His Thoughts and Music

by Alicja Jarzębska (Author)
©2020 Monographs 390 Pages
Open Access


This book is an attempt at a new interpretation of Stravinsky’s thoughts about music and art, an interpretation made in dialogue with the philosophy of new music and 19th-century artistic ideas. It is also a proposal for a new method of analysing the construction of his musical masterpieces (for example a proposal of new formal sound-units: partons with perceptual invariance), a method in-spired by research into cognitive psychology. Furthermore, in the analysis of Stravinsky’s music, the author emphasises its connection with the Eastern and Western traditions of European culture and links with Plato’s triad of values.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • I. Thoughts about art and music
  • 1. …“the only thing a creator must love is beauty”
  • Aristocratic “Mir iskusstva” and the concept of akmé
  • A Russian in Paris
  • Russian folklore and ‘rejoicing discovery’
  • … to the law of Apollo
  • 2. Affirmation of the idea of beauty in the art of composition
  • Neoclassicism as ideology vs. classicism as beauty
  • The beauty of the ‘architecture’ of musical time
  • Searching for a new and beautiful sound-colour
  • 3. Criticism of romantic philosophy of art
  • Negation of the idea of Art-Religion
  • Musical work as Ausdruck of pantheistic Nature or phenomenon subjugated to the idea of beauty
  • Composer as a priest of the Art-Religion or the good artisan who dreams of achieving the beautiful
  • 4. Criticism of the ideology of progressive art
  • Avant-garde and negation of the idea of beauty
  • Stravinsky and the philosophy of new music
  • 5. Music for theatre and concert music
  • New idea of musical theatre
  • Concert music: musica libera or adhaerēns?
  • 6. Sounds, words and Plato’s triad of values
  • …making the words a part of the music
  • Moral aspect of the selected verbal text
  • … composed to the Glory of God
  • II. The construction of Stravinsky’s music: its perfection and novelty
  • 7. The problem of Stravinsky’s music analysis
  • Analytical method in Stravinsky
  • The cognitive approach to music analysis
  • 8. New formal sound-units: partons with perceptual invariance
  • Stable timbre-colour partons
  • Stable rhythmic pattern partons
  • Stable melic structure partons
  • 9. Stravinsky’s music and the Schoenbergian idea of basic pitch-class set
  • 10. Parton modification
  • 11. Parton montage technique
  • Discontinuous montage of ‘building blocks’
  • New ars contrapuncti
  • 12. Musical composition as ‘unity in variety’
  • The game of similarities and contrasts, stability and change
  • The principle of montage and ‘broken’ symmetry
  • 13. “Chameleon” or stable creative personality
  • Stravinsky’s music in the context of national and progressive art
  • New interpretation of stability and change
  • Select bibliography
  • List of examples
  • Index
  • Series index


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the creative work, views and also biography of Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) are particularly interesting. For some, his music is an example of ‘the beautiful union’ of the rich tradition of European culture, equally a mix of both Eastern and Western. Milan Kundera wrote that:

The most beautiful union between Russian and the West is the work of Stravinsky, which summarises the whole thousand-year history of Western music and at the same time remains in its musical imagination deeply Russian. […] it is precisely his vagabondage through musical history - his conscious, purposeful ‘eclecticism’, gigantic and unmatched - that is his total and incomparable originality.1

For others Stravinsky is a precursor of postmodernism, indicating to new generations of artists ways to further develop their crafts, as suggested, amongst others, by Glenn Watkins and Jonathan Cross2. And for biographers who follow the paths of outstanding artists, this Russian of Polish ancestry3, a citizen of France and then the United States, is an example of a ‘citizen of the world’, European and American, who admittedly always remembered his Russian ‘roots’ and was open to his contemporary artistic ideas, but above all he cultivated the idea of beauty, condemned to exile from the world of art in the twentieth century. For above all, he loved the Mediterranean cradle of European culture and music (according to his will he was buried in Venice). And Witold Lutosławski was convinced that

Stravinsky’s oeuvre is in itself such an immense part of what constitutes the musical content of his era that I sometimes think of and talk about ‘Stravinsky’s era’ as one thinks of and talks about Palestrina’s, Beethoven’s, or Debussy’s era. When ←9 | 10→I contemplate a phenomenon of such dimension, it is difficult not to resort to poetic comparisons: Stravinsky’s creativity is like a mountain rising in the middle of the road that we all have to get past: there is no way to get round it. Surely, therefore, there is no composer of my generation who was not, at one time or another, subject, whether he wanted to or not, to the entrancing influence of Stravinsky’s music.4

However, Stravinsky was not only an outstanding composer and - as a conductor and pianist (performer mainly of his own works) - an active co-creator of musical life. He was also an insightful thinker propagating the original vision of art in his contemporary world, dominated by the slogans of avant-garde or socialist realist art, subordinated to the ideology of totalitarian states. Stravinsky’s music and the views he proclaimed provoked a lively response among his contemporaries: enthusiasm or opposition. His works, praised for their mastery, were a ‘sign of opposition’ to both the screaming avant-garde slogans and propaganda of ‘art for the masses’. The history of his artistic life is a history of struggles to preserve the continuity of the great tradition of European culture, which arose from the idea of beauty and rooted in the Bible.

The shaping of Stravinsky’s views took place at the turn of the century and the first decades of the twentieth century, thus at a particularly turbulent period in the history of European culture, when the basic views on art as well as its relationship with the concept of beauty, goodness, truth, albeit unquestionable for centuries, underwent re-evaluation. Dramatic historical and social events - the Russian Revolution and the First World War - stimulated artists to clearly define their artistic and philosophical views and their place in contemporary culture and society. Revolutionary attitudes in art, identified with the ideology of progress and ‘historical necessity’ clashed with the slogans of nationalism and socialist realism. And the aggressive calls to break with the cultural tradition of previous generations and ‘burn the Louvre’ provoked the defence of traditional ideals and the longing for the exquisite beauty of artworks of old masters.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the young Stravinsky’s aesthetic views and composer métier were shaped in the St. Petersburg artistic milieu (in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s music salon and in the circle of artists gathered around the “Mir iskusstva” magazine), as well as in the artistic atmosphere of Paris fascinated by ‘Russian seasons’ organised by Sergei Diaghilev. During the war (spent in Switzerland), Stravinsky was acquainted with the then published collections of Russian folk lyrics and melodies, which had a significant impact ←10 | 11→on the original development of his compositional technique. At the turn of the twenties, the composer’s artistic attitude was determined by his fascination with the idea of classicism in art, the tradition of Italian music and the idea of counterpoint.

Stravinsky began to proclaim his artistic credo only in the 1920s, at a time when he already enjoyed unquestionable authority in the European musical environment as a creator of masterful and innovative musical works. The views formulated at the time related to the concept of classicism, however, were not a denial of his previous artistic attitude, but a more complete and clearer definition thereof. Contrary to the nineteenth-century tradition and ideas of Vladimir Stasov, in national folklore, in folk tales and stories he was attracted to what was universal and supranational, and in Russian professional creation – to its rooting in the Western European tradition. Understanding the specific structural features of Russian folk poetry (the so-called pribaoutki) and the practice of singing a given verse with a variable accent of syllables (“joyful discovery”), gave him confirmation in his own search for a new way of shaping musical time and modifying repeated sound ideas.

Like the Russian poets, Acmeists and artists from “Mir iskusstva”, he valued, above all, the sensual impression of beauty, perfection of artistic craftsmanship and cultural tradition. He was not interested in ‘newness for newness’ forced by the ideology of progress, nor in the artist’s vision of being an Art-Religion priest (in line with the slogans of romantics and accepted by symbolists). He was close to the idea of akmé, propagated by a group of Russian poets of the ‘silver age’, treating the artist as a traditional master craftsman, who creates beautiful and perfect works-objects. The composer often compared his music to architectural buildings with proportional and balanced shapes.

In the 1920s, after the wartime and revolutionary events that devastated the European culture and the ever louder, aggressive artistic avant-garde manifestos promoting the ideology of progress in art, Stravinsky decidedly opted for the traditional idea of beauty in European culture, for the ‘Apollonian’ art, for continuing noble simplicity in music and compositional craftsmanship (the symbol of which he recognised in the music of Jan Sebastian Bach), for cultivating this grace and sprezzatura, so characteristic of early Italian music. From then until the end of his life, also after adopting the principles of serialism in the 1950s, his music and views he preached comprised a sign of opposition towards the aggressively propagated ideology of progress proclaiming a ‘historic necessity’ for breaking with the heritage of the past. The composer never accepted the concept of Zukunftsmusik (“music of the future”); shortly after his death, the Polish writer and composer Stefan Kisielewski wrote that “Stravinsky had flowed along ←11 | 12→the side of the stream for some dozen years, neglected […] by the creators of the avant-garde.”5

During almost sixty years of the composer’s creative activity, music critics - with great excitement and curiosity - wondered in what new direction his creative imagination would go, and whether new works would change their current views on his style of composing. After almost fifty years following Stravinsky’s death, his music and personality continue to arouse vivid interest and recognition, assigned only to a few characters from the history of music. But now - in the twenty-first century - an attempt is being made to take a new look at his compositional achievements (about 25 hours of music in total) and journalistic output, establish his position in the history of music from the last century and capture his influence on contemporary composers along with the thought of art more clearly6. Stravinsky’s music is still constantly present in concert life, listened to by a wide audience and analysed by musicologists, students and doctoral researchers, discussed at international conferences devoted to his abundant activities.

But despite the extremely abundant literature devoted to Stravinsky’s life7 - well-documented biographies and numerous source materials were published, ←12 | 13→from which it was known where and when he was, what people he met - his aesthetic and theoretical thought was not fully interpreted and remained hidden in the shadow of the philosophy of new music proclaimed by enthusiasts of the avant-garde and the ideology of progress in art. There is also a lack of a study aimed at capturing the relationship between the composer’s views and his composed music and also a lack of a theoretical approach towards his composing method, a theoretical reflection taking into account the so-important - in his creative concept - aspect of the refined, and at the same time, tangible similarity of “sound ideas” (sound-blocks as formal units with perceptual invariance) put together in “musical buildings” with an expressive architectural construction. At the end of the 1980s, Ethan Haimo and Paul Johnson postulated that “We need to develop a convincing stylistic portrait of his music - not only to differentiate between the various periods but to identify the features common to all.”8

This book is, therefore, an attempt at a new interpretation of Stravinsky’s thoughts about music and art, an interpretation made in dialogue with the philosophy of ‘new music’ and nineteenth-century artistic ideas. It is also a proposal for a new method of analysing the construction of his musical masterpieces, a method inspired by cognitivism and cognitive psychology research.


The source literature on Stravinsky’s artistic views is extremely rich; it includes a plethora of press interviews, extensive correspondence (including with eminent authors of twentieth-century music, art and literature), authorial statements-articles, an autobiography, university lectures and a series of conversations with Robert Craft published in the form of a book.

Following the Paris premiere of The Firebird in Paris (1910) and the international successes of Ballets Russes presenting his music, Stravinsky became an important figure in musical life, interesting to readers of not only the music press. From then on, almost to the end of his life, the composer willingly gave interviews, shared comments about his own works and the circumstances of their creation, and also expressed his opinions on more general topics, generally associated with his understanding of the artist’s role in his contemporary world. Scattered over numerous multilingual journals and periodicals, the composer’s statements, published as interviews with journalists, were partly collected and ←13 | 14→published in book form after the composer’s death9. Correspondence10 and selected compositional sketches were also published11.

In the 1920s, Stravinsky began to propagate his artistic views in the form of compact statements-articles. His first original statement was an open letter to Sergei Diaghilev12 (published in “The Times” on 18 October 1921) which, although written on the occasion of the performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty by Ballets Russes, had the intention of promoting the value of classical beauty in contemporary art, interpreted by contemporary critics as a manifestation of an anti-modern attitude. The rank of artistic manifesto also applies, among others, to his first articles, such as Some Ideas About my Octuor (1924)13, O mych ostatnich utworach [About my last works] (1924)14 and statements on the idea of classicism: Avertissement/A Warning (1927)15, Kilka uwag o tzw. neoklasycyzmie [A few remarks about so-called neoclassicism] ←14 | 15→(1927)16, Moja spowiedź muzyczna [My Musical Confession] (1934) published at that time also in the pages of Polish magazine “Muzyka”.

In the 1930s, Stravinsky published an autobiography and gave a series of lectures on his musical poetics at Harvard University. In September 1932, William Aspinwell Bradley – a literary agent of the French publishing house Denoël et Steele – proposed to the then fifty-year-old composer to write an autobiographical book addressed to a wide range of readers17. Stravinsky gladly accepted this project, confessing

For a certain time, I have nourished the idea of writing a book, polemical in character, in collaboration with a friend of mine with whom I am in complete spiritual sympathy.18

In redacting Stravinsky’s memoirs and thoughts about the art of composing, the composer was helped by his longtime friend Walter Nouvel, a music critic associated with Sergei Diaghilev’s circle19. In the introduction to these Chroniques de ma vie20 (published in two volumes in 1935–1936) Stravinsky noted

The aim of this volume is to set down a few recollections connected with various periods of my life. It is equally intended for those interested in my music and in myself. Rather, therefore, than a biography, it will be a simple account of important events side by side with facts of minor consequence: both, however, have a certain significance for me, and I wish to relate them according to the dictates of my memory. […] In numerous interviews I have given, my thoughts, my words, and even facts have often been disfigured to the extent of becoming absolutely unrecognisable. I therefore undertake this task today in order to present to the reader a true picture of myself, and to dissipate the accumulation of misunderstandings that has gathered about both my work and my person.21

The chronological description of his artistic life is intertwined with a presentation of his views on important issues of artistic creativity, including the role of instrumentation and selection of performance techniques in shaping musical ←15 | 16→ideas and construction of a musical piece, the problem of relationship between the work and its performer, the role of choreography in a musical spectacle, etc. Stravinsky’s autobiography has been translated into many languages. The earliest version, issued almost simultaneously with the original French version, were the translations into Spanish22 and English23. In the post-war period, Stravinsky’s autobiography was translated into Italian (1947), German (1958), Russian (1963), Polish (1974). Already in the first reviews, critics emphasised the compatibility of Stravinsky’s views with his music, and the fact that the ‘objective’ tone of those memories focused on the history of his artistic personality rather than personal life events. For example, in January 1936, Boris de Schloezer wrote in his review:

Many artists have bequeathed us their memoirs, autobiographies, reflecting on their art, and, generally, these writings provoke some surprise, offering us a new image of the man. […] This is not the case with Stravinsky: between the music and the writing, there is not the slightest variance. Reading his Chroniques is somewhat like listening to one of his recent compositions: clean, precise, dry […] with emotion scattered here and there but in carefully rationed and chosen terms.24

In turn, in August 1935 Leopoldo Hurtado wrote in the Spanish press:

No autobiography is more external, more «from without» […] than Stravinsky’s, [which contains less than] a milligram of what could be called «inner life». […] All phases of artistic growth and development are described meticulously; the rest consists of mere indications of trips and time: «in such and such a year I worked on such and such a composition».25


At the end of March 1939, Stravinsky received an official invitation (issued by Edward Forbes) to give a series of lectures at Harvard University in the academic year 1939/4026. The composer, suffering from tuberculosis, was then in ←16 | 17→the sanatorium in Sancellemoz and intensively working on a new composition (Symphony in C), but accepted the financially lucrative proposal and a month later confirmed his acceptance of the invitation. He soon began writing the lectures in collaboration with the French composer and music critic Roland-Manuel (1891–1966)27. Paul Valéry looked over the text of the lectures Stravinsky had written and introduced some stylistic corrections28. Russian music critic and philosopher Pierre Souvtchinsky, who knew the musical life of the Soviet Union well at the time, helped Stravinsky prepare the lecture on Russian music29. In his lectures, the composer also referred to Souvtchinsky’s philosophical concepts about musical time (published in the pages of “La Revue Musicale”)30.

Stravinsky’s lectures31, delivered at Harvard University in the first semester of the academic year 1939/40, under the general title Poétique musicale, were published (in French) in 1942 by Harvard University Press, and three years later by the French publishing house Editions le Bon Plaisir in Paris32. The English version ←17 | 18→of Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons (translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl) appeared in 1947 in Cambridge (published by Harvard University Press), as well as in New York (published by Alfred A. Knopf). Darius Milhaud, the author of the preface to the English edition of these lectures, emphasises that

Poetics of Music brings to light the indissoluble relationship between the two aspects of the Steavinskyan temperament: that is, his music and his philosophy. […] is like a searchlight turned by Stravinsky on his own work on one hand, and on music in general on the other. Every new work by this great composer is laden with far-reaching significance. Each one possesses its own structure, its own tonal equilibrium, even its own moral climate. And the painstaking honesty – the craftsmanly exactitude – of each work raises it to the heights of abstract thought and at the same time to that austerity, economy of means, and essential authenticity which characterise the true laying bare of a soul. Igor Stravinsky’s book invites us to follow him into the secret world that is the counterpart to the world of sound he has given us. His very mastery of musical expression finds here an explanation which will be a valuable, though not an indispensable, contribution to a deeper understanding of his work. To know a work - to feel it, to love it - does not necessarily require a knowledge of the inner processes that activate its creator. But when he himself takes the trouble to share with us this inner work, following its various stages, we can then gauge how important such a revelation can be when it is based upon absolute sincerity and intellectual integrity.”33


Almost twenty years after the presentation of his lectures on music poetics at Harvard University, Stravinsky accepted Robert Craft’s proposal (then acting as the composer’s secretary) to conduct a flowing interview and publish it in book form34. These “conversations with Craft” were to be an opportunity to present Stravinsky’s thoughts about his own works, art of composing and the artist’s situation in his contemporary world, and about memories of people he knew, especially composers, painters and literary figures. Over the course of ten years, Craft published six volumes with different titles and heterogeneous content35.

←18 | 19→

Craft provoked the composer to give statements and evoke memories during meals, meetings with friends and during travel when Stravinsky departed from the normal schedule of the day subordinated to the composer’s work. The corrections introduced by Stravinsky on the typescript of the first three volumes testify to the fact that the composer wanted the published statements to reflect his views and intentions as faithfully as possible36. In Expositions and Developments Craft even included Stravinsky’s remark:

The chronology of the latter volume [i.e. An Autobiography] is not always reliable, I regret to say, which is one reason for the current tetralogy of my ‘talk’. Another reason is my wish to speak directly on a number of subjects, and to jump from one to another, without losing time from composition to write a ‘book’. My autobiography and Poetics od Music, both written through other people, incidentally – Walter Nouvel and Roland-Manuel, respectively – are much less like me, in all my faults, than my ‘conversations’; or so I think.37

However, in the subsequent years, the aged composer preferred to devote all his energy to composing, which is why the remaining three volumes are of a ←19 | 20→different nature and have been modified in subsequent editions38. According to Lilian Libman, Stravinsky’s carer in the last years of his life

Stravinsky’s English was certainly pregnant enough to be quoted directly, and in the first two volumes much of its flavour is preserved, but his exact phrasing of an answer or his more lengthy expositions on a topic always sounded better and more literary in languages over whose idiom he had a more complete command then over English. Robert, therefore, created style that he felt conveyed the quality of Stravinsky’s exact expressions. But, being a writer himself, it was bound after a while to become much more his own style. This explains in part why critics have concluded in some instances that since these may not be Stravinsky’s exact words - not sounding like his English – they cannot represent his exact views.39

At the end of his life, the composer summed up his “conversations with Craft” with a sharp remark that the material in the published books “has been enough to certify me as at least a monstre sacre and not just one of the Loch Ness kind”40.


Stravinsky’s music and his artistic views continue to fascinate the next generation of music recipients. Questions are asked about “how and why the music of Igor Stravinsky speaks so powerfully of its age”41. It seems that the extraordinary strength of Stravinsky’s artistic personality is related to the fact that in the times of degradation of the idea of beauty, his music and declared views comprised an affirmation of Plato’s triad of values and a continuation of the European tradition of masterful art rooted in the Bible, while firmly opposed to philosophical concepts of Art-Religion and the ideology of nationalism and progressive art.

←20 | 21→

1 Milan Kundera, Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky, in: Testaments Betrayed, English translation Linda Asher, London: Faber, 1995.

2 Glenn Watkins, Pyramids at the Louvre: Music, Culture, and Collage from Stravinsky to the Postmodernists, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1994; Jonathan Cross, The Stravinsky Legacy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

3 Stravinsky mentions the noble Polish origin of his ancestors in conversations with Robert Craft. “ ‘Stravinsky’ comes from ‘Strava’, the name of a small river, a tributary to the Vistula, in eastern Poland. We were originally called Soulima-Stravinsky – Soulima being the name of another Vistula branch – but when Russia annexed this part of Poland, the Soulima was for some reason dropped. The Soulima-Stravinskys were landowners in eastern Poland, as far back as they can be traced. In the reign of Catherine the Great, they moved from Poland to Russia.” Igor Stravinsky, Robert Craft, Memories and Commentaries, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960, p. 15.

4 Lutosławski, Witold, “On Stravinsky”, in: Lutosławski on Music, edited and translated by Zbigniew Skowron, London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007, p. 204.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (June)
musical aesthetics history of music music analysis new music serial music musical psychology
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 390 pp., 6 fig. col., 96 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Alicja Jarzębska (Author)

Alicja Jarzębska is a musicologist and professor emeritus of the Jagiellonian Uni-versity, Poland. She was the director of the Institute of Musicology from 2002 to 2008. She lectured, among others, at universities in the United States (The State University of New York), Germany (Universität Regensburg), Austria (Universität Salzburg), Italy (Universita di Roma „La Sapienza”), Slovakia (A. Komenski University) and also at the Polish Institute in Moscow.


Title: Stravinsky
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
392 pages