The final volume of Stephen Walsh’s biography of Igor Stravinsky has just been published, and it’s really a model of the biographical form. Walsh makes an observation in one of his footnotes about Stravinsky’s legendary musical concision, and compares it unflatteringly to the author’s own wordiness. But the books feel too short rather than too long, in my opinion. Highly recommended.
My review appears in the latest issue of The Nation, without, alas, the headline I asked for above.
The audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was spoiling for a fight. Gathered to hear the much-anticipated Paris premiere of music by Igor Stravinsky, many were determined to stop the performance with a noisy demonstration of their opposition. Shortly after the music began, catcalls and shouts rained down on the performers. The shouts turned into whistles. Someone pounded so loudly with a hammer that the performance broke down completely, and the orchestra had to start again. It’s unlikely that anyone heard much of the controversial music that evening, but scandal-hungry Parisian newspapers still managed to vent their outrage in articles with headlines like "Enough of Stravinsky."
But the story is not as familiar as it sounds. For the year is 1945–not 1913, when the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with its jaggedly displaced accents and eerily inhuman melodies, famously provoked a riot. And the work in question, far from hailing the shock of the new, was an amiable piece of orchestral fluff titled Four Norwegian Moods. Naturally, the protesters were different too. Instead of a bourgeois subscription audience horrified at a musical and visual spectacle, the 1945 protesters were conservatory students incensed at what they considered the reactionary hegemony of Stravinsky. It had been a long thirty years: Igor Stravinsky, once the enfant terrible of the musical world, was now démodé. …