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The Cocktail Party Guide To Igor Stravinsky

Don't be caught "Stravinsky deficient" as the big centennial of his Rite of Spring approaches. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

So last weekend at the craft-cocktail den, a few of your more "cultured" friends suddenly diverted the conversation — from the botanical attributes of new navy strength gins to the big 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring.

"It started a freakin' riot in Paris at its premiere," one of them said, sipping her Hayman's Royal Dock of Deptford with a generous splash of Fever Tree tonic.

"But really it was the unconventional choreography that caused all the hullabaloo," another interjected. "The music itself, shock value notwithstanding, is drawn in part from old Russian folk sources, and it's actually quite festive when it comes down to it."

And there you stood. Feeling so, well, inadequate. All you could muster was a pathetic "Totally!" as you gripped your rocks glass of Old Raj and lime juice ever tighter.

Well, the Rite of Spring anniversary is indeed upon us. And lest you get caught again not knowing your neo-nationalism from your neoclassicism, here are a few musical crib notes about the composer of The Rite and his surprisingly multifaceted career.

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'Firebird' And The First Steps Of Fame

The Firebird is a good place to start when talking Stravinsky. He was just 28 years old in 1910 when the music he wrote for the Paris premiere of this ballet shot him to stardom overnight. It was the first of many successful collaborations (Petrushka, The Rite, Apollo) with impresario Serge Diaghliev, who in desperation asked four other composers to write the Firebird music before ending up with this relative rookie. This score glitters magically in the style of Stravinsky's influential teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — especially the explosive "Infernal Dance." Although it proves Stravinsky's mastery of orchestration, the ballet doesn't break much new ground. Bonus points if you can remember to quote Richard Taruskin, a head honcho among Stravinsky experts, who claims that "Russian ballet before The Firebird was actually French, and the circumstances of its reimportation to France forced it to become Russian." But that's another story.

The Riotous 'Rite Of Spring'

You can call this one by its official French title, Le sacre du printemps. But if the rest of your conversation isn't in French, you'll sound snooty — especially compared to the music, which, after 100 years, is still as raw and rhythmically convulsive as it gets. The one thing everyone knows about The Rite is that it sparked a riot at its debut in the Champs-Elysées theater in Paris. According to Stravinsky, some actual fighting did break out amid the caterwauling crowd of detractors and supporters. It was a far cry from traditional ballet, so when the lead dancer clenched her head in her hands, some smartypants shouted for a dentist. As to the music, consider that its jagged, continually shifting rhythms and dissonant blocks of sound are certainly shocking, but are rooted in 19th-century traditions. There is tonal, even tuneful music to be found in The Rite. Throwing out a descriptor like "neo-nationalist" when discussing The Rite will impress. Stravinsky's scraps of melody and the story — about a girl chosen to dance herself to death to insure the return of spring — is saturated in Russian folklore. For behind the scenes flair, casually mention that Stravinsky missed the third night's performance after eating a bad oyster.

'The Soldier's Tale' And A Whiff Of Jazz

With no way to top The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky, ever musically restless, peeled off in many other directions. In 1918, as World War I was winding down, Stravinsky was in Switzerland, where he and a Swiss writer named C.F. Ramuz concocted a pocket-sized traveling theater piece — "to be read, played, and danced" — called L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale), about a wandering soldier, his violin and a deal with the devil. Stravinsky said he limited himself to just a septet of instruments, a narrator, a few dancers and the inspiration of American jazz. You'd be clever to point out that the jazz connection is disputed by some scholars, even though there's a specific section titled "Ragtime." In any case, the music is delightfully jaunty with a meaty role for the violinist. It's some of the composer's best known music, whether heard in its hour-long original theatrical version, Stravinsky's orchestral suite, his trio arrangement or a ballet format. Posers may wish to latch on to one of historian Richard Taruskin's more outlandish quotes, saying (with eyebrow raised) that L'histoire "was the bastard offspring of mismatched talents in temporary opportunistic alliance."

'Pulcinella' In The Rear View Mirror

Those who called The Rite of Spring "monotonous cacophony" could scarcely have imagined the satin pillows of sound Stravinsky stitched together just seven years later in his ballet Pulcinella. Instead of pagan rituals and pounding, Stravinsky did a complete 180, turning, at the suggestion of impresario Serge Diaghilev, to genteel music from the 18th century. Believing the manuscripts Diaghilev dug up for him were by Giovanni Pergolesi (they were actually by Domenico Gallo), Stravinsky essentially — and brilliantly — painted over the old canvases in fresh, colorful strokes. It was the first of his neoclassical works, another new path he would follow until 1951 and his opera The Rake's Progress. As with The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky was ridiculed for Pulcinella, but this time for writing music that was too simple. The ballet's plot was built on the traditional Italian commedia dell'arte blueprint, and it's advisable not to forget that Pablo Piccaso designed the sets. The music is also available in a handy (and popular) suite.

'Agon' And Atonalism

It's not risky to compare Stravinsky with Picasso — people do it all the time. And the similarities go far beyond the fact that the two were born seven months apart and each died in the early 1970s. Like the stylistically restless Picasso, Stravinsky both created and followed various trends and artistic movements. Later in his career, Stravinsky embraced the serialist (or 12-tone) style of music pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg earlier in the century. The move toward the atonal sound was triggered, in part, by two things: Stravinsky worried that young European composers were disinterested in his music, and he had recently heard Schoenberg pieces that triggered his imagination. In 1953 he began his final ballet, Agon, which has no plot but is constructed from a series of 15 dance movements. As in Pulcinella, Stravinsky looked backward for inspiration. Some of Agon is based on 17th-century French dances, and in the "Galliarde" he deploys a 12-note row for the first time. Without getting too geeky, here's a good quote about Agon from Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh: "For this score is nothing if not stylistically fearless. It combines Renaissance dances, recognizable yet utterly rethought in movement, tonality and sonority, with a high-speed stream-of-consciousness chromaticism." Extra credit for remembering that George Balanchine choreographed the 1957 premiere.

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