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Running to 185 pages of text, this is a concise and stimulating account of Stravinsky’s life and works. all the major compositions are discussed in some detail and very few of the smaller gems are neglected. Technical language is included but not intrusive.

Typical of Cross’s perceptiveness is the following, re the Symphony of Psalms: ‘arpeggio figures … which sound as if they could have been taken straight from a piano finger exercise manual … and given that such pianistic studies would now have formed part of his daily practice routine as an active concert pianist, it should hardly be surprising that such material found its way into his music.’ The author’s fairmindedness is manifest in his remarks on Fantasia: ‘Though often maligned, Disney’s matching of mesmerising primitive images to the score is a highly effective reimagining of the elemental aspects of the music.’

Regarding Stravinsky’s unattractive personal characteristics Cross cites words from the Cantata to illustrate ‘the unpalatable and incontrovertible truth that he could add anti-semitism to his catalogue of repellent character defects that included meanness, cruelty, spitefulness, arrogance, philandering, lying and money-grubbing’.

I do feel that Cross tries too hard to see reflections (or anticipations) of world events in some major works. Thus ‘Petrushka unwittingly anticipates the tragedy that was soon to overwhelm … the whole of Europe’ and ‘The machine-like rhythms of the “Sacrificial Dance” pre-echo the noise and horror of the battlefields of the First World War.’ Also, while it is indeed probable that the exiled Stravinsky felt alienation, dislocation and loss, to obsessively find these qualities in almost every composition is both facile and wearying. However, I like the way Cross draws parallels between Stravinsky’s neo-classicism and the style dépouillé (stripped away, without ornament) exemplified by the little black dress of Coco Chanel and the Art Deco movement generally.

The book has 30 illustrations, a select bibliography, a very brief ‘Select Discography and Videography’, but, disappointingly, no index. The above minor reservations aside, this life-and-works is absolutely essential, a model of its kind.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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