As the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring approaches, commentator Miles Hoffman reminds us that — as earthshaking as that infamous debut was — the composer soon branched out into a variety of musical styles that would surprise his fans and critics.
Hoffman says that, up until the infamous (and riotous) Rite of Spring debut — on May 29, 1913 — the public had never heard anything like it. Still, it can be viewed as the end of an era, as opposed to the start of something new.
"In some ways, The Rite can also be seen as much as a culmination as a revolution," Hoffman says. "It was the culmination of what one music scholar called 'musical maximalism.' Throughout the 19th century, the orchestras were getting bigger and bigger; the power and intensity of unlimited musical expression with orchestral forces had been growing. And with The Rite of Spring, maximalism reached a kind of peak."
Where to go from there? The composer, Hoffman says, went just about anywhere he wanted, stylistically speaking.
"If Stravinsky started out as a revolutionary, it wasn't too long before he became a counterrevolutionary," Hoffman says. For his 1920 ballet Pulcinella, Stravinsky borrowed from music written in the 18th century and gave it a fresh twist. It was a far cry from the jagged rhythms of The Rite.
"This piece ushered in a whole new style, or trend, in 20th-century music," Hoffman says. "It was called neo-classicism. The big forces were stripped down; old musical forms were resurrected and the emphasis shifted to a kind of musical cleanliness. There was clarity, sparkle, pungency, humor, even irony in the music."
It was ironic in the sense that Stravinsky was capable of shaking the heavens. But in Pulcinella and his other neo-classical works — like the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto — he chose small groups of musicians to bring these modest old musical forms to life in a new language. Stravinsky was always remarkably adventurous.
"He went wherever his artistic ideas took him and wherever he thought he could do something good and interesting," Hoffman says. "Later in his life, he even wrote pieces in the so-called 12-tone style pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg."
But is there a unifying Stravinskian trait? Hoffman points to Pablo Picasso for an explanation.
"I think there's a parallel with Stravinsky," Hoffman says. "His style never stayed exactly the same, but there's always something in his music that grabs you. Something that's inescapable. And that's why we still care about Stravinsky. The revolutions, the counterrevolutions, all the categories, all the trends he set, they're all important. But ultimately, they are only important because they were the work of a unique genius."
Miles Hoffman is a violist with the American Chamber players and the author of the NPR Classical Music Companion.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RITE OF SPRING")
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're hearing some of the sounds that shocked and shook a Paris audience to the point of a riot. It was the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." That performance took place on May 29th, 1913, and now orchestras all over the world have been celebrating the centennial of Igor Stravinksy's most famous work. Stravinksy, however, did compose prolifically for another 50 years. And here to talk about his later career is MORNING EDITION music commentator Miles Hoffman. Good morning, Miles.
MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, Miles, Stravinsky was young, he was just 30 years old when he wrote the "Rite of Spring," and he lived to be very old, almost 90 years old. That's time to write a lot more music.
HOFFMAN: Yes, it is. And he did. He really did. He wrote any number of great pieces. He was also very busy making an extra living as a pianist and a conductor. He played all over the world in every city all over Europe, all over the United States.
MONTAGNE: But it's the "Rite of Spring" that is the object of this whole centennial celebration because it was, what, both revolutionary and controversial?
HOFFMAN: Well, that's a big part of it, Renee. Nobody had ever heard anything like it, and to this day, it remains flabbergasting where you hear the "Rite of Spring." It's a flabbergasting, overwhelming masterpiece.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RITE OF SPRING")
HOFFMAN: The thing is, Renee, that in some ways, "Rite of Spring" can also be seen as much as a culmination as a revolution.
MONTAGNE: How do you mean?
HOFFMAN: Well, Renee, it was the culmination of what one music scholar has called musical maximalism. Throughout the 19th century, the orchestras had been getting bigger and bigger. The power and intensity of unlimited musical expression with orchestral forces had been growing. Everything had been getting bigger. And with the "Rite of Spring," this maximalism reached a kind of peak.
The situation reminds me of what Claude Debussy, the composure Debussy wrote about the music of Wagner. He said that Wagner's music was a beautiful sunset that people mistook for a dawn. And I think you might say that the "Rite of Spring" was a spectacular sunset that people mistook for a dawn. And various composers still tried to imitate certain aspects or elements of the "Rite," but most of the imitators were unable to synthesize these elements with anything approaching Stravinsky's genius.
MONTAGNE: Well, what about Stravinsky himself? One might think that he would, at that moment in time 100 years ago, think how to top this after "Rite of Spring."
HOFFMAN: Right. Well, he didn't really try to top it. If Stravinsky started out as a revolutionary, it wasn't too long before he became a kind of counter-revolutionary. If you keep the sounds of the 1913 "Rite of Spring" in your mind, Renee, then listen to music that Stravinsky wrote in 1920.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PULCINELLA")
MONTAGNE: That is shocking.
HOFFMAN: Pretty surprising. Well, that's the opening of the suite from the ballet "Pulcinella." And Stravinsky borrowed the tune from an 18th-century trio sonata, and this piece ushered in a whole new style, or a trend in 20th-century music that was called neoclassicism. The big forces were stripped down, old musical forms were resurrected, and the emphasis shifted to a kind of musical cleanliness. It was clarity, sparkle, pungency, humor, even irony in the music.
MONTAGNE: Irony? Tell us more about that.
HOFFMAN: Well, ironic in the sense that you had a composer who could shake the heavens, but what he chose to do with these immense powers was to take small groups of musicians and bring these modest old musical forms to life with new language, with 20-century language.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DUMBARTON OAKS CONCERTO")
HOFFMAN: That's from Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto," Renee. And that piece is a kind of baroque concerto grosso, but it was written for a chamber orchestra in 1938.
MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder, when you talk about neoclassical style, Miles, at what level or in what ways did Stravinsky's revolutionary tendencies ever reassert themselves?
HOFFMAN: Well, the thing about Stravinksy is that he was always remarkably adventurous, Renee. He went wherever his artistic ideas took him, and wherever he thought he could do something good and interesting. Later in his life, in fact, he even wrote pieces in the so-called 12-tone style. This is the style that had been pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DOUBLE CANON FOR STRING QUARTET")
HOFFMAN: That's just a little bit of a piece called "The Double Canon" for string quartet. And that's a piece that Stravinsky wrote in 1959, or 46 years after the "Rite of Spring."
MONTAGNE: Miles, given these various changes in style through Stravinsky's long life, is there anything that you would call "Stravinskian"? A way we can instantly tell that a piece is by Stravinsky?
HOFFMAN: Renee, years ago, I went to an exhibit of Post-Impressionist art at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit spread through a number of galleries, and the styles changed from gallery to gallery, but in each one, the first painting that grabbed my eye and made me turn my head was by Picasso. And I think there's a parallel with Stravinsky.
His style never stayed exactly the same, but there's always something in his music that grabs you, something hard to explain that's inescapable. And, in fact, I think that's why we still care about Stravinsky, Renee. The revolutions, counter-revolutions, all the categories, the trends that he set, they're all important, but ultimately, they're only important because they were the work of a unique genius.
MONTAGNE: So, again, Igor Stravinsky. And talking about grabbing you, his "Rite of Spring" will be 100 years old this Wednesday. And Miles, thanks for joining us.
HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RITE OF SPRING")
MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players, and he's also the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And from NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.