5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Stravinsky
In the past, we have chosen the approximately five minutes we played to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st century composers, violin, baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, quartets with strings, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussions and symphonies.
Now we want to convince these curious friends to love Igor Stravinsky, perhaps the 20th century’s most extensive and influential composer, and an inspiration for some of George Balanchine’s ballet masterpieces. We hope that you will find a lot here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.
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Xian Zhang, conductor
Thinking of Stravinsky, the first thing that comes to mind is the beginning of the second part of “The Rite of Spring” – “The Sacrifice”. I remember the video Leonard Bernstein made rehearsing it, and its powerful use in Disney’s “Fantasia” as dinosaurs roam the earth. It’s a calm, tense moment after all the before and after decibels. Seeing Bernstein rehearse, and hearing him conduct this passage, highlights what is so special and alive about this part of the score. To my ears, this is the best example of how primitive, intuitive and wild music could be at the turn of the 20th century.
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Mikhail Baryshnikov, dancer
I was 12 in 1960 when I heard this music for the first time. The ballet scores of Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Delibes and many others were already in my bones, but that was all I knew upset. The rhythms were fresh, exciting and totally foreign. The Cuban National Ballet was in Riga, Latvia, my hometown, dancing Balanchine’s “Apollo Musagète”, his first collaboration with Stravinsky and the ballet he later called “his coming of age”. He was 24 and Stravinsky 46. From these two Russian modernists and a troupe of magnificent Cuban dancers came my first heady sniff of the West.
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Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky biographer
Stravinsky’s Concerto in E flat for 15 instruments – still known as “Dumbarton Oaks” after the Washington mansion where it was first performed in 1938 – is wonderfully typical of its so-called neo -classicism, in that it is not at all classical: The model is Bach, and in any case this model is abandoned after the brilliant opening, an obvious crib of the Third Brandenburg Concerto. Stravinsky quickly picks up his own small patterns, plays with them, monkeys rhythm and barlines, and generally teases expectations. The first movement is one of the happiest pieces in modern music. The other two movements are great too, but you can’t have it all.
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Anthony Tommasini, Times Chief Classical Music Critic
After being drawn into decadence and ruin, the young Tom Rakewell, protagonist of Stravinsky’s 1951 opera “The Rake’s Progress”, is interned in an asylum and visited by the always faithful Anne Trulove. She sings him a lullaby, “Gently, little boat,” with lyrics by WH Auden and Chester Kallman – music that is seductive in its simplicity, written for soprano and only two flutes. Between his verses, the other inmates, listening from their cells, sing choral refrains, wondering what these “heavenly stumps” are, bringing comfort to their “tormented brains”. Finally, Anne’s father joins her in a short and solemn duet, a farewell blessing to Tom that takes place on regular and baroque basslines.
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Wendy Whelan, Associate Artistic Director, New York City Ballet
The “Russian Scherzo” is a treasure trove of great rhythms which, like so much of Stravinsky’s music, makes me want to move my body. This miniature piece is bursting with color, flavor and refreshing juxtaposition. I first heard it as a young dancer at the School of American Ballet, where I learned how Balanchine sculpted music into a three-dimensional form. Like his choreography, this music is based on complementary but opposing forces. Elegant and powerful, witty and alive, the piece creates a perfect puzzle of musical ideas. For me, it’s both a music box and a fanfare, played with the precision of a Swiss clock and the flavor of a tasty Russian appetizer. It is a jewel that makes you want more.
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Zachary Woolfe, Times Classical Music Editor
The premise of this ballet-oratorio could hardly be more intimate: everyone is getting ready for a Russian provincial wedding. Yet Stravinsky endowed even the convivial village life with the mysterious and savage beauty of the “Rite of Spring”, which he had written a few years before. Although he considered a huge orchestra the size of a “Rite” for “Les Noces”, he ended up reducing the score to vocals and percussion, including four pianos. The result is both rich and austere, primitive and complex. Drawing on folklore, Stravinsky drew timelessness from the heart of modernism.
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Seth Colter Walls, Times writer
Stravinsky made reference to primitive jazz from 1918, in works like “Ragtime” and “The Soldier’s Story”. But it is in his “Ebony Concerto” – written in 1945 for the group of clarinetist Woody Herman – that he most effectively incorporates American elements. Without pretending to jazz, it honors the modernism inherent in this genre.
Before the clarinet had a chance to shine, Stravinsky showed a flair for dividing the work between the trumpet and reed sections, a riff on swing-era orchestras. The accelerations (and feints) of the first movement suggest an affinity with the bebop of Charlie Parker, who admired Stravinsky. The mixture of sinuous melody and exuberant structure recalls the dancing exuberance of his ballets.
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Greg Tate, writer and musician
Trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes first introduced us to Stravinsky’s wicked and labyrinthine assortment “The Rite of Spring”. But it was the video of the 1975 adaptation of a feverish dream by Tanztheater underworld editor Pina Bausch, a scene covered in soggy earth, that made us understand that “The Rite” made the violence of nature in bloom and sexual assault.
In 2004, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber commissioned Butch Morris to adapt six of the more wicked motifs from the work’s first movement, and then generate a signature studio “conduction”. The result, “The Rites,” speaks to Stravinsky’s darker side: the inner friction between his mastery of the European form and his alienation from Hollywood as a non-Western exile. George Lewis once told us that jazz musicians love “The Rite” because of the amount of “loot” it contained, and Stravinsky loved the blues outside of La La Land. Postmodern blacks can understand – and, with guitars, cellos, Farfisas and turntables, can reboot and re-ovulate Bruh Igor’s funky symphonic mutha.
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Ethan Iverson, pianist
Stravinsky wrote grumpily about his Octet: “In general, I consider music to be able to solve only musical problems, and nothing else. Neither the literary nor the picturesque can have an interest in music. There is no reason to agree, as the central movement of his first neo-classical masterpiece has one of his greatest melodic inspirations, a simple march that seems to be slightly offended by a unspecified affront. As the variations gain momentum, a pair of this most Stravinsky instrument, the bassoon, establishes an irresistible bassline. It’s 1922, baby!
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Patricia Kopatchinskaya, violinist
Hey, Petrushka! What’s up? Have you exchanged the primitive force of the “Rite of Spring” for a baroque costume? How did you get your soldier friend’s violin soul back, which the devil won in a card game? The bow inexorably saws the strings, like a mad tightrope dancer. Delirium! The wind players cackle like chickens; remember the russian muzhik: Your first musical impression in childhood, he was sitting on a tree trunk making indecent noises with his hands. Well, now he’s laughing from the sky – dancing with Bach. Fools, find me a balalaika in New York!
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Joshua Barone, Times Editor
Stravinsky was a Russian. Yet at 88, he was also a Parisian, an Angeleno, a New Yorker. And his music has an equally wide range – even within a specific form like ballet, in which his production includes the explosive “Rite of Spring”, the neoclassical “Apollo” and the serialist “Agon”. He was not a simple chameleon, however. Listen to this movement from the “Symphony of Psalms”: it is an ingeniously designed double fugue with vocal lines that overlap in dense counterpoint and satisfying resolution. But even recalling a much older period in musical history, Stravinsky’s sound is, as always, utterly distinctive and decidedly modern.
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Javier C. Hernández, journalist for classical music and dance at The Times
The “Italian Suite” is a collection of themes from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” ballet, which is partly inspired by Italian Baroque music. While the “Italian Suite” may at first glance seem deceptively traditional, the composer’s irreverent side shines through. In this recording of his last movement by cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (who collaborated with Stravinsky on arrangement) and violinist Jascha Heifetz, the music is initially majestic and restrained, before culminating in euphoric fanfare.
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Béatrice Rana, pianist
The piano transcription of “Petrushka” represents a kind of Everest for a pianist. Not only does this require enormous challenges in terms of virtuosity, but it also demands a whole world of colorful dances and folklore from the hands of one musician. When I started to learn it, I thought that the orchestral score would be my main inspiration, but one day I found an excerpt from Nureyev dancing Petrushka; never had I understood so well the musical portrait of this puppet turned human. These five minutes tell in the most touching way the timeless tragedy of the human spirit.
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David Allen, Times writer
The soaring lyricism is perhaps not the most representative aspect of Stravinsky’s music, although it did have its moments. But there is something haunting about the end of his neo-classical ballet “Apollon Musagète”, which he completed in 1928. Writes for strings, bursts of his characteristic brilliance in the sound, but it is music that seems to float high in the clouds, troubled but free, up there with the gods. There are days when I can fly with it for hours, let alone five minutes.
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