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Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, Tsarist Russia on 17 June, 1882. His father, Fyodor, was a famous opera singer in the St. Petersburg Imperial Opera. Determined that his children would have more secure professional lives, he insisted that young Igor prepare for a less chancy career, so Igor began his studies in law at university in 1901. In 1902 Stravinsky met Rimsky-Korsakov (one of Russian's leading nationalist composers), and on his father's death later that same year, he began his formal musical composition studies.

The Russian impresario Diaghilev wanted a fantastical new ballet for the 1910 season of his company, the Ballets Russes, then based in Paris. For the story he chose a Russian folk-tale, the legend of the firebird. He then asked the Russian composer Anatoli Liadov to compose the score, in the wake of Liadov's success with his orchestral work Eight Russian Folk Songs. However, the talented but unreliable Liadov failed to deliver. In despair, Diaghilev then turned to Stravinsky (whose Fireworks, a spectacular orchestral piece, had impressed Diaghilev greatly). Stravinsky had, in fact, already begun work on the music, having learned of the impresario's frustration with Liadov. The Firebird was the sensation of Diaghilev's 1910 Paris season, and brought 28 year old Stravinksy to the forefront of the music world. The Firebird's great success led to two more commissions for the same company Petrushka and The Rite of Spring - which brought the composer world-wide fame and, in some quarters, notoriety.

Stravinsky's two early Diaghilev ballets, The Firebird and Petruska, told stories. The Rite of Spring - 'Pictures from Pagan Russia', in 14 interconnected tableaux, merely suggested one. Stravinsky's music to this ballet, depicting pagan rites in ancient Russia, changed the face of 20th century music. After 120 rehearsals, Diaghilev staged the first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, on 29 May, 1913. It created a riot at its first performance. The Rite was like nothing else: it was new and disturbing, dispensing with all the usual methods of creating tension, climax and repose. It negated conventional tonality. It generated the power of a Russian spring through primitive rhythms and repetition, freed from metric restriction. To sensibilities brought up on the contrivance and innocence of Romantic ballet, its morality was shocking. Breaking completely with the established rules of harmony, the old order was suitably shaken, theater-goers were deeply offended, and Stravinsky became the enfant terrible of the modern age. Stravinsky and Diaghilev's fruitful partership continued for another twenty years with seven more ballets.

As time moved on so did Stravinsky; he turned his back on Russian nationalism after he left the country and cultivated his Neo-Classical style, adapting the forms of the 18th century. By 1914 Stravinsky was established as one of the world's leading composers. During WWI, he adopted the more economical, somewhat jazzy style of the Neoclassical period. During the First World War he stayed in Switzerland, and when the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 stripped him of his Russian estates and property, he became a permanent exile. He moved with his family from Russia to France (with his wife, Katerina Nossenko) in 1920, dividing his time between composing, conducting, and performing. He moved to Switzerland for a few years, then back to France (taking French nationality in the 1930s). In the 1920s and 30s, as well as composing, Stravinksy spent some time as solo pianist and conductor, usually of his own works. In 1939, following the death of his mother, wife and daughter (they died of tuberculosis), he emigrated to the USA and settled in Hollywood with his second wife, Vera de Bosset. He became a U.S. citizen in 1945. Stravinsky only went back to Russia once, for an eightieth-birthday tour in 1962.

With no real patron to rely on and no income from even his most popular compositions, Stravinsky turned to performance as a means of survival. He began a career as a conductor and wrote pieces to perform for himself. Instead of a solitary composer, he became a public personality, which was very unusual at the time. By the late 1950s, Stravinsky commanded a fee four times greater than any other conductor. He was approached for private commissions, Hollywood film scores, jazz collaborations, and even a commission involving the Ringling Bros. Circus.

In the 1950s, in his own seventies - and just as everyone thought his inspiration was drying up - he turned to the twelve-tone techniques of his contemporary Arnold Schoenberg, (which he had earlier rejected), and began to study Webern. The music of his last fifteen years (chiefly religious) is serial and intellectually compact without losing any of the familiar 'Stravinsky sound'. His enourmous fame in old age - he was the modern composer everyone had heard of, the Picasso of music - led to two other fascinating projects: a complete recording of his works, under his own supervision, and a series of Conversations, books of memoirs in the form of witty and entertaining answers to questions by his friend Robert Craft. In summary, Stravinsky lived his long creative life often adapting to the musical world around him, but his work always remained fresh and original.

Igor Stravinsky died 6 April, 1971, and is buried in Venice, near Diaghilev.


Recordings

Le Sacre du Printemps 
Petrouchka