Putting Stravinsky in perspective
One of the great scandals of music history was the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ''Le Sacre du printemps'' in Paris in 1913. The riot that greeted the jagged chords and primitive rhythms of the epochal score was partly planned, partly spontaneous. It was the sort of tempestuous reaction to a new piece of music that one can barely imagine occurring today. The event and the piece sealed Stravinsky's name in the pantheon of the legendary.
This year marks the centenary of the composer's birth, and a lot of celebrating has been done -- in concert, in book form, and in recording. In the next few months, several important concerts will be seen on TV or heard on the radio.
The first of several projected volumes of the Stravinsky correspondence has just been printed by Alfred A. Knopf. And CBS Masterworks has released a deluxe 31-record set of what it bills as the complete stereo Stravinsky-conducts-Stravinsky archive.
These efforts at remembering Stravinsky invite several questions: How important a composer was Stravinsky, after all? How much should our knowledge of the man influence our judgment of the composer? How much additional information do we really need about the man, particularly when his views of his music are a part of recorded history?
Robert Craft, Stravinsky's protege and all-purpose amanuensis for so long, began disseminating a carefully controlled image of Stravinsky in the mid-'60s with the fascinating, provocative, witty conversations books, recently reissued in paperback form by the University of California Press (''Conversations with Igor Stravinsky,'' ''Memories and Commentaries,'' and ''Expositions and Development''). The composer was nearing the end of his life, and Craft chose to present an image of him as an urbane, sharp-witted, occasionally tart-tongued pundit and philosopher. But after his death, Lillian Libman's controversial ''And Music at the Close'' painted a radically different picture -- that of a failing musical giant, more content brooding than quipping, an introvert dominated by a Svengali-like Craft.
Later, Craft himself began to disseminate a more realistic, crabby view of the man, particularly in the work he co-authored with Stravinksy's widow, Vera, ''Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents'' (Simon & Schuster, 1978). Suddenly a less amiable, more avaricious man came into view, a man further exemplified in his correspondence, which, I'm afraid, makes for some uninteresting reading for all but the most dedicated Stravinsky scholar.
Editor-annotator Craft does very little to help the reader out. Allusions and references to unexplained events pass by with nary a note. And so many of the replies are missing. In some cases, the correspondence is to the composer, rather than from him, and not having the responses is a source of particular frustration. All the same, the more one knows about the man, the less personally appealing he becomes -- as is the case with Wagner. So one must turn to the music.
The CBS set is the ideal way for anyone who has not collected the entire recorded legacy over the years to acquire most of it, although several key performances are missing -- particularly, and inexcusably, the performance of the 1945 revision of the ''Firebird'' suite.
The records are packaged in 14 two-disk slipcases (for ''The Rake's Progress'' a three-record box), with stunning graphics but very hard-to-read lists of who performs what (reading the labels helps here). The program notes are generally cursory and insufficient, but are printed in English, French, and German. There is also included a record of Stravinsky in rehearsal and talking in general.
A photo book and chronology (with mistakes such as a wrong date for the US premiere of ''Rake''), an index to the contents, and a sequential list of works are included in the package. It is all housed in a sturdy fabric-covered box with an acrylic plastic cover to keep out the dust. The records are pressed in Germany, so the listener who shells out the rather stiff fee for the set is virtually guaranteed quiet pressings.
And what about all this music? After ''Le Sacre,'' Stravinsky stopped being a major influence on the musical scene -- a vital presence, yes, but he became more of a assimilator than a provocateur. His various phases, from the so-called neoclassic through to the aesthetic serialist, produced an astonishing array of rich works of startling creativity, beauty, or both. At random one can cite the ''Symphony in C,'' ''Pulcinella,'' and ''Symphony of Psalms,'' just to mention some of the most remarkable.
Each phase of his life found his basic fascination with rhythm and his unique deployment of the forces he ascribed to himself. These lent a recognizable quality to all his music -- even his most intensely serial efforts.
To have it all at one's disposal makes for a fascinating series of sessions with the phonograph. For in ''Sacre,'' ''Firebird,'' and ''Petrouchka'' one hears the seeds of all of his musical ideas and ideals. His neoclassical music is no less communicative for its basic restraint. There are moments in ''Le Rossignol,'' for instance, that rival anything in ''Sacre'' for sheer mood painting. The world still has not awakened to the beauty and power of his operatic masterpiece ''The Rake's Progress.'' The variety of the music involved -- choral, ballet, operatic, symphonic, chamber -- and the essentially superb quality of each work attest to one of the most consistent composers of the century.
There are still 18 years left to this century, so the verdict cannot be absolutely reached on Stravinsky as the century's most important composer. But surely, there are fewer and fewer composers around who have been able to devise a style, a quality, a ''sound,'' that instantly labels them as unique. Even at his most eclectic - and Stravinsky was quite a sponge -- the music is always intrinsically recognizable. It is not an ethos subscribed to these days by many of our contemporary composers. Even the ''new-tonalists'' are trying merely to sound like someone else. And, until that individualism returns, we have the Stravinsky opus to remind us of what was once expected of a ''contemporary'' composer in an increasingly thorny musical age.