Stravinsky: style-conscious visionary, 20th-century composing colossus

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Learn all about Igor Stravinsky, the style-conscious visionary and perhaps the 20th century’s most seminal composer

‘Stravinsky demeure.’ This is how Pierre Boulez, one of the leaders of the post-war musical avant garde, titled his rhythmic analysis of The Rite of Spring in 1953.

The title resists easy translation. ‘Stravinsky abides’ is one solution, but there is also a sense of ‘Stravinsky is ever with us’. And he is: the case for Stravinsky as his century’s paramount composer seems stronger than ever.

Who was Stravinsky?

Gifted with an insistently exploratory mind, Stravinsky was also rooted in tradition. First, in the folk music and sacred chant of Russia’s countryside and Orthodox Church that were among his earliest childhood memories. Later, in European art music from the Baroque age and earlier.

A White Russian of upper-middle class ancestry, Stravinsky was born into a time-warped, backward-looking society. But he adapted with remarkable success to life in the 20th-century West. Surprisingly, his early years showed no real sign of the meteoric achievements to come.

His father was principal bass at the Mariinsky Opera in St Petersburg, and his mother was a good pianist. So, the young Stravinsky grew up in a world of high-level music-making. The relationship with his parents seems to have been extremely fractious.

Stravinsky did not retrospectively berate his father, however, for having insisted that young Igor should study law rather than music. At that stage, as he himself conceded, he had not composed anything that indicated major talent.

Who was Stravinsky’s teacher?

Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t think so either, when Stravinsky showed him some piano pieces at the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1902. A year later, however, he changed his mind and accepted Stravinsky as a private pupil. By 1905, the young composer was able to complete an impressive Symphony in E flat.

The music shows the influences of Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Rimsky himself, but no pronounced personality of its own.

What are Stravinsky’s best works?

The ‘real’ Stravinsky began to materialise in two orchestral works from 1908. These were the strikingly inventive Scherzo fantastique and the brilliantly scored Fireworks.

In the audience at the first performance of these was Serge Diaghilev. He was the impresario of the Opéra Russe company that was the talk of cultural life in Paris. Planning a parallel ballet company, and needing a new work for its 1910 season, Diaghilev took a chance and commissioned Stravinsky to compose The Firebird.

The Ballets Russes’s first performance of this brought the young composer instant world fame. However, he was not content to repeat its broad-brushed, shimmering virtuosity. Within a year the asymmetric rhythms and incisive orchestral colours of Petrushka had announced Stravinsky’s mature style.

What happened at the first night of The Rite of Spring?

Then followed the eruptive, earth-stamping power of The Rite of Spring, with its legendary first-night audience riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in May 1913, and the realisation that the advent of this composer had changed the course of musical history.

Previously unprepossessing, Stravinsky developed a waspish resistance to the attacks that come with being under the spotlight. From now on he was seldom to modify his abrasive manner, conscious that he was standing alone, and so needed to protect himself with his own brand of sharp defensiveness.

He was soon to be isolated in a more literal sense also. World War I and the Russian Revolution brought exile jewels like the instrumental song-cycles Pribaoutki and Berceuses du chat.

Peacetime brought a return to France and a new ballet commission from Diaghilev. Pulcinella, based on keyboard pieces supposedly by Pergolesi, was the first major statement of Stravinsky’s neo-classical self-renewal – an instinct for portraying the letter and the spirit of earlier musical ages through the sounds of the present.

1930’s austerely majestic Symphony of Psalms for chorus and a singularly Stravinskyan orchestra of woodwind, brass and low strings had its genesis in its composer’s rediscovery of his lapsed Orthodox faith – a consequence of his guilt-ridden emotional life.

Who was Stravinsky’s mistress?

In 1921 Stravinsky had met Vera Sudeikina, glamorous ex-dancer, costume-designer, and fellow-Russian exile. The two formed what was to be a devoted and lifelong relationship. Divorce from his wife Catherine was not possible under the Orthodox Church. So, for nearly two decades, Stravinsky had pursued a frenetic double life. That, while single-handedly supporting both his own family and that of Catherine’s exiled sister by his composing, conducting, and piano-playing.

A few months in the late 1930s brought the deaths of his daughter Ludmila and of Catherine herself, both from tuberculosis, and then of his mother. With World War II imminent, he and Vera sailed for America. They settled in Los Angeles, the composer appreciating the climate’s benign effect on his own tubercular scars.

Adapting himself yet again to new surroundings and engaging, none too successfully, with the musical demands of Hollywood’s film studios, Stravinsky found himself developing a more American, rhetorical tone in works like the Symphony in Three Movements. But the most dramatic change came in the wake of the summation of his neoclassical years, his full-length opera The Rake’s Progress.

Who was Robert Craft?

An additional member of the Stravinsky household was the young conductor Robert Craft. As his musical assistant, Craft introduced Stravinsky to the serial works of Schoenberg and Webern. What interested Stravinsky in Schoenberg’s 12-note method were its searching economy and its adaptability to elements of his own idiom. However, he initially found himself in a creative impasse which reduced him literally to tears.

The crisis was resolved with his Cantata of 1952, his first work to feature Schoenbergian canonic devices and serial procedures. That was followed by superb late works including Canticum sacrum (1955), the ballet score Agon (1957), and one of his ultimate achievements, Requiem Canticles of 1966.

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