Professional historians tend to disdain the "great men" version of their discipline, preferring to study grander movements than to focus on compelling, larger-than-life personalities. But it is hard to resist the stories of the giant figures such as Napoleon, Lincoln and Hitler, and in the field of music, it is the power of individual composers that dominates our imagination, not the cultural context. Alas, there does not seem to be a great man of music in our time, on the order of Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy or Bartók. The unprecedented stylistic diversity of these days would seem to make it nearly impossible for a single figure to be dominant (any suggestions out there?).
The last musical giant in the classical world was surely Igor Stravinsky, who died in 1971. His was the very face of the art form. Interestingly, he, too, risked being compartmentalized, because by the mid-20th century, the music world was already becoming splintered. There was a large segment of musicians, but especially academics, who resented Stravinsky for his failure to embrace atonality, calling him a mere chameleon for his frequently shifting modes of expression. But like that wily lizard, the flesh and blood of Stravinsky remained the same even as his skin shifted hues. He even experimented with atonality — though not until after the death of his rival, Schoenberg, the inventor of the 12-tone scale. Stravinsky's best-known score, The Rite of Spring, is perhaps second only to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a work of iconic stature.
One of the most telling tributes to Stravinsky was his appeal to so many varieties of musicians. Virtually all classically trained players acknowledge his genius, but he also had many fans in jazz (Charlie Parker idolized him), and amongst plenty of enlightened rockers (famously, Frank Zappa).
There is a terrific new release on Sony Classical of a Stravinsky work that neatly encapsulates many aspects of his creative world. The Soldier's Tale is a cynical, Faustian musical theater piece, completed shortly after the end of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, where the Stravinsky family lost everything. The chamber ensemble was recorded in 1967 under the baton of the composer, with the narrator's part newly dubbed in a droll, smart performance by Jeremy Irons. The score contains, seemingly, a little bit of everything; folk music, neo-classicism, Baroque and plenty of early jazz, but it is all Stravinsky.