For music scholar Maureen Carr, there is no doubt: Igor Stravinsky is the most important composer of the 20th century. The distinguished professor of music at the Penn State School of Music, Carr sees the Russian composer as a daring innovator who pushed the avant-garde with the earthy polyrhythms of The Rite of Spring (1913) and then veered in a seemingly unlikely direction, finding the new in the old with his immersion in neo-classicism. Unlike some composers whose fame rests on just few works or whose inspiration faded later in their lives, Stravinsky managed to sustain his extraordinary creativity for more than 60 years, exploring a vibrant range of musical styles.
“It’s hard to identify,” said Carr, whose books include After the Rite: Stravinsky’s Path to Neoclassicism (1914-1925). “But he has a thumbprint that he imposes on all of his works, where the minute you hear it, you say, ‘That must be Stravinsky.’ ”
Over the next five months, Symphony Center audiences will have the opportunity to experience an unusually rich cross-section of Stravinsky’s works, including a Chicago Symphony Orchestra collaboration May 30-31 and June 1 with the Joffrey Ballet. The programs begin Feb. 24 when Italian pianist Beatrice Rana presents a transcription of Stravinsky’s famed 1910 ballet, The Firebird, as part of the Symphony Center Presents’ Piano Series. Guido Agosti (1901-1989) created this solo version in 1928, and dedicated it to the noted Italian pianist and piano teacher Ferruccio Busoni.
The informal Stravinsky series continues with the CSO performing the following works:
May 9-11, Apollon musagète, conducted by Riccardo Muti. For this 1928 ballet, commissioned by the Library of Congress and underwritten by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Stravinsky turned to Greek mythology. The semi-narrative work focuses on Apollo, the god of music, who is visited by three muses: Terpsichore, dance and song; Polyhymnia, mime, and Calliope, poetry. Although choreography accompanied the work’s Washington, D.C., premiere, it has largely been forgotten. A second version choreographed by George Balanchine (then 24) for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes went on to become a much-revived classic, with such major stars as Mikhail Baryshnikov taking the lead role. The ballet’s serene music draws on French music from the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly that of Jean-Baptiste Lully. “The next book I’m writing is called After Apollo,” Carr said. “Why? Because in some of the pieces of the time, he was self-quoting patterns from Apollon, which surprised me. I hadn’t found Stravinsky quoting himself that often.”
May 9-11, Suite from The Firebird, Muti, conductor. This work, Stravinsky’s first of three collaborations with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, proved to be an instant success and catapulted the composer onto the international scene. According to Carr, the work borrows some melodic motives from his Funeral Song, which Stravinsky wrote in 1908 as a memorial to his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. (The score was lost after its first performance in 1909 and was only rediscovered in 2015.) But in this ballet, the composer goes even further in exploring an advanced harmonic language and finding his own distinctive voice. “It really did put him on the map,” Carr said. “It’s cohesive harmonically and melodically, but it’s also so free. He kind of freed himself from where he was with Rimsky-Korsakov and the Funeral Song.”
May 30-31 and June 1, Concerto in E Flat, Dumbarton Oaks, conducted by Matthias Pintscher, and featuring the Joffrey Ballet. One of Stravinsky’s two chamber concertos, this 1937-38 work was commissioned by the American benefactors Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss for their 30th wedding anniversary. It’s named after a Georgetown estate owned by the couple. Inspired by J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, it was the last piece he wrote in Europe before emigrating to the United States in September 1939, and it came at unhappy time for the composer. Hospitalized with tuberculosis, Stravinsky was unable to lead the American premiere in May 1938. That task fell to celebrated French conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger, who had arranged the commission. The composer’s daughter died later that year of tuberculosis, and the disease took the life of his wife three months later in March 1939.
May 30-31 and June 1, Suite from Pulcinella, Pintscher, conductor, with the Joffrey Ballet. One of Stravinsky’s earliest examples of neo-classicism, the 1920 one-act ballet was another of the works commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. It is based on an 18th-century play featuring Pulcinella, a stock character from Italy’s commedia dell’arte. At Diaghilev’s behest, the score draws on 18th-century music once believed to have been written by Giovanni Pergolesi (an attribution that is now doubted), but Stravinsky updated it and infused it with his own contemporary voice. “Some of his settings are not so radical in Pulcinella, but the most radical one of all [Tarantella] includes some very radical ideas,” she said. Stravinsky created a suite from the ballet in 1922 and revised it in 1949. It is this second version that the Chicago Symphony will perform at these concerts.