Igor Stravinsky arrived in America in 1939, an émigré of World War II who had lived in Russia, Switzerland, and France. But in truth, Stravinsky had debuted in the United States several decades earlier. By the 1930s, the composer's acerbic musical language had been fully integrated into the sound-world of American modernism, part of the neo-classical vernacular of figures like Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Roy Harris. American students of the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger had studied Stravinsky's scores and attended his performances in Paris, absorbing the composer's musical style as they developed their own. When Copland met Stravinsky in 1921, in one of Boulanger's afternoon classes, he felt himself in the presence of greatness: "I was one of the dozen or more students who stood about in awe of the Master's presence," he later said.
This Sunday's performance by the Cleveland Orchestra at University of North Carolina's Memorial Hall, part of Carolina Performing Arts's "The Rite of Spring at 100" festival, will celebrate the American legacy of that master's presence, featuring music by Copland, Peter Lieberson, and Stravinsky himself. Though The Rite - now only two months away from the centennial of its premiere, on May 29, 1913 - will not resound through the theatre, all of the music performed connects powerfully to that legendary ballet. Copland and Lieberson drew upon the groundbreaking language forged in The Rite, and Stravinsky's Petrushka, with which the concert will conclude, anticipates many aspects of the later ballet.
Of the many Stravinsky-influenced American composers, Copland drew perhaps the most prominently on his older colleague's musical techniques, to the point that he was often referred to in the press as "The American Stravinsky." In his autobiography, co-authored with Vivian Perlis, Copland describes how Stravinsky helped him find his own musical idiom:
He borrowed freely from folk materials, and I have no doubt that this strongly influenced me to try to find a distinctively American music. It was easy to see a parallel between Stravinsky's powerful Slavic rhythmic drive and our American sense of rhythmic ingenuity. The most important thing for me, though, was that Stravinsky proved it was possible for a twentieth-century composer to create his own tradition.
Copland went on to forge his own tradition in works like Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and the cowboy ballet Billy the Kid, which the Cleveland Orchestra will perform. Billy the Kid embodies the distinctive American musical vocabulary that Copland developed, with its rustic, prairie harmonies and lithe polyrhythms that employs the techniques of Stravinsky, drawing on his Franco-Russian vocabulary to depict the open plains of the West. Composed in 1938 for a ballet by Lincoln Kirstein, Billy the Kid incorporates both folk tunes and cowboy songs, weaving them together in the same integrated method that Stravinsky utilized in The Rite. The landscape that Copland's opening conjures is far from the one that introduces the pagan Russia of Stravinsky's ballet, but that piquant combination of winds - oboe, clarinet, and bassoon - is the same fabric employed by the older composer, albeit with more palatable harmonies. Take a listen to both:
Though two generations removed from Stravinsky and Copland, the late composer Peter Lieberson felt the influence of both his elders. Lieberson started off writing twelve-tone music in a manner similar to Stravinsky's late style turn towards serialism - his father, Goddard Lieberson, was the president of Columbia Records and recorded a famous survey of Stravinsky's works - but turned towards a more lush romanticism later in his life. The Neruda Songs, which Lieberson wrote for his wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, meshes naturally with the sound world of Billy the Kid though it lacks Copland's austerity. A year after Lieberson completed the work, Lorraine Hunt died of breast cancer, making the cycle all the more poignant (the final song opens "My love, if I die and you don't"; Lieberson himself passed away in 2011).
In Petrushka, Stravinsky pushed towards the sharply folkloric language of The Rite of Spring. Of the trio of early ballets that launched the composer to fame - The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite - it is Petrushka that is the most joyfully realistic. Though it features the tale of a puppet brought to life, we hear the sounds of the Russian village, the crowds of a shrove-tide fair and the riot of the carnival. Stravinsky leaves the fantasy world of The Firebird behind and embraces the folk tunes and dances that become central to The Rite - though in the latter ballet, he disguises them more deliberately. Hearing Petrushka in a year-long celebration of The Rite provides perspective into the Stravinsky of the early 1910s; introducing that work with American music inflected by Stravinsky's voice offers a panorama of 20th and 21st century modernism. You won't want to miss it.
The Cleveland Orchestra performs on March 17 at Memorial Hall; you can purchase tickets here Upcoming performances in The Rite of Spring at 100 festival include the Joffrey Ballet on March 23 and 24 , and Vijay Iyer, Prashant Bhargava, and the Internatinoal Contemporary Ensemble on March 26. You can learn more about The Rite of Spring at 100 here, and read previous Huffington Post columns on the festival here. Be sure to check out Reflections on the Rite, a blog that discusses what 'The Rite of Spring' means today.
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