Russian composer Igor Stravinsky

Editor’s note: This is part two of a lecture presented by Rome Symphony Orchestra Maestro Jeffrey Dokken. Doken has taken to social media to offer videos about music performers, performances and history since they symphony is unable to perform its scheduled live musical performances. Dokken’s vidoes can be found at the Rome Symphony Orchestra Facebook page.

Between 1918 and 1920, a deadly outbreak of influenza spread throughout the world, infecting over a third of the world’s population and taking the lives of between 30 and 50 million people. 675,000 Americans died after the flu virus reached the US in the port of Boston in September 1918. Some 6,700 miles across the Atlantic, in Lausanne, Switzerland, a young genius named Igor Stravinsky was also dealing with the Spanish Flu pandemic.

In 1913 Igor Stravinsky composed one of the most groundbreaking works of all time, “Rite of Spring.” It was scored for a huge orchestra, and the composition pushed the boundaries of classical music into almost unrecognizable territories.

Stravinsky had opened up a world of compositional possibilities, not only for himself, but for composers throughout the world. Soon after, however, after the outbreak of World War I, Stravinsky found himself once again faced with severe compositional restrictions stemming from the dearth of available orchestras and the death of innumerable musicians and audience members. (It also did not help that he was living in exile in Switzerland, raising 4 children, and caring for his tubercular wife.) Substantial compositions that required big orchestras were out of the question.

Despite the success of “Rite of Spring,” the composer was in a desperately bad financial situation and had a family to feed, so he knew he must continue writing, and must write something that would put food on the table. He turned his attention to writing chamber music, and soon had composed a new work called “The Soldier’s Tale,” a theatrical performance for a small instrumental ensemble and actors. The plot tells the story of a soldier who sells his fiddle to the devil in exchange for a book that reveals events that will happen in the future, and since all stories involving selling something to the devil in exchange for something else end exactly the same way, you can fill in the rest of the plot points yourself.

This work was written specifically with mobility and money-making in mind.

Stravinsky and a business partner planned to “take the show on the road,” and with the help of a wealthy patron had booked many performances.

Unfortunately, just as the troupe of musicians and actors and the composer himself were set to go on the road, the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 hit, and many of the performers took ill, others died, and after the kick-off performance, the tour was cancelled. Even Stravinsky himself contracted the Spanish Flu, and was isolated at home throughout his convalescence and recovery. (As an interesting side note, Stravinsky began writing his opera “The Nightingale” while recovering in a nursing home from typhoid.) Due to the cancellations, Stravinsky’s financial fortunes slid even further, and the composer found himself in a truly desperate situation.

Ultimately, however, this tragic turn of events led to one of Stravinsky’s greatest works and his glorious return to the ballet stage. His frenemy Sergie Diaghilev, the noted Russian Ballet Impresario, suggested to Stravinsky in 1919 (note the date, and that the flu pandemic was still in full swing) that he arrange some Pergolesi pieces as vignettes for the ballet as a way to make some money until his next masterpiece was ready. After an initial reluctance, Stravinsky threw himself into the work, and on May 15, Stravinsky’s game-changing ballet “Pulcinella” debuted.

With sets designed by Picasso and choreography by the famed Léonid Massine, “Pulcinella” was a completely new type of work, one which showed no remorse in moving on from the good old days of ballet with flying Polovetsians and Sheherazades.

So, in a very real way, the Spanish Flu helped Stravinsky return to prominence (while definitely beating him down first) and helped shape a new style of ballet.

As we as Americans, and citizens of the world, are dealing with our own global health crisis; as we are social distancing and self-isolating; as we are worrying about loved ones near and far, and worrying about our jobs, our country and our world; as we face the same fears and uncertainties as Guillame du Machaud, Igor Stravinsky, and Giovanni Battista Fontana, we can take hope in knowing that during this crisis composers across the world are writing beautiful, meaningful, necessary, possibly even boundary-pushing music.

Perhaps someday one of them will be the next Igor Stravinsky, or the next Guillame du Machaut, and have textbooks written about their lives, and how pandemics played a part in helping them become the legendary composers they became. And perhaps one of them will lose their battle with the novel coronavirus, and all we will be left with is a few lovely pieces of music and a short biography about a virtuosic life well-lived, but ended too soon. We don’t yet know what will become of the composers and the compositions being written during this trying period, but we can all hope that someday soon our world will return to normal, and that the notes that came from a place of isolation and uncertainty will fill the air of concert halls with new life and new beauty, and that we will be able to enjoy them with a fellow music lover sitting in a chair less than six feet away from you.

Recommended for you