Stravinsky and Sibelius: cold water, cocktails and respect

100 years ago on 29 May, 1913, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring collided with Paris concert-goers, its (in)famous audacious arrival greeted with shock.

They were two titans of the music world, but Sibelius and Stravinsky, two of the 20th century’s greatest composers, certainly had many things NOT in common. It is said that when the Finnish Cultural Foundation awarded Stravinsky the Sibelius Gold Medal in 1956, Sibelius was “appalled”. (It is further said that Stravinsky later sold the medal for charity!).

Stravinsky once said that Sibelius “can’t do much”, to which the latter replied sarcastically, “That, I believe, is the greatest compliment I have received in my entire life! Mr I.S. is always imitating someone. I like his ‘Oedipus’ best, in which he imitates Gluck. Musical talent is not something you learn in school with the rod. In that sense, Mr S(travinsky) is certainly almost at the top of his class. And I am almost at the bottom…” ( Jean Sibelius, Tomi Mäkelä, Boydell Press, 2011, p.248)

Despite their differences, Sibelius and Stravinsky probably bore each other a great deal of grudging respect. Both were artists of immense intellectual capacity. Not just that, but artists who possessed artistic integrity and a clear sense of self and musical direction. They knew within themselves what they are capable of. They knew that the other is a great composer – they simply differed in their musical beliefs. Sibelius presented the world “pure cold water”, while Stravinsky gave it “cocktails of every hue and description” – but what cocktails!

In 1963, Stravinsky was awarded the Wihuri-Sibelius Prize, and perhaps felt compelled to do something in return. He arranged Sibelius’s Canzonetta, Op.62a (from Kuolema) for 4 horns, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and bass. Stravinsky had earlier visited Helsinki in 1961, and is quoted by his amanuensis Robert Craft as saying that he was fond of this Sibelius work – “The first half of it, anyway.  I like that kind of northern Italianate melodism —Tchaikovsky had it too — which was a part, and an attractive part, of St. Petersburg culture.”

Whatever else he was fond or not fond of in Sibelius, we today are left with this indelible image of Stravinsky laying a bouquet of flowers on the grave of Sibelius, in 1961. A master greets a master in a different rite of spring.

Stravinsky at Sibelius Grave

 

This story was also published on the
Jean Sibelius – Dust of Hue Facebook Page in a slightly shorter version.