Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Igor Stravinsky was the most important and influential composer of the 20th Century. He enjoyed wide fame throughout his career in almost all the major music centers of the world, as well as his impact on his contemporaries and subsequent composers. His large body of work is noted for its colorful orchestration, rhythmic vitality. Although he went through several major changes in compositional style, his music always retains his unique, individual voice. He enjoyed the friendship and patronage of several artistic giants, such as the conductors Leopold Stokowski and Ernest Ansermet. He also collaborated with many masters of other disciplines, including Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Nijinsky, and George Balanchine, as well as poets and authors like André Gide, T.S. Elliot, W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, and Dylan Thomas.

Stravinsky was born in Czarist Russia. He was a gifted pianist and studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, who helped train him in his mastery of instrumentation. During his “Russian” period, he gained early fame for a series of ballets written for Sergei Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes,” beginning with The Firebird in 1910, and followed by Petrushka and then his best-known work, The Rite of Spring (“Le Sacre du Printemps”). In the piece, Stravinsky’s unconventional use of rhythm and instrumentation, coupled with the strange costumes and choreography, provoked a riot at its premiere. (The recent film, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, about the affair between the two, contains a reenactment of this and is one of the memorable scenes of the movie.) Two of the final works from this period include the wedding ballet Les Noces and The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du Soldat) for narrator, 2 actors, and chamber ensemble. Some of his music from this time also shows his interest in jazz, such as Ragtime, Piano Rag Music, Tango, and the Preludium for Jazz Ensemble. (Later, Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman and his band and recorded it with Benny Goodman.)

"Stravinsky" by Pablo Picasso

After World War I and the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky left Russia for good and became a French citizen. The events of the preceding years led to a change in his style to a cooler, more austere music that became known as Neoclassical. It borrowed from Baroque and Classical forms, and sometimes Stravinsky used the music of earlier composers and recomposed or re-orchestrated it, such as in the ballet Pulcinella, (with music from Pergolesi and Wassenaer), and The Fairy Kiss, (based on music by Tchaikovsky). Some of his most important music from this period include his Octet for Winds, the opera The Rake’s Progress,the ballets Orpheus and Apollo, and most of his symphonies, including the Symphony in C, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and the stirring Symphony of Psalms for chorus and orchestra. Stravinsky’s Neoclassical works had a major impact on other composers, such as the members of Les Six, (such as Honegger, Poulenc, and Milhaud), Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, and especially Paul Hindemith.

After World War II, Stravinsky moved to the U.S. and became an American citizen. He met the young conductor Robert Craft, who became his live-in secretary and assistant. Craft helped complete some of the libretti of Stravinsky’s final works, co-wrote a series of memoirs with the composer, and conducted the premieres of some of his final music. Craft was also an authority on the works of Schoenberg and his students. (Although both Stravinsky and Schoenberg lived within a few miles of each other in Los Angeles, they were never close and rarely associated with each other.) Through Craft’s influence, Stravinsky underwent his final style change and embraced the twelve-tone method pioneered by Schoenberg, (although Stravinsky’s use of serial techniques retained his highly personal style). Although they were never as popular with the concert public, Stravinsky wrote many masterworks in the idiom, including a substantial body of sacred music. Some of his most important serial works include the ballet Agon, and the opera The Flood, based on the story of Noah and premiered on CBS television.

During most of his life, Stravinsky was a devout Christian and member of the Russian Orthodox Church. He stated that “the more one separates himself from the canons of the Christian church, the further one distances himself from the truth.” He wrote a large body of sacred music, much of it meant for liturgical use, including his Mass, while others were derived from Biblical passages, such as Abraham and Isaac or The Tower of Babel. As he remarked:

“The church knew what the psalmist knew: Music praises God. Music is as well or better able to praise Him than the building of the church and all its decorations, it is the church’s greatest ornament.”

After a long career on the world stage, Stravinsky died in New York at the age of 88. He was buried in Venice near his early patron, Diaghilev.

Stravinsky was one of the first composers to also conduct and record most of his music. Sony Classical has released a 22 disc set of Stravinsky conducting or performing his music. His disciple, Robert Craft, has also recorded most of his music, as has noted 20th Century specialist Pierre Boulez for both CBS/Sony and Deutsche Grammophon.

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