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Igor Stravinsky and “The Rite of Spring”

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (June 17, 1882 –April 6, 1971) was a Russian, composer, pianist and conductor who is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential composers of the twentieth century due to the fact that his compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity.  Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 in the Russian resort town of Oranienbaum and was brought up in Saint Petersburg.  His parents were Fyodor Stravinsky, a bass singer at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and Anna (née Kholodovsky).  Stravinsky began piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory and attempting composition. In 1890, he saw a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre. By age fifteen, he had mastered Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor and finished a piano reduction of a string quartet by Glazunov.

Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected Igor to become a lawyer. Stravinsky enrolled to study law at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901, but he attended fewer than fifty class sessions during his four years of study.  In the summer of 1902 Stravinsky stayed with the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his family in the German city of Heidelberg, where Rimsky-Korsakov, arguably the leading Russian composer at that time, suggested to Stravinsky that he should not enter the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire, but instead study composing by taking private lessons, in large part because of his age.  Stravinsky’s father died of cancer that year, by which time his son had already begun spending more time on his musical studies than on law.  Thereafter, he concentrated on studying music. In 1905, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, whom he came to regard as a second father, and continued the lessons until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.

Also in 1905 Stravinsky was betrothed to Yekaterina Gabrielovna Nossenko, whom he had known since early childhood.   The couple married on January 23, 1906: their first two children, Fyodor (Theodore) and Ludmila, were born in 1907 and 1908, respectively.  In February 1909, two orchestral works, the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) were performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg, where they were heard by Sergei Diaghilev, who was at that time involved in planning to present Russian opera and ballet in Paris. Diaghilev was sufficiently impressed by Fireworks to commission Stravinsky to carry out some orchestrations and then to compose a full-length ballet score, The Firebird.  Stravinsky traveled to Paris in 1910 to attend the final rehearsals and the premiere of The Firebird. His family joined him before the end of the ballet season that year and they decided to remain in the West for a time, as his wife was expecting their third child. They moved to Switzerland, living in Clarens, and later Lausanne where, on September 23, 1910, their second son Sviatoslav Soulima was born.  A fourth child, Maria Milena, was born in 1913. While pregnant with Maria Milena, Yekaterina was found to have tuberculosis and was placed in a Swiss sanatorium in Leysin for her confinement.

Over the next four years, Stravinsky and his family lived in Russia during the summer months and spent each winter in Switzerland, which became a second home to them.   During this period, Stravinsky composed three further works for the Ballets Russes—Petrushka, a ballet in four scenes (1911), the two-part ballet The Rite of Spring (1913) and his ‘ballet with song’ in one act, Pulcinella (1920).   He briefly travelled to Russia in July 1914 to collect research materials for his dance cantata Les noces (The Wedding, 1923) before returning to Switzerland, just before the national borders closed following the outbreak of World War I. He was not to return to his homeland for almost half a century.   The family struggled financially during this period.  He approached the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart for financial assistance during the time he was writing Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale, 1918).  Stravinsky was considered a family man and devoted to his children.  He was also a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church during most of his life, remarking at one time that, “Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration.”

Stravinsky’s career as a composer may be divided roughly into three stylistic periods.  The Russian period was from c. 1908 to 1919.  Other pieces from the Russian period include: Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) and Renard (1916).  Stravinsky moved with his family to France in 1920.   He formed a business and musical relationship with the French piano manufacturing company Pleyel and agreed to compose works for the Pleyela, Pleyel’s brand of player piano.  Among the compositions that were issued on the Pleyela piano rolls is Song of the Nightingale.  The next phase of Stravinsky’s compositional style extends from the opera Mavra (1921–22), which is regarded as the start of his neo-classical period, until 1952, when he turned to serialism.

Other Stravinsky works from this period include Oedipus Rex (1927), Apollon musagète (1928), Persephone (1933), the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1937–38), Orpheus (1947), and the three symphonies– the Symphonie des Psaumes (Symphony of Psalms, 1930), Symphony in C (1940) and the Symphony in Three Movements (1945). In 1951, he completed his last neo-classical work, the opera The Rake’s Progress.  After living near Paris for a short while, the Stravinsky family moved to the south of France, becoming French citizens in 1934 and returning to Paris that year, to live at the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.   His wife’s tuberculosis infected both himself and his eldest daughter Ludmila, who died in 1938. Yekaterina, to whom he had been married for 33 years, died of tuberculosis a year later in 1939. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky was already working on his Symphony in C.  A few months after World War II broke out in September of 1939, Stravinsky moved to the United States and married Vera de Bosset in Bedford, MA, on March 9, 1940.   Stravinsky settled in West Hollywood and spent more time living in Los Angeles than any other city.  He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1945.

In the 1950s, Stravinsky began using serial compositional techniques such as dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique originally devised by Arnold Schoenberg.  Works from this period include such as the Cantata (1952), the Septet (1953), Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953), In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954), Agon (1954–57), Canticum Sacrum (1955), Threni (1958),  A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), and The Flood (1962).  Stravinsky was on the lot of Paramount Pictures during the recording of his musical score to the 1956 film The Court Jester.  His professional life encompassed most of the twentieth century, including many of its modern classical music styles, and he influenced composers both during and after his lifetime. In 1959, he was awarded the Sonning Award, Denmark’s highest musical honour. In 1962, he accepted an invitation to return to Leningrad for a series of concerts. During his stay in the USSR, he visited Moscow and met several leading Soviet composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.  In 1969, Stravinsky moved to the Essex House in New York, where he lived until his death in 1971 at age 88 of heart failure.

Works by Stravinsky that are found in my collection include the following:

The Firebird (1910): Suite No. 2 (1919).

Petrouchka, Burlesque in four pictures (1911).

The Rite of Spring (1913).

Symphony in 3 Movements.

Violin Concerto in DM: Capriccio.

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