Igor Stravinsky is a towering figure of twentieth century music. He and Schoenberg represent two major streams of compositional thought in the modern era: Schoenberg’s twelve-tone atonality on the one hand and Stravinsky’s neo-classicism (the style in which he wrote a good deal of his music, though not Rite of Spring) on the other. It is interesting to note that both men, as a result of upheaval in Europe and Russia, not only made the United States their home but lived a short distance from each other in Los Angeles for years.
There was a good deal of animosity between the two composers, a fact that was well-known at the time, just as there was tension in the musical community between the supporters of their two compositional styles. The proponents of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique took it as proof that they had been right all along when near the end of his career, and only after Schoenberg’s death, Stravinsky experimented with twelve-tone composition. If you would like to read an archived article from the Atlantic, written by Stravinsky’s longtime personal assitant Robert Craft, on this professional animosity and the circumstances of Stavinsky’s late excursion into Schoenberg’s techniques, click here. The struggle between these two musical camps aside, there is no question that Stravinsky was one of the great masters of the era. He enjoyed considerable fame in his lifetime and travelled the world conducting his works, works that are extensively studied and performed to this day.
When you come to the section herein called “Music,” you don’t need to read it in detail, I just want you to get an overview of the stylistic evolution over the course of Stravinsky’s career.
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (17 June 1882–6 April 1971) was a Russian (and later, a naturalized French and American) composer, pianist and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.
Stravinsky’s compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). The last of these transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design. His “Russian phase” was followed in the 1920s by a period in which he turned to neoclassical music. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue and symphony). They often paid tribute to the music of earlier masters, such as J.S. Bach and Tchaikovsky. In the 1950s, Stravinsky adoptedserial procedures. His compositions of this period shared traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells and clarity of form, of instrumentation and of utterance.
Life and Career
Early life in the Russian Empire
Stravinsky was born on 17 June 1882 in Oranienbaum, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital, and was brought up in Saint Petersburg. His parents were Fyodor Stravinsky, a bass singer at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and Anna (née Kholodovsky). His great-great-grandfather, Stanisław Strawiński, was of Polish nobledescent, of the Strawiński family of Sulima. According to Igor Stravinsky, the name “Stravinsky” (Polish: Strawiński) originated from “Strava” (Polish: Strawa), a small river in eastern Poland, tributary to the Vistula. He recalled his schooldays as being lonely, later saying that “I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me.” Stravinsky began piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory and attempting composition. In 1890, he saw a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre. By age fifteen, he had mastered Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor and finished a piano reduction of a string quartet by Glazunov, who reportedly considered Stravinsky unmusical, and thought little of his skills.
Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected him to study law. Stravinsky enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901, but he attended fewer than fifty class sessions during his four years of study. In the summer of 1902 Stravinsky stayed with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his family in the German city of Heidelberg, where Rimsky-Korsakov, arguably the leading Russian composer at that time, suggested to Stravinsky that he should not enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire, but instead study composing by taking private lessons, in large part because of his age. Stravinsky’s father died of cancer that year, by which time his son had already begun spending more time on his musical studies than on law. The university was closed for two months in 1905 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday: Stravinsky was prevented from taking his final law examinations and later received a half-course diploma in April 1906. Thereafter, he concentrated on studying music. In 1905, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, whom he came to regard as a second father. These lessons continued until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.
In 1905 he was betrothed to his cousin Yekaterina Gavrilovna Nosenko (called “Katya”), whom he had known since early childhood. In spite of theOrthodox Church’s opposition to marriage between first cousins, the couple married on 23 January 1906: their first two children, Fyodor (Theodore) and Ludmila, were born in 1907 and 1908, respectively.
In February 1909, two orchestral works, the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) were performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg, where they were heard by Sergei Diaghilev, who was at that time involved in planning to present Russian opera and ballet in Paris. Diaghilev was sufficiently impressed by Fireworks to commission Stravinsky to carry out some orchestrations and then to compose a full-length ballet score, The Firebird.
Life in Switzerland
Stravinsky became an overnight sensation following the success of The Firebird’s premiere in Paris on 25 June 1910.
The composer had travelled from his estate in Ustilug, Ukraine, to Paris in early June to attend the final rehearsals and the premiere of The Firebird. His family joined him before the end of the ballet season and they decided to remain in the West for a time, as his wife was expecting their third child. After spending the summer in La Baule, Brittany, they moved to Switzerland in early September. On the 23rd, their second sonSviatoslav Soulima was born at a maternity clinic in Lausanne; at the end of the month, they took up residence in Clarens.
Over the next four years, Stravinsky and his family lived in Russia during the summer months and spent each winter in Switzerland. During this period, Stravinsky composed two further works for the Ballets Russes: Petrushka (1911), andLe Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring; 1913).
Shortly following the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky contracted typhoid from eating bad oysters, and was confined to a Paris nursing home, unable to depart for Ustilug until 11 July.
During the remainder of the summer, Stravinsky turned his attention to completing his first opera, The Nightingale (usually known by its French title Le Rossignol), which he had begun in 1908 (that is, before his association with the Ballets Russes). The work had been commissioned by the Moscow Free Theatre for the handsome fee of 10,000 roubles.
The Stravinsky family returned to Switzerland (as usual) in the fall of 1913. On 15 January 1914, a fourth child, Marie Milène (or Maria Milena), was born in Lausanne. After her delivery, Katya was discovered to have tuberculosis and confined to the sanatorium at Leysin, high in the Alps. Igor and the family took up residence nearby, and he completed Le Rossignol there on 28 March.
In April, they were finally able to return to Clarens. By then, the Moscow Free Theatre had gone bankrupt. As a result, Le Rossignol was first performed under Diaghilev’s auspices at the Paris Opéra on 26 May 1914, with sets and costumes designed by Alexandre Benois. Le Rossignolenjoyed only lukewarm success with the public and the critics, apparently because its delicacy did not meet their expectations of the composer of The Rite of Spring. However, composers including Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, and Reynaldo Hahn found much to admire in the score’s craftsmanship, even alleging to detect the influence of Arnold Schoenberg.
In July, with war looming, Stravinsky made a quick trip to Ustilug to retrieve personal effects including his reference works on Russian folk music. He returned to Switzerland just before national borders closed following the outbreak of World War I. The War and subsequent Russian Revolution made it impossible for Stravinsky to return to his homeland, and he did not set foot upon Russian soil again until October 1962.
In June 1915, Stravinsky and his family moved from Clarens to Morges, a town 6 miles south-west of Lausanne on the shore of Lake Geneva. The family continued to live there (at three different addresses) until 1920.
Stravinsky struggled financially during this period. Russia (and its successor, the USSR) did not adhere to the Berne convention and this created problems for Stravinsky when collecting royalties for the performances of all his Ballets Russes compositions. Stravinsky blamed Diaghilev for his financial troubles, accusing him of failing to live up to the terms of a contract they had signed. He approached the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart for financial assistance during the time he was writing Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). Reinhart sponsored and largely underwrote its first performance, conducted by Ernest Ansermet on 28 September 1918 at the Théâtre Municipal de Lausanne. In gratitude, Stravinsky dedicated the work to Reinhart and gave him the original manuscript. Reinhart supported Stravinsky further when he funded a series of concerts of his chamber music in 1919: included was a suite from Histoire du soldat arranged for violin, piano and clarinet, which was first performed on 8 November 1919, in Lausanne. In gratitude to his benefactor, Stravinsky also dedicated his Three Pieces for Clarinet (October–November 1918) to Reinhart, who was an excellent amateur clarinetist.
Life in France
Following the premiere of Pulcinella by the Ballets Russes in Paris on 15 May 1920, Stravinsky returned to Switzerland. On 8 June, the entire family left Morges for the last time, and moved to the fishing village of Carantec in Brittany for the summer while also seeking a new home in Paris. On hearing of their dilemma, couturière Coco Chanel invited Stravinsky and his family to reside at her new mansion “Bel Respiro” in the Paris suburb of Garches until they could find a more suitable residence; they arrived during the second week of September. At the same time, Chanel also guaranteed the new (December 1920) Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) with an anonymous gift to Diaghilev, said to have been 300,000 francs.
Stravinsky formed a business and musical relationship with the French piano manufacturing company Pleyel. Pleyel essentially acted as his agent in collecting mechanical royalties for his works and provided him with a monthly income and a studio space at its headquarters in which he could work and entertain friends and business acquaintances. Under the terms of his contract with the company, Stravinsky agreed to arrange (and to some extent re-compose) many of his early works for the Pleyela, Pleyel’s brand of player piano. He did so in a way that made full use of all of the piano’s eighty-eight notes, without regard for human fingers or hands. The rolls were not recorded, but were instead marked up from a combination of manuscript fragments and handwritten notes by Jacques Larmanjat, musical director of Pleyel’s roll department. Among the compositions that were issued on the Pleyela piano rolls are The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Firebird and Song of the Nightingale. During the 1920s, Stravinsky recorded Duo-Art rolls for the Aeolian Company in both London and New York, not all of which have survived.
Patronage was never far away. In the early 1920s, Leopold Stokowski gave Stravinsky regular support through a pseudonymous benefactor.
Stravinsky met Vera de Bosset in Paris in February 1921, while she was married to the painter and stage designer Serge Sudeikin, and they began an affair that led to Vera leaving her husband.
In May 1921, Stravinsky and his family moved to Anglet, near Biarritz, in the south of France. From then until his wife’s death in 1939, Stravinsky led a double life, dividing his time between his family in southern France, and Vera in Paris and on tour. Katya reportedly bore her husband’s infidelity “with a mixture of magnanimity, bitterness, and compassion.”
In September 1924, Stravinsky bought “an expensive house” in Nice: the Villa des Roses.
The Stravinskys became French citizens in 1934 and moved to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. Stravinsky later remembered this last European address as his unhappiest, as his wife’s tuberculosis infected both himself and his eldest daughter Ludmila, who died in 1938. Katya, to whom he had been married for 33 years, died of tuberculosis a year later, in March 1939. Stravinsky himself spent five months in hospital, during which time his mother died. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky had developed professional relationships with key people in the United States: he was already working on his Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and he had agreed to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University during the 1939–40 academic year.
Life in the United States
Despite the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, the widowed Stravinsky sailed (alone) for the United States at the end of the month, arriving in New York City and thence to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to fulfill his engagement at Harvard. Vera followed him in January, and they were married in Bedford, Massachusetts, on 9 March 1940.
Stravinsky settled in West Hollywood. He spent more time living in Los Angeles than any other city. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1945.
Stravinsky had adapted to life in France, but moving to America at the age of 57 was a very different prospect. For a while, he maintained a circle of contacts and emigré friends from Russia, but he eventually found that this did not sustain his intellectual and professional life. He was drawn to the growing cultural life of Los Angeles, especially during World War II, when so many writers, musicians, composers and conductors settled in the area: these included Otto Klemperer, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, George Balanchine and Arthur Rubinstein. Bernard Holland claimed Stravinsky was especially fond of British writers, who visited him in Beverly Hills, “like W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas. They shared the composer’s taste for hard spirits—especially Aldous Huxley, with whom Stravinsky spoke in French.” Stravinsky and Huxley had a tradition of Saturday lunches for west coast avant-garde and luminaries.
Stravinsky’s unconventional dominant seventh chord in his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led to an incident with the Boston police on 15 January 1944, and he was warned that the authorities could impose a $100 fine upon any “rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part.” The police, as it turned out, were wrong. The law in question merely forbade using the national anthem “as dance music, as an exit march, or as a part of a medley of any kind,” but the incident soon established itself as a myth, in which Stravinsky was supposedly arrested, held in custody for several nights, and photographed for police records. A widely known photograph of Stravinsky, supposedly his mug shot, has been shown to be for a passport application.
Stravinsky’s professional life encompassed most of the 20th century, including many of its modern classical music styles, and he influenced composers both during and after his lifetime. In 1959, he was awarded the Sonning Award, Denmark’s highest musical honour. In 1962, he accepted an invitation to return to Leningrad for a series of concerts. During his stay in the USSR, he visited Moscow and met several leading Soviet composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.
In 1969, Stravinsky moved to the Essex House in New York, where he lived until his death in 1971 at age 88 of heart failure. He was buried at San Michele, close to the tomb of Diaghilev.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1987 he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 2004.
Stravinsky’s output is typically divided into three general style periods: a Russian period, a neoclassical period, and a serial period.
Russian Period (c. 1907–1919)
Aside from a very few surviving earlier works, Stravinsky’s Russian period began with compositions undertaken under the tutelage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he studied from 1905 until Rimsky’s death in 1908, including the orchestral works: Symphony in E-flat major (1907), Faun and Shepherdess (for mezzo-soprano and orchestra; 1907), Scherzo fantastique (1908), and Feu d’artifice (1908/9). These works clearly reveal the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, but as Richard Taruskin has shown, they also reveal Stravinsky’s knowledge of music by Glazunov, Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Dvořák, and Debussy, among others.
Performances in St. Petersburg of Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice attracted the attention of Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate two piano works of Chopin for the ballet Les Sylphides to be presented in the 1909 debut “Saison Russe” of his new ballet company.
The Firebird was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 25 June 1910 by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Like Stravinsky’s earlier student works, The Firebird continued to look backward to Rimsky-Korsakov not only in its orchestration, but also in its overall structure, harmonic organization, and melodic content.
According to Taruskin, Stravinsky’s second ballet for the Ballet Russe, Petrushka, is where “Stravinsky at last became Stravinsky.”
The music itself makes significant use of a number of Russian folk tunes in addition to two waltzes by Viennese composer Joseph Lanner and a French music hall tune (La Jambe en bois or The Wooden Leg).
In April 1915, Stravinsky received a commission from Winnaretta Singer (Princesse Edmond de Polignac) for a small-scale theatrical work to be performed in her Paris salon. The result was Renard (1916), which he called “A burlesque in song and dance.” Renard was Stravinsky’s first venture into experimental theatre: the composer’s preface to the score specifies a trestle stage on which all the performers (including the instrumentalists) were to appear simultaneously and continuously.
Neoclassical Period (c. 1920–1954)
Apollon (1928), Persephone (1933) and Orpheus (1947) exemplify not only Stravinsky’s return to the music of the Classical period, but also his exploration of themes from the ancient Classical world, such as Greek mythology. In 1951, he completed his last neo-classical work, the opera The Rake’s Progress, to a libretto by W. H. Auden that was based on the etchings of William Hogarth. It premiered in Venice that year and was produced around Europe the following year, before being staged in the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1953. It was staged by the Santa Fe Opera in a 1962 Stravinsky Festival in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday and was revived by the Metropolitan Opera in 1997.
Serial Period (1954–1968)
In the 1950s, Stravinsky began using serial compositional techniques such as dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique originally devised by Arnold Schoenberg. He first experimented with non-twelve-tone serial techniques in small-scale vocal and chamber works such as the Cantata (1952), the Septet (1953) and Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953). The first of his compositions fully based on such techniques was In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954). Agon (1954–57) was the first of his works to include a twelve-tone series and Canticum Sacrum (1955) was the first piece to contain a movement entirely based on a tone row. Stravinsky expanded his use of dodecaphony in works such as Threni (1958) and A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer (1961), which are based on biblical texts, and The Flood (1962), which mixes brief biblical texts from the Book of Genesis with passages from the York and Chester Mystery Plays.
Innovation and Influence
Stravinsky has been called “one of music’s truly epochal innovators.” The most important aspect of Stravinsky’s work, aside from his technical innovations (including in rhythm and harmony), is the ‘changing face’ of his compositional style while always “retaining a distinctive, essential identity.”
Stravinsky’s use of motivic development (the use of musical figures that are repeated in different guises throughout a composition or section of a composition) included additive motivic development. This is where notes are subtracted or added to a motif without regard to the consequent changes in metre. A similar technique can be found as early as the sixteenth century, for example in the music of Cipriano de Rore, Orlandus Lassus, Carlo Gesualdo and Giovanni de Macque, music with which Stravinsky exhibited considerable familiarity.
The Rite of Spring is notable for its relentless use of ostinati, for example in the eighth note ostinato on strings accented by eight horns in the section “Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls).” The work also contains passages where several ostinati clash against one another. Stravinsky was noted for his distinctive use of rhythm, especially in The Rite of Spring. According to the composer Philip Glass, “the idea of pushing the rhythms across the bar lines . . . led the way. . . . The rhythmic structure of music became much more fluid and in a certain way spontaneous.” Glass mentions Stravinsky’s “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive.” According to Andrew J. Browne, “Stravinsky is perhaps the only composer who has raised rhythm in itself to the dignity of art.” Stravinsky’s rhythm and vitality greatly influenced the composer Aaron Copland.
Over the course of his career, Stravinsky called for a wide variety of orchestral, instrumental, and vocal forces, ranging from single instruments in such works as Three Pieces for Clarinet (1918) or Elegy for Solo Viola (1944) to the enormous orchestra of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps; 1913) which Aaron Copland characterized as “the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.”
Stravinsky’s creation of unique and idiosyncratic ensembles arising from the specific musical nature of individual works is a basic element of his style.
Following the model of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s student works such as the Symphony in E-flat, Opus 1 (1907), Scherzo fantastique, Opus 3 (1908), and Fireworks (Feu d’artifice), Opus 4 (1908), call for large orchestral forces. This is not surprising, as the works were as much exercises in orchestration as in composition.
The Symphony, for example, calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo); 2 oboes; 3 clarinets in B-flat; 2 bassoons; 4 horns in F; 3 trumpets in B-flat; 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, and strings. The Scherzo fantastique calls for a slightly larger orchestra but completely omits trombones: this was Stravinsky’s response to Rimsky’s criticism of their overuse in the Symphony.
The three ballets composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes call for particularly large orchestras. The Firebird (1910) requires winds in fours, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (in A), 3 trombones, tuba, celesta, 3 harps, piano, and strings. The percussion section calls for timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tamtam, tubular bells, glockenspiel, and xylophone. In addition, the original version calls for 3 onstage trumpets and 4 onstage Wagner tubas (2 tenor and 2 bass).
The original version of Petrushka (1911) calls for a similar orchestra (without onstage brass, but with the addition of onstage snare drum). The particularly prominent role of the piano is the result of the music’s origin as a Konzertstück for piano and orchestra.
The Rite of Spring (1913) calls for the largest orchestra Stravinsky ever employed: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd doubles 2nd piccolo), alto flute, 4 oboes (4th doubles 2nd cor anglais), cor anglais, piccolo clarinet in D/E♭, 3 clarinets (3rd doubles 2nd bass clarinet), bass clarinet, piccolo clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubles 2nd contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (7th and 8th double tenor Wagner tubas), piccolo trumpet in D, 4 trumpets in C (4th doubles bass trumpet in E-flat), 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), 2 tubas. Percussion includes 5 timpani (2 players), bass drum, tamtam, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, antique cymbals, guiro, and strings. (Piano, celesta, and harp are not included.)