Stravinsky, Igor

Period: Early 20th Century

Born: Saturday, June 17, 1882 in Oranienbaum (near St. Petersburg), Russia

Died: Tuesday, April 6, 1971 in New York, New York (USA)

Nation of Origin: Russia

Major Works:

Firebird Suite
Petrushka Suite
The Rite of Spring

Other Information:

Igor Fydorovich Stravinsky was born on 17 June 1882 at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland opposite Kronstadt and near St Petersburg, Russia. He was a son of Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky (1843 - 1902) a principal bass at the Imerial Opera in St. Petersburg who made over 1200 appearances in 64 roles during his career. Igor Stravinsky took his first piano lessons when he was 9 years old. Very soon he spent his time at piano improvising and not practicing his piano exercises. He also spent a lot of time reading and memorizing opera scores that he was able to find in his father's huge library. Perhaps his first contact with live music was when his father took him to the opera. Later in life, Stravinsky mentioned this first contact, but credited his sudden interest in music to a performance of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony ("Symphonie Patéthique") which was performed in memory of Tchaikovsky who had died recently in 1893.

Since his parents did not want Igor to study music and wanted him to enter a profession, Stravinsky studied law at the University of St Petersburg. To satisfy his need for music, he still had piano lessons and went to concerts. Meeting Rimsky-Korsakov's son gave him an opportunity to be a frequent guest at the world-famous composer's house. Rimsky-Korsakov saw a great talent of his guest, and in 1903 he offered to give Stravinsky private lessons - an offer Stravinsky did not decline.

Rimsky-Korsakov organized concerts in St Petersburg at which his students' works were performed. In 1909, at one of these concerts, Stravinsky's first mature compositions "Scherzo fantastique" (written 1907-08) and "Fireworks" (written 1908) had their premieres. It was a good fortune for Stravinsky that Serge Diaghilev attended this very performance. Diaghilev earlier that year formed his famous dance troupe "Ballet Russe" gathering great names of that period like russian dancer Vaclav Nijinski and choreographer Mikhail Fokine. Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to write for his troupe a ballet on a legend of "The Firebird" because Anatoly Lyadov, the composer from whom Diaghilev first commissioned the score, failed to meet the deadline. "The Firebird", ballet in 1 act and 3 scenes, was written during 1909 and 1910 and first performed in 1910 in Paris with choreography by Fokine. It was a tremendous success and made Stravinsky world-famous overnight. Diaghilev was delighted and for the next season Stravinsky wrote "Petrushka" (1910-11) another ballet for Diaghilev's troupe. "Petrushka" was first performed before an audience in Paris on June 13, 1911, with Nijinsky in the title role. While working on the score for "The Firebird", Stravinsky "had a fleeting vision..." as he later recounted. It was a vision of a solemn pagan rite of sacrifice of a young girl to please the god of spring. In 1911, after the successful performance of "Petrushka" Stravinsky got an opportunity to make his vision come true. From 1911 till the beginning of 1913 he was working on a score for "The Rite of Spring" ("Le Sacre du Printemps") subtitled "Scenes of Pagan Russia" - the new ballet for "Ballet Russe" troupe.

Date: May 29, 1913, place: Thétre des Champs-Elysées, Paris; event: the most notorious world premiere in the history of music - the world premiere of "The Rite of Spring". Things went wrong at the very beginning - during the playing of the opening bars famous french composer Camille Saint-Saens walked out complaining loudly for misuse of the bassoon in a very high register. Soon other loud complaints were heard which gradually turned into a riot. The audience was so loud that the dancers were unable to hear the music played by the orchestra beneath them. Debussy and Ravel tried in vain to calm the audience. By this event modernism came into world of music and Stravinsky became the prince of the avant-garde. But the music was not the only problem. Many thought that Nijinsky's choreography reflected Stravinsky's denial of all "rules" in music. Also, the tale, music and choreography called for controversial clan scenes and cosmography.

When World War I began, Stravinsky moved with his family to Switzerland where he continued to compose. Wartime conditions forced Stravinsky to write pieces for smaller groups. Two of his most popular pieces dating from this "Switzerland period" are "Les Noces" ("The Wedding", 1914-17) and "L'histoire du soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale", 1918). "Les Noces", subtitled "Choreographic Scenes with song and music", describes a typical Russian ritualistic wedding. The text, arranged in 4 scenes, was adapted by the composer from Russian folk songs. After trying with several accompaniments for predominantly vocal parts (4 soloists and mixed choir), Stravinsky decided to employ 4 pianos and 17 percussion instruments. "L'histoire du soldat", theater piece in two parts, is mixture of music for 12 instruments, 2 spoken roles and 2 danced parts (no singers). Stravinsky wrote it in collaboration with C.F. Ramuz in 1918 on a Russian folk tale about a Soldier who makes a pact with the Devil. Despite its Russian background, the music for "L'histoire" is not nationalistic but shows contemporary and cosmopolitan influences like American jazz and ragtime. Stravinsky himself said this piece was his "final break with the Russian orchestral school."

Being unable to return to Russia due to new Communist regime, Stravinsky settled in Paris after the war and became a French citizen in 1934. There he continued his collaboration with Diaghilev and choreographer Massine writing for them "Pulcinella" (1920), ballet in one scene with song for soprano, tenor and bass soloists and small ensemble. The whole music is "re-composition" of different pieces attributed to the Italian baroque master Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. This piece inaugurates Stravinsky's neo-classical period by which Stravinsky (in a way) rediscovered the past in a time when avant-garde music was flourishing all over the world. Works written in France in the neo-classical manner include the opera-oratorio in 2 acts "Oedipus Rex" (1927), based on Sophocle's most famous tragedy (text arranged by Jean Cocteau and translated in Latin) and the ballet "Apollon Musagete" ("Apollo the Leader of the Muses, 1927) written for the festival of contemporary music in Washington DC (choreography by Balanchine).

In late 1930s Stravinsky was tired of old Europe: another war was imminent, his wife and one daughter had died of tuberculosis, and French critics who violently attacked him for "Le Sacre du printemps" (calling it "Le Massacre du printemps") were now complaining about his new neo-classical style. In 1939 he moved to the United States of America with his mistress Vera de Bossett and settled in Hollywood in 1940. This was an obvious move since he had some wealthy admirers in the USA. Serge Koussevitsky, a prominent conductor, was already championing his works and commissioned the "Symphony of Psalms" (1930) for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After settling in the USA, Stravinsky composed some of his best neo-classical works including "Symphony in Three Movements" (1942-45) which Stravinsky described as his "War Symphony" and his only full-length opera "The Rake's Progress" (1947-51), inspired by Hogarth's series of eight paintings presenting Tom Rakewell's descent into madness (libretto by W. H. Auden and C. Kallman).

Hollywood was at that time a mecca for exiled European artists like Schoenberg and other avant-garde composers but it seems that Stravinsky avoided them. It was the young American conductor Robert Craft who discreetly introduced Stravinsky to some key avant-garde music. Stravinsky was most deeply impressed by the music of Anton Webern. Gradually Stravinsky began to use the twelve-tone system resulting in the astonishing work "Agon" (1957) (agon in Greek means "contest") in which Stravinsky combined tradition and modernity.

Towards the end of his life Igor Stravinsky achieved a great celebrity being feted by Pope John Paul XXIII, the Kennedys and even Nikita Khrushchev during his triumphant visit to his homeland in 1962.

Igor Fydorovich Stravinsky died in New York on April 6, 1971. As he had requested, he was buried on Venice's cemetery island San Michel near his old companion and friend Serge Diaghilev.

Stravinsky's legacy is vast. He wrote operas, ballets, orchestral music (symphonies and pieces for solo instrument and orchestra) works for piano, voices and instrument, unaccompanied voices, and chamber music. But it is his diverse style, ranging from Russian-influenced early pieces through music for "Le sacre du printemps" to neo-classicism and modernism, that makes him an outstanding figure in 20th-century music.

It would not be practical to list outstanding recordings of Stravinsky's works because there are so many of them. It is simpler to point to conductors who have championed Stravinsky's works to critical acclaim. They include Pierre Boulez, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kent Nagano, Robert Craft, and Michael Tilson-Thomas. It should be noted that Stravinsky started his conducting career in his late years. But since Stravinsky was not an outstanding conductor those recordings are mainly of historical interest.

Alen Hadzovic
June 2000
Used by permission of the author

Essay contributed by:
Alen Hadzovic

General Bibliography:

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186

Salzman, Eric, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, Pearson, October 2001, ISBN: 0130959413

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

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