The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. His career spanned from the early 20th century, when he composed ballets inspired by Russian myth and the era’s revived interest in distinctly Russian culture, to the experimentation in compositional styles that followed the Second World War. Though born in the 19th century, he lived and worked long enough to see his works inspire progressive rock music, just as he himself had been inspired by earlier masters like Bach and Tchaikovsky. His importance in the history of music is unquestionable.
John Heiss is an active composer, conductor, flutist, and teacher. He is the Director of the Contemporary Ensemble at New England Conservatory, where he teaches in the flute, chamber music, composition, music history, and music theory departments.
Simply Charly: Stravinsky was a student of the great Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov. Can you tell us the state of Russian music at the time, as practiced by Rimsky-Korsakov and others of his ilk?
John Heiss: Well, I think we were talking about the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s when there was a tremendous explosion of Russian musical culture, particularly in classical music. And you had what was called The Russian Five: Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, Borodin, Balakirev, and Mussorgsky. And, of course, the grandfather of them all was Tchaikovsky, who had been somewhat more Western in the music that he wrote.
But those other five constituted a new, national school that developed with as much force, color, uniqueness, individuality, and originality as could have been expected at the end of the 19th century; when German musical thinking and, to a degree, French, English or Italian were the predominant musical cultures in Europe. And here come the Russians.
SC: Like Picasso, Stravinsky’s career developed in phases or periods. Can you outline those distinct phases for us?
JH: Sure. For Stravinsky, there are three distinct, creative phases. This is not so much biographical as it is artistic. Firebird came in 1910 and was followed immediately by Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, and in the middle of all of that, he finished an opera called The Nightingale. And then, there were some other dramatic works into the mid-teens.
And so we call this his early Russian period when the native folklore that he grew up with, and that was so embossed into his soul was just oozing out of every pore. And he wrote a lot of music in that period, all of it dramatic, highly colorful, mainly for very large ensembles and rather large pieces.
Then, of course, the war came in 1914, and by 1916 and 1917, most of his financial resources had dried up. There were no commissions or performance opportunities. And he investigated another phase, out of the want of an adequate economy. He was able to write chamber music much more; that began probably with L’Histoire du Soldat, A Soldier’s Tale, in 1918. And if you don’t count that, then you certainly have to think about Pulcinella of 1919.
Stravinsky also started to show interest in the music of the classical, Western past rather than folk music. And so, this commenced the period that we call the neoclassic phase of Stravinsky’s music, where the classical composers of the past had become the sources of inspiration for him. And that runs all the way to 1951, with many major works and by far the largest of his three periods, in terms of quantity of pieces and length of time.
It’s a thirty-three-year period from 1918 until 1951. And one of the culminating works is, of course, the famous Symphony of Psalms of 1930. And probably the other work that stands the most important, at least to those of us who know the piece well, is his opera, The Rake’s Progress, which he worked on from 1948 to 1951. And that is the last work in which this neoclassic flavor in Stravinsky’s music is fully expressed.
Then comes a different period. Schönberg had died in 1951, and Stravinsky began to get interested in the twelve-tone and more fully chromatic methods that Schönberg had been espousing already for thirty years at that point. And Stravinsky changed, little by little, to the point where he was using, finally, a twelve-tone method in his great ballet, Agon, from 1957.
So one would say that his third period, really, is 1952 to 1966. That is the period of the late works, which are very beautifully austere and ritualistic, and they are based on a twelve-tone method. However, I think they have very great appeal and a lot of harmony, a real sense of ritual, and a kind of quiet beauty, as we hope all music has, and as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music also had.
But Stravinsky sounds much more like himself than like any German composer or his rival, Schönberg. They’re really very, very different. So, to sum it up, it’s the early period—you can even say 1906, although he considered himself still a student at that time—1906 to 1918, then 1919 to 1951, and then 1952 to 1966.
In having these three phases, Stravinsky really traversed territory that was covered by all of his contemporaries. There were the three primary strands in the 20th century: folk music influence; the neoclassic music influence, where still some kind of tonality reigned and lasted, although a contemporary kind of tonality; and then, the third element that was tonal chromatic, more cutting edge, avant-garde, atonal and even twelve-tone.
It’s said that these are the three major trends in the 20th century, and they do run concurrently in the 20th century. But probably Stravinsky, more than anybody, contributed very significantly to each of these three strands over the course of his lifetime. And as of the time of his death, there weren’t very many composers of whom that could be said.
SC: Stravinsky burst onto the scene with the premiere of his work, the Firebird. How was that received?
JH: Firebird surprised everybody, because, at that point, no one knew what kind of dramatic force and orchestral colors Stravinsky was really capable of, in a large-scale work. He was commissioned to write Firebird and the first words out of his mouth, when he was offered the commission, was that he wasn’t ready yet. He said, “I can’t do that. I don’t know enough, yet, to do it.” But Diaghilev persuaded him that he could do it, would do it, and it would begin immediately. And Stravinsky always obeyed his elders, so he went and got going. And the world premiere of Firebird was a big success for him, an overnight rise to world prominence and world fame. So then Diaghilev went back to him and asked, “Can I have another ballet from you next year?” Stravinsky said, “No. I’m working on my opera.” And Diaghilev said, “Are you working on anything else?” “Well, I wrote three pieces for a solo piano, about the puppet Petrushka.” “What? Could you play those for me?”
Stravinsky plays them. Diaghilev says, “That would make a great ballet. Would you do it right now?” And he offered him ten times the amount of money he’d been offered by the previous commission. So Stravinsky set aside the opera and wrote Petrushka.
You don’t see an advance of a composer’s skill and his language that’s that gigantic between two works that are written one right after the other in one year’s distance. So Petrushka, in 1911, furthered his reputation, and I think everyone already knew, at that time, judging by what I read from the writings of that time, that Petrushka was the more original, the more highly personal. Stravinsky himself identified with Petrushka, a small, wiry puppet that was manipulated by powerful forces he wanted to combat.
In that ballet, Petrushka is represented by the piano, which was Stravinsky’s instrument. And he used to say of Petrushka, “This was the first piece in which I’ve had the full confidence of my inner ear,” and that “Petrushka was the first piece that really represents me, as I think of myself.”
So then comes the finishing of the opera and then The Rite of Spring in 1913, and it’s a very meteoric rise for any composer to make in three years.
SC: Firebird was commissioned by Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, who was very instrumental in getting Stravinsky the recognition and, ultimately, the fame that he so deserved. Can you describe for us their relationship, how it began, how it developed?
JH: Just to tell you what I know, is that he found Stravinsky through Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. There was a composer, I think, Lyadov, who failed to deliver Firebird on time, and he was the one who had been originally commissioned. So Diaghilev was in a panic, and Rimsky-Korsakov recommended his student. And Diaghilev went to him and then found out that Stravinsky could deliver Firebird.
That led to a very fruitful relationship. Later, Diaghilev commissioned The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, as well as several other works, and was Stravinsky’s largest and most important patron in the early part of his life.
But one of the things about their relationship that changed, as Stravinsky grew in stature, was that he soon became bigger than Diaghilev. And it was difficult for Diaghilev to accept that Stravinsky was the one, in The Rite of Spring, telling what the movements should be and the exact shape of the action that he wanted to see on stage.
He had, of course, Nicholas Roerich and also Nijinsky to help him with that. But Diaghilev could no longer simply order Stravinsky to do a certain thing; Stravinsky would tell Diaghilev what he was going to do.
There was a famous moment, by the way, in their lives, which I think I’ll try to play on the piano, where this chord (plays chord), fantastic chord, was played. Diaghilev went to Stravinsky and asked, “How is The Rite of Spring coming?” Stravinsky and another pianist doing four-hand, I think, sat down and started to play as much of the score as had then been composed.
As they were pounding away on that chord, Diaghilev, after two bars, came up, tapped Stravinsky on the shoulder, and asked, “Does that go on a long time, like that?”
And Stravinsky looked right up to him and said, “Very long, my dear.”
So that’s a little symbol of their changing relationship. They remained compatible and close, in spite of the frictions that they felt. And I think the most bothersome aspect of it was that Stravinsky was tiny and younger, and Diaghilev had discovered him. And what do you know, the person I discovered has now eclipsed me. How can I handle this? That’s not easy, I suppose, for somebody with the kind of power and genius that Diaghilev had, to accept a lower status, but that’s what he had to do.
SC: The premiere in 1913, of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, caused a furor, resulting in a riot. What was it about The Rite of Spring that made it such a groundbreaking work?
JH: Well, The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. And it was a piece richly expected by its audience to be a further development of the color, the lushness, and the beauty of the two previous ballets, Petrushka and Firebird. But it was a different kind of piece.
Stravinsky surprised everybody with a piece that was much more violent, earthy, and, in a certain sense, banal and crude, but also expressively and artistically incredibly powerful with the driving rhythms, the cross-rhythm accents, and the rich, distant harmonies. And dancing that was path-breaking.
The audience saw things, emotions, that were very body-oriented, not much in the way of costumes—skin-tight, pink covers for those bodies. They looked like they were maybe naked. And a lot of the steps that were made were very crude, according to some standards.
So, the piece hadn’t gotten more than a minute when the audience started to boo. And then there was a general hubbub, quiet, which kept crescendoing. But the noise got so loud, the protest noise—people booing, yelling, other people telling them to shut up—and they were saying, I won’t shut up. Fistfights broke out, with people wrestling in little pockets around the hall. It was an utter kind of chaos, the sort of thing you would never expect to see at any kind of concert performance.
The music was drowned out by the noise of the audience, if you can imagine that because The Rite of Spring is a fairly loud piece. So Stravinsky rushed backstage and, in his own memoirs, tells of listening to his lead dancer and principal choreographer, Nijinsky, counting out the syllables in Russian, because they couldn’t hear the orchestra anymore.
And if you count in Russian, the numbers run to four, five, six or even seven syllables. So he couldn’t keep up with the actual music, and Stravinsky was struck by the irony of Nijinsky trying to do that, and failing at it.
And we know that Stravinsky and Diaghilev were taken out, at the order of the police, in a taxicab, and taken back to their hotel before the piece was halfway through. Stravinsky said it was the angriest moment of his life. He couldn’t understand why there could be such protests.
But looking at it another way, there was a quantum jump in the vitality of Stravinsky’s music and a much higher level of dissonance, noise, and primacy of rhythm than had ever happened in any music before, and especially in music of this size and scope—accompanying a ballet, which is supposed to be a very pretty experience. And it wasn’t.
It’s a great work. The choreography, when I’ve seen it, I’ve always admired; but it was a new moment in the development of the 20th-century musical style.
SC: About the time that Stravinsky was making his mark on the world scene, Arnold Schönberg was marshaling in a new form of music called serialism. What did Stravinsky think of Schönberg and this new form of music?
JH: They did not like each other, and they did not like each other’s music. And if you are talking about that time period—it’s the nineteen-teens—Schönberg had not yet developed the twelve-tone method. That did not come until 1923.
But in 1908, Schönberg abandoned the key signature and wrote music that today we call free atonal, and so they had a very high awareness of each other and a sense of anxiety about each other.
It’s reported that early on they communicated well, but Schönberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire, his masterpiece, and in 1912 or maybe in 1913, it premiered with a part for sprechstimme, namely a singer who is narrating the text but speaking with a kind of curved rhythm and making the words go up and down to the exact rhythm that the composer notated.
You hear this going on, and it’s marvelous but strange. And at the world premiere sat Stravinsky, a few rows ahead of Schönberg, and listened to about the first seven pieces out of the twenty-one. Then there was a pause, and Stravinsky was offended, and he said this in a fairly loud voice. “Oh, God. I wish that woman would stop talking so I could hear the music.”
And then there was laughter, at a very serious point in the piece, and Schönberg had heard that there was laughter, wanted to know why, and when he found out, was furious. That’s the way the story goes, anyway. I don’t know that I’m telling it with full accuracy. But the beginning of their antipathy came about 1912 or 1913.
Later on, Schönberg took up the twelve-tone method, to try to make his free atonal music a little more, as he saw it, coherent and ordered. I don’t see it that way. I think his free atonal music is great, and, in a way, more instantaneously imagined than the more planned-out, kind of triumphal music that came later.
Schönberg’s twelve-tone development corresponds almost exactly with Stravinsky’s neoclassic development, so you can’t imagine two more separate kinds of trends going on, at the same time. And most of their lives, they tried to keep away from each other. Each one said things about the other which showed what the anxiety level was.
And then Schönberg died in 1951. They lived in Los Angeles, only nine miles away from each other. They were both horrified to find out they lived so close to each other. So one would go to a concert, and the other wouldn’t go. They always wanted to know if the other was going, just trying to avoid each other.
Finally, their wives had the idea that these two men should meet; after all, they’d shared so many trials and tribulations, and had so many successes. So the wives scheduled a dinner, but Schönberg died before the meeting could take place.
It’s not all about Schönberg and Stravinsky now. They were two prominent figures, but there’s another person who was writing great music, right at the same time, and that’s Charles Ives, who lived in Danbury, Connecticut, and wrote masterpieces. And so you could think of it this way: that the Ives Concord Sonata, The Rite of Spring, and Pierrot Lunaire all came within three years of each other.
SC: It’s been said that Stravinsky sometimes had a negative view of conductors, especially how they interpreted his music; and that they were self-serving, in some way. And in one encounter, Stravinsky had some unkind words, as we understand it, for Leonard Bernstein, after conducting The Rite of Spring. Do you have any insight into that?
JH: Well, you know, Lenny, as we all called him—I got to play under him with the Boston Symphony Orchestra one time—was a wonderful person, a profoundly aware and sensitive musician.
Stravinsky felt that there were conductors who sought to do his music on the basis of their own glorification, rather than the elevation of the score. And he was never angry at Bernstein, but he did something very funny, one time. I heard about it because it went all over Manhattan Island in an hour. This was in the mid-sixties, I guess.
Stravinsky was at a performance of The Rite of Spring that Bernstein conducted. Backstage in the green room, after the concert, they met, and Bernstein was bowing down and kissing Stravinsky’s feet. Stravinsky patted him on the head and said, “Very well, Lenny. Very well. But the tempos weren’t right.”
And everybody laughed and gasped, and Bernstein said, “Well, I try to do them the way I feel them,” and Stravinsky apparently said, “But I try to write them the way I feel them.”
And it wasn’t harsh between them, but it was a conversation that got reported all over Manhattan within an hour. The news came right up Broadway. I heard about it that same night.
SC: In the late 1940s, a young composer by the name of Robert Craft entered Stravinsky’s life and remained by his side until Stravinsky’s death in 1971. Tell us about their relationship.
JH: 1948. Craft, a recent graduate of The Juilliard School, had tried his hand at composition, wasn’t pleased with the results, though he was very gifted in his understanding and ability to transmit that understanding for contemporary music, and he had organized a number of contemporary concerts.
He wrote Stravinsky, asking if he could see both the original and the revised score of a very unusual work by Stravinsky, something called Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a piece for winds and brass only, no strings, that had been performed miserably in 1921 at the premiere, and never again. And Stravinsky was making the usual revision.
You know, twenty-six years after you do a piece, you lose a copyright, and if you want to renew the copyright, you can file for it. But what Stravinsky did always, was to take that time interval to rewrite the piece and score it in a more efficient way, as he saw it. And many of his works have a twenty-six-year revision. Symphonies of Winds, composed in 1921, is such a work By 1947, people were aware that Stravinsky was revising that.
It was perceptive of Craft to have seen the importance of that piece because I don’t think anybody knew about the piece or had seen how significant it was. It’s one of Stravinsky’s most significant, wonderful, and important pieces. So Craft, I think, must have had an inkling of that. He wrote Stravinsky, asked to see the scores, and asked if they could ever talk. And Stravinsky, in fact, went so far as to invite Craft to come out to L.A., and they could meet and talk about it because Craft was interested in conducting the first recording.
I don’t know whether he ended up doing that. But they made such a very warm acquaintance, with Craft understanding Stravinsky in a way that not many people did; and Stravinsky finding Craft to be a wonderful helpmate, somebody who could conduct, somebody who could edit, somebody who could represent the younger generation, that Stravinsky soon invited Craft to live in his household.
And in a sense, Craft, Stravinsky, and his wife, Vera, became a kind of family. They were a family. Maybe he was a surrogate son, at some level. But in any event, they loved each other, and they found their work together to be wonderful and nourishing, and it lasted until the end of Stravinsky’s life in 1971. So Stravinsky without Robert Craft is unthinkable.
We owe a great debt to Robert Craft for what he did, because it was selfless, given in the service of a great music and a great master of that music; it helps the vitality of his music grow before the public and helps the composer remain very creative, way beyond the years where some composers can be creative.
SC: How did you come to discover Stravinsky’s music?
JH: The first time I heard a piece by Stravinsky, it was probably Firebird. And it may have been in a music appreciation class that I took in school; tenth grade, I think, or eleventh grade, when I took that course. And I thought it was fabulous.
So I went right out and bought other recordings and found that I loved his music as much as I loved, already at that time, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. And so, as I grew older, I became aware of the quality of Stravinsky’s music, the permanent vitality of it, and its ability to teach you something.
One thing that I’ve always found in my own work, as a conductor and a composer, as a teacher, as a player on the flute, the piano, and the saxophone, is the ability to be precise about articulation, rhythm, the control of time, the ability to make original but very telling harmonies, and the ability to orchestrate well. In that sense, Stravinsky became my teacher. He said he never taught anybody. Oh, he taught many people, and his scores are the lessons.
So he was always a model for me, even in my period of more active jazz playing, which I engaged in through my tenor sax, the big band, and the little band that I led. Not that I knew Stravinsky in person, but his music was so personal and so close to me that I felt that I knew him. And I never thought I’d meet him, of course. He was too much of a legend.
But, he sort of set a standard for me in music and I had a number of heroes in my teens; people who I felt were special, certainly. In my twenties, my idols were President Kennedy, my father, Stravinsky, the baseball player Ted Williams; all the people who excelled at what they did, and who were very humanistic in the same way that our own parents are. I always found Stravinsky to be my mentor, even though I had never met him.
SC: I understand you had a chance to meet Stravinsky. Can you tell us about that?
JH: In graduate school, I decided that I would try to study his music on another level, and to really learn some pieces, maybe write about them. And this came to a culmination when I went to Princeton in the fall of 1965. There was a Stravinsky course that I took, and I think I excelled in it.
He came, and I was invited, as one of the active freelance flutists in New York, to play in the orchestra. And of course, I signed the contract, which I was thrilled to be able to do. And then my teachers told me that the exams for my degree were at the same time as these rehearsals, and that I couldn’t play, which was infuriating to me, and I was going to quit and just play.
They tried to talk me into a different point of view, telling me that I was one of their strong students; that I had come there to engage in their program, and that if I got honors on these exams, as they thought I might, that I would be a top candidate for a good job which they would personally help me find.
And one of them found me the job that I have today, at New England Conservatory. So I decided that I would not play, but I was asked if I could come to rehearsals and listen and then help with my ear—which is sharp for pitch especially—find wrong notes. There would be many wrong notes.
So Edward Cohen, true to his word, came and got me from an exam as it was finishing, walked me over to McCarter Theatre at Princeton, and sat me down in the chair right behind Stravinsky. And that was unbelievable to see him; he was frail, but there was vital energy inside that little body. Big ears that stuck way out. Five beautiful hairs, combed all the way around to the back of his head, and back the other way. And a person of immense vitality when the music started.
He looked old and frail until the music got going, and suddenly his body was up and vibrating. And he was counting a lot, and grunting, and then, whenever there was a rest on a downbeat bar, he would yell, “One,” as if he were in karate class. It was just like this chop that kept happening. He would do it with his hand. And sometimes he wouldn’t say one, but “eins,” in German or “odin” in Russian.
I was so enthralled; seeing him listen to his own work was a tremendous experience… But guess what? There were a lot of wrong notes and many of them scorchers. I had the scores, and I started writing a list of them, as my teacher had asked me to do; I found forty within about a half-hour or an hour of rehearsal.
So I made this list, and my teacher, Cohen, came up to me and asked, “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?”
I said, “Here, take this up there. The horns aren’t transposed right. The bassoons are in the wrong clef. There are sharps missing in the bass and cello parts,” etc. So they took them up to Robert Craft, he corrected a number of pitches, and they started again, after the break. And then, the same things that had sounded pretty bad sounded a little bit better, if I remember it right.
But what happened at the end was the stunner. I got up from my chair, thinking the rehearsal was over and that I’d been privileged to be there. And there was no way in the world I was going to walk over and talk to Stravinsky. I respected him too much. I didn’t want to penetrate his space, and who was I to do that?
I started to walk away, but then I heard, “ahem, ahem,” very throaty and guttural. I turned around, and he was standing and looking at me; he gave me a deep bow and then, with a big grin on this face, pointed his cane at me and said, “Are you the pitch doctor?”
So that was my encounter with Stravinsky. I muttered something like, “I just wanted to get the notes right. I love the notes so much.”
And he said, “Well, thank you so much.”
Later I heard that in New York when they were doing the recording, he had asked somebody if the pitch doctor was going to be there.