Igor Stravinsky

Born in June 1882, Igor Stravinsky had to flee from Russia–he gave his last performance at the age of 85 in Canada. When he was 80, John F Kennedy invited Stravinsky for dinner at the White House as a guest of the American President. “Walt Disney actually made a deal with Stravinsky to use ‘The Rite Of Spring’ in his influential 1940 film Fantasia but its influence goes much further…I could indeed hear echoes of it in such films as Raiders of The Lost Ark, Star Wars, E.T, Psycho, Jaws, Psycho, The Shining”, says Steve Phillips, Director, Concord Music.

Born to a bass singer (father) and a pianist mother, Igor Stravinsky is regarded as one of the most influential figures in musical history. Despite his parents not wanting him to follow their footsteps and instead go for law studies, he pursued his passion and eventually created controversial as well as famous compositions as The Rite of Spring, Symphony in C and The Rake’s Progress.

During the course of his life, Stravinsky moved from Russia to Switzerland to France and finally to America. He died in New York at the age of 89, with more than 100 works to his credit. Some of the notable works of Stravinsky during his journey from Russia to America included: Renard, Noces, Persephone, Symphony in C, Petrouchka, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, Mavra, Oedipus Rex, Apollon Musagète, Symphony of Psalms, Jeu de Cartes, Concerto in E-flat and Agon.

While his early works like The Firebird and Rite of Spring were dissonant, rhythmic and usually comprised references to Russian folk, his next phase which lasted about thirty years had a neo-classical oeuvre. But in later years, with works such as Canticum Sacrum and Threni, he shocked the musical establishment by adopting the serialism technique.

Rite of Spring (excerpt)

When Stravinsky was 28, he collaborated with impresario Serge Diaghilev for a new full-length ballet at the Paris Opera; the premiere of The Firebird was a dazzling success that pitchforked Stravinsky to be acclaimed as the most gifted of the younger generation of composers. Likewise, three years later, the inaugural performance of The Rite of Spring provoked one of the more famous musical theatre first-night riots. The unusual and suggestive choreography and the creative and daring music, resulted in the audience cheering, protesting, and arguing among themselves during the concert, creating such a pandemonium that the dancers could not hear the orchestra. This highly original composition, with its shifting and audacious rhythms and its unresolved dissonances, was an early modernist landmark.

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music observes, ‘The fundamentals of Western music are melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, timbre (that is, tone colour) and form. In all those dimensions, Stravinsky opened up territory that others have been exploring ever since. No less than Schoenberg is Stravinsky at the heart of Modernism. But where Schoenberg’s atonal revolution was rationalized, cabalistic and controversial, Stravinsky’s innovations (most of them intuitive rather than theoretical) were of broad practical value. In examining some of his pieces, we will find not only magnificent music, but some of the most significant contributions to the art of music since those of Haydn, 150 years before’.

Undoubtedly, Stravinsky was a composer whose work had a revolutionary impact on musical thought and sensibility just before and after World War I; and his compositions remained a touchstone of modernism. He was honoured with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal in 1954 and the Wihuri Sibelius Prize in 1963. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1987 was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 2004.

Firebird (excerpt)

Basically, Stravinsky’s compositions are classified into three general style periods: a Russian period, a neoclassical period, and a serial period. Invariably he has been referred to as ‘one of music’s truly epochal innovators.’ The key aspect of Stravinsky’s work, aside from his technical innovations (including in rhythm and harmony), is the ‘changing face’ of his compositional style while always ‘retaining a distinctive, essential identity.’

Over the course of his career, Stravinsky called for a wide variety of orchestral, instrumental, and vocal forces, ranging from single instruments in such works as Three Pieces for Clarinet or Elegy for Solo Viola to the enormous orchestra of The Rite of Spring which Aaron Copland characterized as ‘the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.’

Stravinsky had a troublesome personal life. During World War I, he had to flee from Russia with his family to Switzerland. Later, when he was 30, Stravinsky moved his family to France, where they lived for the next two decades. When he lost his first wife and one of his daughters to tuberculosis, Stravinsky shifted to the United States. He married again, and in 1940 he and his wife settled permanently in Hollywood, California. They became U.S. citizens in 1945.

When Stravinsky turned 80, at the invitation of Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev, he visited Russia after a gap of 48 years. In the same year, John F Kennedy invited Stravinsky for dinner at the White House as a guest of the American President. He gave his last concert at the age of 85 in Canada, He died in New York in 1971.

Said New York Philharmonic musical director Pierre Boulez: ‘Something radically new, even foreign to Western tradition, had to be found for music to survive, and to enter our contemporary era. The glory of Stravinsky was to have belonged to this extremely gifted generation and to be one of the most creative of them all.’