Personalities | Igor Stravinsky | Modern Era | Classical

(E’-gor Strvin’-ske) 1882–1971
Russian composer

Stravinsky was a Russian composer, naturalized to French citizenship, then ultimately became American. He was one of the most formative influences on twentieth-century music.

He came from a musical background (his father was principal bass singer at the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg) and studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, from whom he acquired a mastery of orchestration and an interest in Russian folk music.

Influenced by his teacher and by Debussy, he wrote two short orchestral works, Feu d’artifice (‘Fireworks’, 1908) and Scherzo fantasque (‘Fantastic Scherzo’, 1909), which attracted the attention of Serge Diaghilev, who was busy preparing his second season of Russian ballet in Paris. Stravinsky was asked first to orchestrate two pieces by Chopin for a new production of Les Sylphides, then, to a tight deadline, to supply a new ballet score. The result – the brilliantly colourful and Rimsky-Korsakovian The Firebird (1910) – immediately made him famous, a success intensified by his second ballet for Diaghilev, Petrushka (1911), a sinister tale set in a Russian fairground, which greatly outdoes Rimsky-Korsakov in its orchestral wizardry. But his third ballet, The Rite of Spring (1913), the most ground-breaking and revolutionary score of the century, was greeted at its first performance by a tumultuous riot.

The Roots of Genius

Stravinsky had been given piano lessons as a child and soon showed signs of musical talent, but his father insisted that at university he should study not music but law. A fellow student, however, was the son of Rimsky-Korsakov, Russia’s most distinguished teacher of composition. Stravinsky showed him some of his youthful pieces and was soon accepted as a private pupil, benefiting from Rimsky-Korsakov’s encyclopedic knowledge and his renowned mastery of orchestration.

For five years, until his teacher died in 1908, all Stravinsky’s works were written under his detailed supervision. Rimsky-Korsakov also arranged for some of them to be published and performed, and in this way Stravinsky came to the attention of Serge Diaghilev, who needed a new ballet for his second Ballets Russes season in 1910. Diaghilev invited him to write the music for a ballet based on a Russian fairytale, The Firebird. This vivid score was a huge success at its premiere at the Paris Opéra in June 1910, and Stravinsky became famous overnight.

The Shock of the New

If The Firebird was audibly by a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, its successor Petrushka, given its premiere by the Ballets Russes a year later, was a huge step forward, with its tingling rhythmic drive and acidly bright orchestral colours. It, too, was an overwhelming public success, and Stravinsky’s third work for Diaghilev, The Rite of Spring, was eagerly anticipated. To reflect its subject-matter (a pagan ritual in prehistoric Russia at the height of which a chosen virgin dances herself to death to propitiate the gods) its language was far more revolutionary than that of Petrushka. Its rhythms were unprecedentedly violent and irregular,...

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