Igor Stravinsky

Photos from Bravo Stravinsky © Arnold Newman

I have mentioned to students that, as music teachers, we are sometimes guilty of using superlatives too often. I attribute this (in part) not only to simple enthusiasm but also because the time that we have with students—though it may seem interminable to them—is relatively brief. Teaching the history and context of composers and their compositions become so compacted (if not harried) that qualifying expressions such as “…one of the most influential…”, or “…without peer…”, though meant to elevate, become a kind of counterfeit; a currency of accolades that only wanes in value. Stated another way, constant and over-amplified acclaim can have the unintended effect of desensitizing a student’s imagination—lessening the very impact you’re trying to convey.

This notion especially comes to mind when discussing the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Not because his legacy has been overestimated, but because even the most superlative language still fails to capture the impact his work has had on seemingly every aspect of music and musicians—composers, performers, conductors, theorists, historians, musicologists, etc.—and that it continues to do so today.

The infamous premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps—a piece that still sounds impossibly “modern” despite being nearly 100 years oldis the stuff of music legend. Students who have never known a world without the Internet—whose attention span has become immeasurably small—often have difficulty comprehending the impact of (and therefore, enjoying the study of) such an event, but it’s for a reason that is not necessarily their doing. Rather, it’s due in large part to a consequence of the ‘data-on-demand’ culture fostered in the “Information Generation”: the seemingly unstoppable atrophying of their imagination.

Photos from Bravo Stravinsky © Arnold Newman

What was the musical world like before Le Sacre, when recordings were not immediately available; when hearing a new piece of music meant attending a performance and could only be “re-played” by the listener’s imagination; when the news of a riotous premiere travelled slowly by newspaper and by word-of-mouth; when one waited in a state of wonder and excitement for any news of it; when one waited for anything?

Here is a photograph that captures my imagination:

Photos from Bravo Stravinsky © Arnold Newman

This isn’t a photograph of a Blackwing, another pencil, an eraser, and about 2 1/2 octaves of a piano keyboard. This is a photograph of entire universes of possibility.

Just imagine.

9 Responses to Igor Stravinsky

  1. You’re on a roll!

    In the third pair of photos, is that a device to draw the staff, something like a truncated Noligraph? I see what look like five points.

    • Sean says:

      That is actually one of two devices Stravinsky patented around 1911, which was called the “Stravigor”. It’s a predecessor of the Noligraph though it uses five rollers, rather than pen or pencil points. Stravinsky was (in)famous for writing on whatever paper might be handy, and his staff-liner meant that he didn’t need to have staff paper with him at all times.

      In the good ol’ days, composers, students, and copyists used a 5-pointed nib, called a rastrum (from the Latin raster “rake”) to draw parallel staff lines. You can still buy them today, though they seem to be marketed more as decorative nibs rather than as staff-liners.

  2. Elaine Fine says:

    The Rake’s Progress!!! Thanks for this!

    I used to have a Stravigor, and have been searching for the name of my old tool for years. It was rather unreliable, and it clogged much of the time. Now I have a Noligraph, which is a great improvement.

    • Sean says:

      Wow, that’s great Elaine. I’ve never seen one in person, but have seen a few photos (then again, the same is true for the Loch Ness Monster, so…). But if you happen to come across it, please let me know if you post some photos. I wonder how many were made and sold…


      I made something similar using mini ball-pen refills. Then I bought a Noligraph—a very handy item. I bet they would sell very well in university bookstores, but it seems the company hasn’t made many in-roads to the U.S. market.

      PS: Rake’s Progress indeed! 🙂

  3. Thanks for all the background. I’m amazed to learn just now that my wife Elaine once owned a Stravigor.

  4. Elaine Fine says:

    I bought it when I was a teenager sometime in the early 1970s!

  5. Stephen says:

    Sean, kudos on this amazing series of posts!

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