<< Back to Stravinsky Too

Stravinsky and Mozart Studying Stravinksy

by Peter A. Hoyt


In 1953, two years after completing The Rake’s Progress, Igor Stravinsky began searching for a librettist for another operatic project. Robert Craft, the well-read young conductor whom Stravinsky was gradually appropriating as his musical assistant, suggested Dylan Thomas. Although only 39, Thomas was already emerging as an important voice in English poetry. An introductory meeting was arranged, and Thomas arrived with ideas that immediately appealed to Stravinsky. Much encouraged, the poet grew comfortable enough to confess that he knew very little about opera, but liked Puccini. This remark set off an alarm in Stravinsky, whose music was then moving toward the rigorous serial language of Anton Webern rather than the sentimental romanticism of La bohème or Madama Butterfly. According to Craft, the composer immediately attempted to redirect Thomas’s thinking: Stravinsky politely interposed that he also liked Puccini, but “we must first be fond—and more—of Mozart.”

Stravinsky’s emphasis on Mozart may seem remarkable, given that the composer remains most famous for the savage pulsations of The Rite of Spring. Moreover, the comment seems odd because Thomas’s ideas for a libretto had nothing to do with the distant past: he envisaged a drama set in the ruins of a nuclear conflict, in which the survivors forge a new language deprived of abstract concepts. This scenario reflected the urgent anxieties of the cold war, and its contemporary theme would seem to preclude any overt references to the idioms of the 18th century. Indeed, after exploring a Mozartian subject in a Mozartian manner in The Rake’s Progress of 1951, Stravinsky would never again compose in this neoclassical vein. It therefore seems strange that he would urge his collaborator to make Mozart his emotional touchstone.

An understanding of Stravinsky’s thinking may perhaps be found in parallels between the composer and his near-exact contemporaries in literature and in art, James Joyce (1882–1941) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). All three men were once regarded as extreme modernists, yet all used the past as a rich source of allusions. In Ulysses, Joyce assumed that one of modern Dublin’s least distinguished citizens could be as noble as the central character of Homer’s Odyssey: the wanderings of Leopold Bloom mirror those of the ancient hero, with results that can be simultaneously humorous and profoundly moving. Even the language of the novel echoes its own history: one chapter progresses chronologically through the styles of English literature, successively imitating the Anglo-Saxon bards, the Elizabethan playwrights, and a host of authors ranging from Bunyan to Dickens. The simultaneity of past and present is also a fundamental component of Picasso’s cubism, in which an object may be presented from a variety of perspectives, juxtaposing a remembered view with a present appearance. Some of the artist’s most modern canvases are in fact reworkings of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas of 1656. In 1957, Picasso produced 44 variations on Velázquez’s masterpiece.

In Stravinsky’s compositions, the confrontation of old and new takes the form of quotations, paraphrases, and fragmentations of preexistent music. It has long been known that Stravinsky wove folk melodies and street music throughout the three ballets that first catapulted him to fame. It is less observed that The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring also allude to the sophisticated works of Stravinsky’s immediate Russian predecessors, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Balakirev. The resulting compositions are simultaneously naturalistic and artificial: natural because they invoke music that can be encountered in the real world, and artificial because they juxtapose styles never before brought together. As a result, a composition by Stravinsky—like a work by Joyce or Picasso—creates its own reality with its own peculiar logic.

Stravinsky used these methods his entire creative life. The juxtapositions of new and old were perhaps most prominent in such neoclassical works as Pulcinella, which was based on music attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–36), and The Fairy’s Kiss, which drew upon works by Tchaikovsky. Sometimes a quotation is blatantly explicit, as in the fiendishly reworked version of Schubert’s Marche militaire No.1 that Stravinsky placed in his composition for dancing elephants, the Circus Polka. Others reminiscences are so intangible that only a jotting in a sketchbook reveals the origins of a tune. A preliminary exploration of Stravinsky’s sources has been made by the indefatigable Richard Taruskin, whose two-volume study runs to over 1,757 pages.

Such allusions give Stravinsky’s works a depth that can have tremendous emotional impact. For example, Taruskin’s research shows that the 1923 Concerto for piano and winds refers to several works by Tchaikovsky, although these references might seem so fleeting that they would be impossible to detect in concert. In 1962, however, after the New York Philharmonic toured the Soviet Union, Leonard Bernstein reported that Stravinsky’s uncompromising Concerto left the Russian audience in tears. Perhaps no group was better prepared to hear—or intuit—the references to Tchaikovsky, a composer who represented a lost world to the citizens of the U.S.S.R.

It may be significant that Stravinsky, Joyce, and Picasso were all exiles from their native countries: Stravinsky and Picasso were refugees from totalitarian regimes in Russia and Spain, and Joyce had fled from the psychological repression he felt in a colonial and Catholic Ireland. Distance forces an artist into a heightened relationship with the past, and memories become a way to reclaim what has been lost. It is also significant, however, that all three artists had exhibited their modernist techniques prior to their expatriation. Perhaps the ability to conflate the past and present permitted them to survive the dislocations they would subsequently endure.

In his meeting with Stravinsky, Dylan Thomas proposed a drama about human survival. The composer’s injunction to be fond—and more than fond—of Mozart suggests a great insight: the future of an endangered society might hinge upon the strength of its connections to the past. The most enduring connections, of course, flow from the sources of greatest beauty. And it is clear that, for Stravinsky, Mozart represented such a source.

—Copyright © 2011 by Peter A. Hoyt

Download brochure Download festival calendar