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Igor Stravinsky (Composer, Arranger)

Born: June 17, 1882 - Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: April 6, 1971 - New York, NY, USA

Igor (Feodorovich) Stravinsky was a great Russian-born French, later American composer, one of the supreme masters of 20th century music, whose works exercised the most profound influence on the evolution of music through the emancipation of rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Igor Stravinsky was the son of Feodor (Ignatievich) and father of (Sviatoslav) Soulima Stravinsky. He was brought up in an artistic atmosphere; he often went to opera rehearsals when his father sang, and acquired an early love for the musical theater. He took piano lessons with Alexandra Snetkova, and later with Leokadia Kashperova, who was a pupil of Anton Rubinstein; but it was not until much later that he began to study theory, first with Akimenko and then with Kalafati (1900-1903). His progress in composition was remarkably slow; he never entered a music school or a consèrvatory, and never earned an academic degree in music. In 1901 he enrolled in the faculty of jurisprudence at University of St. Petersburg, and took courses there for 8 semesters, without graduating; a fellow student was Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, a son of the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In the summer of 1902 Stravinsky traveled in Germany, where he met another son of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Andrei, who was a student at the University of Heidelberg; Stravinsky became his friend. He was introduced to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and became a regular guest at the latter's periodic gatherings in St. petersburg. In 1903-1904 he wrote a piano sonata for the Russian pianist Nicolai Richter, who performed it at Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's home. In 1905 he began taking regular lessons in orchestration with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who taught him free of charge; under his tutelage, Stravinsky composed a Symphony in E-flat major; the 2nd and 3rd movements from it were performed on April 27, 1907, by the Court Orchestra in St. Petersburg, and a complete performance of it was given by the same orchestera on February 4, 1908. The work, dedicated to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had some singularities and angularities that showed a deficiency of technique; there was little in this work that presaged Stravinsky's ultimate development as a master of form and orchestration. At the same concert, his Le Faune et la bergère for Voice and Orchesrtra had its first performance; this score revealed a certain influence of French Impressionism. To celebrate the marriage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter Nadezhda to the composer Maximilian Steinberg on June 17, 1908, Stravinsky wrote an orchestral fantasy entitled Fireworks. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov died a few days after the wedding; Stravinsky deeply mourned his beloved teacher and wrote a funeral song for Wind Instruments in his memory; it was first performed in St. Petersburg on January 30, 1909. There followed a Scherzo fantastique for Orchestra, inspired by Maeterlinck's book La Vie des abeilles. As revealed in his correspondence with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky had at first planned a literal program of composition, illustrating events in the life of a beehive by a series of descriptive sections; some years later, however, he gratuitously denied all connection of the work with Maeterlinck's book.

A signal change in Igor Stravinsky's fortunes came when the famous impresario Diaghilev commissioned him to write a work for the Paris season of his company, the Ballets Russes. The result was the production of his first ballet masterpiece, The Firebird, staged by Diaghilev in Paris on June 25, 1910. Here he created music of extraordinary brilliance, steeped in the colors of Russian fairy tales. There are numerous striking effects in the score, such as a glissando of harmonics in the string instruments: the rhythmic drive is exhilarating, and the use of asymmetrical time signatures is extremely effective: the harmonies are opulent: the orchestration is coruscating. He drew 2 orchestral suites from the work: in 1919 he reorchestrated the music to conform to his new beliefs in musical economy: in effect he plucked the luminous feathers off the magical firebird, but the original scoring remained a favorite with conductors and orchestras. Stravinsky's association with Diaghilev demanded his presence in Paris, which he made his home beginning in 1911, with frequent travels to Switzerland. His 2nd ballet for Diaghilev was Pétrouchka, premiered in Paris on June 13, 1911, with triumphant success. Not only was the ballet remarkably effective on the stage, but the score itself, arranged in 2 orchestral suites, was so new and original that it marked a turning point in 20th-century music: the spasmodically explosive rhythms, the novel instrumental sonorities, with the use of the piano as an integral part of the orchestra, the bold harmonic innovations in employing 2 different keys simultaneously (C major and F-sharp major, the "Petrouchka Chord") became a potent influence on modern European composers. Debussy voiced his enchantment with the score, and young Stravinsky, still in his 20s, became a Paris celebriry. Two years later, he brought out a work of even greater revolutionary import, the ballet Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring: Russian title, Vesna sviashchennaya, literally Spring the Sacred); its subtitle was "Scenes of Pagan Russia." It was premiered by Diaghilev with his Ballets Russes in Paris on May 29, 1913, with the choreography by Nijinsky. The score marked a departure from all conventions of musical composition; while in Pétrouchka the harmonies, though innovative and dissonant, could still be placed in the context of modern music, the score of Le Sacre du printemps contained such corrosive dissonances as scales played at the intervals of major sevenths and superpositions of minor upon major triads with the common tonic, chords treated as unified blocks of sound, and rapid metrical changes that seemingly defied performance. The score still stands as one of the most daring creations of the modern musical mind: its impact was tremendous: to some of the audience at its first performance in Paris, Stravinsky's "barbaric" music was beyond endurance: the Paris critics exercised their verbal ingenuity in indignant vituperation: one of them proposed that Le Sacre du printemps should be more appropriately described as Le Massacre du printemps. On May 26, 1914, Diaghilev premiered Stravinsky's -lyric fairy tale Le Rossignol, after Hans Christian Andersen. It too abounded in corrosive discords, but here it could be explained as "Chinese" music illustrative of the exotic subject. From 1914 to 1918 he worked on his ballet Les Noces (Russian title, Svadebka: literally, Little Wedding), evoking Russian peasant folk modalities: it was scored for an unusual ensemble of chorus, soloists, 4 pianos, and 17 percussion instruments.

The devastation of World War I led Igor Stravinsky to conclude that the era of grandiose Romantic music had become obsolete, and that a new spirit of musical economy was imperative in an impoverished world. As an illustration of such economy, he wrote the musical stage play L'Histoire du soldat, scored for only 7 players, with a narrator. About the same time, he wrote a work for 11 instruments entitled Ragtime, inspired by the new American dance music. He continued his association with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in writing the ballet Pulcinella, based on themes by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and other 18th-century Italian composers. also wrote for Diaghilev 2 short operas, Renard, to a Russian fairy tale (Paris, May 18, 1922), and Mavra, after Pushkin (Paris, June 3, 1922). These 2 works were the last in which he used Russian subjects, with the sole exception of an orchestral Scherzo àa la russe, written in 1944. Stravinsky had now entered the period usually designated as neo-Classical. The most significant works of this stage of his development were his Octet for Wind Instruments and the Piano Concerto commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky. In these works, he abandoned the luxuriant instrumentation of his ballets and their aggressively dissonant harmonies; instead, he used pandiatonic structures, fIrmly tonal but starkly dissonant in their superposition of tonalities within the same principal key. His reversion to old forms, however, was not an act of ascetic renunciation but, rather, a grand experiment in reviving Baroque practices, which had fallen into desuetude. The Piano Concerto provided him with an opportunity to appear as soloist; Stravinsky was never a virtuoso pianist, but he was able to acquit himself satisfactorily in such works as the Piano Concerto; he played it with Serge Koussevitzky in Paris on May 22, 1924, and during his fIrst American tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, also under Serge Koussevitzky, on January 23, 1925. The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation commissioned him to write a pantomime for string orchestra; the result was Apollon Musagète, given at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on April 27, 1928. This score, serene and emotionally restrained, evokes the manner of Lully's court ballets. He continued to explore the resources of neo-Baroque writing in his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, which he performed as soloist, with Ernest Ansermet conducting, in Paris, on December 6, 1929; this score is impressed by a spirit of hedonistic entertainment, harking back to the style galant of the 18th century; yet it is unmistakably modern in its polyrhythmic collisions of pan diatonic harmonies. Stravinsky's growing disillusionment with the external brilliance of modern music led him to seek eternal verities of music in ancient modalities. His well-nigh monastic renunciation of the grandiose edifice of glorious sound to which he himself had so abundantly contributed found expression in his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, in order to emphasize its detachment from temporal aspects, he commissioned a Latin text for the work, even though the subject was derived from a Greek play; its music is deliberately hollow and its dramatic points are emphasized by ominous repetitive passages. Yet this very austerity of idiom makes Oedipus Rex a profoundly moving play. It had its fIrst performance in Paris on May 30, 1927; its stage premiere took place in Vienna on February 23, 1928. A turn to religious writing found its utterance in Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, wrinen for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and dedicated "to the glory of God." The work is scored for chorus and orchestra, omitting the violins and violas, thus emphasizing the lower instrumental registers and creating an austere sonority suitable to its solemn subject. Owing to a delay of the Boston performance, the world premiere of the Symphony of Psalms took place in Brussels on December 13, 1930. In 1931 he wrote a Violin Concerto commissioned by the violinist Samuel Dushkin, and performed by him in Berlin on October 23, 1931. On a commission from the ballerina Ida Rubinstein, he composed the ballet Perséphone; here again he exercised his mastery of simplicity in formal design, melodic panerns, and contrapuntal structure. For his American tour he wrote Jeu de cartes, a "ballet in 3 deals" to his own scenario depicting an imaginary game of poker (of which he was a devotee). He conducted its fIrst performance at the Metropolitan. Opera in New York on April 27, 1937. His concerto for 16 instruments entitled Dumbarton Oaks, named after the Washington, D.e., estate of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, who commissioned the work, was fIrst performed in Washington, on May 8, 1938; in Europe it was played under the noncommittal title Concerto in E-flat; its style is hermetically neo-Baroque. It is germane to note that in his neo-Classical works Stravinsky began to indicate the key in the title, e.g., Serenade in A for Piano (1925), Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra (1931), Concerto in E-flat (Dumbarton Oaks, 1938), Symphony in C (1938), and Concerto in D for String Orchestra (1946).

With World War II engulfmg Europe, Igor Stravinsky decided to seek permanent residence in America. He had acquired French citizenship on June 10, 1934; in 1939 he applied for American citizenship; he became a naturalizod American citizen on December 28, 1945. To celebrate this event, he made an arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner, which contained a curious modulation into the subdominant in the coda. He conducted it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on January 14, 1944, but because of legal injunctions existing in the state of Massachusetts against intentional alteration, or any mutilation, of the national anthem, he was advised not to conduct his version at the 2nd pair of concerts, and the standard version was substituted. In 1939-1940 Stravinsky was named Charles Eliot Norton lecrurer at Harvard University; about the same time, he accepted several private students, a pedagogical role he had never exercised before. His American years form a curious panoply of subjects and manners of composition. He accepted a commission from the Ringling Bros. to write a Circus Polka "for a young elephant." In 1946 he wrote Ebony Concerto for a swing band. In 1951 he completed his opera The Rake's Progress, inspired by Hogarth's famous series of engravings, to a libretto by W.H. Auden and Kallman. He conducted its premiere in Venice on Septtember 11, 1951, as part of the International Festival of Contemporary Music. The opera is a striking example of Stravinsky's protean capacity for adopting different styles and idioms of composition to serve his artistic purposes; The Rake's Progress is an ingenious conglomeration of disparate elements, ranging from 18th-cenrury British ballads to cosmopolitan burlesque. But whatever transmutations his music underwent during his long and productive career, he remained a man of the theater at heart. In America he became associated with the brilliant Russian choreographer Balanchine, who produced a number of ballets to Stravinsky's music, among them his Apollon Musagète, Violin Concerto, Symphony in 3 movements, scherzo à la russe, Pulcinella, and Agon. It was in his score of Agon that he essayed for the first time to adopt the method of composition with 12 tones as promulgated by Arnold Schoenberg; Agon (the word means "competition" in Greek) bears the subtitle "ballet for 12 tones," perhaps in allusion to the dodecaphonic technique used in the score. Yet the 12-tone method had been theivery antithesis of his previous tenets. In fact, an irreconcilable polarity existed between Stravinsky and A. Schoenberg even in personal relations. Although both resided in Los Angeles for several years, they never met socially; Schoenberg once wrote a canon in which he ridiculed Stravinsky as Herr Modernsky, who put on a wig to look like "Papa Bach." After A. Schoenberg's death, Stravinsky became interested in examining the essence of the method of composition with 12 tones, which was introduced to him by his faithful musical factotum Robert Craft; Stravinsky adopted dodecaphonic writing in its aspect of canonic counterpoint as developed by Webern. In this manner he wrote his Cantsacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci nominis, which he conducted at San Marco in Venice on Septtember 13, 1956. Other works of the period were also written in a modified 12-tone technique, among them The Flood, for Narrator, Mime, Singers, and Dancers, presented in a CBS-TV broadcast in New York on June 14, 1962; its first stage performance was given in Hamburg on April 30, 1963.

Igor Stravinsky was married twice; his 1st wife, Catherine Nosenko, whom he married on January 24, 1906, and who bore him 3 children, died in 1939; on March 9, 1940, Stravinsky married his longtime mistress, Vera, who was formerly married to the Russian painter Serge Sudeikin. She was born Vera de Bosset in St. petersburg, on December 25, 1888, and died in New York on September 17, 1982, at the age of 93. An ugly litigation for the rights to the Stravinsky estate continued for several years between his children and their stepmother; after Vera Stravinsky's death, it was finally settled in a compromise, according to which 2/9 of the estate went to each of his 3 children and a grandchild and 1/9 to Robert Craft. The value of the Stravinsky legacy was spectacularly demonstrated on November 11, 1982, when his working draft of Le Sacre du printemps was sold at an auction in London for the fantastic sum of $548,000. The purchaser was Paul Sacher, the Swiss conductor and philanthropist. Even more fantastic was the subsequent sale of the entire Stravinsky archive, consisting of 116 boxes of personal letters and 225 drawers containing MSS, some of them unpublished. Enormous bids were made for it by the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library, but they were all outbid by Paul Sacher, who offered the overwhelming purse of $5,250,000, which removed all competition. The materials were to be assembled in a specially constructed 7-story Sacher Foundation building in Basel, to be eventually opened to scholars for study.

In tribute to Igor Stravinsky as a naturalized American citizen, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 2-cent stamp bearing his image to mark his centennial in 1982, an honour theretofore never granted to a foreign-born composer (the possible exception being Victor Herbert, but his entire career was made in America).

Few composers escaped the powerful impact of Igor Stravinsky's music; ironically, it was his own country that had rejected him, partly because of the opposition of Soviet ideologues to modern music in general, and partly because of Stravinsky's open criticism of Soviet ways in art. But in 1962 he returned to Russia for a visit, and was welcomed as a prodigal son; as if by magic, his works began to appear on Russian concert programs, and Soviet music critics issued a number of laudatory studies of his works. Yet it is Stravinsky's early masterpieces, set in an attractive colorful style, that continue to enjoy favor with audiences and performers, while his more abstract and recursive scores are appreciated mainly by specialists.

More Photos

Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (May 2009)

Igor Stravinsky: Short Biography | Arrangements/Transcriptions: Works | Recordings of Works for Choir & Orchestra | Igor Stravinsky & Bach

Recordings of Bach’s Instrumental Works




Igor Stravinsky


Bach-Stravinsky: Canonic variations on the Christmas hymn Vom himmel hoch, da komm ich her (II), BWV 769, transcribed for chorus & orchestra

Links to other Sites

Igor Stravinsky (Wikipedia)
Igor Stravinsky (Classical Music Pages)
Igor Stravinsky (Classical Net)
Igor Stravinsky (Boosey & Hawkes)
Island of Freedom: Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky (

Igor Stravinsly Biography (Naxos)
Igor Stravinsky (IMDB)
Igor Stravinsky (IPL)
Igor Stravinsly (Britannica)
Essentials of Music: Igor Stravinsky



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