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In this essay, Dan Pinkston argues that the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and the Irish rock band U2 occupy a similar place of importance within their musical worlds, and have a parallel record of artistic achievement and influence. The parallels in their musical and spiritual development are fascinating and, as this paper will show, give the listener a new perspective on hearing the music of both U2 and Stravinsky. This comparative exercise will also equip the reader with tools with which to approach many other progressive musicians of the last century. Mr. Pinkston is Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Simpson University.


At first glance, Igor Stravinsky and U2 (Bono [Paul Henson], vocals, the Edge [David Evans], guitar, Larry Mullen, Jr., drums, and Adam Clayton, bass) have little in common. A Russian classical composer known for symphonies and ballets and four Irish rock stars inhabit different musical worlds. It can be said, however, that each occupies a similar place of importance within their genre, and has a parallel record of achievement and influence. More importantly, this paper argues that the respective concerns they show for exploring musical language point to commonalities in the approaches of all progressive musicians in the twentieth century. They serve as archetypes for the ways in which classical, and later popular, music broke so astonishingly from the traditions and trajectories of the musical establishment. These parallels in their musical development are fascinating and, as this paper shows, give a new perspective on hearing the music of both U2 and Stravinsky, as well as many others at the forefront of their genres. In other words, the reader will have new tools and strategies for understanding not only the similarities between U2 and Stravinsky, but also the concerns of much progressive music of the last 100 years. A comparative discussion of landmark works by these two representative artists will reveal how certain musical parameters rise to prominence in much modern music, shifting traditional concepts of melody and harmony into a secondary role. This discussion traces three lines of compositional development, including the increasing role of texture and timbre as primary expressive devices, a more fully integrated use of collaborative multimedia and visual spectacle, and the appropriation of pre-existing styles for various expressive purposes.

A second but no less important thrust of this paper concerns the way that Christianity is reflected in certain aspects of both U2 and Stravinsky. In particular, the way in which they respectively grapple with fame from the perspective of Christian faith is instructive. There is effectively a tension between fame and Christian humility that enlivens the music of both. Since neither U2 nor Stravinsky explicitly labeled themselves as “Christian” artists, yet produced music that is at the forefront of their genres, they serve as models of how art of Christians can function outside the confines of the Christian establishment. The reader will be challenged to recognize Christianity integrated in rock music, chamber music, and opera.

The Music: Textures, Timbres, and the Minimalist Connection

Texture and Timbre in the Early Works

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) initially made his mark on the musical world with a series of ballets in the early twentieth century. These works, written for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe, caused a stir in the Parisian musical scene, and Stravinsky became an overnight musical phenomenon.

The first of these ballets, The Firebird (1910), showed Stravinsky’s complete assimilation of the styles and techniques of contemporary composers such as Claude Debussy, and predecessors such as Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The work was completely modern, if not radical, and revealed that the young Stravinsky was part of an artistic movement that was breaking with the Germanic traditions of the nineteenth century. One of the prominent features of this new French Impressionistic and Russian Nationalistic music was the prominence of instrumental color, or timbre, in the identity of the music. This music could not be explained completely through harmonic, melodic, and tonal theories—orchestration and color were rising to prominence.

Petroushka (1911) continued the path begun by The Firebird with astonishing vigor. Music historian Alex Ross writes that it is “a score of exhilarating immediacy: phrasesjump in from nowhere, snap in the air, stop on a dime, taper off with a languid shrug.”1 The way that musical events unexpectedly cut from one to another can be dizzying to the listener, but it is the way that Stravinsky builds individual events that concerns this discussion of new textural directions. Stravinsky’s groundbreaking approach is to add one ostinato (a musical idea that is persistently repeated in the same voice or instrument without significant change) on top of another, in a repetitive scheme that, unlike nineteenth-century music, is clearly non-developmental.2 Prior to Stravinsky, most classical music articulated progress through harmonies that seemed to pull to each other, through various devices of voice-leading and harmonic resolution. In Petroushka, Stravinsky achieved a “static harmonic field”3 that broke with tradition without being excessively dissonant.

The opening of Petroushka consists of a swirling ostinato, played by horns and clarinets, that accompanies a pseudo-fanfare in the flute. The key signature and the dominant-tonic motion of the flute seem to suggest a d minor tonality, but this music, and indeed the bulk of Petroushka,is not functionally tonal music.4 The swirling wind texture is made up of four pitches—D,E,G, and A—that cannot be described with any traditional chord name. Much has been written about this [0,2,5,7] pitch class set and the various levels of ambiguity and familiarity that it communicates to the listener.5 Stravinsky was of course not alone in using this pitch-class set. Debussy had made effective use of it in La Mer and many other composers were drawn to its interesting properties, particularly the way that it is compatible with traditional scales without being a traditional chord. Our discussion, however, is not concerned with harmonic identity as much as with how Stravinsky treats his texture. Stravinsky’s genius is not in inventing new harmonic language or materials, but rather in envisioning new ways to use the materials that his immediate predecessors and contemporaries were exploring. Stravinsky is radical in the things that he does not do as much as in what he does. Harmonies do not progress; they repeat and endure. He eschews the nineteenth-century tradition of music in which chords change to support melody or activate modulations. His orchestra churns, swirls, and chimes in ways that impress the listener as a new manner of expression.

Critics and young musicians took note of the hints of Stravinsky’s genius in these early ballets, particularly in the area of rhythm and in the use of ostinatos to build up sparkling and propulsive textures. The ballets hinted that texture and instrumental timbre could become primary ingredients for musical expression and that Stravinsky had the talent to lead the way. Figure 1 shows the opening of Petroushka. Note the continuous wind ostinato.

U2’s first album, Boy (1980), made an impression on the musical world that parallels the impact of Stravinsky’s first ballets. Here was a band that clearly came out of the UK punk scene6 and that had mastered the basics of songwriting and recording in a post-punk style that would later be labeled “alternative” rock. At the same time, the seeds of something new were evident, for those who listened closely, even on this occasionally naive recording. In early 1980, the New Musical

Express noted U2’s potential, saying, “They are limitedly radical. They are not yet great; but they could be.”7

The hints of new directions are of course a composite of many factors, from U2’s thundering rhythm section to Bono’s soaring vocals, but musically, it was the Edge’s guitar timbres and textures that most showed the promise of the future. The Edge’s guitar sound, “among the most distinctive in rock music,”8 is evident even at this early stage of the band’s career. It is primarily as a guitar colorist that the Edge points the way to new avenues of expression, and a way to break with both the progressive rock and punk rock tendencies of the 1970s. Rock journalist Joe Bosso describes the Edge’s guitar timbres as “chimerical and chiming, echoey and evocative,” as well as a “whole new language for the instrument, one of harmonic squalls and ringing ostinatos.”9 Bosso also contends that as early as Boy, U2’s creative guitar textures are already in “full bloom,” cascading and layering to create unprecedented rock’n’roll textures.

The very opening of Boy is a case in point. The first track, I Will Follow, opens with the Edge playing a minimalistic ostinato that fills musical space with its ringing, delayed timbres and constant motion, rather than through any type of riff or chord progression. In this way, the Edge breaks with the pattern of rock guitarists, who typically strum full chords or power-chord riffs to establish a song’s forward momentum. The pitches used to open I Will Follow are harmonically ambiguous—a root plus 5th, and then a root plus 4th. Neither major nor minor, these intervals sug-gest musical uncertainty and openness much like the lyrical boy/man ambiguity that fills the album. Like Stravinsky’s approach in Petroushka, the Edge’s materials are compatible with the materials of traditional music, but the way they are used is innovative and would ultimately influence generations of musicians to come. And like Stravinsky, it is not so much that the Edge is inventing new materials, but rather using the same tools as his contemporaries, in this case electric guitars and effects pedals, to create new musical textures. Figure 2 shows the opening guitar figure of I Will Follow. Note that the Edge’s pitches [0,2,7] are a subset of Stravinsky’s [0,2,5,7] set, shown in Figure 1.


Whereas Stravinsky’s timbral and textural palette in his early ballets is drawn from novel combinations and uses of orchestral instruments, U2 set itself apart through extensive electronic processing of the basic guitar timbre, particularly through the use of delay or echo pedals. U2’s use of echo has been widely documented, but it is significant that the Edge recognizes its appeal as a textural tool, not a special effect. “I was drawn to the textural qualities of the echo,” he says, “it was very useful to be able to create multiple rhythms.”10This last statement begs comparison to the many places in the early Stravinsky ballets, where gigantic textures of polyrhythmic and polymetric patterns converge. Although the means are markedly divergent, the results—stacks of exhilarating rhythms and timbres—are curiously similar.

Pre-compositional Sonic Images

The Edge’s guitar techniques have been widely discussed and analyzed, and the band recalls that these basic sounds—open strings used as drones, delay effects, and diatonic rather than blues-oriented patterns—were the foundation for their song-writing process.11 In other words, their sound preceded and inspired their songs. This is particularly instructive when comparing them to Stravinsky, whose compositional process was similarly inspired by timbral resources. Sometimes, like the Edge, Stravinsky would immerse himself in the sound of a particular instrument or effect. Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh recounts how Stravinsky once acquired a cimbalom12 and its sound and melodic-rhythmic technique came to dominate his instrumental thinking for half a decade.13 Walsh goes on to claim that the composer often conceived of pieces first as “images of sonority,”14 and his compositional process as “searching for the right sound.”15 These sonic images led Stravinsky to use orchestral instruments in unprecedented ways, much like the Edge’s fascination with guitar effects led to a new timbral vocabulary. 

Another sonic image that inspired both Stravinsky and the Edge is bells. In many works, but particularly in Les Noces (1952), Stravinsky sought to recreate the effect of ringing bells.16 Bells have also served U2 as a pre-compositional timbral inspiration. From the bell-like harmonics in I Will Follow to Bono’s on-stage admonition, “Make those bells ring, Edge,”17 we find the band placing a value on resonance, and on textures made up of overlapping, sustained sounds.

These similarities in compositional approach reveal a principle that can be applied to many other great modern (and post-modern) musicians. The timbre, or “sonic image,” often precedes the musical substance. This is a clear departure from nineteenth-century music where the musical substance (chiefly melody and harmony) was conceived first, and the sound (orchestration and voicing) was a secondary stage. In rock music, common practice has been to compose the song with voice and guitar or piano (again, chiefly melody and harmony), and later in the recording studio find the sounds and textures that effectively “orchestrate” the song. U2 has of course used this approach, but not particularly early on in their career. The band’s distinctive echo-based, bell-like sound world was formed before they approached songwriting in the traditional way. This ability to take a raw sonority and turn it into musical substance is one mark of musical genius in the musical styles and contexts of the last 100 years.18Musical creativity is no longer concerned primarily with melody and harmony, but equally with sound. The development of sound as expression has taken a more and more important role in progressive music of all genres.

Masterpieces: The Rite of Spring and The Joshua Tree

The premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913 is infamous for the riot it caused, and has become one of the most analyzed and discussed works of the twentieth century.19 The ballet certainly made Stravinsky one of the most widely recognized and imitated composers of his age.20 The rhythmic complexity of the work and the shocking subject matter were too much for many in the refined Parisian audience. Certainly the music has endured due to its brutal rhythmic force, but also due to its completely modern sense of form and musical discourse. If the early ballets hinted at Stravinsky’s potential and quest to lead his generation of composers in new avenues, The Rite of Spring immortalized his revolutionary musical ideas and sealed his influence on all subsequent twentieth-century composers. Even older, well-established composers such as Claude Debussy credited the younger Stravinsky with “enlarging the possibilities of sound”21 through this epochal work.

Theorist and historian Eric Salzman writes that the ballet “unfolds by the complete and explosive rhythmic release of confined and volatile musical energies.”22 Salzman clarifies this by stating that The Rite of Spring takes shape not through traditional line or counterpoint, but through the “juxtaposition of static levels of sound and statement.”23

The emphasis on the static is extremely important in understanding the ways in which The Rite of Spring was radical and why it was widely influential. Certainly on the surface, the rhythmic violence is what gives the work its initial impact, but rhythmic force is not the lone legacy of the ballet. The static sections, where blocks of sound and layers of motionless ostinatos24 churn in place without progression, set the work apart from all predecessors.

The Rite of Spring’s most famous passage, where the so-called Sacre chord is first heard, illustrates this in a powerful way. This “vast, granite, immobile”25 and dissonant polychord is scored in a unique timbre combination—strings, with eight horns doubling only on accented notes. These instrumental colors had been used by other composers for the warmest, most lyrical, and most beautiful passages, but Stravinsky combines them to create the impression of a gigantic, prehistoric drum. In one section this chord is repeated 280 times without changing. Rather than following voice-leading implications or trying to find contrasting harmonies, Stravinsky repeats the chord, creating unprecedented stasis. Salzman calls Stravinsky’s approach an “additive” process and adds that Stravinsky uses “static ostinatos in repetitive, alternating cycles which gain vitality and even a sense of motion by being constantly re-interpreted in shifting accent, rhythm, and meter.”26

With The Joshua Tree (1987), U2 also sealed their importance and influence on late twentieth-century popular music. The album was an international success, having three top-40 hits in the United States alone. The band’s new popularity was enhanced by a growing reputation for exciting live concerts and gigantic stadium shows.

The Joshua Tree’s reputation is centered in its strong songwriting and creative textures rather than in any kind of overwhelming radicalism. Nevertheless, there are moments of aggression and violence. Bullet the Blue Sky, the album’s fourth track, is one of the most aggressive songs of U2’s career, and features each band member contributing in an angry and powerful way. From Bono’s growling vocals to Larry’s pounding drums, the song is one that tries to stretch rock’s ability to express the vehement. The Edge’s guitar entrance features a dissonant four-note harmony that defies traditional chord names. Although not as dissonant as Stravinsky’s Sacre chord, this harmony impacts the listener in a similar manner. The chord sets a tense, distraught tone that will be explored in the song. It should be noted that this harmony forms the same [0,2,5,7] pitch class that was discussed in relation to Stravinsky’s Petroushka. While this pitch collection can be found melodically in other places in popular song, it is not common as a sustained harmony in rock music and shows U2 exploring noise and dissonance as expressive devices, much like Stravinsky’s approach in The Rite of Spring. Figure 3 shows the opening tetrachord of Bullet the Blue Sky. 


Static textures also play an important role in The Joshua Tree. A notable example of this is the opening of Where the Streets Have No Name. A theorist might describe the song’s introduction as “tonality by assertion,” rather than progression. The chiming, delayed guitar part establishes relationships between certain tones that remain constant throughout the song. This notion of tonality by assertion, of repeating a pattern to establish the tonal meaning of the work, is exactly the manner in which Salzman describes Stravinsky’s approach to diatonicism.27 The song does feature chord changes, but they establish a very slow harmonic rhythm that is anchored by static pedal points in both the high and low registers of the texture. This gives the listener the impression of stasis, and makes harmonic progression a less important part of the musical substance.

The Minimalist Connection

The noted similarities in various parameters between U2 and Stravinsky invite the question of whether there is any Stravinskian influence on the music of U2 and other rock musicians. Certainly, there is no direct, provable connection, no close genetic relationship between Stravinsky and U2. None of the members of U2 are trained classical musicians, and there is no evidence that they are aware of Stravinsky’s early twentieth-century achievements. The point is not a direct connection, but rather the mutual concerns for exploring compositional language and creative process. That being said, it has been pointed out that Stravinsky’s music, among many other musical and cultural factors, is indeed an influence on the repetitive structures common in all popular music of the last forty years. Susan McClary, writing on the prevalence of static repetition in all corners of pop music, states that: “My convoluted genealogy would have to include Stravinsky’s primitivism.”28 The point is not that rock musicians such as U2 are directly influenced by Stravinsky’s ostinatos, but rather that Stravinsky encouraged a musical culture in which static patterns could be explored. This openness to new ways of building up musical texture influenced all subsequent musicians and has become a common phenomenon in rock music. 

Minimalism, a highly repetitive development in classical music that came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s, forms an interesting intermediate stage between certain ostinato-driven repetitive passages in Stravinsky and the chiming repetitions of bands such as U2. Historian Glenn Watkins writes that the “sense of fluctuating stasis” in all minimal music can be traced to many places, including static sections in Stravinsky works.29 The echoes of minimalism, in turn, can be heard in the music of many rock musicians, including the progressive experiments of Pink Floyd and The Talking Heads, among others.30 In addition, important popular musicians such as David Bowie and U2 producer Brian Eno often attended performances31 or worked with the leading minimalist composers of the 1970s.32David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, has collaborated in both directions, producing rock music with Eno and working with minimalist Phillip Glass in musical theater.33 Eno, Bowie, and Byrne have taken a number of elements from minimalism, including Stravinskian ostinatos and an interest in manipulating musical texture through electronics.34 Some have even argued that classical minimalism is a foundational element in all pop music of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in any styles labeled as “techno”—styles which U2 explored with varying degrees of success in the 1990s.35

Eno, whose importance in the U2 story cannot be underestimated, once described minimalism as a “drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space.”36 Eno, in turn, encouraged U2 to explore minimalistic approaches to song structure. “Working with Eno,” the Edge recalls, “the idea was keep this two-chord mantra going, keep it going, keep it going, as long as we could stand it.”37 Edge’s remarks refer to the song Bad, but could easily fit the repetitive approach to many U2 songs. Minimalism’s infiltration of popular music had its most chart-topping success with the music of bands such as U2.38

The minimalist connection between repetitive passages in Stravinsky and U2 does not result, as stated previously, from a direct genetic relationship. It does, however, give the reader a deeper understanding of how repetition and layered textures are used by modern musicians to create tension and a new means of musical expression. In much modern music, whether it is labeled classical or popular, tension builds and expression takes place as ostinatos repeat in various combinations and texture takes a primary articulative role.

Stylistic Borrowings and Multi-media Art Forms

Every Poet is A Thief

The Rite of Spring, in spite of its radical approach to rhythm and its embrace of static ostinati, was not the end of Stravinsky’s artistic development. The next few decades were filled with musical developments of many sorts, including an important neo-classical phase. When other classical composers were trying to remove every vestige of the past, pushing through atonality toward the avant-garde, the experimental, and the ultra-modern, Stravinsky’s neo-classical compositions posed something of an artistic risk. This period produced works that were peppered with the influences of the past. The gestures of Hadyn and Mozart, the counterpoint of Bach, and the formal and motivic development of Beethoven, emerged with a completely Stravinskian, mid-twentieth-century twist.

Stravinsky’s neo-classical works should not be thought of as copies, or in modern pop terminology as “covers” or “remixes.” They are original, fresh works of art, cast in the outward gestures of pre-existing styles. Stravinsky’s ability to do this while keeping his own voice was not limited to the sounds of the classical past. His output also includes flirtations with jazz, ragtime, tango, and many other repertoires. At the end of his life, Stravinsky even adopted the serial techniques of his primary rival, Arnold Schoenberg, again with his own distinctive results. Composers of the nineteenth century had come to bear a burden of originality, where each new work was expected to forge ahead stylistically and the influence of other styles and composers was not supposed to be obvious. Stravinsky, of course, went in just the opposite direction. His genius was that every stylistic option and every historical precedent was allowed to influence, inspire, and emerge in a new way.

U2 also went through a period of rediscovery of the past. This period, although brief, saw the band exploring the blues, Elvis Pressley, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, among others. The product of this exploration can be heard in the uneven but passionate album and film Rattle and Hum (1988). Much like Stravinsky’s classical models, U2 seems to be both paying tribute to and seeking inspiration from the greats of classic rock. One of the great ironies of this approach is U2’s failure to play other’s songs and styles with authenticity. In spite of the high level of expressive musicianship in the band, as well as the sincere performances, U2 cannot escape sounding like U2—and this is further evidence of their unique creative voice.

U2’s exploration of pre-existing styles did not end with Rattle and Hum. The band’s trilogy of albums in the 1990s (Achtung Baby [1991], Zooropa [1993], and Pop[1997]) saw them incorporating a host of sounds and techniques from a number of contemporary sources—including industrial guitar sounds, dance-club beats, DJ-remixes, and many other “techno” influences. Many longtime fans felt U2 was losing what made it great, while many techno purists saw U2 as posers who had run out of original ideas. Hindsight, however, shows these explorations to be sincere, highly original, and full of musical substance. On the surface, a song such as Discotheque (1997) strongly resembles dance-club and techno music, and is distinctly unlike U2’s sound of the 1980s. On the flip side, the Edge’s signature guitar playing, the formal arch of the song, and the probing lyrics reveal a work that could only have been done by U2. In another well-documented example, The Wanderer (1997) shows U2 borrowing, perhaps even distorting, the clichés of country music. A stereotypical country bass-line is reworked with a distinctly non-country synthesizer patch, while the prophetic voice of Johnny Cash sings Bono’s soul-searching lyrics.

The stylistic connotations and references that appear in the work of both Stravinsky and U2 show musical thinking that is characterized by an insatiable curiosity and a rare lack of prejudice about the many stylistic options for the art of music. They are examples of modern artists willing to discard the requirement of stylistic originality, and in so doing to create works with surprising poignancy and power.

Multi-media: The Twentieth-Century Gesamtkunstwerk

Although both U2 and Stravinsky are primarily known as musicians, each has exceptional theatrical abilities. Stravinsky’s innovations were often collaborations with other artists (choreographers, as well as costume and set designers). Similarly, U2’s approach to the multi-art rock experience is visual and collaborative. Photography, film, and stagecraft enhance the power of their music.

Music has, of course, had a long and productive relationship with other art forms—ballet, poetry, and drama to name a few. Nevertheless, since the nineteenth century, music and other art forms have become increasingly enjoined. In much modern music, it is almost assumed that a visual spectacle will accompany the music. This assumption comes from both sides—the composers realize this before the music is written, and the audience expects a show, whether that show is dance, lights, video clips, or the on-stage antics of a rock band.

The compositional process of The Firebird, Petroushka, and The Rite of Spring must be understood as originating from a multimedia conception. As music theorist Robert Morgan contends, this music “was conceived as an integral part of a complete artistic conception that also encompassed drama, dance, staging, and set design.”39 He goes on to state that Stravinsky worked closely with experts in all other artistic fields on these ballet productions. Stravinsky’s partnerships with others, particularly the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, were not unusual in the world of ballet. However, Morgan argues that this was not just routine coordination between the composer and other parties in a ballet production, but one that inspired Stravinsky to a “new conception of musical structure.”40 In other words, Stravinsky’s work was so integrated with that of other artists that the results were unprecedented. Stravinsky’s practice can be seen as related to Richard Wagner’s conception of the “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or complete artwork,41 but Stravinsky achieved a more rounded artistic balance and collaborative atmosphere than his nineteenth-century predecessors. Stravinsky’s partnerships with visual artists, choreographers, and literary figures such as Pablo Picasso, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Jean Cocteau are impressive. The artistic equilibrium he achieved is also noteworthy—he valued the input of other artistic minds as vital to the overall impact of his music, and in many cases as a source of inspiration for his musical inventions.42

U2 is of course well known for the integrative spectacle of their concerts. Video images, elaborate staging, a variety of costumes and characters, and many other theatrical devices are part of their concert identity. Their tours are highly anticipated entertainment events, each casting a unique theatrical shadow on the live music industry. Their music can stand alone, of course, much like recorded performances of Stravinsky’s scores, but there is an assumption that the songs will always be staged. When the band writes songs and releases recordings, they know they will eventually present these songs onstage, in a form of musical the-ater. Like Stravinsky, they work with a host of stage designers, videographers, and other experts to create their elaborate shows. There is even a book dedicated to this collaborative aspect, appropriately entitled, “U2 Show.”43

Certainly U2’s theatrical extravagance is a more recent phenomenon, particularly because early in their career they did not have the resources for large-scale spectacle. But from the beginning, Bono noted the theatrical aspect of his art. “Rock’n’roll is always married into theater, poetry, lots of mediums,” he said in 1982.44 U2 recognized that they were not simply music makers; they knew that their art was also visual, theatrical, and literary.

This theatrical and visual commonality between the careers of Stravinsky and U2 can give us a perspective on the musical values of the twentieth century. As technology and taste have made multi-media approaches more common and even expected of creative artists, music has ceased to be a self-contained art form. The absolute music of the classical era has given way to the multisensory rock concert experience. Even the act of buying a record, CD, or digital download is a visual and literary experience as fans read lyric sheets and study album art. In this multi-media context it is important to not that the music of truly exceptional talents can stand alone without the trappings of theatrical enhancements. These artists embrace collaboration and incorporate other art forms, but they also compose music that is masterful on its own.

Spiritual Perspectives: Temptation and Prayer

All of This Can Be Yours

The temptation of Christ, as told in the Gospels, climaxes as Satan offers him everything that can corrupt a man. “All of this,” whether it be power, riches, fame, or success, represents an immediate, physical, and unquestionably enjoyable temptation. But the ramifications for Jesus, and for all of humanity, are devastating in the spiritual domain. Christians believe that although Jesus represents a spiritual “every-man,” tempted in every possible way, those that follow must still live in a world in which the tensions between the flesh and the spirit play out continu-ally. In a sense, all Faustian legends relate back to this temptation of Christ. The way that U2 and Stravinsky both explore the temptations and tensions between celebrity and faith serve as a further commonality in their work.

Stravinsky’s spiritual journey is instructive. As a young composer, he was catapulted to fame and influence through the success of his early ballets. He grew accustomed to seeing his name in print, to hearing the applause of adoring audiences, and being feted by Parisian socialites. Stravinsky’s reflections on the temptations of success are expressed in two key works—The Soldier’s Tale (1918)and The Rake’s Progress (1951).

The Soldier’s Tale, an ingenious composition for chamber ensemble and narrator (with dance, acting, and staging often added) tells the story of a young soldier, who sells his eternal soul to the devil, in return for riches and success in the business world. Stravinsky’s music references many styles and trends of his era, notably jazz, and shows his ability to recast forms of the past (for example, the Lutheran chorale) in new, seemingly out-of-focus ways that heighten the effect of the work’s moral message. One wonders if Stravinsky’s own fame and success prompted his cautionary tale.

Over three decades later, Stravinsky returned to a similar theme in the opera The Rake’s Progress. The entire opera is an exercise in neo-classicism, where the gestures and approaches of the past are heard with a distinctly modern twist. The story concerns a young man who deserts true love in order to pursue riches and city life. In the end his closest adviser turns out to be the devil and he is reduced to nothing, financially and spiritually devastated. The opera is, of course, not an explicitly Christian or sacred work, but functions rather as a sort of moral parable, and is infused with Christian values. It should be noted that Stravinsky wrote the work almost two decades after his return to the Greek Orthodox faith, and around the same time that he composed landmark sacred works such as his Mass(1948) and Canticum Sacrum (1955). By this point, Stravinsky’s Christianity was integrated into all aspects of his musical output.

Stravinsky never renounced the life of a famous artist—he seemed to enjoy the spoils of success, while always mindful of spiritual realities. This brings to mind the tone and emphases of U2’s work in the 1990s. From Bono’s lyrics to the various on-stage personae he used, the band was at once criticizing and enjoying the temptations of the rock star life. Bono seemed to be saying that since the spirit and the flesh are in constant battle, we should just enjoy the fight.

Bono’s most notorious foray into these issues is his on-stage character MacPhisto. A reference to Mephistopheles of Faust fame, Bono’s devil parody in MacPhisto has been described as “the alter-ego for Bono and every other bloated rock star, every poor lost showbiz, fame-addicted entertainer.”45 It also shows an affinity for C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Lewis’s approach is to fight the devil by getting inside his head, and seeing the world through the eyes of hell. Much like the devil in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, Bono’s MacPhisto is entertaining, powerful stage-craft, and a bone-chilling experience for those who believe in the reality of spiritual evil.

I Waited Patiently for the Lord

The above description of so many devil-themed works could suggest an unhealthy infatuation with evil, but a careful study of both Stravinsky’s and U2’s catalogues reveals a clear spiritual balance. Many works are prayers, asking God for help, and others are songs of praise.

A discussion of Stravinsky’s sacred works should begin with the understanding that there is a long tradition in classical music of composers being active in both explicitly religious and non-religious works. In other words, there has never been the strong dichotomy between the sacred and secular that often labels popular music. That being said, the circle of composers in which Stravinsky found himself in the early twentieth century was a group with little interest in composing for any Christian church. Stravinsky stands out as one who composed some of his great-est works with Christian intent. Furthermore, it should be noted that Stravinsky considered himself a Christian. Having left the church as a teenager, Stravinsky describes his return to the Greek Orthodox faith as a “conversion” that was inspired by a reading of the Gospels and a deep friendship with an orthodox priest.46

In compositions such as the Symphony of Psalms (1930),Requiem Canticles (1966), and Threni (1957), Stravinsky seems to step back from self-gratifying celebrity and focus on worship. In the Symphony of Psalms, he sets a number of psalm texts as serious prayers. It is noteworthy that the second movement uses the same text (Psalm 40 in Protestant Bibles and 39 in Eastern Orthodox numbering) as the well-known U2 song 40 (1983):

I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry.
He lifted me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay.
He set my feet upon a rock, and made my footsteps firm.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.47

In addition to 40, many other U2 songs feature prayerful, psalm-like lyrics, notably the victorious Yahweh (1997), and others such as Wake Up Dead Man (1997), and Love Rescue Me (1988), that are prayers that question and complain in a manner often found in the psalms. Much has been written about U2’s approach to faith and the integration of Christian ideas in their music. Both U2 and Stravinsky serve as archetypes, perhaps even models to imitate, of artists who express Christian faith in ways that impact listeners outside the church. These two artists achieved what eluded so many Christian musicians of the twentieth century—the ears and the respect of the musical establishment. Significantly, we sense with both U2 and Stravinsky that these are genuine, honest prayers. There is no trite Bible-bashing, and no ritualistic formulas.


The twenty-first century presents the listener with a dizzying number of musical options—traditional repertoires and new styles intermingle increasingly. And yet, even though a huge range of genres is part of our musical culture, many listeners persist with the assumption that these musical styles have little in common or even have irreconcilable differences. There have been, of course, many attempts at various kinds of musical fusion, but this discussion has focused on artists who are clearly linked with a particular tradition, as opposed to those who consciously attempt to fuse disparate styles. In other words, Stravinsky never worked outside the parameters of classical music, and U2 has never been anything but a rock band, but nevertheless there is a resemblance in their respective artistic achievements, their approaches to dealing with fame, and their spiritual journeys. 

This paper has also explored a number of fortuitous similarities in their compositional processes and musical values, particularly a manner of thinking about music that values timbral exploration and textural sophistication as much the traditional emphasis on melody and harmony. The reader is encouraged to explore this and other music with a renewed interest in listening to and understanding the craft of timbre and texture that both Stravinsky and U2 display. As archetypes of compositional approaches that value texture and timbre, these artists teach us how to listen to progressive music in new and more meaningful ways. The comparative exercises found in this paper should equip us for more perceptive listening and understanding of music that pushes these parameters to the forefront of musical expression.

Masterful creative artists of any genre or era take the art of music seriously and personally. Each composition is crafted to the best of their ability and reflects their creative impulses. Each work is also a human document that expresses who they are as a person, including the spiritual domain. For both Stravinsky and the four members of U2, music was and continues to be a fundamental means of personal expression and an inevitable vocation. All discussions of shared pitch-class sets and pre-compositional sonic images should not obscure the fact the greatest artists create out of a deep love for music and a desire to contribute to the musical profession. Both U2 and Stravinsky have left us with a large body of work that is broadly influential, deeply human in meaning, and at times, exquisitely beautiful. The spiritual substance of their output is also part of their lasting legacy. Works that artfully speak to spiritual concerns such as joy, sadness, good, evil, longing, and praise will long outlive the musicians themselves.

Cite this article
mstine, “U2 and Igor Stravinsky: Textures, Timbres, and the Devil”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:2 , 147-162


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  2. Glenn Watkins, Soundings: Music in the Twentieth Century (New York: Schirmer Books, 1995), 209.
  3. Robert Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 94.
  4. Joel Lester, Analytic Approaches to Twentieth-Century Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 131.
  5. Ibid., 93, 109-111, and 124-127.
  6. Hank Bordowitz and John Swenson, The U2 Reader (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003), 1.
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  9. Ibid.
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  12. A hammered dulcimer, common in Eastern European peasant music that produces a strident, percussive timbre.
  13. Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky A Creative Spring: Russia and France 1882-1934 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 248.
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  15. Ibid., 51.
  16. Ibid., 83.
  17. Chris Tollefson, “The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry,” in U2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher an Atomic Band, ed. Mark A. Wrathall (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2006), 198.
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  21. Watkins, Soundings, 218.
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  23. Ibid., 30.
  24. Ibid., 45.
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  27. Ibid., 50.
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  31. Ross, The Rest is Noise, 475.
  32. John Adams, Hallelujah Junction (New York: Ferrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2008), 75. Post-minimalist composer John Adams reveals that his first commercial recording was produced by Brian Eno.
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  36. Ross, The Rest is Noise, 475.
  37. Bosso, “Memory Man,” 66.
  38. Ross, The Rest is Noise, 542.
  39. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music, 91.
  40. Ibid., 92.
  41. Walsh, A Creative Spring, 128.
  42. Ibid., 142.
  43. Diana Scrimgeour, U2 Show (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004).
  44. Richard Cook, “A Dreamboat Named Desire,” New Musical Express (February 27, 1982): 28.
  45. Gavin Martin, “Dandy’s Inferno,” New Musical Express (May 22, 1993): 28.
  46. Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments (University of California Press, 1962), 75.
  47. Psalm 40, New American Standard version.