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Learn about the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, and his works & life.

Igor Stravinsky: the overview

  • Born: 1882 - Oranienbaum, Russia
  • Died: 1971 - New YorkUSA
  • Historical Period: Modern
  • Musical Media: orchestra, ballet, chamber music, choral, opera, keyboards, songs 

Igor Stravinsky at piano

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, or simply Igor Stravinsky, was born in Russia in the year 1882. He was one of the foremost musical composers of his time and beyond. He was responsible for a number of popular pieces that exist today as milestones before he passed away in the year 1971 in America. 

Igor Stravinsky: The Manifestation of Musical Genius

Stravinsky senior was well known for his musical leadership and he had his son receive musical lessons in piano. This was followed by extensive academic pursuits in the subjects of Law and Philosophy from St. Petersburg University before he moved on to more musical interests. Composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was extremely impressed by his early works and agreed to take the young Stravinsky under his wing as a pupil. 

One of the composer’s finest pieces, The Firebird (1910), debuted at the Paris Opéra to exceptional acclaim, making Stravinsky an overnight sensation. The next year, in 1911, the Ballets Russes premiered with Petrushka, one of Stravinsky’s earliest and most memorable ballets. In this period, the composer had come up with an idea of a symphony with its roots in pagan rituals. This produced The Rite of Spring (1911–13), whose debut performance happened at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées.

In 1906, Stravinsky married Catherine Nossenko, his cousin, and in 1910, they went and settled in France with their two children. The advent of the first World War caused the composer to be stuck in Switzerland with his family and the accompanying Russian Revolution in 1917 shattered any chance of him returning to Russia. However, his music was characterized by short instrumental pieces and vocal efforts, inspired by Russian folk tales, and from dance music popularized in Western culture.  

Thereafter, Stravinsky started working on and finished The Wedding (1923), which cites the texts of wedding songs from Russia. Other examples of his work during this period were The Soldier’s Tale (1918), and Renard (1916). The end of the Great War brought with it a mass alienation for Stravinsky’s Russian musical style, and he produced his last great piece of that time, Symphonies of Wind Instruments in 1920.

Stravinsky’s exodus from Russia made him think about his writing style and aesthetics. We see a very important change in musical tone from him during this time, in that he stopped writing music with the typical Russian pattern instead of going for a Neoclassical makeover. It is evident that in the next three decades, Stravinsky mainly took other composers’ pieces as references for his own personal, yet unconventional body of work.

The year 1920 saw Stravinsky leave Switzerland with his family and live in France till 1939. This was a period marked by his instrumental musical brilliance, which included Serenade in A for piano (1925), Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924), Octet for Wind Instruments (1923) and Piano Sonata (1924). These are heavily influenced by the Neoclassical trend that the composer took inspiration from since leaving his homeland. Other notable works are Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (1935) and Violin Concerto in D Major (1931).

An intent listener of Stravinsky’s music can pick out the obvious religious tones in his Symphony of Psalms (1930), referenced from the Bible and Oedipus Rex (1927), which utilizes a Latin libretto. The same can be said for Persephone (1934) and Apollon musagète (1928), which are ballets. In the year 1920, Stravinsky’s also wrote the ballet, Pulcinella, for the Ballets Russes. Subsequently, we also have The Fairy’s Kiss, written in 1928, which adapts Tchaikovsky’s music. 

The year 1938 was one of great loss and suffering for the composer when he lost his elder daughter to Tuberculosis, and this was followed by the demise of both his mother and wife in the following year. Going on to 1940, Stravinsky married Vera de Bosset, an acquaintance of many years, finally settling down in Hollywood, California until they moved to New York in 1969. He received American citizenship in 1945 and lived in the U.S.A. for the rest of his life. 

From the early years of World War 2 till its end, Stravinsky managed to write a couple of symphonies, the Symphony in Three Movements (1945) and the Symphony in C (1940). The first is a representation of Neoclassicism in the form of a symphony while the latter is a combination of symphony and concerto. The Rake’s Progress finished in 1951, Stravinsky’s first operatic work is based on W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto.

There was a sort of musical revolution during the post-war period that introduced a preference for the twelve-tone, compositional style of the Viennese greats such as Schoenberg or Webern. In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954) was the result of this era, along with Canticum Sacrum (1955), and Agon (1957), a ballet. He also gifted the world with another masterpiece, Threni (1958), that was full of biblical connotations. Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s assistant, is generally regarded as the one who persuaded Stravinsky to use the twelve-tone composition in his work.

Igor Stravinsky playing piano

The composer’s final work was the Requiem Canticles (1966), that is reflective of the widely sentimental adaptation of contemporary styles that affected his own musical vision. Igor Stravinsky passed away at the ripe age of 88, in the year 1971. The composing great was highly admired by Picasso himself who sketched the former a number of times. He went on to receive a posthumous Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1987 and has a star to his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 





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