Igor Stravinsky Biography, Revolutionary Russian Composer

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Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (June 17, 1882–April 6, 1971) was a Russian-born composer who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1945. He is recognized as one of the most innovative classical composers of the 20th century. His ballets Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring are landmarks of classical music composition.

Fast Facts: Igor Stravinsky

  • Full Name: Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky
  • Occupation: Musical composer
  • Known For: Innovative ballets
  • Born: June 17, 1882, in Saint Petersburg, Russia
  • Died: April 6, 1971, in New York, New York
  • Spouses: Katya Nossenko (m. 1906-1939), Vera de Bosset (m. 1940-1971)
  • Children: Fyodor, Ludmila, Maria Milena, and Soulima
  • Selected Works: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Symphony in C (1940)
  • Notable Quote: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”

Early Life and Education

Born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, Russia, Igor Stravinsky was the son of two natives of Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. His father, Fyodor, was a well-known opera singer, and his mother, Anna, was the daughter of a high-ranking official in the Kiev Ministry of Estates. Igor began piano lessons as a young boy and soon began studying music theory and composition.


Despite the fact that he was primarily interested in music, Stravinsky’s parents expected their son to study law. He enrolled in the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901 but rarely attended class. Stravinsky spent the summer of 1902 in Heidelberg, Germany, with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the most prominent Russian composers of the time. Rimsky-Korsakov suggested that the young, enthusiastic musician take private lessons instead of studying at the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire.

Stravinsky’s birth father died later in 1902, and Rimsky-Korsakov soon took on the role of a second father figure. Stravinsky began taking twice-weekly music lessons from the famed composer in 1905, and they continued until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.

The first orchestral works by Stravinsky were written when he was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1909, ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev heard Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice at a concert in Saint Petersburg. He was impressed by the music and commissioned Stravinsky to compose a full-length score for the ballet The Firebird.

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Revolutionary Ballets

The Firebird premiered in Paris, France, in 1910, performed by the Ballet Russes dance company. It caused a sensation among critics and audiences alike. who celebrated a perfect blend of music, choreography, and staging. It was a breakthrough for Stravinsky, and he was soon seen as one of the world’s leading young classical music composers. Upon hearing the final notes of The Firebird, famed Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff reportedly said, “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

Stravinsky wrote two more revolutionary ballets for the Ballets Russes in quick succession. Petrushka debuted in Paris in 1911 with legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky portraying the lead role. The Rite of Spring followed in 1913. The avant-garde nature of the latter caused a sensation among Parisian audiences. Some sources describe the reaction to the first performance as a near-riot. The ballet depicts primitive rituals associated with the coming of spring. Nijinsky again danced the lead role, and his choreography was seen as suggestive. Reportedly, the audience created so much noise through cheering, protesting, and arguing about the production that the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra. The experimental music which incorporated new explorations in tonality, rhythm, and dissonance ultimately was recognized as one of the most influential orchestral works of the 20th century.


Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka.
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Igor Stravinsky moved to Switzerland in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I. He returned to France for the premiere of his ballet Pulcinella in 1920. During this time, legendary French fashion designer Coco Chanel invited the Stravinsky family to live at her mansion in a Paris suburb until they could find a new permanent residence. For the next two decades, Stravinsky lived in various locations in France while composing neoclassical works influenced by ancient Greek mythology.


Move to the United States

Igor Stravinsky’s wife of 33 years, Katya, died of tuberculosis in March 1939. After the outbreak of World War II in Europe in September 1939, he sailed alone to the United States to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University during the 1939-1940 academic year. His long-term mistress Vera de Bosset Sudeikin followed in January, and they were married in Massachusetts in March 1940.

Stravinsky eventually settled in West Hollywood, California, and lived much of the rest of his life there. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1945. While initially surrounding himself with fellow Russian immigrants as his primary social contacts, Stravinsky soon became part of the Los Angeles intellectual landscape that included such figures as writer Thomas Mann, choreographer George Balanchine, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

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Musical innovations by Stravinsky continued to cause disruptions after his move to the U.S. His use of a dominant seventh chord in an arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1944 caused Boston police to warn him that they could impose a $100 fine for such an unorthodox rearrangement of the national anthem. The police turned out to be wrong, but the incident added to the mystique of the composer.


Later Career

In the 1950s, Igor Stravinsky began using the twelve-tone technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg in his compositions. His first piece based solely on those techniques was In Memoriam Dylan Thomas written in 1954. He continued to explore the technique in such works as Threni, performed at the Venice Biennale in 1958 and A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, a vocal cantata first performed in 1962.

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Stravinsky returned to Russia in September 1962 for the first time since 1914 at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Composers. He conducted six performances and met with Premier Nikita Khrushchev as well as the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.

In October 1969, Igor Stravinsky moved to New York City. In 1971, he became ill with pulmonary edema and died April 6, 1971, from complications. His funeral was held in New York, and, in accordance with his wishes, he was buried in the Russian section of the San Michele cemetery island in Venice, Italy. His tomb is only a few yards from that of Sergei Diaghilev.

Influence and Legacy


Igor Stravinsky is often remembered as one of the most innovative classical composers of the 20th century. Among his most distinctive innovations are his experiments with rhythm and harmony. According to composer Philip Glass, Stravinsky’s method of pushing rhythms beyond the boundaries of bar lines led the way to musical structures that were much more fluid and, “in a certain way spontaneous.” The experiments in rhythm were a significant influence on composer Aaron Copland.

Stravinsky was known for calling for uniquely idiosyncratic ensembles to perform his works. His three groundbreaking ballets for Ballets Russes call for large orchestras that include instruments such as Wagner tubas, snare drum, and guiro. He also composed works for solo instruments such as his Three Pieces for Clarinet and Elegy for Solo Viola.

While Stravinsky’s output of musical works was prolific and constant throughout most of his life, his legacy rests primarily on the three Ballet Russes productions, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, immediately preceding World War I. Igor Stravinsky earned the Grammy Awards Life Achievement Award posthumously in 1987.

Source

  • Walsh, Stephen. Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934. University of California Press, 2002.

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