Homage to Stravinsky

By Leonard Bernstein
Written for the London Symphony concert and television broadcast, 6 April 1972



One year ago today the world said goodbye to Igor Stravinsky, the last great father-figure of Western music. In the course of his long and abundantly creative life, Stravinsky produced a highly personal body of work, which seems, paradoxically enough, to sum up and embrace all of music itself-from primitive folk art to highly sophisticated serialism, from rarefied church music to outspoken jazz. His embrace is even more specific: there is an essence of Bach in his music, and of Mozart, and of Tchaikovsky, and of many others-but through some private alchemy, some secret magic, he absorbed all these essences, metamorphosed them, and gave them all back to us shiny-new, original, inimitable.

His textures go from the richest to the leanest; his spirit was both devout and irreverent; his music is at once tender and spiky, emotional but antiromantic; it can be popular and esoteric, nationalistic or intercontinental. In this sense he was probably the most universal composer who ever lived. Tonight we are paying homage to that universality by playing three Stravinsky masterpieces, three works that suggest the extraordinary range of his art.

We begin with The Rite of Spring, that volcanic work which established him as a world figure. It was written in the years just preceding the First World War when Stravinsky was a leader of the avant-garde in Paris, along with Serge Diaghilev and his circle, artists like Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. The opening night of The Right of Spring at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées was one of the most famous scandals of all time, a scandal which resulted in creating a public image of Stravinsky as a revolutionary, iconoclast, enfant terrible, and author of a work that would forever change music, and in the minds of some, possibly destroy it. And this fear existed even among certain serious musicians as well as the fashionable public at the Russian Ballet that memorable evening.

Today, sixty years later, we hear the work very differently: we perceive Stravinsky the magician already deep in this alchemy, turning the past into the future. We hear how basically traditional The Rite of Spring is, how deep are its roots in tonality, in triadic harmony, in Russian nationalism, and even in specific composers such as Scriabin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, and Ravel. But from these roots there emerged a miraculous new creation of such originality and power that still today it shocks and overwhelms us.

By the mid-twenties it had become clear that Stravinsky had not destroyed music; in fact he had become an international leader of new musical thought. His watchword was now neoclassicism, which meant simply that his borrowings from the past had become a conscious and deliberate element of his creative process. The alchemy was not in full swing; and it is this aspect of his art that we celebrate next in our program of homage, by playing the Capriccio for piano and orchestra- a model of his neoclassic style, with its echoes of Bach and Mozart.

But there are elements less classic than Mozart and Bach in the score of Capriccio: especially the ballet style of Tchaikovsky. And other elements less classic still, like a certain French salon atmosphere recalling Chaminade or Offenbach. All these, together with a hint of jazz rhythms, combine to make a piece of delicious artificiality, an essay in wit – and wittiness was something he possessed in quantity, along with an existential sense of the absurd.

The Symphony of Psalms, which will be our closing work tonight, brings us the devotional Stravinsky, the true believer. This choral symphony is undeniably the greatest musical celebration of the religious spirit to have been written in our century. It is his Song of Songs, in which the simple, the complex, and the monumental combine to create a serene Godliness. And yet even here Stravinsky is still "stealing," as he puts it, from Russian Orthodox church music, from Bach, from plainchant–and as always, from himself. But again this genius-alchemist makes every note he writes unmistakably his own. From that brusque opening cord to the utterly pure final cord, not one bar could have been composed by anyone else.

For another four decades after the Symphony of Psalms, Stravinsky went on constantly stealing, and constantly surprising his audiences by what he chose to steal, including the biggest surprise of all: Schoenberg's serialism. The range of his musical embrace was so vast that he not only borrowed from everyone but also composed for everyone: there is Stravinsky for the uninitiated, for the connoisseur, and for everyone in between. In this way he captured the imagination of the whole world. Honors were heaped upon him as upon no other composer of this age-from the Kremlin to the Vatican, from heads of government to Texas cowboys.

It seems fitting that we open tonight's program with The Rite of Spring. Igor Stravinsky was born in the spring and died in the spring. In a sense, he lived his whole life in a springtime of creativity. All his music is springlike, newly budding, rooted in the familiar past, yet fresh and sharp, with the stinging, paradoxical combination of the inevitable and the unexpected. And so this spring evening we celebrate Stravinsky as we celebrate spring itself, like an eternal renewal. We all join, musicians and music-lovers of whatever tastes or persuasions-we all join in homage to our departed musical father.
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