(Originally published in the Grauniad on 7 April 1971)

Igor Stravinsky has died in New York at the age of 88. It was obvious half a century ago that his three early Diaghilev ballets – “Firebird”, “Petrushka” and “Rite of Spring” – were classics, but instead of resting on that unique achievement he ranged wider in search of new fields to conquer. He lived long enough to see his many stylistic experiments justified. In his eighties he remained more consistently creative than any other great composer before him, even Verdi. On his last visit to London he was tackled on his age. “Me? Old?” he snapped in mock irritation. “I just live. It is not my fault that I do not die.”

That was the characteristic of his eternally youthful approach to music and musicians. There was a chameleon quality in his ability to soak in influences from any and every source around him, even in Hollywood, where he lived during old age. Critics of the twenties and thirties saw in this characteristic a sign of declining powers, but what over the last generation has become more obvious was that his own personality triumphed unfailingly over any deliberate eclecticism. Even when he turned circle, and adopted serialism as a composition method (in his seventies) the results were always immediately recognisable for their unmistakable Stravinsky flavour.

History will probably decide that Igor Stravinsky was the most influential composer and also the greatest of the twentieth century thus far. Wagner in “Tristan and Isolde” may have foreshadowed the harmonic anarchy which would lead to Schoenberg’s twelve-note system and the whole world of serialism, but in “The Rite of Spring” Stravinsky liberated rhythm with such barbaric splendour that no musician from Debussy onwards (not even Mick Jagger dare we suggest) would have been quite the same without him.

In a sense Stravinsky was the first truly “modern” composer. He made a great deal of money out of music. He conducted most of his major works in the recording studio convinced that future generations would want to play them, and determined there should be none of the interpretative squabble which sometimes surround the great masters of past centuries. He was a gawky, birdlike figure on the rostrum, but a compelling one, as several generations of orchestral players and concertgoers in Britain remember. Almost to the last, he remained a cosmopolitan, a globe-trotter, and indeed some thought that his spiritual homelessness ever since the Russian Revolution was part of his musical essence.