Igor Stravinsky

In the late summer of 1909, Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) received a telegram that was to change his life and the course of music history. The sender was the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who asked the hitherto virtually unknown pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov if he would like to write the music for a large ballet based on a material from the Russian fairytale world. The premiere of the piece, entitled "The Firebird", was scheduled for the following spring in Paris. After brief hesitation in view of the short time available – "I wasn't aware of my strengths at the time", Stravinsky later recalled – the young composer threw himself into the work. "The Firebird" went on to become a resounding success. Passages of rousing rhythmic power and aggressive ferocity, short melodies inspired by Russian folk music and a highly developed sense of timbre are the most important characteristics of the "Firebird" music, which were to remain significant for Stravinsky's work. The decisive novelty of the score, however, is rather more hidden. Even in this early work, Stravinsky suspended traditional tonality for long stretches and allowed the combination of harmonies to follow its own inner logic. At the time, the harmonies themselves are not yet considered revolutionary. This was to change in the next two ballet scores, "Petrushka" and "Le sacre du printemps". In "Le sacre du printemps", which premiered on 29th May 1913 and was accompanied by one of the biggest scandals in recent music history, Stravinsky unleashes a rhythmic and tonal storm of previously unimaginable intensity, layers ostinati one on top of the other to create extreme dissonances and cancels out any metre by means of irregular accents. This work exemplifies the use of montage as a basic principle of Stravinsky's composition, the use of fixed building blocks that are juxtaposed and layered on top of each other in clear contrasts and sharp incisions.

Stravinsky could not and did not want to surpass "Le sacre du printemps". Afterwards, partly under the impact of the war, he deliberately composed sparse, reduced works such as "The Soldier's Tale". In 1920, Stravinsky, who had previously lived in exile in Switzerland, settled in Paris. Just as he had previously been inspired by Russian folk music, he now took up musical styles of the past, which he adapted using his own unmistakable, alienating language, and became an exponent of neoclassicism. In the 1920s he started to perform very successfully, first as a pianist, but then mainly as a conductor of his own works.

Stravinsky perceived the rise of fascism as a general crisis of culture in Europe. This was compounded by personal misfortunes. Then, in 1939, when Stravinsky received an invitation from Harvard University to give lectures on the poetics of music, he saw an opportunity to alter his circumstances. At first, he only planned a temporary stay in the USA, but he soon decided to settle permanently in America. The composer only returned to Europe for concert engagements and in 1945 Stravinsky, who had previously held French citizenship, became an American citizen.

His American period led to a significant stylistic reorientation. Inspired by the music of the post-war generation, Stravinsky explored the music of Anton Webern in the 1950s, again adapting serial techniques in a highly individual way. At the age of over seventy, Stravinsky was thus simultaneously regarded as a "modernist par excellence" whose works from earlier phases were performed by prestigious large orchestras, and as an avant-gardist who was performed at the special festivals for the music of the present and thus seemed almost to belong to the youngest generation of composers. His last major work, the “Requiem Canticles”, was composed in 1965/66. Stravinsky died in New York on 6th April 1971.

Igor Stravinsky in Venice, 1956

© MARKA / Alamy Stock Photo

Past Events