Stravinsky's Saliva

sketch of soldier with large hat and a room
Stravinsky Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel Switzerland

Sketches for the suite Histoire du soldat, by Igor Stravinsky.

When Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris in 1913, the audience reacted by cheering, jeering, and arguing with one another, causing such an uproar that they drowned out the orchestra. A Russian born composer who lived in France, Switzerland, and finally America, Stravinsky changed the ears of the world with his pounding, shifting rhythms and prominent dissonances often overlaid on Russian folk themes. While each of his works is unique, "Everything he wrote has his thumbprint on it," says Penn State music theory professor Maureen Carr. "Listen to three seconds of a piece, and you know it's Stravinsky."

In 1992, Carr began studying Stravinsky's neoclassical ballets and operas on Greek subjects, four works that had been neglected by Stravinsky scholars; the primary sources for these works were unavailable until 1986, when the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, opened Stravinsky's papers to researchers. Carr traveled to Switzerland and Paris to examine the composer's sketches—ideas in musical notation that he scribbled down before producing a finished draft of a work. She sifted through other related documents—opera texts, personal correspondence, critics' reviews, and Stravinsky's own philosophical commentaries—in search of clues revealing his compositional process. As she analyzed, Carr found proof that many of the compositional techniques that characterized Stravinsky's earlier Russian works helped generate the operas Oedipus Rex and Persephone, and the ballets Apollo and Orpheus. For example, Apollo was intended to be a diatonic work, based on the major scale; Stravinsky claimed he no longer wished to use melodicpatterns inspired by Russian folk music. But after examining the sketches for the piece, Carr concluded that Stravinsky's past had crept in: She noticed Russian melodic patterns within the frame-work of Apollo. Carr also noticed that the layering of instrumental parts and driving rhythms prominent in The Rite of Spring are also present in Stravinsky's Greek works, only less obviously.

As her research progressed, Carr became more and more interested in the ways that Stravinsky's collaborators influenced his composing. Stravinsky had worked with the French writer Jean Cocteau for the libretto of Oedipus Rex, and with Swiss writer Andre Gide for Persephone. After studying Stravinsky's writings and examining the syllabic patterns used in Greek poetry, Carr concluded that much of Stravinsky's inspiration for composing these works came from the sounds and rhythms of his collaborators' written text. "When I work with words in music, my musical saliva is set in motion by the sounds and rhythms of the syllables," Stravinsky wrote of Oedipus Rex in his book Dialogues. For Persephone, he used a similar method, deriving his pattern of musical accents from Gide's metrical verse. "This accounts for some of his strange phrase lengths," Carr says, explaining that using spoken accents as a basis for accents in music often results in musical irregularities. Her book Multiple Masks, published in 2002 by the University of Nebraska Press, details the compositional process behind these neoclassical works.

musical notes
Stravinsky Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel Switzerland

Sketche for the suite Histoire du soldat, by Igor Stravinsky.

Carr is now examining the sketches of Stravinsky's suite, Histoire du soldat, another less well-known work. Through the generosity of two foundations in Switzerland, she is currently compiling and dating 263 pages of Histoire sketches from various collections. She plans to publish an edition of the Histoire sketches with a detailed commentary.

Carr found Stravinsky's preliminary material in a miscellany of sketchbooks and on scraps of paper scattered through collections in the Swiss cities of Winterthur and Basel. She arranged them in chronological order by analyzing the sketches for a progression of musical ideas and by comparing various stages to the finished manuscript.

She shuffles through a stack of photocopied sketches on her desk. The sketches vary in size, with cross-outs, inkblots, and notes in Russian on most of the pages. "He'd write in one book, then pick up a sheet of paper somewhere else and continue what he was doing," Carr says, gesturing to the other side of the room.

Stravinsky was resourceful, even if he wasn't particularly neat. He often drew his own staff lines on whatever paper happened to be available—even if the paper wasn't completely blank. The early sketches of Histoire begin with evenly spaced notes and measures, which gradually evolve into bunches of crammed-in notes as the composer runs out of space. In many sketches, entire lines are written over and then crossed out. Stravinsky doodled in the margins and drew pictures of stage sets covering entire pages. Carr points to a column of numbers in one margin: "I'm not sure what these are—he might have been balancing his checkbook." She laughs. "Or he might have been adding up the number of beats."

The sketches gradually become neater as Carr approaches the bottom of the chronologically arranged stack. The doodling dwindles, while the lines of legible music become more frequent.

The final versions of Stravinsky's works no longer cause riots: He is now recognized as one of music's greatest innovators of the 20th century, and is sometimes called the musical counterpart to Picasso. Since 1940, when Walt Disney included a sequence from The Rite of Spring in the animated film Fantasia, Stravinsky's popularity has increased. He is a favorite composer among many students in her music theory classes, Carr says, although she finds that most are familiar only with Stravinsky's famous ballets, Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring. She's hoping to change that.

Maureen A. Carr, Ph.D., is a professor of music theory in the School of Music, College of Arts and Architecture, 229 Music Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4412; Her research has been sponsored by Pro Helvetia (Arts Council of Switzerland), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Association of University Women, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, and the College of Arts and Architecture.

Last Updated September 01, 2003