Stravinsky, Igor (1882–1971)

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STRAVINSKY, IGOR (1882–1971)


Russian composer.

Igor Stravinsky was one of the most cosmopolitan Russian artists of the twentieth century. Born into a family of opera singers, he started studying music at the age of twenty. He spent the first thirty years of his life in tsarist Russia. In 1910 he moved to Europe, settling in Paris in 1914. In 1939, as the Nazi army was advancing on France, he moved to the United States. He become a U.S. citizen in 1945; until that time he had been considered a stateless person.

Stravinsky's musical heritage encompasses different eras, places, musical forms, and genres, constituting a virtual encyclopedia of world classical music. His first ballets, performed in Paris by the Russian Seasons company before Russia's October Revolution, explored his country's pre-Christian past (The Rite of Spring, 1913) and folk culture (Petrushka, 1911; Firebird, 1910) . His choreographic cantata The Wedding (1923) was based on Russian folk poetry. In it the composer created an original style that advanced music one step beyond the work of his teacher Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and that of two titans of nineteenth-century music, Modest Mussorgsky (who embraced nationalism) and Peter Tchaikovsky (who was cosmopolitan in his outlook). Everyday urban music was reflected in his ballet pantomime Histoire du Soldat (1918; A Soldier's Story), which merged the archaic and the contemporary. Stravinsky established a new type of performance that influenced twentieth-century theater art, creating, in effect, the multimedia show: singing elements in ballet, the reader's participation in symphonies, and so on.

During his European period, he continued working on ballet. Having been separated from his native soil, Russian influences started to wane. His singing ballet Pulcinella (1920) marked a transition to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century neoclassicist forms. His total break with the militantly atheist Bolshevik Russia led him to embrace biblical texts and ancient Greek mythology. His vocal music also drew its inspiration from Latin texts. Some of the best works of this period are the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), Symphony of Psalms (1930), two other symphonies, and a violin concerto (1931).

The years in the New World brought out different facets of his talent, thanks to his use of the modernist technique of dodecaphony, twelve-tone music in which all notes are treated as equal. Stravinsky's thematic range became increasingly religious and profoundly contemplative. This tendency began with Mass (1948), the cantata Canticum sacrum (1955), and Requiem Canticles (1966).

Stravinsky left an impressive collection of writings: Themes and Episodes (1966), Dialogues and a Diary (1963), Expositions and Developments (1962) , Memories and Commentaries (1960), Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (1959), and Themes and Conclusions (1972), all written in cooperation with his advisor and confidant Robert Craft. This need for verbal self-expression began with the publication of his Chronicle of My Life (Paris, 1935).

Although Stravinsky was not involved in politics and did not write politically engaged works like his Soviet contemporaries (Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich), he advocated artistic freedom, expressed his abhorrence of censorship, and hailed the recognition of human rights. His life and work, together with those of fellow Russian émigré writer Vladimir Nabokov and the painter Marc Chagall, showed what artists might have produced had not the October Revolution unleashed the Great Terror, the reign of censorship and intimidation, and ultimately the liquidation of the Russian intelligentsia as a class.

Stravinsky's work was progressively criticized, censored, and banned in his native country. It was only with Nikita Khrushchev's Thaw and destalinization policy that orchestras and musicians were slowly allowed to reintegrate some of Stravinsky's works, primarily those of his Russian period, into their repertoires. The religious, mythical, and so-called decadent and modernist works were still not performed or recorded.

In 1962, marking his eightieth birthday, Stravinsky for the first and last time returned to Soviet Russia. He was not granted the stature of other great Russian and Soviet composers, however. The stigma of being an emigrant and non-Soviet artist always remained. Nevertheless, even during the years of the Cold War and the confrontation between East and West, his work, like that of Shostakovich on the other side of the Iron Curtain, formed a bridge between two worlds and became an unrivaled twentieth-century cross-cultural experience.

After the collapse of the communist regime in the USSR, Stravinsky's work was widely performed and academic and archival publications, along with conferences and seminars on his life and work, proliferated. His widow, Vera Stravinsky, and Robert Craft published an in-depth album commemorating the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and Craft later published selections from Stravinsky's correspondence with his wife.

In the early twenty-first century, his music was being played less than it had been during his lifetime. That was a reflection of a trend aimed at conclusively understanding the tragic experiences of the twentieth century, marred by the Holocaust, the gulag, two world wars, and cultural revolutions. In this search for understanding, audience preferences sometimes shifted toward content in the arts at the expense of form. Thus the public preferred to listen to the music of Prokofiev, and above all Shostakovich.

See alsoChagall, Marc; Prokofiev, Sergei; Shostakovich, Dmitri.


Primary Sources

Stravinsky, Igor. Chronicle of My Life. Translated from the French. London, 1936.

Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. Memories and Commentaries. London, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Craft, Robert. Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life. London, 1992.

——. Stravinsky. Chronicle of a Friendship. Rev. and expanded ed. Nashville, Tenn., 1994.

Stravinsky, Vera, and Robert Craft. Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents. New York, 1978.

Taruskin, Richard. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra. 2 vols. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Leonid Maximenkov

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Stravinsky, Igor (1882–1971)

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