The Stravinsky Years

Working With Stravinsky

Most articles and books about Igor Stravinsky quite appropriately emphasize and examine his life, his process of creation, and the essential relationships which helped foster and support that creation—all major themes, to be sure.

More rarely, however, are the “nut and bolts” aspects of the successful performance of that music examined. Stravinsky’s personal manager, Lillian Libman, in her book, “And Music at the Close, Stravinsky’s Last Years,” spends considerable time examining the business, contractual and promotional aspects of creating a performance of Stravinsky’s music. Stravinsky himself recognized the importance of these aspects.

Indeed, Lillian Libman describes Stravinsky as analyzing a contract with an intense lawyer-like focus. There was nothing at all of the stereotypical “dreamy” artist, disconnected from realities, about Stravinsky.

In addition to business and contractual concerns, there is another aspect essential to successful performance—that of the performers. This includes soloists, orchestra, choir, narration, etc.

A successful performance is more than just bringing performers together and waving a baton at them. The composer who wishes to hear his or her music done accurately and successfully must find the best way for performers to quickly learn and rehearse difficult music. Stravinsky was well aware of this, too.

Indeed, according to many of his biographers, Stravinsky was keenly aware of exactly how much time and preparation was needed for him to rehearse a piece. Nothing, certainly not Stravinsky’s own precious time, was to be wasted.

Yet Stravinsky also knew that he needed to rely on a successful pre-rehearsal period—the time spent with other conductors, such as Gregg Smith—as vital preparation. Without it, the music would not be ready for Stravinsky or Robert Craft to step in and take over rehearsing.

Stravinsky clearly knew and understood all of the steps that must be undergone, and he deliberately sought groups like the Gregg Smith Singers who could be relied on to learn the music beforehand. Most of the available material on Stravinsky does not focus on the interior and integral “nuts and bolts’ contribution of choir, orchestra and soloists. Yet Stravinsky himself knew how vital it was.

One objective of this history is to focus on the choral aspects of putting a piece of Stravinsky’s choral music together and readying it for performance. To focus, as it were, on examining those “nuts and bolts” of creating a performance of works such as Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale,” “Les Noces,” “Anthem—The Dove Descending Breaks the Air” and “Requiem Canticles.”

John McClure also recognized this dedication and creative preparation in Gregg Smith. Recently, he recalled the following:

“Gregg Smith matters.

Gregg Smith matters because he would make anything happen.

Everything was prepared, researched, rehearsed, copied, contracted

and performed and he never screwed up.

He made my job an easy one.

Gregg Smith matters because he was tireless, restless, incorrigible and brilliant.

He was so intent on his life’s work and he was always cheerful and eager.

Gregg Smith is a brilliant man!”

John McClure, November 13, 2010