Stravinsky’s musical maxim

June 27, 2006

sketch of Stravinsky by Roger Bourland

Sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Roger Bourland (1971).

One cold, rainy November night in Madison Wisconsin, I decided to listen to an LP that I took from my parents before leaving home: Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka.” I didn’t know the music at all. I knew my Dad listened to the FIREBIRD from time to time, and I heard lots of Shostakovich, but not much Stravinsky. I sat and listened to it with my headphones, looking out at the falling rain from my window on the 13th floor of my dormitory. I got it. I seemed to understand what was going on and thought: “if THIS is what is going on in contemporary classical music, I want to be a part of it.” Two months later I changed from being a poet (i.e. an English major) to a music composition major, although I was a year behind in my studies. I auditioned by playing a movement from a Bach lute suite on the guitar and a piece by Thelonius Monk (“Ugly Beauty”) on the piano, and two of my own compositions (one on the guitar and one on piano). To my sheer joy, I was accepted as a composition major at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and would be studying with Randall Snyder (now at U. Nebraska, Lincoln) and Les Thimmig.

Listening to that piece on that night changed my life. I would not be here now, you would not be reading this had I not listened to that piece at that time and made that decision. I articulate this partially for my own benefit: I bang my head against the wall and shout “music DOES change the world, music DOES change the world!”

I was going through some old boxes and found a treasure trove of old abandoned cassettes (audio, remember?). One had Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the LA Philharmonic performing Stravinsky’s Agon, and the Huxley Variations. During that broadcast was an interview with Stravinsky that I never forgot. I’ve digitized it so that my students and readers can hear it. In this audio clip, Stravinsky is talking about his Variations for Orchestra (Aldous Huxley, in memoriam), which is one of his more far out pieces, and probably the most experimental. Beside his “Requiem Canticles” it is one of his last major works. There are bizarre little sound mosaics in the piece that he described earlier as “the sprinkling of fine glass” (from the original LP recording). He realizes that this piece is likely over the heads of most people, and admits that it mostly “for connoisseurs.” And then, at the end of his interview, he says: “Music is not always ‘to like’: music is also for something much more important than ‘to like’.”

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Interview with Igor Stravinsky recorded from a KUSC broadcast in early 1980s.

And finally, for you hard core Stravinsky fans, look what I found looking for pics of Stravinsky on the internet: a Swedish photographer just happened on this scene, not realizing it was likely the only meeting the two alpha-composers (Jean Sibelius and Stravinsky) ever had.

Stravinsky meets Jean Sibelius

Igor Stravinsky meets Jean Sibelius; photo by Pertti Jenytin.

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