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Igor Strawinsky
Igor Strawinsky


There are easier composers to whistle than Stravinsky, but few better to quote. His thinking was witty, thought-provoking, sometimes deliberately evasive, and, at its best, profound. ‘The trouble with music appreciation in general,’ he said, ‘is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.’  Stravinsky is still best known for the revolutionary primitivism of his ballet score The Rite of Spring (1913), which famously sparked a riot at its first performance in Paris. But during the course of a long career, Stravinksy composed an astonishingly wide variety of music. His styles included the neoclassicism of Pulcinella, the 12-note serialism of Threni, the post-Serialist satire of The Flood and the neo-Renaissance colours of Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa. A number of works, such as his 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress, use a combination of pastiche and original techniques. Yet Stravinsky’s voice is among the most instantly recognisable of all composers. Igor Fyorodorovich Stravinsky was born to descendents of Russian and Polish nobility. His father was a prominent soloist at the Mariinsky theatre, well known for his powerful bass voice and for the intelligence of his interpretations. His mother was an accomplished singer and pianist. Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky were frequent visitors to the family’s apartment, which lay close to the Mariinsky. It was with Rimsky-Korsakov that Stravinsky first began serious musical study in 1903, as a truant from his law degree, shortly after the death of his father. In early works such as Scherzo fantastique (1907–8) and the Piano Sonata in F sharp (1903–4), Stravinsky developed a style of such shimmering brilliance that more progressive ears than Rimsky-Korsakov’s began to take note. A crucial moment came in 1909, when the impresario Sergei Diaghilev decided he needed something cutting-edge for the Ballets Russes season in Paris. The Firebird was the result, and its premiere at the Opéra in June 1910 launched the 30-year-old composer into international fame almost overnight.  The strident sonorities of The Firebird took some by surprise. Yet Stravinsky’s next work, Petrushka (1910–11), was an even bolder announcement of his mature style, with its heady mixture of brazen orchestral detail and rhythmic drive. By 1913, and the premiere of The Rite of Spring, both aspects of Stravinsky’s musical personality had developed further. He used bi-tonal dissonances and maniacal rhythmic construction, governed by relentless repeated patterns, though the riot was arguably a reaction to Nijinsky’s sexually charged choreography rather than the music.  By this time Stravinsky had become a household name. He counted Debussy, Proust and Gide among his friends. Photographs from the period show a dapper figure whose angular features bristle with deep-seated self-confidence. With the revolution and civil unrest in Russia, Stravinsky, his wife Katya, whom he had married in 1906, and their four children moved from St Petersburg to Switzerland. Here, the composer mostly occupied himself with smaller-scale projects such as L’Histoire du soldat (1918) and Les Noces (1921–23). He also deepened his interest in Russian and European folk traditions. After 10 years in Switzerland, Stravinsky moved to France, living at first with the fashion designer Coco Chanel. His return was announced with the premiere of Pulcinella in May 1920. An audacious recomposition of 18th-century Neapolitan keyboard music and pastoral arias, its set was designed by the artist Pablo Picasso, whom Stravinsky had met in Rome three years earlier. With Stravinsky’s and Picasso’s combined efforts, Pulcinella’s effect was almost as startling and influential as that of the Rite. Although none of Stravinsky’s other neo-Classical works display the same naked, brazenly interrupted pastiche, the composer continued to explore this vein for 30 years. Even within neo-Classicism, however, he managed an enormous amount of variety. His diverse works from this period included the ‘opera-oratorio after Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (1927), the choral Symphony of Psalms (1930) and the hybrid ballet-cantata Perséphone. Together they display a diversity of sound, orchestration and aesthetic that completely dispels the idea of neo-Classicism as a blanket style. In 1939, following the death of his daughter Lyudmila, Stravinsky moved to America. He settled in Hollywood, where he lived with the Russian painter Vera Sudeikina, his lover since 1921, and wife from 1940. The impetus to move was an invitation to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard University. They were later published in French as Poétique Musicale (1942), and in English as Poetics of Music (1947). The outbreak of the Second World War made the decision to stay in the USA an easy one. It was in Hollywood that Stravinsky came into closer contact with the music of Schoenberg and Webern. He explored these influences during the 1950s in works including the ballet scores of Agon (1955) and Abraham and Isaac (1957). With the aid of his friend and assistant Robert Craft, he attained an exalted position in American society. He attended a dinner at the White House at the invitation of John F Kennedy in 1962. After Kennedy’s assassination he composed Elegy, to words by WH Auden. Stravinsky’s final masterpiece was the Requiem Canticles, completed at the age of 84 in 1966. The work is notable in combining the bright colours and ritual aspect of his early Russian works with the angular and fragmentary style of his later work. He moved to New York in 1969 where, following a brief renewal of his creative energies, he died in April 1971. At Vera’s instruction, his body was flown to Venice where he was buried close to the grave of Diaghilev on the island of San Michele. Stravinsky was one of the 20th century’s most singular composers. The vast array of influences and traditions from which his music begs, borrows and steals has attracted criticism. The turn of the century has given us a more even perspective. We are better able to marvel at the achievements of a man who crossed paths with many of the major artistic figures of his time. To those who once argued that Stravinsky’s music danced on the monuments of history rather than partaking in its progressions, history has proved them wrong.

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