Composer Focus: Igor Stravinsky

Posted on: February 27, 2012 in: Composer Focus

Ahead of our performance of Stravinsky’s Mass with the Holst Singers at Wednesday’s CLoSer, we profile the composer, one of the most innovative of the twentieth century.



Born on 18 June 1882, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky spent much of his childhood in St Petersburg, where his father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a famous bass singer at the Mariinsky Theatre. The young Stravinsky studied law for several years, before switching to study music privately with the celebrated Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1909, he found fame with his composition The Firebird, which Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes in Paris, encouraged him to transform into a full-length ballet.

In 1910, Stravinsky moved to Paris and was commissioned by Diagilev to write further ballets for the Ballets Russes. Petrushka, set in a Russian fairground, followed The Firebird. Stravinsky’s next ballet, The Rite of Spring, which premiered in Paris on 29 May 1913, received one of the most notorious reactions in the history of classical music, when it was booed and ridiculed by the audience. Fist fights and catcalls greeted the highly unconventional choreography, instrumentation and use of dissonance in the orchestra. The police were called to attempt to quell what quickly became a riot.

Some believe that the scale of the unrest was exaggerated by Dagliev and Stravinsky, who courted controversy and desired to be seen as innovators. However, The Rite of Spring undoubtedly broke new ground in composition. Its story is based on a ‘primitive,’ pagan ceremony, and it contains challenging and stirring rhythms of early pagan Russia. It was to remain Stravinsky’s most famous work, and established his reputation as a premier composer of the twentieth century.

From Paris, Stravinsky, his wife Katerina and young children moved to Switzerland, where they spent the war years, returning in 1920. In this period, Stavinsky began to experiment with the inflections, harmonies and rhythms of jazz, and later, turned to a neo-classical style with, for example, his ballet Pulcinella (1919-1920) and his choral work the Symphony of Psalms (1930).  In the 1930s, he began to develop professional relationships with key figures in American music. Following the worst couple of years of his life (beginning with the death of his eldest daughter Ludmila in 1938, the death of his mother in 1939, and, finally, the death of his wife of thirty three years, Katerina, from tuberculosis also in 1939), Stravinsky decided to move to the United States with Vera de Bosset, with whom he had been having an affair since 1921. They married in 1940.

Stravinsky became a naturalised US citizen in 1945, the third nationality he had taken in his life (after Russian and French). He socialised with a crowd of European intellectuals and artists in Los Angeles, including the British writers W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas and Aldous Huxley. His Mass was also produced during this time (1944-1948) and is written with a French and Russian-sounding, neo-classical aesthetic. However, after meeting Robert Craft, the musicologist who would go on to live with him as an interpreter, chronicler, and assistant conductor for the rest of his life, he began to be more committed to the use of serial compositional techniques such as dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique.  This generally characterises his compositions from the mid-1950s, but he was never restricted by the musical forms he chose to use, and remained a highly original and inventive composer for the rest of his life. He died in New York in 1971.



Stravinsky, as drawn by Picasso


Listen to Stravinsky’s Mass on our Spotify playlist

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CLoSer: Spirit of the Voice
Wednesday 29 Feb, 7.30pm
Village Underground