Background information Birth name Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky Born June 17, 1882
Origin Saint Petersburg, Russia Died April 6, 1971
New York City, NY, USA
Genre(s) Neoclassicism Occupation(s) Composer, Conductor, Pianist Years active 1909 - 1971
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (Russian: Игорь Фёдорович Стравинский, Igor' Fëdorovič Stravinskij) (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971) was a Russian composer, considered by many in both the West and his native land to be the most influential composer of 20th-century music. He was a quintessentially cosmopolitan Russian who was named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people of the century. In addition to the recognition he received for his compositions, he also achieved fame as a pianist and a conductor, often at the premieres of his works.
Stravinsky's compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Serge Diaghilev and performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet): L'Oiseau de feu ("The Firebird") (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Le sacre du printemps ("The Rite of Spring") (1913). The Rite, whose premiere provoked a riot, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure; to this day its vision of pagan rituals enacted in an imaginary ancient Russia continues to dazzle and overwhelm audiences.
After this first, Russian, phase he turned in the 1920s to neoclassicism. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue, symphony), frequently concealed a vein of intense emotion beneath a surface appearance of detachment or austerity, and often paid tribute to the music of earlier masters, for example J.S. Bach, Verdi and Tchaikovsky.
In the 1950s he adopted serial procedures, using the new techniques over the final twenty years of his life to write works that were briefer and of greater rhythmic, harmonic, and textural complexity than his earlier music. Their intricacy notwithstanding, these pieces share traits with all of Stravinsky's earlier output; rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few cells comprising only two or three notes, and clarity of form, instrumentation, and of utterance.
He was also a writer and compiled, with the help of Alexis Roland-Manuel, a theoretical work entitled Poetics of Music, in which he famously claimed that music was incapable of "expressing anything but itself." Several interviews in which the composer spoke to Robert Craft were published as Conversations with Stravinsky. They collaborated on five further volumes over the following decade.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Personality
- 3 Stylistic periods
- 4 Influence and innovation
- 5 Criticism
- 6 Trivia
- 7 Recordings
- 8 Media
- 9 List of works
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum (renamed Lomonosov in 1948), Russia and brought up in Saint Petersburg. His childhood, he recalled in his autobiography, was troublesome: "I never came across anyone who had any real affection for me." His father Fyodor Stravinsky was a bass singer at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, and the young Stravinsky began piano lessons and later studied music theory and attempted some composition. In 1890, Stravinsky saw a performance of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theate; the performance, his first exposure to an orchestra, mesmerized him. At fourteen, he had mastered Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto in G minor, and the next year, he finished a piano reduction of one of Alexander Glazunov's string quartets.
Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected him to become a lawyer. Stravinsky enrolled to study law at the University of St. Petersburg in 1901, but was ill-suited for it, attending fewer than fifty class sessions in four years. After the death of his father in 1902, he had already begun spending more time on his musical studies. Stravinsky received his jurisprudence degree in 1907, and was then able to concentrate all his efforts on music. On the advice of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, probably the leading Russian composer of the time, he decided not to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatoire; instead, in 1905, he began to take twice-weekly private tutelage from Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a second father to him.
That same year, he became engaged to his cousin Katerina Nossenko, whom he had known since early childhood. They were married on 23 January 1906, and their first two children, Feodor and Ludmilla, were born in 1907 and 1908 respectively.
In 1909, his Feu d'artifice (Fireworks), was performed in St Petersburg, where it was heard by Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes in Paris. Diaghilev was sufficiently impressed to commission Stravinsky for orchestrations, and then for a full-length ballet score, L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird).
Stravinsky travelled to Paris in 1910 to attend the premiere of The Firebird. His family joined him shortly after, and they decided to remain in the west for a while. He moved to Switzerland, where he remained until 1920, moving between Clarens and Lausanne. During this time he composed three further works for the Ballets Russes—Petrushka (1911), written in Lausanne, and Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1913) and Pulcinella, both written in Clarens.
While the Stravinskys were in Switzerland, their second son, Soulima, and their second daughter, Maria Milena, were born, in 1910 and 1913 respectively. During this last pregnancy, Katerina was found to have tuberculosis, and she was placed in a Swiss sanatarium for her confinement. After a brief return to Russia in July 1914 to collect research materials for Les Noces, Stravinsky left his homeland and returned to Switzerland just before the war closed the borders. He was not to return for nearly fifty years.
He moved to France in 1920. After a short stay near Paris, he then moved with his family to the south of France until 1934, when he returned to Paris to take up residence at the rue Fabourg St.-Honoré. Stravinsky later recalled this as his last and unhappiest European address; his wife's tuberculosis infected his eldest daughter Ludmila, and Stravinsky himself. Ludmila died in 1938, Katerina in the following year. While Stravinsky was in hospital, where he was treated for five months, his mother also died. Stravinsky already had contacts in the United States; he was working on the Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and had agreed to lecture in Harvard during the academic year of 1939-40. When war broke out in September, he set out for the United States, at first living in Hollywood but moving to New York in 1969.
Stravinsky continued to live in the United States from 1939 until his death in 1971; he became a naturalized citizen in 1945. Stravinsky had adapted to life in France, but moving to America at the age of 58 was a very different prospect. For a time, he preserved a ring of emigré Russian friends and contacts, but eventually realized that this would not sustain his intellectual and professional life in the US. When he planned to write an opera with W. H. Auden, the need to acquire more familiarity with the English-speaking world coincided with his meeting the conductor and musicologist Robert Craft. Craft lived with Stravinsky until the composer's death, acting as interpreter, chronicler, assistant conductor, and factotum for countless musical and social tasks.
In 1962, he accepted an invitation to return to Russia for a series of concerts, but remained an émigré firmly based in the West.
He died at the age of 88 in New York City and was buried in Venice on the cemetery island of San Michele. His grave is close to the tomb of his long-time collaborator Diaghilev. Stravinsky's life had encompassed most of the 20th century, including many of its modern classical music styles, and he influenced composers both during and after his lifetime. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6340 Hollywood Boulevard and posthumously received the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1987.
Stravinsky displayed an inexhaustible desire to learn and explore art, literature, and life. This desire manifested itself in several of his Paris collaborations. Not only was he the principal composer for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, but he also collaborated with Pablo Picasso (Pulcinella, 1920), Jean Cocteau (Oedipus Rex, 1927) and George Balanchine (Apollon musagete, 1928).
Relatively short of stature and not conventionally handsome, Stravinsky was nevertheless photogenic, as many pictures show. Although his marriage to Katerina endured for 33 years, the true love of his life, and later his partner until his death, was his second wife Vera de Bosset (1888-1982). Although a notorious philanderer (even rumoured to have affairs with high-class partners such as Coco Chanel), Stravinsky was also a family man who devoted considerable amounts of his time and expenditure to his sons and daughters. One of his sons, Soulima Stravinsky, was also a composer, but is little known compared to his father.
When Stravinsky met Vera in the early 1920s, she was married to the painter and stage designer Serge Sudeikin, but they soon began an affair which led to her leaving her husband. From then until Katerina's death from cancer in 1939, Stravinsky led a double life, spending some of his time with his first family and the rest with Vera. Katerina soon learned of the relationship and accepted it as inevitable and permanent. After Katerina's death, Stravinsky and Vera were married in Bedford, MA, USA, on 9 March 1940. Around this time both left France for the USA, to escape World War II (Stravinsky in 1939, Vera in 1940).
Patronage too was never far away. In the early 1920s, Leopold Stokowski was able to give Stravinsky regular support through a pseudonymous "benefactor". The composer was also able to attract commissions: most of his work from The Firebird onwards was written for specific occasions and paid for generously.
Stravinsky proved adept at playing the part of "man of the world", acquiring a keen instinct for business matters and appearing relaxed and comfortable in many of the world's major cities. Paris, Venice, Berlin, London and New York City all hosted successful appearances as pianist and conductor. Most people who knew him through dealings connected with performances spoke of him as polite, courteous and helpful. For example, Otto Klemperer, who knew Arnold Schoenberg well, said that he always found Stravinsky much more co-operative and easy to deal with. At the same time, he had a marked disregard for those he perceived to be his social inferiors: Robert Craft was embarrassed by his habit of tapping a glass with a fork and loudly demanding attention in restaurants.
Stravinsky's taste in literature was wide, and reflected his constant desire for new discoveries. The texts and literary sources for his work began with a period of interest in Russian folklore, progressed to classical authors and the Latin liturgy, and moved on to contemporary France (André Gide, in Persephone) and eventually English literature, including Auden, T. S. Eliot and medieval English verse. At the end of his life, he was even setting Hebrew scripture in Abraham and Isaac.
Most of Stravinsky's compositions may be placed into one of the three stylistic periods into which his career may be roughly divided.
The Russian period
The first of Stravinsky's major stylistic periods (excluding some early minor works) was inaugurated by the three ballets he composed for Diaghilev. The ballets have several shared characteristics: They are scored for extremely large orchestras; they use Russian folk themes and motifs; and they bear the mark of Rimsky-Korsakov's imaginative scoring and instrumentation. Despite this, they show considerable stylistic development: from the L'oiseau de feu, whose style draws largely on Rimsky-Korsakov, to Petrushka's emphasis on bitonality, and finally to the savage polyphonic dissonance of Le Sacre du printemps.
The first of the ballets, L'Oiseau de feu, is notable for its unusual introduction (12/8 meter in the low basses) and sweeping orchestration. Petrushka, too, is distinctively scored and the first of Stravinsky's ballets to draw on folk mythology. But it is the third ballet, The Rite of Spring, that is generally considered the apotheosis of Stravinsky's "Russian Period". Here, the composer draws on the brutalism of pagan Russia, reflecting these sentiments in roughly-drawn, stinging motifs that appear throughout the work. There are several famous passages in the work, but two are of particular note: the opening theme played on a bassoon with notes at the very top of its register, almost out of range; and the thumping, off-kilter eighth-note motif played by strings and accented by horn on off-rhythms (See Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) for a more detailed account of this work).
As Stravinsky noted about the premieres, his intention was "[to send] them all to hell".
The Neo-Classical period
The next phase of Stravinsky's compositional style, slightly overlapping the first, is marked by two works: Pulcinella 1920 and the Octet (1923) for wind instruments. Both of these works feature what was to become a hallmark of this period; that is, Stravinsky's return, or "looking back", to the classical music of Mozart and Bach and their contemporaries. This "neo-classical" style involved the abandonment of the large orchestras demanded by the ballets. In these new works, written roughly between 1920 and 1950, Stravinsky turns largely to wind instruments, the piano, and choral and chamber works. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Symphony of Psalms are among the finest works ever composed for winds.
Other works such as Oedipus Rex (1927), Apollon Musagete (1928) and the Dumbarton Oaks concerto continue this trend.
Some larger works from this period are the three symphonies: the Symphonie des Psaumes (Symphony of Psalms) (1930), Symphony in C (1940) and Symphony in Three Movements (1945). Apollon, Persephone (1933) and Orpheus (1947) also mark Stravinsky's concern, during this period, of not only returning to Classic music but also returning to Classic themes: in these instances, the mythology of the ancient Greeks.
The pinnacle of this period is the opera The Rake's Progress. It was completed in 1951 and, after stagings by the Metropolitan Opera in 1953, was almost ignored. It was presented by the Santa Fe Opera in its first season in 1957 with Stravinsky in attendance, the beginning of his long association with the company. This opera, written to a libretto by Auden and based on the etchings of Hogarth, encapsulates everything that Stravinsky had perfected in the previous 20 years of his neo-classic period. The music is direct but quirky; it borrows from classic tonal harmony but also interjects surprising dissonances; it features Stravinsky's trademark off-rhythms; and it hearkens back to the operas and themes of Monteverdi, Gluck and Mozart.
After the opera's completion, Stravinsky never wrote another neo-classic work but instead began writing the music that came to define his final stylistic change.
The Serial period
Only after the death of Arnold Schoenberg in 1951 did Stravinsky begin using dodecaphony, the twelve-tone system which Schoenberg had devised, in his works. Stravinsky was aided in his understanding of, or even conversion to, the twelve-tone method by his confidant and colleague, Robert Craft, who had long been advocating the change. The next fifteen years were spent writing the works in this style.
Stravinsky first began to experiment with the twelve-tone technique in smaller vocal works such as the Cantata (1952), Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953) and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954). Canticum Sacrum (1955) is his first piece to contain a movement entirely based on a tone row. He later began expanding his use of dodecaphony in works often based on biblical texts, such as Threni (1958), A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), and The Flood (1962).
An important transitional composition of this period of Stravinsky's work was a return to the ballet: Agon, a work for twelve dancers written from 1954 to 1957. Some numbers of Agon recollect the "white-note" tonality of the neo-classic period, while others (the Bransle Gay, e.g.) display his unique re-interpretation of serial method. The ballet is thus like miniature encyclopedia of Stravinsky, containing many of the signatures to be found throughout his compositions, whether primitivist, neo-classic, or serial: rhythmic quirkiness and experimentation, harmonic ingenuity, and a deft ear for masterly orchestration. These characteristics are what make Stravinsky's work unique when compared with the work of contemporaneous serial composers.
Influence and innovation
Stravinsky's work embraced multiple compositional styles, revolutionized orchestration, spanned several genres, practically reinvented ballet form and incorporated multiple cultures, languages and literatures. As a consequence, his influence on composers both during his lifetime and after his death was, and remains, considerable.
Stravinsky began re-thinking his use of the motif and ostinato as early as The Firebird ballet, but his use of these elements reached its full flowering in The Rite of Spring.
Motivic development, that is using a distinct musical phrase that is subsequently altered and developed throughout a piece of music, has its roots in the sonata form of Mozart's age. The first great innovator in this method was Beethoven; the famous "fate motif" which opens Fifth Symphony and reappears throughout the work in surprising and refreshing permutations is a classic example. However, Stravinsky's use of motivic development was unique in the way he permutated his motifs. In the "Rite of Spring" he introduces additive permutations, that is, subtracting or adding a note to a motif without regard to changes in meter.
The same ballet is also notable for its relentless use of ostinati. The most famous passage, as noted above, is the eighth note ostinato of the strings accented by eight horns that occurs in the section Auguries of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls). This is perhaps the first instance in music of extended ostinato which is neither used for variation nor for accompaniment of melody. At various other times in the work Stravinsky also pits several ostinati against one another without regard to harmony or tempo, creating a pastiche, a sort of musical equivalent of a Cubist painting. These passages are notable not only for this pastiche-quality but also for their length: Stravinsky treats them as whole and complete musical sections.
Such techniques foreshadowed by several decades the minimalist works of composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich.
Stravinsky was not the first practitioner of the Neoclassical style. The German composer Richard Strauss is an earlier example (he composed the Mozartian Der Rosenkavalier in 1910, as Stravinsky was just beginning the works of his Russian period [note: the most recent generation of Strauss scholars have convincingly dismissed the notion that Rosenkavalier is a "neo-classical" work]) while others, such as Max Reger, were composing in the manner of Bach long before Stravinsky turned to this style. The Neoclassical style would be later adopted by composers as diverse as Darius Milhaud and Aaron Copland. Sergei Prokofiev once chided Stravinsky for his Neoclassical mannerisms, though sympathetically, as Prokofiev had broken similar musical ground in his Symphony No. 1, "Classical" of 1916-17.
Stravinsky announced his new style in 1923 with the stripped-down and delicately scored Octet for winds. The clear harmonies hark back to the classical style of Mozart and Bach and simpler combinations of rhythm and melody were a direct response to the deliberate complexities of the Second Viennese School. Stravinsky may have been preceded in these devices by earlier composers such as Erik Satie, but Stravinsky was much more influential. Aaron Copland, for example, composed his Appalachian Spring ballet taking Stravinsky as his model.
By the late 1920s and 1930s, Neoclassicism had become a widespread and accepted modern genre. Ironically, Stravinsky himself contributed to the demise of neoclassicism's popularity with his opera The Rake's Progress, completed in 1951. Written in a fully classical style, the musical language of the opera was widely criticised as too dated even by those who had lauded the new style only three decades earlier.
Quotation and pastiche
While the use of musical quotation was by no means new, Stravinsky composed pieces which elaborate on individual works by earlier composers. An early example of this is his Pulcinella of 1920, in which he used the music of Giovanni Pergolesi as source material, at times quoting it directly and at other times reinventing it. He developed the technique further in the ballet The Fairy's Kiss of 1928, based on the music—mostly piano pieces—of Tchaikovsky.
Later examples of musical arrangement include Stravinsky's use of Schubert in Circus Polka (1942) and Happy Birthday to You in Greeting Prelude (1955).
Use of folk material
There were other composers in the early 20th century who collected and augmented their native folk music and used these themes in their work. Two notable examples are Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Yet in Le Sacre du Printemps we see Stravinsky again innovating in his use of folk themes. He strips these themes to their most basic outline, melody alone, and often contorts them beyond recognition with additive notes, inversions, diminutions, and other techniques. He did this so well, in fact, that only in recent scholarship, such as in Richard Taruskin's Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, have analysts uncovered the original source material for some of the music in The Rite.
The late 19th century and early 20th century was a time ripe with orchestral innovation. Composers such as Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler were well regarded for their skill at writing for the medium. They, in turn, were influenced by the expansion of the traditional classical orchestra by Richard Wagner through his use of large forces and unusual instruments.
Stravinsky continued this Romantic trend of writing for huge orchestral forces, especially in the early ballets. But it was when he started to turn away from this tendency that he began to innovate by introducing unique combinations of instruments. For example, in L'Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier's Tale) the forces used are clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass and percussion, a very striking combination for its time (1918). This combining of distinct timbres would become almost a cliché in post-World War II classical music. Stravinsky was the first composer to score for two contrabassoons (The Rite of Spring) amongst this work's vast orchestral pallet.
Another notable innovation of orchestral technique that can be partially attributed to Stravinsky is the exploitation of the extreme ranges of instruments. The most famous passage is the opening of the Rite of Spring where Stravinsky uses the extreme reaches of the bassoon to simulate the symbolic "awakening" of a spring morning.
It must also be noted that composers such as Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg were also exploring some of these orchestral and instrumental techniques in the early 20th century. Yet their influence on succeeding generations of composers was equaled if not exceeded by that of Stravinsky.
Erik Satie wrote an article about Igor Stravinsky, that was published in Vanity Fair (1922). Satie had met Stravinsky for the first time in 1910. Satie's attitude towards the Russian composer is marked by deference, as can be seen from the letters he wrote him in 1922, preparing for the Vanity Fair article. With a touch of irony, he concluded one of these letters "I admire you: are you not the Great Stravinsky? I am but little Erik Satie." In the published article, Satie argued that measuring the "greatness" of an artist by comparing him to other artists, as if speaking about some "truth", is illusory: every piece of music should be judged on its own merits, not by comparing it to the standards of other composers. That was exactly what Jean Cocteau had done, when commenting deprecatingly on Stravinsky in his 1918 Le Coq et l'Arlequin.
"All the signs indicate a strong reaction against the nightmare of noise and eccentricity that was one of the legacies of the war.... What has become of the works that made up the program of the Stravinsky concert which created such a stir a few years ago? Practically the whole lot are already on the shelf, and they will remain there until a few jaded neurotics once more feel a desire to eat ashes and fill their belly with the east wind." (Musical Times, London, October 1923, quoted in: Slonimsky, 1953).
Composer Constant Lambert (1936) described pieces such as L'Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier's Tale) as containing "essentially cold-blooded abstraction". He continues, saying that the "melodic fragments in L'Histoire du Soldat are completely meaningless themselves. They are merely successions of notes that can conveniently be divided into groups of three, five, and seven and set against other mathematical groups", and the cadenza for solo drums is "musical purity...achieved by a species of musical castration". He compares Stravinsky's choice of "the drabbest and least significant phrases" to Gertrude Stein's: "Everyday they were gay there, they were regularly gay there everyday" ("Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene", 1922), "whose effect would be equally appreciated by someone with no knowledge of English whatsoever".
As a young man, the rock musician Warren Zevon spent much time visiting Stravinsky in order to study music.
Igor Stravinsky found recordings to be a practical and useful tool in preserving his own thoughts on the interpretation of his music. As a conductor of his own music, he recorded primarily for Columbia Records, beginning in 1928 with a performance of the original suite from The Firebird and concluding in 1967 with the 1945 suite from the same ballet. In the late 1940s, he made several recordings for RCA Victor at the Republic Studios in Los Angeles.
- 3 Pieces for Clarinet Alone (file info) —
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