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Igor Stravinsky, his life and work
February 12, 2018
Igor Stravinsky

Igor Fiodorovitch Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a Russian modern music composer and conductor. He is considered as one of the most influent composer of the 20th century. His work spreads over nearly 70 years and includes a variety of styles. His most famous works are The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and his masterpiece, The Rite of Spring (1913)

Early life

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born on June 17 1882 in Lomonosov, Russia, and brought up in Saint Petersburg. His father was Fyodor Stravinsky (1843–1902), a well-known bass singer at the Kiev opera house and the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Stravinsky recalled his schooldays as being lonely, later saying that "I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me".

Stravinsky began piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory and attempting composition, though he was especially fond of improvisation. Despite his enthousiasm for music, Stravinsky enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901 to study law, but he attended fewer than fifty class sessions during his four years of study. In the summer of 1902 Stravinsky stayed with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his family in the German city of Heidelberg, where Rimsky-Korsakov, arguably the leading Russian composer at that time, suggested to Stravinsky that he should not enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire, but instead study composing by taking private lessons, in large part because of his age. Stravinsky's father died of cancer the same year, and Stravinsky began spending more time on his musical studies than on law.

The university was closed for two months in 1905 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday: Stravinsky was prevented from taking his final law examinations and later received a half-course diploma in April 1906. Thereafter, he concentrated on studying music. In 1905, he began taking twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, whom he came to regard as a second father. These lessons continued until Rimsky-Korsakov's death in 1908.

In 1905 Stravinsky was engaged to his cousin Katherine Gavrylivna Nosenko (called "Katya"), whom he had known since early childhood. In spite of the Orthodox Church's opposition to marriage between first cousins, the couple married on 23 January 1906: their first two children, Fyodor (Theodore) and Ludmila, were born in 1907 and 1908, followed with Sviatoslav in 1910 and Milena in 1914.

The Firebird and The Rite of spring

The immense success of The Firebird, which premiered on June 25, 1910, made the composer an instant celebrity.

After The Firebird, the next two ballets that Stravinsky composed for Diaghilev's troupe marked a change of direction in his musical approach. While The Firebird is still well anchored in the post-romantic tradition inherited from, among others, Rimsky-Korsakov, Petrushka, created on June 13, 1911, induces an important break. Stravinsky abandons all the warm and "magic" harmony of The Firebird, characterized among other things by the abundant use of chromaticism. He now uses "polytonality" and the juxtaposition of rhythmic sequences.

Over the next two years, Stravinsky composed very few pieces: two cycles of songs and a brief mystical cantata, The King of the Stars. However, he composed what became his most famous work, one that definitely secured him a place among the most outstanding composers of the twentieth century; The Rite of Spring. His creation, one of the most scandalous in the history of music, was first heard on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, in Paris, with a choreography by Vaslav Nijinski and under the musical direction of Pierre Monteux. The composer describes the representation in his Chronicles of my life: "I left the room at the first steps of the prelude, which immediately raised laughter and mockery. I was outraged." These demonstrations, initially isolated, soon became general and, also provoking counter-demonstrations, quickly turned into a frightful din''.

In the Rite, Stravinsky deepens the elements already experienced with his first two ballets, namely rhythm and harmony. One is unprecedented in dynamism, while the other is based in part on the use of sound aggregates.

Bridget Breiner
February 12, 2018
Bridget Breiner in Les Grands Ballets' Salle Rouge