updated 12 March 2015
© Columbia records

Igor Stravinsky

Russian composer and conductor, naturalised citizen of USA, born 5 June 1882 in Oranienbaum, near Saint Petersburg; died 6 April 1971 in New York.

Stravinsky grew up in Saint Petersburg in an strict family environment. As a child, he excelled at the piano, showing a particular talent for improvising. His father, a renowned singer, dismissed his son’s early attempts at composing and did not encourage Igor to pursue a career in music, enrolling him instead in law school in 1901. However, the following year, the death of his father and a meeting with Rimski-Korsakov proved to be decisive events for the young composer. Rimski-Korsakov went on to become Stravinsky’s composition professor until his death in 1908, notably bestowing upon Stravinsky a rigorous and inventive approach to orchestration. In 1909, Stravinsky’s work Feux d’artifice was premiered in the presence of Diaghilev. It was Diaghilev, the organiser of concerts of Russian music and founder and impresario of the famous Ballets Russes (which immediately established itself as a major authority on matters of musical taste during this crucial period in 20th century music history), who established the career of the young Stravinsky, commissioning the ballet The Firebird and overseeing its premiere in Paris in 1910, an event which made a celebrity of Stravinsky virtually overnight. The ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring followed; the latter, with Nijinski’s revolutionary choreography, quickly convinced Parisians (despite the uproar that marred its first performance) of Stravinsky’s singular talent. Debussy, notably, immediately recognised it as a work of genius. Moreover, The Rite of Spring marked the birth of “musical primitivism,” an apt musical response to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907); following its premiere, Picasso and Stravinsky became close friends. Nonetheless, the scandal that overshadowed the work’s premiere had a profound affect on Stravinsky, leaving the composer confined to bed with a fever for six weeks.

Following the declaration of war in 1914, borders in Europe were closed. Stravinsky, who had intended to return to Russia, fled to Switzerland, where he encountered Ramuz, a meeting which gave rise to the composition of Renard [The Fox] and The Soldier’s Tale. As resources were limited during the war, modernist composers such as Stravinsky were compelled to write works which were more modest in scale, such as Les Noces.

In 1920, Stravinsky moved to Paris. The Russian Revolution had deprived his family of its wealth (Stravinsky would only return to his native Russia briefly in 1962), obliging the composer to seek employment as a pianist and conductor. His Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments is a testament to Stravinsky’s prosaic day-to-day life during this period. His acquaintance with Cocteau and a tendency among artists at the time to valorise “French levity” in their work encouraged Stravinsky to develop a new, neoclassical style, which first materialised in his ballet Pulcinella. In 1926, a spiritual awakening compelled the composer to rejoin the orthodox church. This gave rise to the composition of several sacred choral works, in which the sombre subject matter is somewhat at odds with the playfulness that characterises his music from this period.

In 1939, Stravinsky immigrated to the United States, where he continued to develop his neoclassical style, culminating in the composition of his only opera, The Rake’s Progress. However, a meeting with conductor Robert Craft in 1948 would prove to be the catalyst for a second abrupt shift in style. Craft convinced Stravinsky that it was no longer reasonable for the composer of The Rite of Spring, in the middle of the 20th century, to cling to neoclassicism while largely ignoring serialism. In subsequent works, Stravinsky adopted an idiomatic form of serialism which was lively, mischievous, but sometimes also restrained in style — harking back to the economy of means and the asceticism of Webern — while at the same time seeking a renewed sense of mysticism.

His late music, marked by a preoccupation with themes of death, largely comprises sombre, religiously-inspired works, such as Requiem Canticles, or mournful homages to recently deceased friends or contemporaries, e.g., “In memoriam” T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley.

A truly multi-faceted composer, Stravinsky nonetheless retained his unique identity throughout his various stylistic periods. He successfully adapted to the growing “industry of culture,” and until his death, was playing an active role in the recording of the majority of his works, thereby ensuring the solidity and permanence of his musical legacy. Following his death in April 1971, he was buried in Venice next to Diaghilev, who had played such a pivotal role in the composer’s destiny.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2015

By Jacques Amblard

Theodor Adorno, writing in the early 1940s, identified two composers as the leading lights of “new music”: Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Of the two, the former certainly became the more influential as a composer-theorist, attracting criticism from “anti-intellectualists,” as Adorno observes.1 Schoenberg set Stravinsky’s trademark bold and obstinately repetitive collage — a violent, popular, even simple, vision of musical modernity — into sharp relief. Taking up the opposition between Apollonian and Dionysian art established in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), one might say that the Viennese composer, with his perfected method of twelve-tone composition, played Apollo in the century of science, while the Russian embodied the sensual Dionysius.

Stravinsky’s great achievement — a work of his youth no less — made an indelible mark. It is a canonical milestone of music history. The year 1913 brought the demise of the Belle Époque, the wreck of the Titanic, the augurs of the Great War, and music’s entrance into modernity — definitively and with solemnity — by means of a ritual sacrifice, a Rite, not only of Spring, but of the Twentieth Century, of the history of musical “evolution,” and of Stravinsky himself. He created a revolution through a work that was both necessary and sufficient. It was a vortex, hypnotically violent, stabilized through repetition. The Rite of Spring is a rhythmic rebirth of the orchestra — a summit of sonic power, by any definition. It gave rise to another rebirth, that of aesthetics more broadly.

Centripetal Force

“Order has been attained, and there is nothing more to be said,” wrote the Russian composer.2 Order? By this he means rhythm. Rhythm is what makes Stravinsky’s style (and it is a matter of style and not procedure, as is the case with Schoenberg, as Boris de Schloezer affirms3). Stravinsky’s style features pulsations in a forte dynamic and accents in novel, seemingly unpredictable places. The resulting dance is at once regular yet incalculable, grinding yet unsteady, and thereby modern. This dancelike style came to blossom over the course of three ballets. To apply the opposition between “smooth time” and “striated time” proposed by Pierre Boulez,4 one might describe the Debussy-like Firebird as “smooth” and Petrushka as “striated.” The Rite of Spring, however, explodes out of nowhere in syncopated eighth notes. Ever since, it has become a popular idea that the most fundamental element of music is rhythm. But this idea (since defended in the work and pedagogy of Carl Orff) is born out of the Rite. In isolating and magnifying rhythm, in rediscovering the trance of ancient, magical practices, Stravinsky translates the primitivism of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) into music. This earned him the interest, and later friendship, of Pablo Picasso. They viewed one another as the twinned musical and pictural avatars of a common aesthetic movement and moment in history. The novelty Stravinsky offered — pleasure, ritual, bacchanalia — was easily grasped by his contemporaries.

Stravinsky dissolved key components of music: tonality (in part) and thematicism (especially). The famously “atonal” Viennese did away with most components of musical organization, including pulse, leaving only twelve-tone temperament. But Stravinsky took a more popular and consensual route. He preserved the sense of pulse. In fact, more than preserve it, he revealed it.

This is encapsulated by the “Rite of Spring chord,” a symbol of modernist revolt. The orchestra mechanically repeats this collection of notes, as if in trance, at the beginning of the “Augurs of Spring” in Scene 1 of the ballet. The obstinate repetition of this aggregate magnifies pulse. This ostinato would give rise to one of the most influential, even foundational, tools of twentieth-century music.

This aggregate is, moreover, polytonal. Stravinsky put forward, for an age at last ready for it, the polytonalities ventured in isolation by Charles Ives and by Schoenberg in Verklärte Nacht, op. 4. Stravinsky superposes a tonic triad on F-flat with the dominant seventh of A-flat and repeats them in a dissonant collage (in a truly cubist sense). Neutralized by the abrasive polytonality, what is heard is no longer a chord but a timbre. Eluding melody, Stravinsky fuses harmony and timbre together in the service of rhythm.

Standing apart from Viennese modernity, Stravinsky’s modernity proposes two simplifications: a vertical concentration of one chord on top of another (collage), and a horizontal distillation by means of mechanical repetition (ostinato). It seems that Stravinsky would have agreed with Erik Satie’s intuition that, in the twentieth century, advancement could come by means of subtraction.

It is not hard to find this advance in Stravinsky’s orchestral tutti. The earliest modern ideas of “der kleine Modernsky” (as Schoenberg called Stravinsky in the sung text of his Three Satires, op. 28, 1925) resemble political revolt, with reinforced brass and percussion, fortissimo. This orchestral march would intensify, crescendo, in the first three ballets. But it had already begun in Feux d’artifice, which impressed Sergei Diaghilev and swept him into the procession, as it were. The famed impresario of the Ballets Russes was co-author and flag-bearer of this national demonstration, shepherding the young and unknown Stravinsky toward his Rite.

But after a Parisian critic had mocked that “massacre of eardrums” [translator’s note: the French, “le massacre du tympan,” is a pun on the French title Le Sacre du printemps], was Stravinsky spent? Did he have any further resources left for surprising his audience? Writers of music history and discography have suggested that he, only in his thirties, had said everything he could possibly say.5 His achievement seemed irreplicable — unless he were to sacrifice himself. The Rite, as a sacrifice, was an act of destruction, a killing of the orchestra and of the canon.6 The work appears as an epitome or even an apocalypse, in the sense of revelation and of end.

1914: A New “Irony”

As World War I broke out, Stravinsky discovered the Schoenberg of Pierrot lunaire. This piece was a rather more modest Dionysius, scaled for chamber music. The new model was timely given the wartime drought of available musicians, even in neutral Switzerland where Stravinsky was residing. Previously, though he had already written abundantly for the piano (or for voice with piano accompaniment), his compositions were still in the vein of Debussy or even (in his earliest works) Tchaikovsky. The war imposed ergonomic efficiency, and thus Stravinsky stripped down his “grand style” for the salon.

He employed polytonality and ostinatos in his Three Pieces for String Quartet, as well as in vocal works accompanied by small ensembles based on texts or translations by his new accomplice, Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (a nationalist writer, as representative of Switzerland in his time as Ernest Hemingway was of the United States). These vocal pieces include Berceuses du chat, Renard, A Soldier’s Tale, and Les Noces, the summit of these “crucial years,” as André Boucourechliev described them.7 Like Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, Les Noces makes use of traditional Russian songs (popievka), participating in the widespread movement among composers in the early twentieth century to revisit regional and national folkloric traditions.

From 1914 onwards, Stravinsky’s writing would become increasingly dominated by a contrapuntal ostinato organized in strata, which in turn engendered a form structured around each stratum’s central notes.8 Such ostinatos were already present in Petrushka, and they saturated the Introduction of the Rite. Each instrument contributes its own “territorial ritornello,” as has been described elsewhere with regard to Edgard Varèse. Each stratum has two or three elements that repeat, in an apparently aleatoric way, like an animal performing its mating ritual; the ritornelli are thus reterritorialized to their “savage” origins (the realm of not-yet-music, as Gilles Deleuze puts it).9

In the wartime works, this poly-ostinato is subtle, sometimes minimal. When the devil in A Soldier’s Tale recites “ça… va… bien-pour-le-mo-ment” (it’s… alright… for the moment), Stravinsky opts for a bare, skeletal structure: the work is reduced to chanting (not even sung), set to rhythm by a meager tziganerie (pizzicato in the bass and violin, not even bowed), and a simple “oom-pah” ostinato (not even varied). The obstinance is regressive, childlike (even explicitly in some titles, such as “Dodo,”10 the third movement of Berceuses du chat), more humorous than cacophonous. “Igor’s eccentric gestures”11 begin in the Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914). They are spare and economical — but, as Sigmund Freud wrote in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), economy and humor go hand in hand.

These reduced ensembles show a new preference for wind instruments, including brass. The resulting metallic sound-world is less forceful than ironic. But through strict organization of time, this sound-world is still linked to Stravinsky’s earlier work (recall from above, “order has been attained”). The timbre of the cornet in A Soldier’s Tale is irreverent, antimilitaristic. It manifests the rebellious spirit of a composer who had, in 1904, titled a work “How the Mushrooms Went to War.” The cornet quacks, chatters, and grates against the trombone in a semitone cluster that creates the sense that the music is out-of-tune — which is precisely what the skeptical public heard. This new Stravinskian cluster is populist, unlike those of Béla Bartók or Varèse, who nonetheless soon imitated the clusters of the Rite to generate timbres. The trombone is thus thrust into twentieth-century chamber music, as Mark Robert Williams notes, here, in Ragtime, and subsequently in the Octet, to deadpan effect. For Wolfgang Burde,12 this sense of humor took seed in Petrushka and would bud little by little, culminating in several works commissioned in the United States during the 1930s and ’40s: Praeludium for jazz band, Tango for piano, Circus Polka for orchestra, Scherzo à la russe for jazz band, and the Ebony Concerto.

Woodwinds and brass overtake the strings, which for Stravinsky were too susceptible to Romanticism. He had adopted a manifestly anti-expressive stance: “Music is, by its very nature,” he wrote, “essentially powerless to express anything at all.”13 Violins are the most obvious culprits of what his friend Jean Cocteau described in a characteristically dandyish way as “sentimental blackmail.”14 The public had already shown their ability to do without the string section, especially when they could be seduced by the orchestra’s increasing volume. The Rite had demonstrated this, as would Maurice Ravel in Boléro (1928). The string orchestra of Apollon musagète would be an exception in Stravinsky’s vast output of music for harmonie, fanfare, and even (nominally) circus orchestra. Such popular idioms put forward a Bohemian aesthetic shared by Cocteau and more broadly characteristic of French playfulness, cast in opposition to Germanic seriousness (the French spirit was simultaneously an aesthetic stance against Wagnerism and a political stance against Germans). In the overture to Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, strings are only used for the first and last chord — a clear provocation if ever there was one.

Pursuit of dry timbres became textbook. Even Pierrot lunaire was guilty of Germanic “depth”; Boulez thought that “there was still too much Romanticism, too much tradition, too much of the past in the music of the inventor of the series.”15 Boulez also shunned Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. Even so, Stravinsky prepared the ground for a texture embraced by integral serialism and by art music more broadly from the 1950s forward — timbral pointillism. This texture reached its culmination in Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître and in the dry, precise approach of Olivier Messiaen from 1949 until Couleurs de la Cité céleste. This aesthetic was both conflicted (a “return to order” for Stravinsky, who as late as 1939 still sympathized with Benito Mussolini16) and “comical” (so problematic in Adorno’s view).17 The aesthetic would prevail in Stravinsky’s works from 1914 until his serial period (and sometimes even then).

There was one possible exception: his religious works. In the mid-1920s, alongside his profane irony, Stravinsky experienced an Orthodox Christian awakening. Otche nash (Our Father, for mixed choir), with its triadic chords, was a radical departure from his normal writing. From there followed the Symphony of Psalms, Babel, the Mass, the Canticum Sacrum, and Threni — in which he would again attempt to attenuate his rhythmic style for the voice. Recalling the synchronous quarter-note texture of Bach chorales, or the slow choral measures throughout the music of Messiaen, the choir takes on the voice of the Father in one common intonation and rhythm. Clarity is the order of the day: the choir begins by reciting the text in isorhythmic quarter notes. This recitation, which had previously been exemplified by the devil in A Soldier’s Tale, is turned heavenward forty years later.


Composed in 1919, Pulcinella ostensibly signals the arrival of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. Even as it (at least superficially) marks a rupture with his previous style, this ballet-manifesto further clarifies Stravinsky’s earlier leanings through its timbres, its light irony, and above all its discrepancies and reimagination. If the folkloric popievka is the substrate underpinning the first three ballets and Les Noces, in Pulcinella Stravinsky appropriates art music itself, which he now casts as outdated. Sergei Prokofiev had invented his own themes for his Classical Symphony (1916-1917). But Stravinsky, even more provocatively minimalist, claims simply to de-orchestrate themes written by Baroque composers (including Giovanni Battista Pergolesi). There is something here akin to the insolence of Marcel Duchamp’s act of recycling, two years earlier, in the famous Fontaine (1917), a urinal exhibited upside-down, the foundational work of readymade art.

Neoclassicism also infused Stravinsky’s voice as an arranger, starting with his student exercises and later in, for example, his joint orchestration (with Ravel) of Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and his anti-militaristic transcription of the Marseillaise for solo violin. Both a lover and attacker of national anthems and other such bits of musical populism, the Dadaist Stravinsky seemed to find humor in his Star-Spangled Banner and his distortion of the “Happy Birthday” tune, Greeting Prelude. These arrangements were contradictory; even their aesthetic orderliness is at odds with their disruptive ethos. The first piece led to Stravinsky’s arrest by Boston police in 1941 (just after Pearl Harbor), on the grounds of a law forbidding modifications to the national anthem. Stravinsky thus found the legal limits of his aesthetic of reappropriation, which had crossed into theft, even espionage. He was also taken by surprise when he had to pay out copyright to the authors of “Happy Birthday,” namely the Summy Birchard Music Division, a group of students at Princeton University. He had once already paid out to the author of an urban popular song that he had used for Petrushka. Long before Christian Marclay or the “scratchers” in the early days of hip hop, Stravinsky saw works in found materials. But out of each of these sources, he would produce an organism that would reveal, surrealistically, the nature of the source.

Irreverence, U-turns … Stravinsky looks something like a shrewd trendsetter. At any rate, he was a communication genius, according to Valérie Dufour, who tracked down his “press appearances and interviews that systematically precede his concerts, and the first radio interviews, all of which reflect his constant and serious attention.”18 He may have been among the first stars who, famous from youth and addicted to success, sought constantly to create a splash in their era. Schoenberg, meanwhile, had the relatively good fortune to unleash negative reviews with each new work.19

And yet Pulcinella, the foundational work of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, has been misunderstood: given its framing as an “arrangement,” it is not truly representative of neoclassicism. Stravinsky’s subsequent neoclassicism — that of Oedipus rex, for example — establishes its own language (beyond just timbre), its own code, modern and firmly situated in the twentieth century. The Four Etudes for Orchestra begin with a dissonant interval (a minor ninth, which, emptied of harmony, sounds like an overshot octave). As elsewhere in Stravinsky’s work, but not Pulcinella, the themes, whether borrowed or invented, are shortened and cycled into ostinatos. And finally, using his other tool, polytonality, he superposes the themes in a modernist fashion to create order (and cacophonously to create sarcastic disorder).

Stravinsky’s neoclassical works do more than produce “anti-pathétique allegorical tableaux,” as described by Gianfranco Vinay.20 They rewrite history. When Stravinsky likens his so-called neoclassicism to Bach, the Thomaskantor emerges more youthful than Stravinsky does historical.21 The Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra (“Dumbarton Oaks”) does not so much resemble anything historical as destroy any notion of history. Stravinsky toyed with Bach, revealing the seed of cubism in his music. He highlights the motor, the structure, and the intimate rhythms in Bach’s music, his isorhythmic heartbeat (ostinato), and even his libido, as the Surrealists at that time might have dared imagine.


We have spoken about Stravinsky’s music in terms of rhythm, harmony, and orchestration. What of his melodies? The question concerns most obviously his lyric output — that is, his sole opera The Rake’s Progress (putting to one side the flop that was The Nightingale). Here, his usual economy of means takes a new protean density — in regards to rhythm, orchestration, and now also melody, most notably in Anne and Rakewell’s duet “In a foolish dream,” in the lullaby “Gently, little boat,” and in Anne and Trulove’s duettino “Every wearied body.” Here, conventional dissonances contrast with the angelic voices set in mostly consonant intervals and underlined by the return of the bowed strings — a significant gesture, after such a long absence, more than it would be for any other composer. Alternating or mixing irony with lyricism, Stravinsky gestures toward the twenty-first century, with its economy of expression, its fusions, and its omnivorous ability to digest anything. This approach was no longer neoclassical but postmodern.

The Violin Concerto is marked by traditional isorhythmic ostinatos and neoclassical distortions, but also introduces novel orchestrations in the treble register (see the beginning of the Finale). The third movement fashions this new lyricism within a sparingly dissonant language (as would Messiaen sixty years later, in his last period — see the opening bars of “Demeurer dans l’amour”). These “atonal” melodies, paradoxical fusions, future paradigms of the twenty-first century, are undergirded by string pads to which Stravinsky now yields, rich in meaning and thus reserved for great occasions. He thereby reverses the “shift from the emotional to the functional and objective” that, according to Boris Schwarz, had characterized his use of the violin.22


Stravinsky gradually ceded to serialist pressures, starting with Cantata. According to Eurydice Jousse, in his writings about Movements and Epitaphium, Stravinsky appreciated the “architectural” and “structural” work associated with serialism: again displaying his taste for order. But he knew full well that he would never manage to satisfy the most rigorous serialists.23 His Eight Miniatures continue to use popular materials, maintaining his habitual neoclassical patchwork and dissimulating the underlying twelve-tone grid. The Requiem Canticles open with ethereal quarter notes in the strings — a swansong of the ostinato, a mocking homage to the Rite. Serialism is here made joyful, even as, in principle, it is the enemy of repetition, and therefore of ostinato, not to mention irony.

And so, he gradually pared back his own style. Composing with series meant selecting timbres, spreading them across the instrumentation. The great univocal Stravinsky is gone, in favor of Klangfarbenmelodie. The dynamism, order, remains, but the ostinato is disturbed as repeated notes are replaced with the disjointed intervals of the old Viennese School. This is the case, for example, in the Variations “Aldous Huxley in memoriam” and Introitus.

Stravinsky embarked on his serial period following the advice of his friend Robert Craft. As Dufour recalls, Stravinsky was a strategist, an attentive architect of his own progress.24 “Neoclassicism,” after thirty years of complacency, could no longer pass for modern in the 1950s, and certainly not for contemporary, that is, in step with the post–World War II avant-garde, with its extreme focus on theory. Agon, one of the summits of his serialism, overall maintains Stravinsky’s voice, with the foreground timbres and rhythms reflecting his characteristic sarcastic winds and rhythmic clarity. As a composer sometimes troubled by melodic line (especially once he departed from the Tchaikovskian style of his Symphony No. 1), the series may have offered a somewhat flexible solution.

Surely it is no coincidence that the high point of Stravinsky’s newer output was once again a ballet. This genre had always shaped him as a composer, just as he shaped it. Imagined as though it were a mountain range viewed from afar, Stravinsky’s career might appear like a chain of ballets from which some of the highest peaks stand out: The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, and Agon.

Mixed Reception

What should we make of Stravinsky’s habit of absorbing others’ music into his own? Had Freud shown the faintest interest in music, he might have suggested that by seeking out the pulsating ostinatos coursing through each of his referents, Stravinsky revealed their sexuality: the sexuality of Bach, for example. Or, perhaps he was demonstrating their infantilism. An ostinato can have many significations. Applied to a chord, it becomes ritual and myth. Intoned by a choir, it becomes a rosary. Used with classical motifs, it turns them naïve and absurd (order paradoxically becomes sarcasm). This last case, which Adorno and Boulez strongly criticized, recalls how a child might think of art music. Or perhaps it recalls a forgotten, unconscious memory — an obsessive dream in which pieces of music history repeat.25

Stravinsky seems to make fun of the emerging culture industry’s conception of “classical music” in other ways. He interrogates its obsession with patrimony, its way of boiling down historiography to studies of “genius” musicians whom it greedily interprets (a practice irresistible even to avant-garde composers). And so, Stravinsky, rather than composes, de-composes Pulcinella. Manfred Trojahn, later on, would wonder how a composer could write atonally when “consumer society” besieges everyone with tonality at all times.26 If the culture industry has decided to “stop the progression” of history, then no one will be able to stop it from doing that. Not even the first and greatest enemy of the culture industry (Adorno) could. A pessimistic outlook, to be sure.

The long neoclassical period would have its detractors. Adorno saw in it the victory of “restoration.” Was this Stravinsky diluted, a product of Cocteau’s creation? In his Cock and the Harlequin (1918), Cocteau brushed aside the importance of the Rite, a music of “entrails.” As he later stated, he preferred the comic Mavra (1922), in which Stravinsky, as Cocteau dreamed it, “offers lace” and thus distances himself from the “theatrical mysticism of the Rite.” But perhaps the most subtle enemy of the neoclassical Stravinsky was himself — that is the Stravinsky of the Rite.

Rite of the Rite

The Rite has never ceased to overshadow its more delicate successors. In a Faustian sense, its shrieking primitivism was fatal to other composers and was equally fatal to Stravinsky. No other musical approach (with the exception of the equally controversial twelve-tone method) resonated more powerfully than Stravinsky’s ostinato, which so noisily befitted its era. Ravel’s Boléro became the most popular work of modern music27 simply by stubbornly repeating a melody. Prokofiev, Varèse, and Bartók made repetition a cornerstone in their approaches. Postmodernism kept nothing more modern: obstinate ostinatos occur in the music of Arvo Pärt, in his tintinnabula style begun in 1976, and in that of the American minimalists (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and John Adams), who could more appropriately be called “repetitives.” House and techno, popular starting in 1987 and throughout the 1990s in Chicago and Detroit, relies heavily on ostinato. At the core of these genres is trance, sacred or otherwise — the magical inspiration for the Rite — that monstrous imaginary rhapsody of litanies repeated by the shamans of ancient Russia and still today all across the world (or so the postmodern, globalized planet likes to believe), and especially in the caricatures of African percussion.

Beyond evoking tribal ritual, to what extent is the ostinato a sonic representation of biology — of a heartbeat, or the in-and-out motions of sex? Is it an echo, following Freud, of the authoritarian metapsychology of the twentieth century? Or did Stravinsky achieve the pure Dionysian, a myth so insatiably desired by his hedonistic century? Before reaching the status of a trance, is ostinato simply the act of ritual repetition, the ceaseless reiteration of prayers, from rosaries to mantras? Is repetition inescapable, intrinsic to the human condition, its daily Promethean torture or its Sisyphean myth?

At the same time, the ostinato is futuristic. This futurism combined with primitivism creates an overarching modernist synthesis. It evokes all historical mechanisms, but especially the mechanical “modern times” mocked by Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film of the same title. It is initially promising, but before long it becomes concerning, potentially uncontrollable, an industry threatening to extend itself far beyond even Chaplin’s worries and become nonsensical, then a murderous chain of production, and finally the technological genocide of the Final Solution. Even in 1928, the repeated theme of Boléro itself represented for Ravel a somber world; he viewed it as a work of “non-music.”

Might ostinato also be viewed as reflecting an era haunted by mental illness? America became obsessed with the figure of the psychopath, shaken at the end of the twentieth century by Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the ostinato for the shower scene in Psycho, scored by the Stravinskian composer Bernard Herrmann in 1960, would seem to confirm this notion.

If this discussion of the ostinato seems especially obstinate, it is because the ostinato itself spread like a contagion, from music to thought. Strictly speaking, it is not omnipresent in Stravinsky’s work. He preferred to vary motifs indefinitely, creatively, unrecognizably. Moreover, after 1914, it is generally employed contrapuntally (in the manner of a fugue subject and its variations) more than vertically. But the impression of repetition remains, an impression that is all the more obsessive for being about obsession itself. And impression matters more for reception and memory. What work created more of an impression than the Rite, with its violent, hammered repetitions of a distinct “chord”? Has any subsequent work left a deeper mark?

All these questions only lead to others. Was Stravinsky not tied alongside Schoenberg as the most influential musician of the twentieth century? And does the Rite mark the spring, or the winter, of that century? The work was a pronouncement. It was a brutal ritual, conceived to discourage competing works. It was itself a piece of choreography within an aesthetic ballet. It posed, in 1913, as the finale in the history of the orchestra, by means of a sacrifice, not only of the virgin (as the plot goes) but of the orchestra itself, in its apotheosis. From a Hegelian perspective, the work is about the end of history: it aspired to the Romantic position of the final and incontestable masterwork of Western music. But history would not allow it, nor would Stravinsky himself. He would live nearly sixty more years in ambiguous mourning for the orchestra (or art itself) and its association with grandeur and the absolute. For “great music,” as Adorno wrote in the opening of his Aesthetic Theory, is a perishable good.

1. “Among the reproaches most obstinately repeated by these critics, the most widely spread is that of intellectualism: modern music has its origins in the brain, not in the heart or the ear; it is in no way conceived by the senses, but rather worked out on paper. The inadequacy of these clichés is evident.” Theodor ADORNO, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. MITCHELL and Wesley V. BLOMSTER, New York, Seabury Press, 1973, p. 11. 
2. Igor STRAVINSKY, Chronicle of My Life, London, Victor Gollancz, 1936, p. 92. 
3. Boris DE SCHLOEZER, Igor Stravinsky, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012, p. 91. 
4. Boulez used the terms “striated time” (temps strié) and “pulsed time” (temps pulsé). See Points de repère, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 1981, p. 81. 
5. Such is the anathema of modernism; its need to historicize turns even on itself. 
6. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write, “Music has a thirst for destruction” (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. Brian MASSUMI, Minnesota University Press, 1987, p. 299. 
7. André BOUCOURECHLIEV, Igor Stravinsky, Paris, Librairie Arthème/Fayard, 1982, p. 137. 
8. Gretchen HORLACHER, “The Rhythms of Reiteration: Formal Development in Stravinsky’s Ostinatos,” Music Theory Spectrum: The Journal of the Society for Music Theory 14, no. 2, Autumn 1992, p. 171. 
9. DELEUZE, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 372. 
10. [Translator’s note: dodo is a word French-speaking children and parents use for “sleep.”] 
11. Nicholas MCKAY, “Igor’s Eccentric Gestures: A Semiotic Decoding of Stravinsky’s Syntax with Markedness Theory,” in Musical Semiotics Revisited, ed. Eero TARASTI, Helsinki, International Semiotics Institute, 2003, p. 498. 
12. See Wolfgang BURDE, “Divertierende Musik im kompositorischen Oeuvre Igor Strawinskys,” Musiktheorie 10, no. 1, 1995, p. 57. 
13. STRAVINSKY, Chronicle of My Life, p. 63. However, Jean-Jacques Nattiez reminds us that with the Rite Stravinsky “wanted to ‘express the rise of self-renewing nature’” (il a voulu “exprimer la montée de la nature qui se renouvelle”) (Fondements d’une sémiologie de la musique, Paris, U.G.E., 1975, p. 132). 
14. Jean COCTEAU, The Cock and the Harlequin, in A Call to Order, translated from the French by Rollo H. MYERS, London, Faber and Gwyer, 1926, p. 7 (Le coq et l’Arlequin, Paris, Stock, 1979, p. 47). 
15. Quoted by Esteban BUCH, Le cas Schoenberg, Paris, Gallimard, 2006, p. 276. 
16. As he declared at a lecture at Harvard. Stravinsky detested having been classed “degenerate” and a “revolutionary” in Hans Ziegler’s Entartete Musik exhibition of 1938. See Laure SCHNAPPER, “La musique ‘dégénérée’ sous l’Allemagne nazie,” Raisons politiques 2, no. 14, 2004, p. 173. 
17. Stravinsky’s music, with its regressive and unrelenting ostinato, would consistently and paradoxically get mixed up with the very “comedy it denounced.” ADORNO, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 214. 
18. See Valérie DUFOUR, “Stravinsky stratège? Le compositeur face à l’exégèse de son oeuvre en Europe (1926–34),” Music’s Intellectual History, ed. Zdravko BLAŽEKOVIĆ and Barbara Dobbs MACKENZIE, New York, RILM, 2009, p. 427. 
19. On this subject, see Esteban BUCH, Le Cas Schoenberg (Paris, Gallimard, 2006). 
20. Gianfranco VINAY, “Permanence et transformation du style stravinskien dit ‘néo-classique’ durant les années françaises (1920-1940),” thesis, Paris, École Pratique des Hautes Études, 1996, back cover. 
21. Notwithstanding Adorno’s description of Stravinsky as “restorer” in Philosophy of Modern Music
22. Boris SCHWARZ, “Stravinsky, Dushkin, and the Violin,” in Confronting Stravinsky: Man, Musician, and Modernist, ed. Jann PASLER, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986, p. 302. 
23. Eurydice JOUSSE, “Stravinsky sériel: Les raisons d’une conversion,” in Sillages musicologiques: Hommage à Yves Gérard, ed. Raphaëlle LEGRAND and Philippe BLAY, Paris, Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse (Association du Bureau des Étudiants), 1997, p. 269. 
24. See DUFOUR, “Stravinsky stratège?,” p. 427-442. 
25. This gives rise to a critical moment, a sort of neurotic mirror when the time of the unconscious is confronted with the classical canon: that is to say, the unconscious is confronted with the world of sound, and the time of the unconscious is seen through music, as in Adorno’s reading of Schoenberg: “For him [Schoenberg], the truly new aspect is the changed function of musical expression. It is no longer about feigned passions; instead, the medium of the music contains in itself the real movements of the unconscious — its shocks and traumas.” ADORNO, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 50. 
26. Manfred TROJAHN, “Formebegriff und Zeitgestalt in der ‘Neuen Einfachheit’,” Zur neuen Einfachheit in der Musik, Wien, Universal, 1981, p. 87, § 3. 
27. According to data from the Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique. 

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2015

Catalog sources and details

  • Grove, Oxford University Press, 2007-2009
  • éditions Boosey & Hawkes
  • éditions Schott
  • éditions Chester music
  • éditions Faber music
  • éditions Breitkopf & Härtel

Catalog source(s)

  • Grove, Oxford University Press, 2007-2009
  • éditions Boosey & Hawkes
  • éditions Schott
  • éditions Chester music
  • éditions Faber music
  • éditions Breitkopf & Härtel

Bibliographie sélective

  • André BOUCOURECHLIEV, Igor Stravinsky, Fayard, Paris, 1982.
  • Robert CRAFT, Igor Stravinsky : Chronicle Of A Friendship, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 1994.
  • Robert CRAFT (éd.), Stravinsky, selected correspondence, vol. 1 à 3, Faber and Faber, Londres, 1984.
  • Jonathan CROSS (dir.), The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Jonathan CROSS, The Stravinsky Legacy, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Valérie DUFOUR (éd.), Igor Stravinsky, Confidences sur la musique, propos recueillis (1912-1939), Actes Sud, Arles, 2013.
  • Valérie DUFOUR, Stravinsky et ses exégètes, éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2006.
  • François LESURE, Stravinsky : études et témoignages, Jean-Claude Lattès, Paris, 1982.
  • Jann PASLER (dir.), Confronting Stravinsky : Man, Musician and Modernist, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986.
  • André SCHAEFFNER, Strawinsky, Rieder, Paris, 1931.
  • Joseph N. STRAUS, Stravinsky’s Late Music, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, Robert CRAFT, Souvenirs et commentaires, Gallimard, Paris, 1970.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, Robert CRAFT, Dialogues, Faber and Faber, Londres, 1968.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, Robert CRAFT, Memories and Commentaries, Faber and Faber, Londres, 1960.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, Robert CRAFT, Expositions and Developments, Faber and Faber, Londres, 1962.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, Chronique de ma vie, Denoël-Gonthier, Paris, 2001.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, Poétique musicale, Flammarion, Paris, 2000.
  • Richard TARUSKIN, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996.
  • Pieter C. VAN DEN TOORN, The music of Igor Stravinsky, Yale University Press, 1983.
  • Eric Walter WHITE, Stravinsky, le compositeur et son œuvre, Flammarion, Paris, 1981.
  • Strawinsky : Sein Nachlass. Sein Bild., catalogue d’exposition, Kunstmuseum Basel, 1984.

Discographie sélective

  • Igor STRAVINSKY, « Boulez conducts Stravinsky », 6 cds Deutsche Grammophon, 2010.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, « The ballets », direction : Robert Craft, 6 cds Naxos, 2009.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, « A Portrait », 2 cds Naxos, 2008.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, « Works of Igor Stravinsky », direction : Igor Stravinsky, 22 cds Sony / BMG, 2007.
  • Igor STRAVINSKY, « Bernstein conducts Stravinsky », direction : Leonard Bernstein, 2 cds Deutsche Grammophon, 1995.