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The Compositional Methodology of Igor Stravinsky: a Critique

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Stravinsky was, almost undeniably, a unique and creative mind that made extensive contributions to both modern music and music during his time. While today’s consideration of his work generally compartmentalizes it into 3 periods, the Russian, the Neoclassical, and the Serial, in his day his compositional styles were considered somewhat inconsistent. Cone points out a parallel understanding of Picasso’s art, a parallel that is strengthened by the overlap in the time that they worked as well as their somewhat coinciding interest in primitivism.

Cone further postulates that today’s evaluation of both artists recognizes a level of consistency in both of their bodies of work, as well as a natural development from each phase/style of art to the next. He does not, however, claim that we fully understand Stravinsky’s methods even today. He acknowledges that Stravinsky’s works are effective, a claim that can be supported by Stravinsky’s current renown and relevance in the world of classical music. One characteristic of Stravinsky’s music that may contribute to this effectiveness is his strategic use of interruption.

In exploring Stravinsky’s use of interruption, Cone first cites Le Sacre du Printemps, establishing that Stravinsky uniquely handles essentially every aspect of the music. These aspects include harmonic context, instrumentation, motivic and linear treatment, rhythm, and dynamics. He claims that Stravinsky’s sudden shifts (or interruptions) are particularly noticeable due to the piece’s resulting peculiar context. He responds to his own argument by postulating that these decisions are justified if one evaluates the music in the context of the ballet that this particular work accompanies. However, given the frequency with which Le Sacre du Printemps is performed in a purely instrumental context, and the success that it often achieves in this context, I would argue that his work, interruptions and all, transcends a need for justification through dance.

Cone expands his justification for considering Stravinsky’s music as consistent. He enumerates three phases – stratification, interlock, and synthesis – that all contribute to Stravinsky’s recognizable technique. He then elaborates on each of these phases in turn, while providing examples from Stravinsky’s repertoire that exemplify each treatment.

Stratification, Cone claims, provides a tension that listeners often feel needs to be resolved or completed. It can take the form of a melodic suspension, a prolonged rhythm, or another delayed response to expectation. Cone observes that Stravinsky often overlaps the resolution of one section with the beginning of another, leading to interlock, the second phase, which adds momentum to the musical line and strengthens future resolutions. The final phase, synthesis, serves to unify the larger work despite its many complicated layers. To accomplish this, Stravinsky often employs a bridge device to help fill space in music left by the stratification and propel the music forward, toward resolution.

Cote clarifies that this phenomenon can occur at a variety of places in the music and in a variety of ways, but that it typically leads to a tutti section that provides the listener with a feeling of arrival. Contradicting this behavior, Stravinsky also employs a technique that Cote calls divergence, in which Stravinsky takes a single layer or idea in the music and splits it into two or more.

Cote diagrams several examples in Stravinsky’s repertoire thoroughly. From these examples, it’s clear that Stravinsky used these techniques in a variety of ways. We see stratification, in particular, applied to melodic ideas, rhythm, orchestration, and harmonic context. However, it consistently plays with the expectation of the listener in creative and innovative ways. Cote describes some of the chosen examples as “simpler” and as “subtler” than others, but claims that all enumerate Stravinsky’s use of stratification and, by extension, interruption. Despite the initial impression of inconsistency that one might get upon looking at the differences between these examples, they are unified by the unique musical experience that stratification provides for listeners.

Cote claims that this understanding of Stravinsky’s compositional methodology serves to unify even his 12-tone compositions with his earlier body of work. He once again notes that context – in this case liturgical and textual demands, rather than the use of dance – could be the true causation of this connection to his earlier body of work, but maintains that stratification is the true unifier.

Stravinsky had an uncanny ability to create a body of work that was recognizably his, despite the fact that the individual pieces did not sound particularly similar to each other. Cote believes that the musical and psychological experience provided to listeners by interruption is what they truly associate with Stravinsky.

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The Compositional Methodology of Igor Stravinsky: A Critique. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from
“The Compositional Methodology of Igor Stravinsky: A Critique.” GradesFixer, 10 Apr. 2019,
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