Fifty years ago today, on April 6, 1971, at the age of 88, the composer Igor Stravinsky died of a heart attack in New York. He was a musical genius of the twentieth century who did not limit himself — so they said — to turning a page in the history of music; instead, he tore it off.
Born in Russia (at Oranienbaum, today Lomonosov, near St. Petersburg) in 1882, he became a French citizen, then an American citizen. Only when he was twenty, when he was studying law, did he seriously consider his career as a composer. His first works impressed Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929), famous choreographer and founder of the company of the Ballets Russes, the “exotic caravan” which, after a “dizzying march of colors and splendor” in Western Europe, stopped in Paris (M. C., I balletti di Diaghilev al Teatro di Torino, in La Stampa, December 23, 1926). At first, Diaghilev has Stravinsky orchestrate two piano works by Chopin for the ballet Les Sylphides; then, he asked him to compose a new ballet: The Firebird, which the Parisian audience warmly welcomed in 1910. This fable was followed by the Parisian performances of the ballets Petrushka (1911), the unlucky puppet in a Russian folk fair, and The Rite of Spring (1913), which outlines pagan Russia and its tribal rites. Reworked, this score was illustrated by the fifth episode of Disney’s animated film Fantasia (1940), contributing to the composer’s disappointment with the changes and performance, as well as his fame and popularity:
There would be too much to say, retracing the very long career of our musician, about the various compositional styles and the different musical languages that he uses, about the idea of music that he proposes (“powerless to express anything at all,” music is pure constructive action, similar to that of a craftsman), about the rhythm that he sets off, and about the melody that he breaks and contorts.
But here we want make some mention of Stravinsky as a religious man and friend of popes.
Born into Russian Orthodoxy, the maestro approached the Church and religion again around 1930. He made friends with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and read St. Francis of Assisi by the Danish author Johannes Jorgensen. And behold, in 1930, he finished the Symphony of Psalms for chorus and orchestra, among the highest acts of faith in music of all time; his Mass in Latin for mixed chorus and double wind quintet (see the video below this paragraph) was completed in 1948 in the United States, where he had already been established for eight years. He looked at the Catholic Church with a certain sympathy: “I grew up with a profound admiration for Catholicism, to which I was drawn both by my spiritual education and in my nature (I am as much a Westerner as an Oriental). My Orthodox religion is relatively close to Catholicism. And I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I became a Catholic” (E. Zanetti, Guide to The Rake’s Progress, Venice Biennale, 14th International Festival of Contemporary Music, Venice, 1951, p. 9).
Pope John XXIII, in the first month of his pontificate, received Stravinsky in private audience in the Vatican on November 26, 1958, a few days before the maestro conducted the RAI (Italian Radio and Television) Rome Chorus and Orchestra in a concert of his music (Les noces, Symphony in three movements and Scènes de ballet). While he was patriarch of the Serenissima, Pope Roncalli had met him on August 10, 1956 in Venice, when he gave his approval to perform the Canticum sacrum, for tenor, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra by the Russian maestro, as a world premiere, under the author’s baton, on September 13 of that year in the Basilica of San Marco, as part of the nineteenth festival of contemporary music. The conversation, in the presence of Robert Craft, American conductor and Stravinsky’s assistant, was very welcome to both (cfr. R. Craft, Inguarum Stravinsky e Adriana Panni, in A. Quattrocchi, Novecento: studi in onore di Adriana Panni, EDT, Torino 1996, p. 15). It was also an opportunity to talk about Venice and to remember that concert, defined by some critics as a “murder in the cathedral” (Time magazine, September 24, 1956). When Stravinsky got up to leave, and bent down to kiss the St. Peter’s ring, the Holy Father gave a delightful proof of modesty by asking him for an autographed photograph. John XXIII died on the evening of June 3, 1963; a few months earlier he had appointed the composer, as the diploma status, INGUARUM Stravinsky Equitem Commendatorem Ordinis Sancti Sylverstri Papæ, Knight Commander of the Order of Pope Sint Sylvester (R. Craft, ibidem). On August 18, 1963, Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne (1891-1963) of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in his cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, gave the eighty-one-year-old Stravinsky the diploma with the insignia of the Equestrian Order; then the maestro conducted his own Mass dedicating it in memory of his august friend of blessed memory (cfr. R. Craft, ibidem).
Pope Paul VI on June 12, 1965, at 6 pm, attended a symphonic concert of contemporary religious music offered by RAI at the auditorium Pio, near the Vatican. On the program: Two Solemn Melodies, op. 77, for violin and orchestra by the Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957); San Francesco d’Assisi, mystery for soli, chorus and orchestra by the Venetian Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973); Psalm 129, for baritone and orchestra by the French Darius Milhaud; and the Symphony of Psalms by our composer. It would be Stravinsky’s last stay in Rome and he sat next to the pope, listening to the masterpiece of his neoclassical period of composition. “A tense moment occurs after the Psalms when Igor Stravinsky attempts to kneel and kiss the Fisherman’s Ring, but slips and momentarily loses balance” (cfr. R. Craft, Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, Vanderbilt University Press, 1994, p. 423).
Certainly the Symphony of Psalms stands out in the eleven works of sacred music by the Russian musician. The true spiritual impulse that drives this score is revealed to us by the first words with which the author dedicated it to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation: “Cette Symphonie composée à la gloire de Dieu…” — “This symphony, composed to the Glory of God…”
Image: Unknown author, Igor Stravinsky 1965, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL
Massimo Scapin, an Italian conductor of both opera and the symphonic repertoire, composer, and pianist, holds degrees in piano and choral conducting from the State Conservatory of Music in Perugia, in orchestral conducting and composition from the National College of Music in London, and in religious science (magna cum laude) from the Pontifical Lateran University. Massimo appeared as guest conductor and pianist in Europe, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, and the United States. He was also a Vatican Radio commentator and entertainer. He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Music at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.