Stravinsky and Neoclassicism

Stravinsky and Neoclassicism

Stephen Walsh discusses Neoclassicism as a concept focussing on the music of Stravinsky who extensively used this compositional ‘attitude’ in his music, becoming the most famous Neoclassicist in 20th-century music history.

For a start Neoclassicism is something of a misnomer as far as music is concerned. The term was first applied in the 19th century to the painting and sculpture of the 18th century that had modelled itself, more or less loosely, on the 'classical' art of ancient Greece and Rome by way of the Renaissance. When it came to be applied to music in the early 20th century, it referred, by contrast, to the so-called classical music of the late 18th century ­­– specifically the music of Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven. But the real implication was more general. Leaving aside the many 19th-century examples of backward stylistic reference, composers post-1900 were just as likely to model themselves on the Baroque, or even on Romantic music itself. Strauss’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1912–17) borrows from Lully, the model for Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917) is the Baroque composer of its title, while Respighi’s La Boutique fantasque (1919) is based on Rossini. The first time that the term was applied to Stravinsky (in 1923),[1] it was used to describe a work – his Symphonies of wind instruments – that takes no obvious backward glance at all, but is, on the other hand, exceptionally austere, dignified, and unemotional. However, a couple of years later after hearing Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata (1925), Arnold Schoenberg grumbled to Anton Webern about what he saw as its imitation of Bach: 'er bachelt' ('he Bachifies'), Schoenberg sneered.[2]

The concept of Neoclassicism in music

What does all this tell us about Neoclassicism as a musical concept? There seem to have been two parallel intentions behind what amounted to a conscious rejection of the whole apparatus of late Romantic music, with its enormous orchestras, its complicated, sumptuous textures, and its hyper-emotional, self-dramatising subject matter. On the one hand, there was Jean Cocteau’s 'rappel à l’ordre'– his 'call to order' – and the philosopher Jacques Maritain’s wish to escape from 'the immense intellectual disarray inherited from the 19th century.'[3] On the other hand there was the idea that this escape might best be achieved by reviving musical styles and procedures of earlier times, when music had not yet given in to the excesses of Romanticism. 

Actually, the Romantics themselves had had their own sense of history, their own nostalgic yearning for the past. But 20th-century Neoclassicism is largely devoid of this kind of nostalgia; it lacks the sentimental, ivy-clad-ruin aspect of Romantic time travel. What it likes about old music is its (supposed) coolness and clarity, its objectivity, its economy of means, its resistance to personalised emotion. Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony (1917) is brisk, compact, and light-toned; Stravinsky’s Octet (1922–3, for woodwind and brass) is hard-edged, abrasive, quick-tempered. And it turns out that these same attributes might be found in music that wasn’t old at all, but was, on the contrary, extremely new and modern: for instance, ragtime and jazz and popular dance music; or in a completely different kind of old music, the rough songs and dances of the rural peasantry, and the strange ritual music of the Far East. In this way 'Neoclassical music' soon came to include almost any music that consciously borrowed styles from traditions, cultures or epochs other than the composer’s own. It became an attitude and a set of techniques rather than a particular style; it became a matter of How rather than What.

Sergey Prokofiev: Symphony No.1 in D Major, ‘Classical’, Op.25. Performed by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Marin Alsop. NAXOS. Gavotta - Non troppo allegro. Shelfmark: 1CD0343375.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Stravinsky’s journey to Neoclassicism

Much of this can be traced through the work of the most famous Neoclassicist, Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). A pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov in his native St. Petersburg, Stravinsky had inherited the style of the Russian nationalist group, the so-called kuchka or Mighty Handful, and the ballets he wrote for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before and during the First World War – The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Les Noces – are post-kuchka works, based on folk tales or rituals, using folk music or poetry, and largely ignoring the orthodox procedures of traditional classical music.

'Berceuse' from Stravinsky's Firebird

Igor Stravinsky: ‘Berceuse’ from the ballet The Firebird, Zweig MS 93

The Firebird (L’Oiseau de Feu) is the work that made Stravinsky famous and remains today one of his most popular works.

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But Stravinsky settled in Western Europe in 1910, and it seems that after a time these specifically Russian materials started going cold on him. Already during the war he was borrowing 'foreign' styles and musical types. There are piano duets based on western dances – a polka, a waltz, a Napolitana, a galop; and his theatre piece, The Soldier’s Tale (1918), has a waltz, a tango and a ragtime, all mixed up with Russianisms of one kind or another, and all treated in much the same way. After the war, he started exploring these avenues more intensively. The Piano Rag Music (1919) is like fragmented jazz: fascinating bits and pieces, but strictly undanceable. The ballet Pulcinella (1919) is a remodelling of music attributed to Pergolesi (1710–36) and others, highly danceable. Eventually in his pocket opera Mavra (1921–2), Stravinsky composed a substantial original work consciously based on an 'alien' style, admittedly Russian, but no longer folksy, more like the popular romantic ballad songs from the time of Glinka (1804–57) that were hammed up in Russian cabarets in early twenties Paris. Only then, in the Octet, did he turn his gaze on to the classical music that gives Neoclassicism its somewhat misleading name.

Stravinsky's 'Pulcinella' notebook

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella notebook, Zweig MS 94

Stravinsky’s notebook for his ballet Pulcinella is believed to have been given by him to Picasso in June 1920.

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Igor Stravinsky, Pulcinella, Ballet in one act with song for small orchestra and three solo voices. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Craft (NAXOS). 2. Serenata. Shelfmark : 1CD0257478.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Stravinsky's neoclassical masterpieces

The Octet poses as a three-movement chamber work in the manner of an 18th-century divertimento; there are touches of Bach and Haydn, a hint of sonata form, a variation slow movement, and a quick finale with jazzy rhythms. We are in a classical-type key: E flat major. But scratch the music’s surface, and you find that none of these elements are quite real. The forms and keys are like icons, symbolic rather than functional. Basically, Stravinsky treats his borrowings in the same way that he had previously treated folksong. He cuts and pastes, manipulates the themes and rhythms in various idiosyncratic ways, and ends up with a brilliant product that simply sounds like Stravinsky in fancy dress.

More to the point, the Octet created a methodology that could work with any style you cared to name. The Piano Concerto suggests Beethoven as well as Bach; the so-called opera-oratorio, Oedipus Rex, has its characters masked as in Greek tragedy, but gives them Handelian and Verdian arias to sing; The Fairy’s Kiss recomposes little-known Tchaikovsky; the Dumbarton Oaks concerto (also in E flat) begins like a Bach Brandenburg Concerto gone wrong but soon deconstructs its ideas and reassembles them into something purely modern. These and several other works are masterpieces that see the music we know and love (and that Stravinsky also knew and loved) in a prism designed by a Russian genius whose technique was formed in the study of folk music. Later he readapted it to popular commercial idioms: a smoochy tango for piano, a polka for circus elephants, a short ballet for the New York impresario Billy Rose (with a lovely, schmaltzy big tune for solo trumpet), a jazz concerto for the clarinettist Woody Herman.[4] Finally he wrote a full-length opera on William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (1948–51), a Stravinsky-ized take on the best-known stage work of Hogarth’s own time, The Beggar’s Opera (1728), with Mozartian trimmings. Thereafter his kleptomania, as he himself called it,[5] turned towards Schoenberg and serialism; but even the most casual labeller would hesitate to call that Neoclassical.

Igor Stravinsky: Oedipus rex

Igor Stravinsky, Oedipus rex, K.11.e.14.

This printed score of Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex was once owned and used for performances by the tenor Peter Pears.

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Igor Stravinsky, Oedipus Rex, performed by soloists and the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducted by Robert Craft (NAXOS). 1. Prologue (extract). Shelfmark : 1CD0237781

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.


One inevitably asks: is Stravinsky’s classicism ironic, a kind of critical view of an overworked musical canon; or is it (as the German philosopher Theodor Adorno thought) an evasion of history, a commodification, modern music for those of us who can’t face reality? [6] The answer to such questions resides in the music itself, a series of masterworks without parallel in the 20th century that have maintained their position in the repertoire and that continue to be studied with advantage by composers of every generation. Other composers of Stravinsky’s time, including major figures like Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith and Sergei Prokofiev, trod similar paths without straying quite so far from side to side. Since Stravinsky’s death, direct quotation has become the stock-in-trade of the postmodern. In all this there is a strong desire to remake a contact with the past that Modernism at its most discordant had (perhaps deliberately) broken off. But with Stravinsky this is also the desire of the exile, the ultimate multiculturalist (he returned to Russia only once after 1914). And perhaps this is why his extraordinary music still speaks to us so extra-specially loud and clear.

© Stephen Walsh


[1] By Boris de Schloezer: 'La Musique', Revue contemporaine (1923), 245–8.

[2] Quoted in H.H.Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work, trans. Humphrey Searle (London: John Calder, 1977), 309.

[3] Jacques Maritain, Art et scolastique (Paris: Art Catholique, 1920), 3.

[4] Respectively: Tango (1940), Circus Polka (1942), Scènes de ballet (1944), Ebony Concerto (1945).

[5] See Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Memories and Commentaries (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 110.

[6] See Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. A. Mitchell and W. Bloomster (London: Sheed and Ward, 1973), passim.

  • Stephen Walsh
  • Stephen Walsh is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiff University, where he held a personal chair in music from 2001 to 2013. He was for many years deputy music critic of The Observer, a frequent reviewer for the London Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times, and a well-known broadcaster for the BBC. He now reviews for the arts website His books include a two-volume biography of Igor Stravinsky and a study of the Russian kuchka, Musorgsky and his Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure, and, most recently, Debussy: A Painter in Sound (Faber, 2018).

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