Personalities | Igor Stravinsky | Modern Era | Opera

1882–1971, Russian

Stravinsky, who was born in Oranienbaum, Russia, and died in New York, is one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. A master of style, he could create sound palettes as extreme and varied as any written during his lifetime, even if these extremes stemmed from his refusal to associate himself with one particular style.

Influence of Russian Folklore

Three ballets written for impresario-producer Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes are among the most important in the repertoire. Inspired by French Impressionism, both The Firebird and Petrushka are replete with Russian folklore references, yet neither critics nor fans of the day were prepared for the stylistic leap that Stravinsky took with The Rite of Spring. Featuring a convulsive narrative, angular orchestral writing and primitive rhythms, this radical work provoked an instant riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

As Stravinsky began to minimize instrumental resources within his compositions, so he created a new, leaner style. Then, with the operatic genre as his last frontier, he embarked on The Nightingale (1909), based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. In this, Stravinsky melded his two evolving styles of composition – neo-Romantic (in Act I) and his aforementioned streamlined style – to create a work of highly oriental and exotic influences.

Still, of the many works that he produced for the stage, few can be classified as opera. Renard, a 15-minute burlesque (1915), and Mavra (1922) were programmed together in a 1922 performance, yet not too successfully. Mavra had been composed as homage to the hallowed stylistic conventions of the old Russian school of Italian opera, and dedicated to Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804–57), Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93).

Weightier Work to Come

Stravinsky’s wish to produce a weightier work was then achieved with Oedipus Rex (1927). As translated into Latin, Cocteau’s libretto underpins Stravinsky’s neo-classical score – a narrator in contemporary concert attire recites the story scene by scene. However, as the opera-oratorio progresses, his role becomes more integrated within the musical texture. This ritualized and highly dramatic work is effective in both concert and fully staged renderings. Nevertheless, the apex of Stravinsky’s operatic oeuvre and his neo-classical style is The Rake’s Progress. Comprising three acts, this is his only full-length opera, and is among the most performed of all post-war operas.


1909 The Nightingale
1922 Mavra
1927 Oedipus Rex
1951 The Rake’s Progress


1882 Igor Stravinsky born Oranienbaum, Russia
1902 Begins studying under Rimsky-Korsakov
1905 Starts work on his first symphony
1909 Chinese opera The Nightingale completed
1910 Composes The Firebird
1913 First performance of The Rite of Spring, Paris, causes a riot
1914 Stravinsky takes refuge in Switzerland after outbreak of First World War
1918 The Soldier’s Tale marks Stravinsky’s growing interest in non-Russian music
1922 Completes Mavra
1927 Oedipus Rex produced as oratorio, Paris
1939 Moves to USA
1951 Premiere of The Rake’s Progress, Venice
1958 Serialist choral work Threni...

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