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Igor Stravinsky


Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (17 June [O.S. 5 June] 1882 – 6 April 1971) was a Russian-American composer of Ukrainian descent, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.

(b. Oranienbaum, June 17, 1882; d. New York, April 6, 1971)

Russian composer. With his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, he forever changed the language of music by making rhythm the principal generative element of large-scale composition. In subsequent works he continued to innovate and rearrange the elements of music, helping to establish neoclassicism as a major stylistic direction of the 20th century and, late in his career, experimenting with 12-tone techniques. His influence on 20th-century music was comparable to Picasso’s on painting, and like Picasso he was a master of the art of parody.

Stravinsky was born in a resort town on the Baltic near St. Petersburg, into a well-to-do family of the lesser nobility. His mother was a capable amateur pianist and singer; his father, Fyodor, had attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory and at the time of Stravinsky’s birth was the leading bass-baritone of the Mariinsky Theater. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Stravinsky had considerable childhood exposure to opera and ballet and contact with leading figures of the city’s musical life. He was educated at home until he was 11 and then attended private school and took piano lessons. He was a voracious reader, with wide-ranging interests.

In the fall of 1901 Stravinsky enrolled as a law student at University of St. Petersburg, continuing private instruction in piano as well as harmony and counterpoint. The next year he sought the guidance of Rimsky-Korsakov, who advised against his entering the conservatory and agreed to take him on as a private composition pupil. These weekly lessons continued along with Stravinsky’s law studies. The young composer completed the first draft of his Symphony in E-flat in September 1905 (revised under Rimsky’s supervision over
the next couple of years); the models were Glazunov and Tchaikovsky.

"I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge."


                                                                                               Igor Stravinsky

Key Works

Igor Stravinsky, 1903

In 1905 Stravinsky married his cousin Katya Nosenko. Rimsky continued to mentor Stravinsky and to see him regularly, and Stravinsky absorbed much from the colorful idiom of Rimsky’s late works, especially The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and The Golden Cockerel. His works testify to a rapid growth of mastery, particularly the Scherzofantastique (inspired by Maeterlinck’s La vie des abeilles) and Fireworks, which shows the influence of Scriabin’s more radical concepts of harmony. These scores caught the attention of Sergey Diaghilev, who invited Stravinsky to orchestrate a couple of numbers for choreographer Mikhail Fokine’s ballet Les Sylphides, created for the 1909 Paris season of the Ballets Russes. This led by a circuitous route to the commission that would change everything: The Firebird.

Premiered during the 1910 season, The Firebird is an extraordinarily skillful synhesis of elements from Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, a masterpiece of orchestral colorism. While impressive, it was just a prologue to the astonishing revelation of genius that came with Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), both brilliantly original: Nothing had ever sounded like these pieces.

Of the three ballets, Petrushka exhibits the most perfect melding of music and scene, the most accomplished integration of the dance into a series of tableaux. But it was the magnificently calculated chaos of The Rite of Spring that amazed and transformed the musical world—the Big Bang of modern music, whose noise is still being heard. For Stravinsky it embodied even more: a nexus of folkloristic elements (already adumbrated in Petrushka), extreme musical means (explosive, visceral, and disruptive), and a “ritualistic” manner of structuring and presenting material. The stylized-ritualistic direction was a new one and would become an important thread in Stravinsky’s work, carried on in Les noces (The Wedding), whose first version was completed in 1917, and in several scores of the 1920s, including Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Oedipus rex, and the Symphony of Psalms.

Stravinsky’s last prewar Paris premiere, in May 1914, was the “musical fairy tale” Le rossignol, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” Stravinsky had begun the setting in 1908-09 and put it aside. Despite all that had happened in the interim, he was able to complete the piece by 1914 without departing far from the idiom in which he had begun it, essentially that of The Firebird.

World War I and the Russian Revolution brought an end to the good times. Summering with his wife and their children in Switzerland, Stravinsky was cut off from both Russia and France in August 1914; the family settled outside Lausanne and
remained in exile until 1920. Straitened circumstances necessitated his cranking out pieces for cash, but the isolation, coupled with the loss of opportunity to produce anything for large forces, had a beneficial effect, allowing Stravinsky to try out new ideas and explore the possibilities inherent in smaller forms. Making a virtue of necessity, he went to work with a reduced palette, emphasizing the wind instruments, and avoiding massed strings, especially the violins. In addition to the original draft of Les noces, important works of this period include Renard, L’HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT (The Soldier’s Tale), and Symphonies of Wind Instruments; just a couple years later came the Octet for winds.


During the 1920s, Stravinsky undertook a radical rethinking of musical form and structure. The most conspicuous development was his return to the forms and “constructive principles” of 18th-century music—a movement dubbed “neoclassicism.” The stylistic breakthrough came with the “Pergolesi” ballet Pulcinella, commissioned by Diaghilev and premiered in May 1920. Even as Symphonies of Wind Instruments was closing out the folkloric “Russian” chapter of Stravinsky’s stylistic evolution, Pulcinella was opening the door to the cosmopolitan neoclassical idiom that would become his stylistic preoccupation for the next 30 years. The harvest was rich: the ballets Apollo, Le baiser de la fee (The Fairy’s Kiss; based on Tchaikovsky), and Jeude cartes (Game of Cards), along with purely instrumental compositions such as the Concerto in D for strings (commissioned by Paul Sacher), the Violin Concerto (also very much in D), and the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. This last, for chamber orchestra, loosely modeled on the Brandenburg Concertos, is a kind of conversation with Bach in which Stravinsky, naturally, gets the last word. 

Stravinsky as drawn by Picasso in Paris on 31 December 1920

The years 1938-39 brought upheaval and sorrow with the deaths of Stravinsky’s eldest daughter, his mother, and his wife (though since 1922 the composer had been living openly with his mistress, Vera Sudeykina; they married in 1940). Within weeks of the outbreak of World War II, Stravinsky left Europe for America. He delivered lectures at Harvard, settled with Vera in West Hollywood, and hung out with other Russian emigres, a small circle of friends from the world of the arts. Again he cranked out works on commission in order to survive, producing exquisite hackwork such as the Circus Polka, Four Norwegian Moods, Ode (commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky), and the Ebony Concerto (commissioned by Woody Herman). There also were works of higher aim and quality: the Symphony in C (1938-40), premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Stravinsky conducting, a brilliant and assured refraction of the classical four-movement symphony; Danses concertantes (1940-42), not a ballet but a suite for chamber orchestra; and the Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45), premiered by the New York Philharmonic with Stravinsky conducting, a vibrant, dramatic orchestral canvas. Major achievements after the war were the ballet Orpheus and the opera The Rake’s Progress. Begun in 1947 and finished four years later, The Rake’s Progress was the high-water mark of Stravinsky’s immersion in neoclassicism and his first fling with opera since Le rossignol (two more dissimilar operas by the same composer would be hard to find). One of the great operas of the 20th century, it is also Stravinsky’s greatest work of musical parody.

When Stravinsky conducted its premiere, in Venice in 1951, it marked the first time he had set foot on European soil since 1939. In the midst of work on The Rake’s Progress, Robert Craft, a young American and Juilliard-trained conductor, became Stravinsky’s assistant. Craft would serve as amanuensis, adviser, and apologist, preparing orchestras for Stravinsky to conduct, collaborating on numerous books and recordings, playing Boswell to Stravinsky’s Johnson for the rest of the composer’s life. In addition, Craft (a champion of Schoenberg and Webern) was the catalyst in Stravinsky’s final stylistic transformation, which involved an embrace of Schoenbergian serialism and touched everything from the splendid Septet (1953) on. Stravinsky’s serial works still sound Stravinskian, retaining his distinctive rhythmic animation. Some did turn out dry and dull, but there were successes such as the ballet Agon (1953-57), written for George Balanchine. Late works, from the 1960s, include the short cantata A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer and Requiem Canticles, whose premiere Craft conducted.

Stravinsky conducting in 1965

Symphony of Psalms 

00:00 - 1st movement
03:24 - 2nd movement
10:07 - 3rd movement

Symphony in C major

1. Moderato alla breve
2. Larghetto concertante
3. Allegretto
4. Largo - Tempo giusto, alla breve

Symphony in Three Movements 

I. First Movement 
II. Andante [10:35]
III. Con moto [17:12] 

The Firebird

00:00 - Introduction
02:37 - Kashchei's magic garden
04:23 - Appearance of the Firebird, pursued by Ivan-Tsarevich
06:48 - Dance of the Firebird
08:11 - Ivan-Tsarevich captures the Firebird
09:03 - The Firebird entreats - Appearance of the thirteen enchanted princesses
17:17 - the Princesses' game with the golden apples
19:39 - Sudden appearance of Ivan-Tsarevich
21:20 - The princesses' Khorovod (Round Dance)
25:02 - Daybreak - Ivan-Tsarevich enters Kashchei's palace
26:28 - Magic carillion, Appearance of Kashchei's guardian monsters and the capture of Ivan-Tsarevich - Intercession of the princesses - Appearance of the Firebird
32:15 - dance of Kashchei's retinue, under the Firebird's spell
33:00 - Infernal dance of all Kashchei's subjects
37:42 - Lullaby (The Firebird) - Kashchei wakes up - Death of Kashchei - Deep Shadows
42:59 - Dissapearance of the palace and dissolution of Kashchei's enchantments; animation of the petrified knights; general rejoicing


Stravinsky first intended Petrushka to be a concert work for piano and orchestra, but he became possessed by the idea of the piano representing “a puppet suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios”. Diaghilev soon persuaded him that the work was destined to be a new ballet.

FIRST PART (10:00) Petrushka is set in St Petersburg during the Shrovetide Fair. Superimposing a number of characterful instrumental lines and harmonies, the music evokes the ebb and flow of the crowd, interspersed with the antics of street entertainers.
SECOND PART (4:00) Petrushka is in his cell. Hiccups of melody suggest the jerking puppet, whilst melancholy, discordant reveries of piano and clarinet evoke Petrushka’s hopeless love for the heardess Ballerina.

THIRD PART (5:00) Petrushka’s rival in love, a handsome, scimitar-wielding Blackamoor, dances with the Ballerina.
He is portrayed by a trumpet, she by a coy flute; mechanically tender, the music stutters and preens, evoking the reedy sonorities of a fairground organ.
FOURTH PART (13:00) Suddenly Petrushka is chased from a tent and cut down by the Blackamoor’s scimitar. The crowd disperses, and in the eerie twilight Petrushka (or his ghost) returns to haunt the terrified showman and to taunt anyone in the audience who might have been moved by the tale.

00:00 The Shrovetide Fair
09:57 Petrushka's Room
14:27 The Moor's Room
21:29 The Shrovetide Fair (Toward Evening)

The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring, set in primeval Russia, portrays a ritual in which a young girl dances herself to death to win the favour of the god of Spring. The ballet is a work of savage ecstasy, driven forward by its powerful, primitive rhythms.
PART ONE (15:30) After the mysterious Introduction comes the “Dance of the Adolescents”, in which young girls dance to the insistent stamping of a single chord repeated continuously with changing accents, while off-beat horn chords punch the air. After further ritual dancing, the first part of the ballet breaks off in mid-air like a terrifying cliff-hanger.

PART TWO (16:30) Both parts of the ballet begin quietly and end in pulsing violence. In the dawn-like introduction the second part, some of the strings play delicate harmonics while others sound shudders of fearful anticipation.

Stravinsky keeps several dramatic orchestral effects in reserve for the final climax. As the girl chosen for the sacrifice dances herself to death, the horns play “with bells up”, projecting their exultant high notes straight over the heads of the orchestra and out into the auditorium.
Part I
00:01 Introduction
03:27 Augurs of Spring
06:36 Ritual of Abduction
07:53 Spring Rounds
11:50 Ritual of the Rival Tribes
13:38 Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One
14:17 The Dancing Out of the Earth
Part II 
15:55 Introduction
20:08 Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
23:07 The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One
24:32 Evocation of the Ancestors
25:16 Ritual Action of the Ancestors
28:57 Sacrificial Dance

Concerto in E Flat Major ‘Dumbarton Oaks’

Written at a time of many crises in Stravinsky’s life, Dunbarton Oaks is a reminder of his assertion that music “expresses nothing but itself”. The work met with a mixed reaction on its premiere, being deplored by those who thought serious composers should be in the vanguard of a continuous musical revolution.

FIRST MOVEMENT (TEMPO GIUSTO, 4:00) The opening movement is reminiscent of | S llach's “Brandenburg”

Concertos. The modest instrumental forces and the regularity of the metre all hark back to Baroque practice.

SECOND MOVEMENT (ALLEGRETTO, 3:00) This has a sly, jazzy insouciance. It features flute and violin as solo instruments - plus the clarinet, an instrument that was unknown in Baroque times.
THIRD MOVEMENT (CON MOTO, 4:00) A movement with a pronounced “finale”, returning to the Baroque model. Yet Stravinsky abandons counterpoint in favour of his characteristic games of deft chordal interplay, shifting accents and sprightly syncopation.
Tempo giusto 00:00
Allegretto 04:57
Con moto 10:08

 L'Histoire du soldat

1. The Soldier's March
2. By the Brook
3. Pastorale
4.By the Brook reprise 
5. Soldier's March Reprise
6. The Royal March
7. The Little Concert
8. Tango, Waltz, and Ragtime
9. The Devil's Dance
11.The Devil's Triumphant March

Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Oedipus Rex 

Stravinsky had been conducting and recording his own work since the 1920s, but his most significant efforts as executant came during his frequent guest engagements in America, and while presiding over recordings of a large part of his oeuvre for Columbia Records. He moved to New York in 1969. Following his death, two years later, his body was flown to Venice and interred on the necropolitan island of San Michele.

Protean, stateless, uprooted, peripatetic—equal parts French and Russian, with a keen intelligence, malicious temperament, and acerbic wit—Stravinsky was one of the dominant figures in the formation of the aesthetic of modernism, an iconoclast who became an icon. He was also the model eclectic, stealing stuff everywhere without ever losing his identity. Indeed, throughout his long career Stravinsky actively sought external influence and ideas to work with, using anything he felt to be useful, and with each piece pointing in a different direction. He was a brilliant posturer, a skillful manipulator of materials and procedures, and a purveyor of feigned emotion (or none— “the play of the musical elements is the thing,” he wrote), who, like the charlatan in Petrushka, was always present in and commenting on his creations.

Obsessed with his own importance, Stravinsky seemed, at least in his later years, perpetually irked by the way more glamorous conductors stole his thunder every time they performed one of his scores. And, in an odd way, Stravinsky’s imagination ran backward, from an early fascinadon with the fantastic to a fixation on the parodistic to, in his final decade, a largely sterile preoccupation with technique. Even so, what we call “modern music” came into being with Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. In bringing about this sea change in the way music could function, Stravinsky became one of the most impor-
tant composers in history, enlarging, as Debussy told him, “the boundaries of the permissible in the empire of sound.”


Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso collaborated on Pulcinella in 1920. 

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