The Russian-born composer Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971) identified himself as an "inventor of music." The novelty, power, and elegance of his works won worldwide admiration before he was 30. Throughout his life he continued to surprise admirers with transformations of his style that stimulated controversy.
Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky
Every aspect of music was renewed again and again in the work of Igor Stravinsky. Rhythm was the most striking ingredient, and his novel rhythms were most widely imitated. His instrumentation and his ways of writing for voices were also distinctive and influential. His harmonies and forms were more elusive. He recognized melody as the "most essential" element. Even if his rhythm and his sheer sound sometimes seemed independent of melody, stimulating composers like Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to explore further possibilities of such independence, Stravinsky's own works constituted integral melodies, as much as Claude Debussy's or Ludwig van Beethoven's or Carlo Gesualdo's, if not quite Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's. Stravinsky constantly subordinated all "technical apparatus" to what he recognized in 1939 as "a general revision of both the basic values and the primordial elements of the art of music," a revision continuing throughout his life. "The so-called crisis of means," he insisted in 1966, "is interior."
Beginnings in Russia
Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum near St. Petersburg on June 17, 1882. Although his father was a star singer of the Imperial Opera, he rather expected the boy to become a bureaucrat. Igor finished a university law course before he made the decision to become a musician. By this time he was a good amateur pianist, an occasional professional accompanist, an avid reader of avant-garde scores from France and Germany, and, of course, a connoisseur of Italian, French, and Russian opera.
The closest friend of Stravinsky's youth was Stephan Mitusov, stepson of a prince. Stravinsky acknowledged that Mitusov was "a kind of literary and theatrical tutor to me at one of the greatest moments in the Russian theater." Mitusov translated the poems of Paul Verlaine that Stravinsky set to music in 1910, and he arranged the libretto of Stravinsky's opera The Nightingale (1908-1914).
One of Stravinsky's classmates at the university was Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, son of the composer, whose reputation as master orchestrator and teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory surpassed the fame of his operas. Stravinsky became Rimsky's apprentice; he did not enter classes at the conservatory but worked privately and intensely at his home. For the sake of the most advanced craftsmanship, Stravinsky gladly submerged his independent taste, confident that he could exercise it later. As demonstration of his learning, with few original features, he composed his Symphony in E-flat (1905-1907), dedicated to his teacher. For Madame Rimsky, there was a charming Pastorale (1907) for wordless voice and piano, later to become a favorite in various instrumental arrangements. For a wedding present to Rimsky's daughter Nadia and his favorite pupil, Maximilian Steinberg, Stravinsky composed a brilliant short fantasy for orchestra, Fireworks (1908). When Rimsky died in the same year, Stravinsky wrote a funeral dirge which he later recalled as the best of his early works; it was not published, and the manuscript was lost.
Scandal, Glory, and Misunderstanding in France
The great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, hearing Fireworks, recognized both the mastery and the budding originality. He at once enlisted Stravinsky to make some orchestral arrangements of Chopin for the season of Russian ballets that he was producing in Paris. Then Diaghilev assigned him bigger tasks, for which Stravinsky postponed his opera Nightingale. Diaghilev soon brought him into the center of an illustrious group of artists in Paris and during the next few years evoked his utmost daring in collaborations with Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky, among others.
Each of Stravinsky's three ballets for Diaghilev's company scandalized the first audiences. Each quickly became a classic. Each is unique. Firebird (1910) surpasses all Rimsky's variegated splendor and sweetness. Petrushka (1911) brings a new fusion of irony and pathos to the piano, the trumpet, and the dance. The Rite of Spring (1912-1913) is a frenzied breakthrough of 20th-century affinities to prehistoric mankind. Genteel audiences were provoked to riotous protest. The three ballets together made Stravinsky's influence on all the arts enormous and established him alongside older composers like Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg as a leader of a heroic musical generation.
Among countless testimonials to the power of the Rite, one by John Dos Passos is typical: to him it seemed "just about the height of what could be accomplished on the stage…. Stravinsky's music got into our blood. For months his rhythms underlay everything we heard, his prancing figures moved behind everything we saw…. The ballet would do for our time what tragedy had done for the Greeks."
The young hero was a small man with a big face. Stravinsky's elegant clothes, his thin hair brushed straight back, and a very thin mustache contrasted with his bulging nose, readily grinning or smacking lips, busy bright eyes, and huge ears. In speech and action he exuded aggressive energy, like that of the Rite of Spring, matched and controlled by correspondingly fastidious craftsmanship. Nijinsky described him as "like an emperor … but cleverer."
World War I interrupted the expansion of Diaghilev's enterprise, and the Russian Revolution uprooted Stravinsky from the home to which he had been returning from Paris. During the war he lived in Switzerland, where he collaborated with the poet C. F. Ramuz on a series of astonishing works based on folklore and, to some extent, on popular music, including ragtime. The most surprising and appealing of these was The Soldier's Tale (1918) for narrator, three dancers, and seven instrumentalists. This work deeply influenced Bertold Brecht, Jean Cocteau, and other dramatists of the 1920s, as well as composers and performers of each later generation. Stravinsky's new turn to concision and counterpoint in The Soldier's Tale was often compared with the contemporary trend of his new friend, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who was to work with him on his next Diaghilev assignment, Pulcinella (1920).
But another ballet, begun in 1914, composed in 1917, and finally orchestrated only in 1923, was the grandest fulfillment of these years: Svadebka (Les Noces, or The Little Wedding) for chorus and four solo singers in the pit, with four pianos and percussion. Here the barbaric power of the Rite and the modern concision of The Soldier's Tale met in an austere affirmation of love—too austere to be recognized as affirmation by many people. Alongside these very diverse major works were several smaller ones, for voices and for instruments in various combinations, all of which won frequent performance only much later. Outstanding among these was a memorial to Debussy, Symphonies for Wind Instruments.
A short comic opera, Mavra (1922), revealed a new lyricism in Stravinsky's complicated development. Mavra was a declaration of continuity with the Russian traditions of Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Glinka, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Though it was not a popular success (to Stravinsky's great disappointment), it influenced young men like Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Kurt Weill, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich as much as had the Rite. For them, as for their contemporary Paul Hindemith, Stravinsky seemed now to have left not only Ravel but Schoenberg and his school in a backwater of history; Stravinsky belonged with the young. Stravinsky's instrumental works of the 1920s, including the Piano Concerto, the Octet for winds, the Sonata, and the Serenade in a for piano solo, justified the slogan "Back to Bach," though just what Stravinsky meant by the slogan was seldom fully grasped despite his meticulous qualifications.
An opera-oratorio, Oedipus Rex (1927), and a "white" ballet, Apollo (1928), both defined and transcended the "neoclassicism" that was much talked about between the wars. That Stravinsky's taste was by no means so narrow as this fashionable label suggests is indicated by the next ballet, The Fairy's Kiss (1928), a new tribute to Tchaikovsky, making use of themes from Tchaikovsky's songs and piano pieces. The Divertimento for orchestra and the Capriccio for piano and orchestra likewise testify to Stravinsky's continuing versatility. But these works dissatisfied some admirers of Mavra as much as those of the Rite, without winning the bigger audience of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, not to mention the ever-growing mass of consumers of other music.
The death of Diaghilev in the year the Great Depression began (1929) marked the end of an epoch, the extinction of a social focus for much of Stravinsky's work. Though he was to become a French citizen in 1934, he was not able to win in France the recognition and security he needed. He found some solace with friends like the French poet Paul Valéry, the philosopher Jacques Maritain, and the philosopher-critic Pierre Souvchinsky. These thinkers, more than any musician, helped him seek order and discipline "at a time," as he wrote, "when the status of man is undergoing profound upheavals. Modern man is progressively losing his understanding of values and his sense of proportions." Stravinsky reaffirmed membership in the Orthodox Church, which he had neglected since adolescence.
The Symphony of Psalms (1930) for chorus of men and boys and orchestra without violins became the most widely known of all Stravinsky's works after the Rite. At first its gravity seemed incongruous with the worldliness of the ballets; after it got to be familiar, it was often recommended as a good starting point for acquaintance with Stravinsky's work as a whole.
The theatrical works Persephone (1934) and A Game of Cards (1936) were as obviously unique as the Symphony of Psalms. They were somewhat subordinate to a series of purely instrumental works on a grand scale: the Violin Concerto (1931), Duo concertante for violin and piano (1932), Concerto for two pianos (1935), Concerto for chamber orchestra ("Dumbarton Oaks," 1938), and Symphony in C (1940). If composers like Arthur Honegger, Bohuslav Martinu, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Benjamin Britten abstracted from Stravinsky's procedures models for their own various recurring problems, this was irrelevant to the lasting values of the Stravinsky works, for he continued to set himself fresh problems and to find fresh solutions.
The true sequel to the Symphony of Psalms was to be liturgical. From 1942 to 1948 Stravinsky worked intermittently on an uncommissioned setting of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass for chorus and winds. He had been spurred to this work by Mozart's Masses but not in any obvious way; rather, he said, "As I played through these rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin, I knew I had to write a Mass of my own, but a real one." And on another occasion he said, "One composes a march to facilitate marching men, so with my Credo I hope to provide an aid to the text. The Credo is the longest movement. There is so much to believe."
Stravinsky's tone in language matches the aggressive originality of his music. His originality, nevertheless, is at the service of orthodox belief, and his polemics are written "not in my own defense, but in order to defend in words all music and its principles, just as I defend them in a different way with my compositions."
Renewals in America
When he settled in the United States in 1939, Stravinsky renewed his interest in popular music long enough to compose several short pieces culminating in the Ebony Concerto (1946) for Woody Herman's band. His arrangement of the Star-spangled Banner (1944) was too severe to become a favorite. Several projects for film music were begun, and though none was completed, the music for them found various proper forms; most expansive, and at moments reminiscent of the Rite, was the Symphony in Three Movements (1945).
A collaboration happier even than that with Diaghilev developed with the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. The first fruit of this collaboration was Orpheus (1948). From then on, though Agon (1957) was the only later piece composed especially for dance, the ballet made use of many old and new works, illuminating and popularizing them, gratifying and inspiring the composer as did comparatively few other performances of his work. Apollo and Orpheus rivaled the Firebird in the New York City Ballet repertory, and the symphonies, concertos, and miscellaneous pieces came to life.
At last Stravinsky was able to undertake a full-length opera, The Rake's Progress (1948-1951). This was a fulfillment not merely of his celebrated anti-Wagnerian stylistic principles but also of capacities and aspirations that had seemed only natural at the outset of his career and of his mature ethical and religious concerns. On the advice of his friend Aldous Huxley, he applied to the poet W. H. Auden for a libretto, to be based on his own vision derived from William Hogarth's prints of The Rake's Progress. Auden's work, in collaboration with Chester Kallman, provided an ideal "fable," embodying elements of farce, melodrama, pastoral, and allegory. The music includes some of Stravinsky's most melodious ideas, contrasting with bold dry recitative, colorful choruses, and concise episodes for the Mozartean orchestra. Performed all over the world, The Rake's Progress was especially successful in versions designed by Ingmar Bergman and Gian Carlo Menotti.
The young conductor Robert Craft became a devoted aide of Stravinsky while he worked on the opera. Soon Craft's pioneering work with the music of Anton Webern aroused Stravinsky's interest. During the 1950s, alongside several younger composers in Europe and America, Stravinsky deeply studied Webern and gradually absorbed new elements into his own still evolving, still very individual, style. Some old friends, like Poulenc, unable to keep up the pace, felt betrayed. But now, as in the 1920s, Stravinsky belonged with the young.
The Cantata on medieval English poems (1952) and the Septet (1953) show a new density of contrapuntal ingenuity in the service of wonderfully lively expression. The moving Song with dirge canons in memory of Dylan Thomas (1954) is still more densely made, with every note accountable as part of a five-note series continually varied. In the oratorio Canticum sacrum in honor of St. Mark (1956), there are passages with Webernish sounds and silences, melodies made mostly of wide skips, and series of twelve notes treated according to Schoenberg's technique. Similar passages in Agon (1953-1957), a plotless ballet for twelve dancers, are combined with references to 16th-century dances and strong C-major cadences in a fantastic synthesis.
Threni, i.e., Lamentations of Jeremiah (1958) for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra appeared as a major historical landmark, for in this work Stravinsky made the twelve-tone technique a "point of departure" throughout, as he continued to do in later compositions. Of these the largest ones are settings of religious texts: A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), The Flood (1962), Abraham and Isaac (1963), and Requiem Canticles (1966). Some smaller vocal works deserve a place beside the larger ones: the unaccompanied Anthem on stanzas from T. S. Eliot's Quartets, The dove descending breaks the air (1962), the setting for voice and three clarinets of Auden's Elegy for J. F. K. (1964), and even the song for voice and piano on Edward Lear's poem The Owl and the Pussycat (1968). In each of these works the complexities of rhythm and sound, as well as the fascinating harmony and counterpoint, serve to clarify and intensify the meanings of the texts.
Stravinsky's major instrumental works after the Septet were the Movements for piano and orchestra (1959) and the Variations for orchestra (1964), both of which were interpreted in ballets by Balanchine that could disarm any candid critic of the music. Both were "major" despite a brevity worthy of Webern—the Movements about 10 minutes, the Variations less than 5. Balanchine simply had the Variations played three times, with the threefold dance accumulating power.
Stravinsky died on April 6, 1971, in New York City. He was buried with pomp in Venice.
Assessments of the Composer
The poet Herbert Read declared in 1962 that Stravinsky was "the most representative artist of our own 20th century." The critic François Michel a year earlier gave a reason for calling him "the greatest musician of our epoch"—he was "the only one who could transform its characteristic defects, which he took upon himself, into ways of seeing the truths of all time." The publisher Ernst Roth in 1967 went further, hailing Stravinsky as "the most prophetic of all men of our time. His life is like a symbol of future mankind."
That same year Stravinsky characteristically made fun of "the natural desire to cling to an old man in hopes that he can point the road to the future. What is needed, of course, is simply any road that offers enough mileage and a good enough safety record. And my road … will soon become a detour, I realize … but I hardly mind that. Detours are often pleasant to travel, far more so than those super-turnpikes on which the traffic has yet to discover that the race is not always to the swift."
Further Reading on Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky
With his Autobiography (1936), Stravinsky became an important writer on music. His Poetics of Music (1942; translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl, 1947) is his most systematic literary work, unique among discussions of music for its authority and scope. But these books, he said later, were "much less like me, in all my faults, than my conversations," which he compiled in collaboration with Robert Craft in a series of volumes: Conversations (1959), Memories and Commentaries (1960), Expositions and Developments (1962), Dialogues and a Diary (1963), Themes and Episodes (1966), and Retrospectives and Conclusions (1969).
The most comprehensive collection of facts about his life and all his works is Eric W. White, Stravinsky (1966). Other studies include Heinrich Strobel, Stravinsky: Classic Humanist (1955); Roman Vlad, Stravinsky (trans. 1960; repr. 1968); and Robert Siohan, Stravinsky (1969).