Igor Stravinsky

(17 June 1882 - 6 April 1971)

Stravinsky is one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He is known for his impressive stylistic diversity. His masterpieces explore neo-nationalism in his early ballets, nationalism around the World War I era, neo-classicism between the 1920s and 50s, and a more personal style in the last decade of his life. Although he lived and worked in numerous places besides his native Russia, he never lost touch with his Russian origins.

Stravinsky was born near St. Petersburg in 1882 to a family of upper class origins. He grew up within walking distance of the Mariinksy Theatre, where Stravinsky’s father, Fyodor, a professional opera singer, had made his debut in Gounod’s Faust. Stravinsky’s mother was a fine amateur pianist and his father moved in the same social circles as Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky and lots of prominent music critics and conductors. The Stravinsky household was one that was rich in the arts and where the young Igor thrived as a pianist and composer.

He entered St. Petersburg University as a law student, where he met Rimsky-Korsakov’s youngest son Vladimir, leading Stravinsky to become a pupil of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov himself. Despite his confidence in young Stravinsky’s abilities, he advised him against entering the conservatory because of his lack of formal musical training that Rimsky-Korsakov thought might discourage him from developing as a composer. During his law studies, he continued to attend lessons and compose increasingly impressive works for his mentor such as his Piano Sonata in F# minor and the first draft of his Symphony in E flat, which was finished in 1905 and performed in 1908, with a positive response from the public, Stravinsky’s first ever press attention.


Artist Picture

It was at the end of this decade that Stravinsky met the choreographer Diaghilev, the start of a long and fruitful collaboration. Between December 1909 and May 1910, Stravinsky composed most of The Firebird suite, in which he paid tribute to his teacher’s idea of depicting evil or supernatural with chromatics and conveying good or human through folksong or diatonics. The Firebird was finally complete and ready for the public by June, in which it was premiered by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Ópera in Paris, which met a spectacular reception.

Photo (left): Igor Stravinsky, left, and Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, at Croydon Airport in London in 1926.
Credit: Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection, New York

Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church's greatest ornament.

In Paris, Stravinsky met composers Debussy, Ravel and Satie as well as many writers such as Marcel Proust. His early years in St. Petersburg seemed provincial in comparison and he decided to stay in Western Europe for extended periods, composing the Verlaine songs op. 9 in Brittany and the beginnings of Petruschka in Lausanne.

The Rite of Spring, or Le Sacre du Printemps was premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, resulting in riots and hostile reviews. It was thought to be one of the harshest, most violent orchestral pieces in history, full of dissonances and extremes in volumes and people thought the music and choreography were exaggeratedly punctuated with aggression and primitivism. Behind all this rioting and outrage lay the emergence of uniquely fresh ideas about tonality, style and form, which would develop further in his works to follow.

During a time of exile during World War I in Switzerland, Stravinsky spent a period of undisturbed creativity, unhindered by travel or significant concerts. He met many writers, one of whom he collaborated with on Histoire du Soldat. Stravinsky and Ramuz wrote Histoire du Soldat as a small-scale touring theatre piece that would cost very little to perform with just a couple of musicians, a couple of actors and a portable stage. However, by the time it premiered, this wartime financial consideration became arbitrary because it received generous patronage from a millionaire tea tycoon, Werner Reinhardt. The piece is a moral tale which contains subtle Russian dances as well as a tango, a waltz, a Lutheran chorale, a ragtime and a march. Stravinsky also wrote his Three Pieces for Clarinet as a token of gratitude to Werner Reinhardt who was a competent amateur clarinettist. These pieces can also be perceived as subtle dances, much in line with the style of the Histoire du Soldat.

Stravinsky’s return to the Paris stage was in the neo-classical idiom, for Pulcinella, which was a theatre work containing Picasso’s neo-commedia designs and Massine’s choreography based on 18th century Italian examples.

After completing his Piano Sonata in 1924 he travelled to the United States. He appeared in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and Cincinatti.

In 1924, Stravinsky played with the idea of writing a symphony but abandoned it in favour of his Oedipus rex, which is characterised by a certain neo-classical lightness. Four years later, Stravinsky completed his Apollo suite. It is in stark contrast to the Rite of Spring in its clarity, calmness and order that depicts the birth and life of the god Apollo, which gave musicologists plenty to discuss.

I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.

Stravinsky made another American tour in 1935, this time travelling from east coast to west coast and the following year visited South America, conducting in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo. He was also commissioned to compose for the American Ballet Company which himself and Balanchine had set up in 1935. In 1937 he began another North America tour in which he sketched his Symphony in C, this time beginning in Toronto and travelling west.

Stravinksy died in his Fifth Avenue apartment in New York and his body was subsequently flown back to Europe where he was buried close to Diaghilev on the Island of San Michele in the Venetian lagoon.

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