In 1914 Igor Stravinsky was in lockdown – not by pandemic, but by the Great War. He had moved with his family to Switzerland, far from the cultural sophistication and starry friendships of his immediate Parisian past. As his circle grew smaller, so did the venues, scale and durations of several of his musical works, though work on the Diaghilev ballet Les Noces continued slowly. There were several songs, easy piano pieces, the Three Pieces for Clarinet and Three Pieces for String Quartet. The enduring work from this time is The Soldier’s Tale, its small forces making the work transportable to most locations. It was a far cry from the instrumental battalions in The Rite of Spring, but a harbinger of what was to come now that his Russian period, indeed the Imperial Russia he knew, was all but over.

Igor Stravinsky in the 1920s
© Public domain

With the end of the war, Diaghilev sought to bring Stravinsky back into the Ballets Russes fold again as house composer. Diaghilev had had recent success in Italy with The Good-humoured Ladies, a ballet by Tommasini based on pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, and in La Boutique fantasque Respighi had made similar use of Rossini. So Diaghilev suggested Stravinsky do something similar with music then assumed to be all by Pergolesi. Reluctant at first, the composer eventually looked at these 18th-century trio sonatas and arias and became an enthusiastic convert to the idea. He later remarked on how little of Pulcinella he had changed melodically, but his typical metrical dislocations and sprinklings of harmonic spice made it all end up sounding like Stravinsky. Much later he saw how significant this was:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look of course – the first of many love-affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror too.” Thus the first step to neoclassicism had been taken.

Pulcinella:

But this turn to the past for materials or inspiration was not entirely new, as Stravinsky would have known Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suite Mozartiana as well as his Variations on a Rococo Theme. But Stravinsky caught the bug to such a degree, and developed the style to such effect that nearly thirty years of his career, varied though its output might be, became labelled “neoclassical”.

The term is a rather omnibus one, and Pulcinella could as well be called “neo-baroque” just as his later ballet Le Baiser de la fée, based on Tchaikovsky, could better be called “neo-romantic”. So what does “neoclassical” mean as applied to Stravinsky? Boris de Schloezer, another Russian exile, first used the word in relation to Stravinsky, when writing of his memorial piece for Debussy, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), perhaps the composer’s most influential work after Sacre. Schloezer referred to its “system of sounds which group themselves according to purely musical affinities” and an “art which does not pursue feeling or emotions”.

A pre-echo there of Stravinsky’s famous claim that “music is by its very nature powerless to express anything at all.” He told a journalist in 1924 “I am more objective than subjective, more constructive than lyrical... I hide behind the work. The public comes into contact with these musical objects and feels emotion, or not.” The composer referred to Symphonies of Wind Instruments as “an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.”

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920)

The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is sometimes seen as the start of the neoclassical period, or a staging post on the way, but Pulcinella and the short opera Mavra (1921-2) are stylistic signposts also. But the Octet (1922-3) is also often referred to as the beginning of neoclassicism in Stravinsky's music. It has a classical title evoking Schubert, uses classical forms such as sonata, variation and fugue, and the composer published an article about it – a sort of formalist manifesto. Its premiere was the first time Stravinsky conducted public, which might account for his nerves. The venue was Paris’ Palais Garnier, its gilded splendour an unlikely setting for a neoclassical piece scored for just flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and two trombones.

Octet (1922)

Stravinsky began to struggle financially at this time as Russia was not part of the Berne Convention, creating problems collecting royalties for Ballets Russes performances of his work, now less frequent anyway. One source of income for the composer was performing, so he brushed up his piano technique and embarked on recitals through the 1920s and '30s, for which he wrote new music for himself and his pianist son Soulima to play. Stravinsky composed at the piano, a piano had featured in Petrushka, and four pianos are required for Les Noces. Eventually his catalogue would feature a host of works for piano solo, piano duets, works for two pianos, for piano and violin, and piano and orchestra. There are also many arrangements to or from piano versions. Even more than his friend Ravel, his worklist is swollen by pieces which exist in more than one guise, even if re-composition is sometimes involved.

As to which is the most significant of all these concert pieces, one authority has no doubt:

“(It) is Stravinsky’s greatest purely instrumental composition, which is to say conceived independently of a plan of dramatic action or stage movement. (He had not) composed music so harmonically spiky and rhythmically orgiastic, of such compactness, propulsive intensity, and polyphonic richness since The Rite of Spring.”

The writer is his close colleague of the US years, Robert Craft, and the piece the Concerto for Two Pianos, which the composer (who indeed rated the piece highly) described as “two (solo) pianos of equal importance which assume a concertante role in relation to one another”.

Concerto for two pianos (1931)

For all the quality of such concert music, it was the theatre that was in Stravinsky’s blood from an early age – he saw the very first production of The Sleeping Beauty before he was ten years old and a sighting of its composer always stayed with him. Ballet scores for Diaghilev from The Firebird to Les Noces provided his rise to European fame, even though he later saw them as the climax and the end of the Russian tradition he inherited. But although his ballet scores later found homes in concert halls, he always defended the aesthetics of good stage presentation. Thus the balletomane probably has a greater claim to be a fully paid-up Stravinskian than the concert-goer. Opera too was the backdrop to his childhood, as his father was principal bass at the Mariinsky Theatre, which was virtually next door to his home. He had already written operatic works (The Nightingale, Renard, Mavra) but his next work in the genre was styled an “opera-oratorio” – Oedipus Rex (1927).

The composer produced several neoclassical works based on classical themes (Persephone, Apollo, Orpheus) but Oedipus, much more opera than oratorio, is one of its composer’s greatest works in any genre. Sophocles’ play was turned into a libretto by Jean Cocteau, with scenes linked by a spoken narration, and soloists and male chorus singing in Latin. The ‘dead language’, an objective narrator to introduce events in the language of the audience, and a chorus commenting on the action but taking no part in it, are all neoclassical distancing mechanisms. Musically it again references the past. Leonard Bernstein, in his Harvard Lectures, nailed the Verdi influence, well before it was known that Stravinsky was such a Verdi lover that he would rearrange tours to take in performances of Verdi operas. The Italian’s influence is heard in the mighty scene for Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife and – though neither yet knows it – his mother.

Oedipus Rex (1926)

Why an “opera-oratorio”? Because for Stravinsky, an oratorio, a static vocal form religious in origin, has un-operatic qualities of ritualistic objectivity central to his concept of drama. Rituals abound in his work, from the Rite of Spring to the peasant wedding rituals of Les Noces, from the funerary ritual of Symphonies of Wind Instruments to the abstract patterns of the late ballet Agon (the classical Greek for a contest). Ritual is another formalising element in his neoclassical aesthetic, and ritual is most at home in religion.

Ewald Dühlberg's set for Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1928)
© Public domain

Of his various works concerned with religious themes, whether Russian Orthodox, Christian, or in the case of Abraham and Isaac, Hebraic, a ritualistic, even incantatory quality is often present. The apotheosis of this is found in another central masterpiece, the Symphony of Psalms (1930), “composed to the glory of God” and “dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on their 50th anniversary”. Stravinsky had become a regular communicant of the Orthodox Church in 1926 and as he once put it “one hopes to worship God with a little art if one has any”. His concern for precision of sonority is again evident here, resulting in a piece for the anniversary of a great symphony orchestra that omits violins and violas.

Symphony of Psalms (1930)

Four years after the premiere of the Symphony of Psalms Stravinsky became a French citizen. But it was America, not France, that was to be his final home. And his final music moved beyond the neoclassical, as he renewed his art yet again. But if he had never written another note after leaving Europe, he would still be regarded as the most influential composer of the 20th century.