Igor Stravinsky Biography
Igor Fyodorovitch Stravinsky (И́горь Фёдорович Страви́нский) (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971) was a composer of modern classical music. He wrote works in the neo-classical and serialist styles, but he is best known for two works from his earlier, Russian period: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) and L'Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird). For some, these ballets practically reinvented the genre. Stravinsky also wrote in a broad spectrum of ensemble combinations and classical forms. His oeuvre included everything from symphonies to piano miniatures.
Stravinsky also achieved fame as a pianist and conductor, often at the premieres of his own works. He was also a writer. With the help of his protégé Robert Craft, who helped with the composer's English grammar, Stravinsky composed a theoretic work entitled Poetics of Music. In it, he famously claimed that music was incapable of 'expressing anything but itself'. Craft also transcribed several interviews with the composer, which were published as Conversations with Stravinsky.
A quintessentially cosmopolitan Russian, Stravinsky was one of the most authoritative composers in 20th century music, both in the West and in his native land. He was named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people of the century.
Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), near St. Petersburg, Russia. Brought up in an apartment in St. Petersburg and dominated by his father and elder brother, Stravinsky's early childhood was a mix of experience that hinted little at the cosmopolitan artist he was to become. Though his father was a bass singer at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Stravinsky originally studied to be a lawyer. Composition came later. In 1902, at the age of 20, Stravinsky became the pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, probably the leading Russian composer of the time.
Stravinsky left Russia for the first time in 1910, going to Paris to attend the premiere of his ballet L'Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird). During his stay in the city, he composed three major works for the Ballets Russes—L'Oiseau de Feu, Petroushka (1911), and Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1913). The ballets trace his stylistic development: from the L'Oiseau de Feu, whose style draws largely on Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, to Petroushka's emphasis on bitonality, and finally to the savage polyphonic dissonance of Le Sacre du printemps. As he himself said, with these premieres his intention was 'to send them all to hell'. (He succeeded: the 1913 premičre of Le Sacre du printemps turned into a riot.)
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 Ballet Russes, but Stravinsky 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 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. He was still young when he married his cousin Katerina Nossenko, who he had known since early childhood, on 23 January 1906. Their marriage endured for 33 years, but the true love of his life, and partner until his death, was his second wife Vera de Bosset.
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 the death of Katerina in 1939 Stravinsky led a deft 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 her death Stravinsky and Vera were married in New York where they had gone from France to escape the war 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 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 Schoenberg well, said that he always found Stravinsky much more co-operative and easy to deal with. At the same time he had a disregard of his social inferiors: Robert Craft was embarrassed by his habit of tapping a glass with a fork and loudly demanding attention in restaurants.
Eventually Stravinsky's music was noticed by Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes in Paris. He comissioned Stravinsky to write a ballet for his theater; so in 1911, Stravinsky traveled to Paris. That ballet ended up being the famous L'Oiseau de Feu. However, because of World War I and the October Revolution in Russia he moved to Switzerland in 1914. He returned to Paris in 1920 to write more ballets as well as many other works. He moved to the United States in 1939 and became a naturalized citizen in 1945. He continued to live in the United States until his death in 1971, unsuccessfully writing music for films. Stravinsky had adapted to life in France, but moving to America aged 58 was a very different prospect. For a time he preserved a ring of emigré Russian friends and contacts, but eventually realised that this would not sustain his intellectual and professional life in the USA. 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 his death, acting as interpreter, chronicler, assistant conductor and factotum for countless musical and social tasks.
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: Auden, Eliot, and medieval English verse. At the end of his life he was even setting Hebrew scripture in Abraham and Isaac.
In 1962 he accepted an invitation to return to Russia for a series of concerts, but remained an emigre firmly based in the West.
He died in New York City on April 6, 1971 at the age of 89 and was buried in Venice on the cemetery island of San Michele. His grave is close to the tomb of his early 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.
Stravinsky's career largely falls into three distinct stylistic periods. Most of his compositions can be placed in one of the three.
The Primitive, or 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.
The first of the ballets, L'Oiseau de Feu, is notable for its unusual introduction (triplets in the low basses) and sweeping orchestration. Petroushka, 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 French horns on off-rhythms (See Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) for a more detailed account of this work).
Other pieces from this period include: Renard (1916), L'Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier's Tale) (1918), and Les Noces (The Wedding) (1923).
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.
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 completed in 1951. 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 harkens back to the operas and themes of Monteverdi, Gluck and mozart.
After the opera's completion Stravinsky never wrote another 'neo-classic' work and instead began writing the music that came to define his final stylistic change.
The Serialist, or Twelve Tone Period
Only after the death of Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve tone system, in 1951 did Stravinsky begin making use of the technique in his own works. No doubt, Stravinsky was aided in his understanding of, or even conversion to, the twelve tone method by his confidant and helper Robert Craft, who had long been advocating the change. Regardless, the next fifteen years were spent writing the works in this style.
Stravinsky first began to dabble in the twelve tone technique in smaller vocal works such as the Cantata (1952), Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953) and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954), as if he were testing the system. He later began expanding his use of the technique in works often based on biblical texts, such as Threni (1958), A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), and The Flood (1962).
For the culminating work of this period Stravinsky again returned to the ballet: Agon, a work for twelve dancers written in 1957. In it, Stravinsky enforced his unique re-interpretation of the twelve tone method, retaining all the Stravinskian signatures that are found throughout his compositions, whether they be 'primitive', 'neo-classic', or 'serial': rhythmic quirkiness and experimentation, harmonic ingenuity, and a deft ear for masterful orchestration. Indeed, these characteristics are what make Stravinsky's output so unique when compared with the work of contemporaneous serial composers. It is also, perhaps, why Stravinsky never fully adopted the twelve tone method wholeheartedly and often deviated from its stricter tenets.
Influence and innovation
Stravinsky's work embraced multiple compositional styles, revolutionised 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.
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 french 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 without either variation or being used to accompany 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.
Stravinsky announced his new style in 1923 with the stripped-down and delicately scored Octet for winds. The clear harmonies, looking back to the Classical music era of mozart and Bach, and the simpler combinations of rhythm and melody were a direct response to the complexities of the Second Viennese School. Stravinsky may have been preceded in these devices by earlier composers such as Erik Satie, but no doubt when Copland was composing his Appalachian Spring ballet he was taking Stravinsky as his model.
Certainly by the late 1920s and 1930s, Neoclassicism as an accepted modern genre was prevalent throughout art music circles around the world. Ironically, it was Stravinsky himself who announced the death of Neoclassicism, at least in his own work if not for the world, with the completion of his opera The Rake's Progress in 1951. A sort of final statement for the style, the opera was largely ridiculed as too 'backward looking' even by those who had lauded the new style only three decades earlier.
Quotation and pastiche
Stravinsky used the now very postmodern technique of direct musical quotation and pastiche as early as 1920 in his work Pulcinella. Here he uses the music of Pergolesi as source material, sometimes directly quoting it and other times simply reinventing it, to create a new and refreshing work. He used the same technique in the ballet The Fairy's Kiss of 1928. Here it is the music of Tchaikovsky, specifically Swan Lake, that Stravinsky uses as his source. Such compositional 'borrowing' would come into vogue in the 1960s, as in the work Sinfonia by Luciano Berio.
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: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra 1 (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0520070992/qid=1088714967/sr=1-6/ref=sr_1_6/102-2385533-5218561?v=glance&s=books), 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 is 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, tenor and bass trombone, double bass, cornet, violin and percussion, a very striking combination for its time (1918). This combining of distinct timbres would become almost a cliche in post-World War II classical music.
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 Stravsinky 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 equalled if not exceeeded by that of Stravinsky.
'The music of Le Sacre du Printemps baffles verbal description. To say that much of it is hideous as sound is a mild description. There is certainly an impelling rhythm traceable. Practically it has no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word.' Musical Times, London, August 1, 1913 (Slonimsky, 1953)
'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 (ibid.)
Composer Constant Lambert (1936) described pieces such as L'Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier's Tale) as containing, 'essentially coldblooded abstraction'. Further, 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: 'Everday 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'.
In his book Philosophy of Modern Music (1948) Theodor Adorno calls Stravinsky an acrobat, a civil servant, a tailor's dummy, hebephrenic, psychotic, infantile, fascist, and devoted to making money. Part of the composer's error, in Adorno's view, was his neo-classicism, but more important was his music's 'pseudomorphism of painting', playing off of le temps éspace (space) rather than le temps durée (duration) of Henri Bergson. 'One trick characterizes all of Stravinsky's formal endeavors: the effort of his music to portray time as in a circus tableau and to present time complexes as though they were spatial. This trick, however, soon exhausts itself.' (1948)
List of works
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