Stravinsky is known to have used polytonality in some specific cases. Wikipedia, for instance, lists in its page of polytonal pieces:

Petrushka, opening fanfare
Symphony of Psalms, 3rd Movement
Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Rite of Spring

As examples of instances of polytonality in his work, but it doesn't say if the list is exhaustive (I assume not).

I'm interested in how regularly Stravinsky used polytonality in his works, and whether he discussed this in any interview / writings.

For example, is his use of polytonality restricted to only a few segments of some works or is it pervasive? In the case of the Rite, are there just a few specific passages or can the whole composition be said to be polytonal? Did he acknowledge his use of this technique or did he rationalize these passages some other way?

The background behind this question is that I really love Stravinsky's music and while analyzing some of his scores I've been wondering if this specific device would be useful in explaining some of his choices of harmony.

1 Answer 1


Of course Stravinsky was aware of his polytonal writing, while most of it was diatonic. Mind that all composers - and especially those of the 20th century had a development of composing, considering harmonic, rhythmic and tonality aspects: Important stylistic devices of his music up to the 2nd War were polytonality and a distinctive rhythm, sometimes including quotes from popular music. Stravinsky also composed serial works in the 1950s. There are many different influences in his music, which he merged into a distinctive style.

Andrew J. Browne writes in his JSTOR article:

"The general conception in England of Stravinsky's work is peculiar and misinformed. It seems to be readily assumed that after writing L'Oiseau de Feu ' and ' Petrouthka ' Stravinsky plunged into chaotic dissonance and brutal rhythm, and has latterly come to the surface to parody Handel and Massenet. Stravinsky has said that ninety per cent. of the hostile criticism levied against him hails from England. He is mistaken. We do not pay him the compliment of criticism : we treat him like a naughty child who likes to shock his elders (and bettors). He is not to be taken seriously; he is part and parcel of the Russian ballet, a company of freaks and practical jokers, anything but artists. Stravinsky, in company with Epstein, enjoys the distinction of being ' news ' for the British Press. Above all, Stravinsky is an experimenter. The English abhor experiment in art; they prefer imitation of tradition. Even the few who treat Stravinsky as a serious artist see in his music predominantly the force of rhythm and percussion. For them ' Le Sacre ' is the starting-point. Now, ' Le Sacre ' is the one isolated work in Stravinsky's development. It is concerned with dynamics, masses of tone-colour, blocks of sound; a huge orchestra is employed, and the writing for it is vertical. All Stravinsky's other works are written for small and selected combinations of instruments, and the writing is horizontal. Stravinsky's real contribution to modern music lies in his polyphony. His melodic invention is of greater import than his rhythmic ingenuity and his harmonic diversity; indeed, his rhythms are conditioned by his polyphonic part-writing, and his harmony, always diatonic, has steadily veered towards classical moderation."

JOURNAL ARTICLE Aspects of Stravinsky's Work Andrew J. Browne


For further reading:

PhD - A Theory of Harmony and Voice Leading in the Music of Stravinsky [1981 Straus]


Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (Craft, Robert)


  • Those resources are very interesting indeed and I'm having a good time reading them, but they don't seem to mention polytonality. The Journal article doesn't seem to mention polytonality at all, the txt with the conversation has zero hits for a quick search on "polytonal" and "polytonality", "tonalities", etc. Only "polyphony" comes up.
    – Ignacio
    Aug 4, 2020 at 3:59
  • 1
    Found this quote in the PhD theses: In these bi-quintal structures, two perfects fifths are stabilized and elaborated. The theoretical model thus bears a relationship to the traditional and contested concept of “bitonality.” Although there are actually very few passages in Stravinsky’s music that are bitonal in any sort of pure sense—that is, in which the music is conceived and understood in two keys simultaneously—there are lots of passages, including those most characteristic of their composer, in which there is some degree of tension between two competing pitch centers (...)
    – Ignacio
    Aug 4, 2020 at 4:07
  • In my eyes that quote doesn't support much the use of polytonality in Stravinsky. It seems to imply that there are other forces at play and that bitonality is usually not the best way to analyze his music, right?
    – Ignacio
    Aug 4, 2020 at 4:07
  • (It is an honest question, the theses goes a bit over my head to be honest)
    – Ignacio
    Aug 4, 2020 at 4:27
  • May be this thesis will help you further: it has been written under the survey of Straus. academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/…. Btw. Thanks to your question and input I have found and downloaded a dozen of books about Stravinsky :) Aug 4, 2020 at 7:28

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