16 June 2010

Remembering Stravinsky

On the occasion of Stravinsky's 128th birthday, it seems fitting to reflect briefly on his contributions to music and his famous affair with legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel.

This month American audiences have a chance to get a glimpse into a chapter in Igor Stravinsky's life with Sony Classics' release of Jan Kounen's film "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky," much lauded at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Although the film has come under some criticism for lacking depth and sufficient background development to situate the events behind the affair between these two celebrated historical figures, director Kounen, in collaboration with author Greenhalgh, on whose book Coco and Igor the movie is based, nonetheless seem to have created a film that provides a fitting visual and dramatic landscape to accompany the composer's music, which understandably dominates the soundtrack.

Stravinsky, who was born in Russia on 17 June 1882 and established his career in Switzerland, Paris, and then the United States, firmly believed in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of music in the modernist tradition. In his book Expositions and Developments, he famously commented that when a composer writes music, he only apprehends "the contour of the form, for the form is everything. He can say nothing whatever about meanings."

Ironically, Stravinsky is celebrated for the rhythmic energy and musical intensity of his works. This is especially true in ballets like The Rite of Spring (whose premiere was the scene of the most famous riot in musical history), which he composed under the tutelage of Sergei Diaghilev, the founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes.

While he is known for his ballet music, Stravinsky also wrote 5 operas, including The Rake's Progress, for which W.H. Auden partially wrote the libretto, and The Flood, a 7-part work written for television that aired on CBS on 14 June 1962.

Although like Chanel, Stravinsky was famous as a revolutionary in his day, the significance of his contributions to music and musical aesthetics becomes more remarkable as we realize the lingering impact of his style, theories, and attention to rhythmic structure.

Happy Birthday, Stravinsky!

"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" (2009) recently opened in New York and will be opening soon at Landmark Theatres around the US.

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