Virginia Woolf once wrote that human nature suddenly changed in the year 1910.  Certainly, the accepted idea of what popular entertainment could look and sound like underwent a rude shock on June 25 of that year, when the ballet The Firebird, by 28-year-old Igor Stravinsky, received its premiere at the Paris Opera.  From the small and brooding chromatic notes that open the piece, through the martial flourishes and swooping glissando harmonics (among a host of other constantly changing patterns that distinguish its “Infernal Dance”), to its climactic melee, this was music that both acknowledged the past and signaled, quite often frantically, to the future.  It could be said that Stravinsky’s Firebird score was like experiencing Debussy heard down the wrong end of the megaphone—swelling, late-Romantic textures refined into Russian folk music, with strategically placed bursts of noise to subvert the mood and disconcert the audience.

The ballet has historic significance not only as an artistic tour de force but as the beginning of a collaboration between Stravinsky and the impresario Sergei Dia­ghilev that would also produce Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).  Of the last named, little remains to be said except that its intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario, in which Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography forsook classical fluidity for that of the pagan fertility rite, brought about the most famous of theatrical riots at the premiere, triggered, apparently, by a disturbing opening solo played on a bassoon at the very top of its register.  Those six reedily evocative notes, rising up like the waking cry of a forest animal, were revolution superbly controlled.  Stravinsky later commented of the occasion,

I left the auditorium at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter.  I was disgusted.  These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar.  During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings.  He was standing on a chair, screaming “Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen”—they had their own method of counting to keep time.  Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance-steps.  I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal.

As it was, there were reports of fistfights both among the audience and between the audience and the police, and one well-dressed patron is said to have climbed a safety-rope and thence swung, ape-like, from the rigging.  In later years Diaghilev insisted that he had repeatedly shouted to the electricians to turn the house lights on and off, hoping this would put a stop to the fracas.  The accounts are as various and confused as the scenes they claim to describe, and the only certainty is that following the premiere Stravinsky took to bed in a rest home for six weeks, and that on his reappearance he found himself to be the most notorious young composer in the world.

If Stravinsky’s stated intention was “to send them all to hell,” then he may have judged much of the critical reaction to The Rite of Spring a success.  His fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns was one of those to leave the first performance prematurely (allegedly infuriated at what he considered the “misuse” of the bassoon in the opening motif) and later put himself at the head of a group that would include British musicologist Constant Lambert and German social philosopher Theodor Adorno, all of them broadly united around the thesis that Stravinsky was a kind of “performing flea,” in Lambert’s phrase—someone not to be trusted to produce “formally satisfying structures” when he could engage in “stylistic acrobatics” instead.  It seems only reasonable to agree with Lambert that “the flea” wasn’t one of those artists who make a virtue of consistency, once having learned their trade to practice it with little variation to the very end.  Stravinsky was one of the self-transformers.

Over a professional career of some 60 years Stravinsky collaborated with everyone from Picasso to Walt Disney; cheerfully accepted commissions to conduct, perform, and teach in every classical format; wrote eight well-received books of musical theory and reminiscences, holding forth on topics from his Russian Orthodox Faith to the correct way to mix a martini; briefly became a drinking partner of Dylan Thomas; and in general exuded an urbane personality that nonetheless established that he was no martyr to false modesty.  Stravinsky had views on very nearly everyone and everything, and conversed on level terms with popes and heads of state.  In 1962, he accepted an invitation to visit the Soviet Union for the first time since the revolution and, while in Moscow, was treated to a two-hour harangue by Nikita Khrushchev, who used every oratorical skill at his disposal in an attempt to persuade Stravinsky to return to the Soviet Union permanently.  The 80-year-old composer listened impassively to Khrushchev’s pitch—and turned him down.

Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882, in the St. Petersburg suburb of Oranienbaum and would often recall his earliest memory of sound, when as an infant he encountered a mute peasant in the woods, who sat on a stump entertaining himself by vigorously clicking his tongue and pressing the palm of his hand under his armpit in a crudely rhythmic duet.  Certain of Stravinsky’s critics would complain that he never entirely lost this fascination for found music, which in later years incorporated a variety of metallic clangs and piston hissings hitherto confined to the factory floor.  (Too little, perhaps, has been made of Stravinsky’s youthful passion for train travel, with its relentless soundtrack of rattlings and whistlings, and the cumulative effect this would seem to have had on a richly impressionable mind.)

As a teenager he studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian composer known for his bold use of primary instrumental colors, who became like a second father to him.  In June 1908, Stravinsky completed a short orchestral fantasy he called “Feu d’Artifice” (“Fireworks”) and posted the score to his tutor at the health resort where he was spending the summer.  A few days later, the registered package was returned to him, marked, “Not delivered on account of death of addressee.”  This setback notwithstanding, “Feu d’Artifice” was performed in St. Petersburg, where it was heard by Diaghilev.

In time Stravinsky became a sort of prototypical, musically trained version of Mick Jagger in restlessly commuting between London, Paris, the French Riviera, and ultimately Los Angeles and New York, while making the acquaintance of a large number of young women along the way.  He settled in the United States in 1940, at the age of 58, and had an early confrontation with the American authorities when, following a performance of patriotic music on April 15 of that year, he was arrested by the Boston police for violating a federal law that prohibited the reharmonization of the national anthem.  (Those were the days!)  Despite this unpromising start, Stravinsky was able to sit out World War II in a comfortably furnished exile in Hollywood, where he was at the center of a circle of expatriate artists that included George Balanchine, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas.  After acquiring a fluent if perhaps florid command of English in his middle age, Stravinsky was to prove a well-informed and prolific monologist on a wide array of cultural and social issues.  Thomas, notoriously able to hold his own in that field, admitted that he failed miserably when once or twice he attempted to shout Stravinsky down.  “A typical evening with him was like a double concerto, in which presently one was fiddled and trumpeted off stage,” the poet remarked.  “It was exhilarating and faintly demoralizing in equal measure.”  Stravinsky’s friend and amanuensis Robert Craft recalled being embarrassed by the composer’s habit of tapping a glass with a fork and loudly demanding attention in restaurants.

Between the full-scale symphonies, operas, ballets, chamber pieces, jazz ensembles, piano rags, and elegies (the list isn’t exhaustive), Stravinsky became by his mid-40’s a jack of all trades who was, happily, a master of some.  Much the same voracious creativity would inform his extracurricular activities.  His taste in literature was wide and led to an impressively eclectic range of professional associations over the years: His last completed commission, undertaken at the age of 84, was to set Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” to piano.  Stravinsky had more than a passing knowledge of classical authors and the Latin liturgy, and on eight occasions composed works intended specifically for an ecclesiastical audience.  He continued to be a rigorously practicing member of the Russian Orthodox church throughout his life, and there was a period in his adolescence when some of his friends thought that might ultimately be his career.  There is no question of Stravinsky’s religious sincerity, then or subsequently, but it seems fair to say that religion dovetailed with his always quite robust secular ambitions.  “Music praises God,” Stravinsky noted.  “Music is well or better able to praise Him than the building of a church and all its decoration”—a claim from which he in no way excluded his own contribution.

Stravinsky was to allow himself a certain moral latitude within the context of his spiritual convictions.  He married first his cousin Katerina Nossenko, with whom he remained from 1906 until her death from cancer in 1939.  His character and resolve were sorely tested when he met and fell in love with another woman, Vera de Bosset, during the years of his wife’s decline.  Vera eventually followed him to the United States, where they were married in March 1940.  Stravinsky was by all accounts a devoted husband, but both of his marriages fell somewhat short of the traditional monogamous ideal.  He is said to have enjoyed a number of affairs with high-profile partners such as Coco Chanel, who made the mistake of speaking about him to the press; in the 1950’s, an acrimonious split with an American actress who is still alive today brought more unwelcome attention.  It appears Stravinsky was that familiar celebrity contradiction, an intensely private exhibitionist.  He took vocal exception to the “hyena newspaper writers” and “jackal photographers” who besieged him on occasion, and added that, when people told him “That’s the price of fame,” he felt physically sick at their stupidity.

Not surprisingly for a composer whose royalties were impounded by the Bolshevik government, Stravinsky was no friend of the pristine ideological left, nor of any political party that seemed to him to trespass on his absolute freedom of action.  He did not vote.  He was not a moral crusader.  He once expressed misgivings about that potent symbol of the 1960’s British landscape, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, when that body threatened to pull the plug on a performance of The Firebird at London’s Royal Festival Hall in a dispute over staffing.  “What’s this Goddamned nonsense all about?” Stravinsky enquired of the concert’s promoter, who said later that he “recognized that question as a signal for trouble starting.”

The composer became a naturalized American citizen in 1946 and often spoke effusively of the essential resilience and optimism of his adopted country, at least until the onset of what he saw as the “decadent lunacy” of the 1960’s.  In 1952, Stravinsky participated in a European musical festival that, it later transpired, had been staged by a dummy organization fronting for the CIA.  He remained sanguine when apprised of his patron’s true identity.  A distinguished and, perhaps by extension, faultlessly left-wing French arts critic went to Los Angeles later in the 1950’s “to confront [Stravinsky] about his associations, and instead found myself supping his champagne, and being entertained by a stream of unstoppable and hilarious monologues.”  Around two the next afternoon, the visitor woke up with what he calls an “ideological hangover,” having been “completely seduced by the man’s extraordinary personal charm.”

Stravinsky spent his last years in New York City’s Essex House hotel, where he occupied three unostentatious, lower-floor rooms furnished with a variety of Russian icons, religious figurines, and samovars (with a Chinese checkerboard somewhat incongruously on permanent display next to the piano), which seemed to rest on a foundation of books and papers.  The Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz once looked at Stravinsky’s work table and marveled,

He is, above all, a calligrapher . . . His writing desk resembled a surgeon’s instrument case.  Bottles of different colored inks in their ordered hierarchy each had a separate part to play in the ordering of his art.  Near at hand were india-rubbers of various kinds and shapes, and all sorts of glittering steel implements: rulers, erasers, and a roulette instrument for drawing staves, invented by the master himself.  The overall effect was of a combined stationery and hardware store.

He retained an engaging curiosity about the debased popular music of the day and occasionally gave lessons to a young piano student named Warren Zevon, who became a rock star of sorts later in the 1970’s.  The octogenarian Stravinsky could also be tricky and contrary, and pilgrims to the Essex House tended to remember the composer’s rumbling, heavily accented speech, and what Zevon called the “snorting, equine nose” that confronted one almost as expressively and urgently as the voice.  He was, as Zevon added, “a little dangerous.”  Stravinsky was at his mordant best when speaking to the New York Review of Books just a week before his death:

The effectiveness of lithium in constraining our manic friends during their cliff-hanging phases has already been demonstrated . . . and probably more of our other friends than we suspect are kept going by amphetamines.  And in spite of all the failures in my own case, I prefer to attribute my depression to a so-called sodium leak into the cells, rather than, say, to “the state of the arts” or the “philosophical overview.”

Urged by the newspaper to say something about music, Stravinsky replied, “I seldom [do] any more, since my own muse went out on a wildcat strike,” before launching into a wonderfully free-associating complaint about the various nocturnal sirens, alarms, and other “militant noise hazards” contriving to disturb his sleep.

Stravinsky died in New York on April 6, 1971, at the age of 88.  His body was flown to Venice for a public funeral Mass, which included a performance of the Requiem Canticles he had composed for the occasion.  Robert Craft described the closing Postlude as “the chord of Death, followed by silence, the tolling of bells, and again silence, all thrice repeated, then the three final chords of Death alone.”  In an editorial decision that would be hard to imagine today, the producers of the CBS Evening News chose to give the funeral four minutes of coverage in a half-hour broadcast.  Stravinsky’s coffin was borne to the cemetery island of San Michele, where it was buried close to that of the composer’s long-time collaborator Diaghilev.