with ecstatic reviews from critics.
This was followed by Petrushka, in 1911, and then by Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), in 1913. The last one caused one of the most famous scandals in musical history because “the whistling and booing from the audience was so loud that it completely drowned the orchestra” and “Stravinsky was made out to be [… ] out to destroy all the most sacred canons of musical aesthetics and grammar” (Vlad, 1978: 30). When listening to these works, Stravinsky’s exploitation of the rhythmic component is clearly heard.
Also, one can surely notice how, with the second and culminating with his third ballet, the composer becomes more and more daring, destroying the conventional pulsations in the bar, by constantly switching between meters and by accenting the weak beats. For example, in the “Sacrificial Dance”, which closes The Rite of Spring, the rhythmic component reaches a hypnotic and primordial climax with the ecstatic changing of the pattern of each bar (3/16 – 2/16 – 3/16 – 2/8 – 2/16 – 3/16 – 2/8 etc. – see Fig. 1), all representing the Chosen One dancing in an euphoric trance that leads to her death, in order to ensure the return of spring. One example of displaced accents can be heard right at the start of Petrushka, where the marked dotted rhythms create the atmosphere of the agitated, crowded and somehow chaotic St. Petersburg Fair, where the action of the ballet takes place (Fig. O2).
Accents placed on weak beats can also be heard in The Rite of Spring, one of the examples being the opening from “Dance of the Young Girls” (Fig. 3). The same “Dance of the Young Girls” presents another rhythmical device preferred by Stravinsky, which is the ostinato, the constant repetition of a rhythmic figure. In this case, it is the insistent pounding of two juxtaposed chords: the Dominant 7th on E flat and a chord of F flat Major. This repeats with brutal asymmetric accents for eight bars at first, then for nine, followed by another thirty-five bars. Therefore, we can see how the harmonic discourse is dominated by the rhythmical element in Stravinsky’s music.
Another innovative aspect of Stravinsky’s second and third ballets is their bitonality, which is the use of two different keys at the same time, as seen with the juxtaposition of the two chords in “Dance of the Young Girls”. According to Alfred Casella, the composer can be seen as the primogenitor of polytonality, as The Rite of Spring presents bitonality properly and is not just “a more or less happy ‘experiment'” (1924: 164). However, polytonality can be found in his previous ballet as well. Two major triads, C Major and Fsharp Major, are superimposed and create one dissonant chord, which has been named the Petrushka chord (Fig. 4).
Mikhail Druskin argues that “in fact the original source of his (Stravinsky’s) innovations” was “Russian folk-song, that came to him as a revelation” (1983: 35). RimskyKorsakov might have been the one who kindled Stravinsky’s interest in the Russian peasant life and the traditional forms of Slavic vocal music. Stravinsky developed and individualized folklore melodic and rhythmical elements and used them in his ballets. For example, The Rite of Spring opens with a bassoon solo inspired from a Lithuanian song or even from a theme of the shepherds from the Carpathian Mountains.
Also, the finale of The Firebird comes from the folk song ‘By the gateway there swayed the tall pine tree’ (Fig. 05), and another folk song, ‘In the garden’, is the origin of the “Round Dance of the Princesses” from the same ballet (Fig. 06). Stravinsky took both folk songs from Rimsky-Korsakov’s compiled collection, 100 Russian Folk Songs. Moreover, from studying Russian folk-songs phonetics, the composer understood the syllabic accents of the songs and with them, the traditional rhythmic systems of aksak, parlandorubato and giusto-syllabic.
According to Druskin, “shiftings and displacements of accents formed one of Stravinsky’s favourite methods, and he used to speak of them laughingly as ‘ melodicrhythmic stammering'” (1983: 43). Again, the rhythmic component commands the course of Stravinsky’s music. An example of the use of the syllabic giusto (which is a prosodic system defined by the exclusive use of two indivisible and invariable durations with a ratio of 1:2 or 2:1, so that each syllable in a verse has a duration allocated) can be heard in the “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei” from The Firebird (Fig. 7).
When searching in Constantin Brailoiu’s compendium of folkloric rhythms, the “Infernal Dance” motif, composed of two spondees and an iambus, can be found as number 62 in the giusto-syllabic table A (Fig. 08). A musical line that reminds of the same motif can be heard in “The Naming and Honouring of the Chosen One” from The Rite of Spring, but this time it is presented with a different rhythm, as a succession of pyrrhic groupings (Fig. 09), and it is interrupted every time by the main theme of the scene.
Another significant influence on Stravinsky’s music has clearly been Modest Mussorgsky, who showed him elements of the life of ancient Russia and its religious rituals. This can be seen in The Rite of Spring, which has the subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”, Stravinsky describing his work as “a musicalchoreographic work, (representing) pagan Russia… unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring” (Van den Toorn, 1987: 26-27). Influences of Mussorgsky can also be found in the expanded percussion sounds and the use of ostinato.
Thus, we can surely hear an echo of Boris Godunov’s coronation scene in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Another characteristic of Stravinsky’s music can be identified in the sound texture of his ballets. He gives the percussion instruments a greater role, alongside with woodwind and brass instruments, and the strings are used more for their percussive potential, as well as for sound effects that remind of old folk instruments (sul ponticello, col legno, pizzicato, harmonics, glissando and non vibrato), and not for their usual melodious capability.
In conclusion, Stravinsky’s extended use of the rhythmic component, of polytonality, the inspiration from folksongs and the new approach on sounds of the orchestra made him one of the most influential and innovative composers of the 20th century, Robert Donington saying that “he contributed almost at the beginning of his career more than most of our great 20th century composers in their entire lifetimes” (1952: 7).