Listening to Stravinsky

Please, I can see your eyes rolling already. Stop that. Sit up, pay attention; this won’t take much of your time.

All the way back in high school, my first forays out of the teenage world of rock-and-roll involved listening to “The Rite Of Spring.” That and Mahler’s 5th (with that amazing trumpet fanfare at the beginning) were what weaned me off of Yes and other art-music wannabees. (Some readers may violently disagree with that last comment. Sorry.)

After getting fully acclimatized to the new sound worlds that opened up, I started digging through the catalogs at the Cleveland Public Library, taking home stacks of LPs and study scores to figure out what was going on.

Stravinsky had a talent for creating the singularly striking sound. I have a friend who is a composer that sometimes works with Mike Post — think of that “bink” in “Law & Order”, that’s him — and he assures me that it’s extremely difficult to come up with a unique and memorable sound.

Here’s a brief example from “The Firebird.” You might need to turn it up to hear the detail of the glassy-sounding violins swooping up and down their strings:
Firebird Excerpt

This is the classic example, the very opening of “Symphony of Psalms.” Once you hear the e-minor chord in the piano, strings and timpani, you’ll recognize it anywhere:
Symphony Of Psalms

Instrumentation and voicing are essential characteristics. In that chord, the third (the G) is lightly scored and only present high up in the voicing, almost like an overtone. The lower octaves are just the strong open fifth of E and B. Playing around with the third of a chord is a hallmark of the entire symphony.

Listen again, and also try to notice how the opening woodwind figures repetitively hover around a narrow range of four or five notes. This kind of writing is almost a defining characteristic of a lot of Stravinsky’s writing.

In addition to the “big three” that made him an international celebrity (“Firebird” and “Petrouchka” being the other two) found myself attracted especially to his later works, from the period roughly 1953 onward, when he adopted serialism.

The basics of serialism, or the twelve-tone technique (technically a subset of serialism, but never mind for now), as they taught us in music school are these:

  1. The composer builds a series of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale
  2. S/he then builds three variations from the original, the retrograde (backwards), the inversion (upside-down, upward steps become downward steps and vice-versa), and the retrograde inversion
  3. The rows can be used in any transposition, but no pitch is repeated until the others have sounded

The interesting thing about this common explanation is how wrong it really is. I suppose Webern probably wrote a few pieces that followed these rules precisely, but I can’t think of anyone else except maybe some sophomore composition majors who would have.

Stravinsky’s method was closely akin to his earlier habit of tighly iterating over a small group of notes, deriving his melody as well as harmony from them. He splits the row into pieces and works with each segment independently.

As examples I’m using the last three movements of his “Requiem Canticles.” Completed in 1966, it was his last significant work. The terseness of it is notable — he called it a “pocket requiem” — and the entire thing lasts maybe 20 minutes. Unlike the full-blown requiem extravaganzas of Verdi or Berlioz, he brews up one- or two-minute long condensed miniatures. This recording, supervised by Stravinsky, dates from October 11, 1966, just three days after the premiere.

The Lacrimosa is a setting for alto, and a few small distinct groups of players. Each stanza begins with a low harp note, followed by a high chord in the flutes. After the vocal section, three muted trombones punctuate. Again, each of these is very short, so take a few minutes to listen!


Each vocal stanza uses just six notes, sometimes alternated to fill out the text:

If you transpose the pitches, you’ll see that what he’s doing is using the same set of six pitches and “rotating” them: moving the first note to the last, he’s able to generate different sets that have the same interval relationships. So there’s unity, without repetition.

He also takes these rotated sections and stacks them on top of each other to form what he called “verticals” (and what we might call the “chords”). The brief trombone motifs each consist of six pitches, which are derived the same way.

The “Libera me” is a striking sound picture. Four soloists, accompanied by the horns, blare out the text. The chorus mumbles the congregational prayer in the background. Stravinsky was Russian Orthodox through and through, with a devotion to its rituals that some of his followers thought bordered on the superstitious. Take away the modernistic harmony and it’s not hard to hear the image of an orthodox priest chanting a litany on a holy day.

Libera me

In program notes for the Cleveland Orchestra’s first performance Peter Laki wrote, “The crown of the entire work, however, is the Postlude, in which large blocks of sonorities played by woodwinds, piano, and harp, alternate with the more fluid harmonic progressions of the celesta, chimes, and vibraphone, which play the role of a set of non-traditional funeral bells. It is hard not to be moved by the last three chords, which end not only this work but stand as a symbolic conclusion of Stravinsky’s entire composing career, which had spanned almost seven decades.”


If you listen to nothing else in this post, take two minutes to listen to the Postlude. It’s hypnotic. And in fact, after this Stravinsky finished just one more work, a two-minute setting of “The Owl and the Pussycat” for piano and voice.

Listening to Stravinsky was probably once thought to be the height of highbrow geekiness. I imagine it still is to a certain degree.

A lot of people have enough trouble with early- or middle-period Stravinsky. But the late stuff is often misunderstood and dismissed, and I think (obviously) unjustifiably so. It’s really very listenable.


For comparison’s sake — and maybe to get you to listen again — here’s an alternate of each from a more recent recording. Maybe it’s familiarity, but I like the 1966 recording better. Particularly the last three chords of the Postlude.

Libera me

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he's also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

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