Music is the greatest means we have of digesting time

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I t is scarcely believable that The Rite of Spring, and before it The Firebird and Petrushka, were written by a composer still in his twenties, and that this was only slightly more than a decade after the death of Johannes Brahms. The unanticipated creation of Petrushka (1911), written in seven months, intervened between the conception and the composition of The Rite, which Igor Stravinsky had envisioned while completing Firebird in 1910. The theophanic experience likely dates from December 1909, when Alexandre Benois and Nikolai Roerich persuaded the composer of the merit of Mikalojus Ciurlionis’s paintings. At their urging Stravinsky visited the St Petersburg exhibition of the Lithuanian artist’s temperas. Roerich, himself a painter, ethnographer and authority on pre-Christian rituals of Slavic Russian tribes, had compiled a book on Ciurlionis. Mesmerized by the paintings, Stravinsky purchased one, the “Sonata of the Pyramids” (1908). Bernard Berenson classified Ciurlionis simply as an abstractionist, which is of no help in understanding his use of strange forms, geometric conglomerations, quasirealistic trees, and, primarily, the sense of skyward movement. In July 1961 Stravinsky wrote to a Lithuanian art critic, emphasizing the difficulty in conveying the originality of the art: “It is not easy to describe a picture of this flight of growing-upwards extending rows of pyramids toward the horizon, the subject of this powerful work”.

more from Robert Craft at the TLS here.

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