The late Stravinsky

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s passing in his New York home on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park. One of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, his musical career encompassed a seven-decade arch from fin-de-siècle czarist Russia to the Cold War United States and the first man on the Moon.

As a composer firmly etched to the repertoire, Stravinsky deserves, yet hardly needs, any further endorsement, save for his late music. While the groundbreaking Russian ballets and the brilliantly veiled neoclassical scores are embraced wholeheartedly with the enthusiasm extending all the way to such 1950s scores as Cantata (1951-52) and Agon (1953-57), the works he penned in the course of his final creative decade remain somewhat obscure and often misunderstood.

Stravinsky’s adaptation of serial techniques in the course of the fifties was met with puzzlement by many; some perceived his late music as second-class Webern, while others simply dismissed it. Yet, with far-sightedness yielding way beyond the precarious marketing strategies of big record labels nowadays, Goddard Lieberson, the President of Columbia Records, saw it wise to preserve each new piece by Stravinsky on vinyl, with the composer either conducting or supervising the sessions.

On disc, these premiere recordings still represent the most thorough survey of Stravinsky’s late pieces, alongside notable contributions from Oliver Knussen, Pierre Boulez, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas, among others. In the concert hall, Stravinsky’s serial works remain curiosities, popping up relatively rarely, often in conjunction with retrospectives on the composer’s music.

To provide an overview of Stravinsky’s fascinating late period, let us examine some of the works he composed between 1958 and 1966, from Movements for Piano and Orchestra to Requiem Canticles. The music Stravinsky wrote during that time encompasses orchestral works, choral settings, songs, chamber pieces, opera and sacred works.

Written for the Swiss pianist Margrit Weber, the ten-minute Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1958) is one of Stravinsky’s most dazzling contrapuntal endeavours. Cast in five interconnected movements, the entire score stems from a single twelve-tone row and its various permutations.

Stravinsky’s orchestra rarely appears in full. Rather, the piano is engaged in multi-faceted dialogue with constantly varying instrumental combinations, yielding to a kaleidoscope of chamber ensembles with astounding sonorities. Devoid of the usual devises of tonal music, Movements is a feast of gesture and counterpoint, gazing towards hitherto undiscovered horizons.

For the listener, Movements presents itself as an alluring maze for concertante piano and orchestra, spellbinding from its opening bars to its very last gesture. A truly one-of-a-kind score, premiere performances as well as the first two recordings of Movements, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay and the composer himself, with Weber and Charles Rosen as soloists, must have had an inspiring effect, for soon Stravinsky’s sonic inventions were imitated in avant-garde Hollywood film scores, perhaps most notably by Jerry Goldsmith.

In 1961-62, Stravinsky composed his last work for the stage, the opera (or musical play) The Flood. First performed on the CBS Television Network in June 1962, with subsequent stage premieres in Santa Fe and Hamburg, The Flood is a thirty-minute Biblical drama, scored for soloists, speakers, chorus and a large orchestra.

A combination of mystery plays and liturgical texts, The Flood is a condensed retelling of the Creation and the Flood, conceived in serial dramaturgy of ravishing vitality and detail. Cast in seven scenes, including two choreographed instrumental tableaux, The Flood is one of the most compelling Biblical narratives set to stage among the twentieth century music.

Rarely performed, there are only three recordings of The Flood made so far, the premiere outing conducted by Robert Craft in 1962 under Stravinsky’s supervision, a 1993 re-recording by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta et al., as well as a CD release of a 1964 live performance with Pierre Boulez conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir.

Stravinsky’s brilliant farewell to the orchestra, Canon on a Russian Popular Tune for Concert Introduction or Encore (1965) is, without question, the single most flamboyant piece among his late works. The two-page, thirty-five-bar score for orchestra is conceived as a canon on the hymn theme from the closing tableau of The Firebird (1910).

In the course of its one-minute span, the canon is presented twice, with a quarter-note break in between. Premiered in Toronto in December 1965 under Robert Craft, the Canon has appeard on concert programmes and records every now and then, including album takes conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Mikhail Pletnev, Ilan Volkov and Edo de Waart, Canon on a Russian Popular Tune never fails to have an uplifting effect on the listener.

Working in his studio at 1218 North Wetherly Drive in Los Angeles on 13 August 1966, Stravinsky penned the closing bars of his final masterpiece Requiem Canticles (1965-66) for soloists, chorus and orchestra. A sublimely intense setting of selections from the Missa pro defunctis, framed by two instrumental movements, a prelude and a postlude, as well as a central orchestral interlude.

A fifteen-minute opus summum, Stravinsky’s entire creative life is reflected in the score of Requiem Canticles, with the composer’s Russian roots, neoclassical idioms and serial techniques fused together into spellbindingly diverse, yet ever coherent musical language.

In the course of Requiem Canticles, the musical ritual is transformed from one guise to another, encompassing the focused invocation of Exaudi, the judgmental dramaturgy of Dies irae and Tuba mirum as well as the terrific superimposition of spoken and sung choral parts in Libera me.

In the closing Postlude, the music revolves back to its opening. Accompanied by the rumour of funeral bells, ringing from celesta, tubular bells and vibraphone, the music lands on the final bars, followed by silence.

Premiered in 1966 under Craft, Requiem Canticles was also performed at Stravinsky’s funeral some five years later. In the course of the past fifty years, Requiem Canticles has become perhaps the most frequently programmed of Stravinsky’s late pieces, at least among those scored for larger forces. However, with just six different recordings currently available, Requiem Canticles is hardly overpresented on disc.

While Requiem Canticles would have provided a poetic close to the composer’s musical career, it was not Stravinsky’s last work. As a befitting post scriptum, he went on to compose The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (1966), a little nonsense song for voice and piano. Poking fun at his own serial principles, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat is a delightfully witty small gem, resulting in a lovely caricature of the composer and his wife Vera.

As we commemorate Stravinsky and his peerless impact on the music written in the course of the twentieth and the twenty first centuries, we should keep on discovering his oeuvre, starting with a reappraisal of his late works. As Stravinsky himself put it to Robert Craft in Conversations (1957), ”Now, I don’t mind my music going on trial, for if I’m to keep my position as a promising young composer I must accept that.”

In memoriam.

© Jari Kallio

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