Maestro of Discovery: Igor Stravinsky
Having been introduced to the theory of tonally transitional composers of music, I figured it would be all the more appropriate to dedicate this blog entry to one of my favorite Russian Composers, Maestro Igor Stravinsky!
Игорь Фёдорович Стравинский, born in 1882, grew up in the famous city of Saint Petersburg. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a Bass Singer at the Mariinsky Theater, thus young Igor was exposed to classical music in all it’s various forms from a young age. As a child he took up lessons in piano and composition and by the age of fourteen he had mastered the infamously difficult Mendelssohn Concerto for Piano in g minor. Despite his early love for music, however, his parents chose for him what they believed would lead to a more fruitful living, law school. Ill- fitted for this line of work, Stravinsky dragged his feet in his studies from 1901-1905. When the school was closed in the Spring of 1905 (due to Bloody Sunday) and Stravinsky was prevented from taking his finals it became clear to him that he was to follow his ambitions in music after all. From 1905-1908, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, who at the time was the most renowned of all composers in Russia. It also was during this time that he married his cousin Katerina Nossenko (whom he had been betrothed to since childhood) and by 1908 she bore him his first two children Fyodor and Ludmilla. In 1909 Stravinsky premiered his first major work, Fireworks, and was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes in Paris, to further develop his ideas into a larger production. It was this encouragement that led to his immigration to Switzerland and yielded one of the most famous ballet’s of the 20th century, The Firebird. Although, Stravinsky would briefly return to his homeland in the summer of 1914, the following decades of war and hostilities meant that he would not return to Russia for fifty years. In 1920 Stravinsky, with his family (two more children in tow), immigrated to France where he was to form a significant partnership with the French piano manufacturer Pleyel. Pleyel collected relatively minimal royalties that in return would allow Stravinsky to afford a studio. Stravinsky also arranged many of his works for Pleyals brand of player piano that utilized all of its 88 keys and were considered to be nearly inaccessible for most musicians. Such major compositions spun from these roles include but are not limited to the Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Firebird, Les Noces, and Song of the Nightingale. Tragically, in 1934, Katerina’s tuberculosis infected his eldest daughter Ludmila, and Stravinsky himself. Ludmila died in 1938 and Katerina died in the following year (actually from cancer). Stravinsky himself spent five months in hospital. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky formed key relationships with American music bigwigs and in 1939 (at the outbreak of the second world war) he moved to America where he would live the remainder of his career. Vera de Bosset, the true love of his life, followed him and they were married in Massachusetts on March 9th, 1940. The couple settled in LA California, the city where he ultimately spent the most years of his life. Although he was already an old man at the ripe age of 58, Stravinsky thrived in his new environment of movers and shakers, taking great interest in the cultural advances of American artists such as Otto Klemplerer and Arthur Rubinstein. It was in the States that Stravinsky explored some of his most revolutionary ideas. Always one to be unconventional, Stravinsky was arrested by the Boston police in 1940 for violating a federal law that strictly prohibits the re harmonization of America’s national anthem. Despite such trivial blunders, he was nonetheless quite successful. Post humorously he earned a Grammy for Lifetime achievement and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Two years after his move to New York City in 1969, Stravinsky died at the age of 88. He was Buried in Venice near the island of San Michele. In the end he was buried near Sergei Diaghilev who had given him the opportunity to explore outside of Russia’s borders as a fresh young composer so many decades ago.
Musicians who experience Stravinsky’s music will most likely identify Stravinsky’s works as complicated, complex, and at times hard to swallow. Stravinsky was certainly a composer for neoclassicism and discovery of techniques never before used such as bitonality, often leading to sounds strange enough to invoke passionate reaction. One infamous example of a case where he shook the auditoriums was the premier of The Rite of Spring. The dissonant sounds, not to mention the semi-nude dancers on the Paris stage proved so shocking that a riot broke out during the show. Indeed he did not live the majority of his life in Russia (Stravinsky was fortunate enough to avoid the atrocities committed against his fellow composers who were trapped behind his homeland’s borders); however, through works that portray traditional Russian Folk tales as beautiful as that of The Firebird Stravinsky’s heritage is ever omnipresent.
Below I have attached a video from The Firebird. In this scene, the prince who has fallen into this magical land comes across the enchanting Firebird. During their Pas de Deux (dance for two) he captures the trembling bird. In exchange for letting her go, the Firebird grants him one of her golden feathers with the promise that she would come to his aid should he wave the feather over his head.