Today is Igor Stravinsky's 100th birth anniversary, and the theme should probably be the "Greeting Prelude," a raucous variation on "Happy Birthday to You" that he composed in 1955 for the 80th birthday of conductor Pierre Monteux. Although the piece ends almost as soon as it begins, it has many of the essential Stravinsky ingredients: a refreshing irreverence and a taste for thematic material that others might find vulgar, rhythmic vitality, bright instrumental color, and a knack for taking other people's work and making it distinctively his own.
Stravinsky dominates the 20th century more thoroughly than any other artist except his friend and sometime collaborator, Pablo Picasso. He was often called a revolutionary, but he denied the charge. "Art is by essence constructive," he said, and it was an accurate description of his own work. He understood instinctively what many artists of the avant-garde have never learned: that originality functions most effectively within a received context; that it grows from inside a work of art and can flourish within any set of conventions; that it does not have to destroy all the structures of the past--although that can happen, if the structures are ready to fall of their own weight.
He came on the scene when music was ready for a change, when the classical forms that evolved in Vienna were near the point of exhaustion and new directions were needed. For more than half a century, beginning with "Firebird" in 1910 and continuing almost until his death in 1971, he explored possible directions from primitivism to neoclassicism with an energy and a sureness of touch found in no other composer, and many others have followed in his path. Music will enter the 21st century bearing the mark of Igor Stravinsky more clearly than that of any other man.
Concert programs have been heavy with Stravinsky's music all season. He is being performed by pianists, symphony orchestras, opera companies, amateur choral societies, string quartets and strange ensembles with such combinations as seven instruments, two actors and a dance ensemble, or four pianists, singers and percussion. Stravinsky could make music of almost anything; one of his unpublished works is scribbled on a poster that he tore from a men's room wall at Harvard University, where he gave the Norton Lectures in 1939. "Do not throw paper towels in toilet," reads the text. Almost any kind of group can perform Stravinsky, because he wrote music in so many diverse forms. Special celebrations of his birthday are being held all over the world--one of the most notable will be an invitation-only concert here in Washington, where Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in a Stravinsky program telecast live to Europe.
Stravinsky's fingerprints can be seen in the smallest fragment of his work, not because he used recognizable formulas but because he had a unique and forceful personality. It permeated everything he did--even when he was rewriting Tchaikovsky in "The Fairy's Kiss" or Pergolesi and others in "Pulcinella," even when he was composing as a follower of Rimsky-Korsakov in "Firebird" or (amazingly) of Schoenberg in the Movements for Piano and Orchestra and other 12-tone works of his later years.
No single composition, no single article and no one-volume book can encompass the variety of Stravinsky's work or the extent of his impact on our century. Many aspects of his art are not found in that remarkably compact sample, the "Greeting Prelude": the raw, massive power of "The Rite of Spring," the pathos in parts of "Petrushka," the grim irony of "The Rake's Progress" or "Oedipus," the jazzy, sardonic tone of "Renard" and "The Soldier's Tale," the contemplative serenity of "Apollo," the Slavic folk roots of "Les Noces," and the religious awe of the "Mass" or the superbly ascetic "Threni." Stravinsky eludes facile summarization, but the "Greeting Prelude" does what can be done in 50 seconds.