Classical Haiku: Igor Stravinsky

Crouched in an accent –
where else would we find you? Not
in a major scale!

No one did angular like Igor Stravinsky.

Take the ballet Petrushka, for which Stravinsky composed the music.

Alexandre Benois’s design of the sets and costumes show characters as though trapped between two panes of glass — angular knees and elbows, triangular feet pointing in all kinds of unnatural directions.

Stravinsky’s score for this work (and many others) is laden with scary looking chords and piquant blasts capped by pointed accent (>) marks instructing the performing musicians to jab the notes a bit.

There’s a great photo by Arnold Newman in which Stravinsky is imprisoned by angles.

The composer is seated at a black grand piano in a white-walled room. The lid of the piano is propped up at an angle, framing a distant Stravinsky in its shark-like jaw. The piano itself is wedged into the corner of the room, and Stravinsky is squeezed into the lower left corner of the image field.

The feel of the image is tight, constricted — all the more so because its symphony of blacks and whites takes your breath away.

Irving Penn’s great photo of Stravinsky conveys the composer’s angular world even more clearly.

In that image, the composer stands backed into an acute-angle corner, one ankle crossed in front of the other and a bony knee pointing out to the side. His left hand cups his left ear, and the point of his left elbow digs into the wall.

No longer merely a resident of his angular world, Stravinsky has himself taken on the very shape of that world.

All this makes sense when you think about the world in which Stravinsky lived — a World War I world anguishing to come to grips with the brutality of modern mechanization run amok, a world of jabs and punches whose fleshly inhabitants must have wondered if, in order to survive, they, too, needed the points and diagonals of the machines that almost brought existence to an end.

Today’s Classical Haiku honors Igor Stravinsky, the great modernist, the composer who turned angles into musical art.

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