Born Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky on June 17, 1982, in Oranienbaum, Russia; died April 6, 1971, in New York, NY; son of Fyodor Stravinsky (opera singer) and Anna (Kholodovsky) Stravinsky; one of four children; married Katerina Nossenko, 1906 (died 1939); children: Fyodor, Ludmila, Svyatoslav, Sulema, Milena, Nicholas, and Katherine; married Vera de Bossett, 1940.

Few composers have made such dramatic breaks from the status quo in classical music as Igor Stravinsky did in the twentieth century. As Harold C. Schonberg remarked in The Lives of the Great Composers, "What Stravinsky represented, among many other things, was a compete rupture with Romanticism." Long considered the leader of the musical avant garde, Stravinsky developed his reputation by putting his own musical label on the classical styles of the past. His shift to Neo-classicism after World War I resulted in a series of compositions hallmarked by simplicity and restraint that were often critically praised but not favored by the public.

Stravinsky stressed that music was notes and nothing more, and that composition should be an expression of form and logic rather than passion. While his so-called "intellectual" scores often didn't strike a chord with audiences, his colleagues generally regarded him as one of the best musical technicians of his time. He also had a tremendous influence on other composers who followed him, although he had little interest in discussing his own music.

As the son of a renowned singer at the Imperial Opera in Russia, Stravinsky was surrounded by classical music while growing up. He began taking piano lessons at the age of nine, and also studied composition as a child. Trips to the ballet and opera were commonplace for the young Stravinsky, but his early training did not reveal any significant talent, nor did his compositions foreshadow his musical explorations of the future. As a teenager he became more interested in improvisation and began dabbling in composition.

A key influence of Stravinsky's early work was the famous Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whom Stravinsky met around 1900. When Stravinsky's father died in 1902, Rimsky-Korsakov became the young man's substitute father and musical mentor as he continued with studies at law school. Stravinsky became the composer's private student in 1903 and continued in this capacity until Rimsky-Korsakov's death in 1908. One of his first big compositions, the Symphony in E-flat Major in 1907, clearly showed the influences of Rimsky-Korsakov's style. Other early influences on Stravinsky's work were Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Dukas.

Serge Diaghilev, who had recently established his Ballet Russe in Paris, attended a 1908 performance of Stravinsky's Fireworks in St. Petersburg. He was so impressed by Stravinsky's work that he asked the composer to write the music for a ballet based on the Russian fairy tale of the Fire Bird. Stravinsky agreed and became famous overnight as a result of his Firebird, which backed choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and received rave notices in France. Despite six decades of composing to follow, the Firebird would remain Stravinsky's most popular work. He followed this with 1911's Petrushka, which, according to Schonberg, "solidified Stravinsky's position as the coming man of European music." Quite daring for its time, this work featured a section that had two unrelated harmonies converging.

Nothing Stravinsky had done before prepared the pubic for his legendary next work, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which was also choreographed by Nijinsky. In his discussion of the work, New York Times music critic Paul Griffiths wrote, "By means of syncopation and rapid changes of metre Stravinsky did away with the regular pulse which had governed almost all Western music since the Renaissance." Most shocking about this ballet was its reception at its premiere, where members of the audience jeered and booed during the performance. Schonberg explained the response by writing, "Hardly anybody in the audience was prepared for a score of such dissonance and ferocity, such complexity and such rhythmic oddity." In a single stroke, Stravinsky had thrown out the time- honored standards of harmony and melody and created a new set of musical values.

Prevented from returning to his native land due to World War I, Stravinsky and his family moved to Switzerland. After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, he lived in France and soon encountered financial trouble, as funds had been cut off from Russia. Money problems forced Stravinsky to curtail his composing time by working more often as a performing musician and conductor. At this point he began composing a different type of music, focusing on concise works for small groups of instruments rather than majestic scores for large orchestras. One of these was a folk-tale piece composed in 1918 called Histoire du Soldat, which was an early example of musical theater. Based on a Russian tale about a deserting soldier, the piece used the services of a narrator, two actors, a dancer, and seven instrumentalists, while featuring a ragtime number and a chorale. Other notable Neo-classical works that he composed around this time include the Symphonies of Wind Instruments in 1921, a one-act opera entitled Mavra in 1922, and the cantata Les Noces (The Wedding) in 1923. Up to this time many of his pieces still drew heavily on the folk tales of Russia, but eventually his music left that heritage behind.

With his music after 1920 labeled as abstract and cosmopolitan, Stravinsky never again had the impact on audiences that he did with his Russian ballets. This was no surprise to him; he did not expect his anti-sentimental works to cater to the general public. By now his music was much more controlled and featured a strict economy of composition and little bombast. This approach was considerably evident in his oratorio called Oedipus Rex, composed in 1927. His Violin Concerto in the early 1930s was also an example of traditional musical forms put through Stravinsky's ultramodern filter. His evolution during this period created two schools of thought among critics, one side admiring his newly found simplicity and restraint, the other yearning for the urgency and energy of his previous composition. The composer made his thoughts quite clear in his 1930 autobiography: "I consider that music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at all.... The phenomenon of music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things."

In the 1930s Stravinsky was devoting much of his attention to religious works. He wrote a Symphony of Psalms for chorus and orchestra in 1930, and his late 1930s Symphony in C was, according to him, written to honor God's glory. During this decade he also found himself more in demand in the United States. He had visited America in 1925 and conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and in 1935 he returned there to conduct a number of major American orchestras.

Tragedy struck the Stravinsky family in the late 1930s. The death of his daughter of tuberculosis in 1938 was followed the next year by the death of his wife. The composer then lost his mother three months later. As World War II began to gain steam in Europe, he moved to the United States, which remained his home for the rest of his life. After settling in Hollywood in 1939, he received a number of requests to compose music for films, but little became of them. His most significant work during his first decade in the U.S. was the very dynamic Symphony in Three Movements completed in 1945. He also composed his Mass for chorus and woodwinds in 1948 for use in church services.

In the U.S. Stravinsky reconnected with the Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine, with whom Stravinsky had worked previously in Europe. They formed a successful partnership in ballets, including 1948's Orpheus. Stravinsky's greatest post-World War II success was an opera collaboration with W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman entitled The Rake's Progress, which premiered in 1951 and gained international popularity. By this time Stravinsky had lost his position as leader of the avant garde, being upstaged by the rising popularity of Austro-Hungarian Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone techniques and the school of serialism (a musical style whereby a series of different notes is used as the basis of a whole composition). For many years he had condemned serialism, but then had a change of tune in the 1950s due partly to increasing exposure to younger European composers resulting from the European premier of The Rake's Progress. He was also urged to explore serialism by his friend Robert Craft, an American conductor who had a major influence on Stravinsky in his later years. Stravinsky dabbled with serial elements in a ballet score for Agon, commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein and Balanchine in 1957. Other serial works included Threni in 1958 and Movements for Piano and Orchestra in 1959. Some critics attacked the composer's embracing of serialism as just a stunt to regain his status in the avant-garde world, but few of Stravinsky's works in this vein have had any staying power in the musical repertory.

In 1962 Stravinsky returned to Russia for the first time in half a century, giving a series of concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. His visit helped eliminate restrictions against the playing of his work in the Soviet Union. Many of Stravinsky's compositions in the 1960s were elegies or sacred music, among them the Elegy for J.F.K. in 1964. He wrote his last major composition, the serialism-influenced Requiem Canticles, in 1966, most likely with consideration of his own approaching death.

By 1967 Stravinsky's health was deteriorating rapidly, and that year he conducted his last public performance, of the Pulcinella Suite, in Toronto, Canada. Two years later he and his second wife moved to New York City from Hollywood, then spent three months in 1970 at Evian on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Stravinsky died at his home in New York City the following year. Soon after his death scandal broke out regarding books he had co-written with Craft when Lillian Libman, Stravinsky's personal representative, claimed that many of the details conveyed about the composer's life were fraudulent. Bernard Holland noted in the New York Times that Stravinsky "rearranged past events, experienced memory lapses (convenient or otherwise) or just plain lied."

Although he experienced many changes during his more than 65 years as a composer, Stravinsky maintained a commitment to precision and directness. As was noted about the composer in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "His life was a varied one, and his music too went through several changes, often startling at the time but revealing an inner consistency when viewed with hindsight."

by Ed Decker

Igor Stravinsky's Career

Studied piano and composition as a child; began taking private lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov while attending law school, 1903; composed first major work, Symphony in E-flat Major, 1907; wrote Firebird for Ballet Russe, Paris, France, 1908; created major furor with The Rite of Spring, 1913; made first public appearance as a conductor, 1915; composed series of Neo-classical works that featured polytonal features; became known as leader of avant-garde music, 1920s; made first tour of U.S., 1925; began composing more religious works, starting with Symphony of Psalms, 1930; toured South America with son Sulima, a professional pianist, 1936; moved to Hollywood, CA, 1939; gave series of lectures at Harvard University as Elliot Norton Chair, Cambridge, MA, 1940; served as guest conductor with numerous American Symphony Orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic; had major worldwide success with The Rake's Progress, an opera, 1951; compared scores for a number of ballets choreographed by George Balanchine; developed partnership with conductor Robert Craft; experimented with serialism, late 1950s; composed Elegy for J.F.K. following President Kennedy's assassination, 1964; completed last major composition, Requiem Canticles, 1966; moved to New York, NY, 1969; died at the age of 88 in New York, NY, and was buried in Venice, Italy, 1971.

Igor Stravinsky's Awards

Gold Medal, Royal Philharmonic Society, 1954; U.S. State Department Medal, 1962.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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