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June 17 composer birthday: STRAVINSKY

What Pablo Picasso was to the visual arts, Igor Stravinsky was to classical music. Almost exact contemporaries, these two titans of the 20th century arts scene both were revolutionary, pioneers of their art forms, and better known for their work pre-dating World War II. They befriended one another and even collaborated together, on a work “Ragtime”, in which Picasso’s sketch looks like an amazing one-stroke doodle, and “Pulcinella”, a ballet commissioned by ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev.

Stravinsky turned the use of traditional classical instruments onto its head, and re-imagined the sounds these instruments made. Le scare du printemps (The rite of spring) is a prime example of this. He made bassoons moan in a scary way by placing their notes in the high register; the strings, which normally perform lyrically, became growling percussive instruments; and French horns, usually bleating out stoic passages, howled like forest animals in heat. The score contains a few novel features for the time it was written: exploration of tonality, metre, rhythm, dissonance, and instrumental range. This work influenced many composers who came after Stravinsky, and is one of the most frequently recorded.

I’m having a flashback. Back in high school, my English teacher allowed us to do something creative instead of a standard book report for “Lord of the Flies”. We could create a board game, or enact a scene from the book, etc. I wrote, voiced, and recorded a monologue from lead character Ralph’s point of view.  Le sacre du printemps was my background music, which I borrowed from my dad’s extensive collection of recordings. I still remember how the music complemented the story of the boys marooned on an island, descending from relative sophistication to barbarian behaviour.

The narrative of Le sacre du printemps involves pagan Russia, primitive rituals celebrating spring, and a young maiden chosen as a sacrificial figure and dances herself to death. Diaghilev commissioned an unknown Stravinsky to compose the score, and the premiere went down as one of the most infamous in classical music history. At the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913, the modern nature of the music and choreography caused the audience to freak out and a near-riot ensued. Now, the music endured, perhaps more than the choreography, and is regularly programmed by symphonies everywhere.

Le sacre du printemps starts out brooding and uncertain – and at one point, reminds me of The Twilight Zone (a pre-“X Files” TV show from the early ‘60s) – and breaks out with some savage rhythms. Though it’s not as frightening by today’s standards as it was when it was first heard in 1913, my imagination still goes into overdrive and when I hear it live, I’m on the edge of my seat.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra.

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born June 17 in St. Petersburg, Russia and died April 6, 1971,in New York City.

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