Igor Stravinsky: Music of the Present, Music of Eternity

Igor Stravinsky: Music of the Present, Music of Eternity

For almost half a century, creative life of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was at the musical and cultural forefront. He easily changed styles and stage roles, while remaining true to himself.

Beginning: piano lessons and maestro's blessing

Igor Stravinsky was born in 1882 in Oranienbaum, later the family lived on the Kryukov Canal in St. Petersburg. The house was situated not far from the Mariinsky Theater, where the father of the future composer worked. Fyodor Stravinsky was a famous opera singer and gave his son a decent upbringing. Their home was regularly visited by musicians and writers, among whom was, for example, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. 

For several years, Stravinsky was taking private piano lessons from several teachers. When he turned 22, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov became his new musical mentor and had a great influence on Stravinsky. During the years of studies, the young composer created his first works: a scherzo and a sonata for piano, a suite for voice and orchestra Faun and Shepherdess. Sergei Diaghilev was one of the first to hear and appreciate this suite.

The young man was making progress and dreamed of entering the conservatory, but Professor Rimsky-Korsakov talked him out of it. It so happened that Stravinsky didn’t have a specialized musical education, but had ingenious compositions and worldwide recognition. Years later, in his autobiography, Chronicle of My Life, the composer wrote: 

“Music is the only region in which human realises the present. The imperfection of human nature is such that they are doomed to experience in themselves the flow of time, perceiving it in the categories of past and future and never being in a position to feel it as something real, and consequentially a stable ‘present’. The phenomenon of music was given us uniquely in order to introduce order into all that exists, including especially the relationship between man and time."

Glory: three great ballets for the Russian Seasons

Soon after the premiere of Stravinsky's first suite, impresario Sergei Diaghilev invited him to join the Russian Seasons. Over the next three years, the composer created three ballets and gained worldwide fame. These were The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring  (1913). 

Stravinsky wrote the music for The Firebird ballet in a record couple of months. The premiere took place at the Grand Opera in Paris, the audience applauded. At the same time, Stravinsky's remuneration amounting to 1,500 rubles was quite modest by the standards of that time. His potential was much higher, and Sergei Diaghilev and Mikhail Fokine, according to the latter's recollections, managed to see it back then: 

“The element of onomatopoeia, characteristic of Stravinsky's talent, hissing and whistling - <…> all this excited Diaghilev and me.  He ordered music to Stravinsky, and soon our first and most interesting new work with the new composer began.”

Another interesting fact: the young composer immediately showed himself to be an artist who knew how to insist on his own way. The solemn grand finale of The Firebird ballet with the wedding was Stravinsky's idea, although Fokine insisted on a more dramatic climax. 

Simultaneously with The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky started implementing another idea. It was born after a meeting with Diaghilev: he decided to create a production about the main character of Russian fairs, Petrushka. This time, Stravinsky first composed the music, and the libretto appeared afterwards. 

The composer was inspired by the culture of Maslenitsa (Pre-Lenten) folk festivals and fairs with their songs and jokes. You can clearly hear all this in the music: the mass scenes have fragments of musical phrases and “flashes” of individual instruments that seem to break through the uniform rumble of the crowd intensifying and then fading away. Vulgar and joke motives are heard in the ballet - this is how the effect of being there is achieved. This profound interest in folklore, in the combination of high and vulgar, personal and mass, are the coordinates that are critical for all of Stravinsky's music. 

The third ballet written for Diaghilev's Russian Seasons was The Rite of Spring. This premiere turned out to be controversial. Later, the composer recalled: 

“As for the actual performance, I am not in a position to judge, as I left the auditorium at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar.”

Later, The Rite of Spring ranked high among other works of modern ballet, its innovative music and revolutionary choreography were appreciated all over the world. 

Maturity: experimenting with style

For a long time, Stravinsky was considered one of the impressionist composers. In 1911, he met with two of the brightest representatives of this style in music - Erik Satie and Claude Debussy.

However, Stravinsky didn’t remain within the framework of one style. In the 1920s, he got interested in neoclassicism. The ballets Pulcinella (1920) and The Fairy's Kiss (1928) are good musical illustrations of this period. Later, he turned to sacred music: in the same 1928 he wrote Our Father for the chorus without accompaniment, then created the Symphony of Psalms based on the Latin texts of the Psalms.

The composer played the piano parts and conducted during performances. In the 1930s, he was touring the United States and in 1939 decided to stay there for good. The composer’s work of this period was full of operas, ballets, symphonies and concerts. In the 1950s, experiments with musical form continued: the composer created series. At the same time, he released audio recordings, participating in the performances as a conductor. Stravinsky still had plenty of energy and inspiration to create. In his memoirs, he confessed: 

“I live neither in the past nor in the future; I am in the present. I cannot know what tomorrow will bring forth. I can know only what the truth is for me today. That is what I am called upon to serve, and I serve it in all lucidity.”

The final work by Stravinsky was the Funeral Songs (1966). According to his own words, with this musical "requiem" the composer completed his work. Igor Stravinsky died in New York in 1971. His grave is in Venice, in the "Russian" part of the San Michele cemetery. Next to him lies his second wife, Vera Bosse. It was she who fulfilled the will of her husband, burying him in Venice. Not far from the Stravinskys is the grave of Sergei Diaghilev, the person whom Stravinsky met in the right time and with whom he worked for so many years.