TIDAL Primer: Igor Stravinsky

Ethan Iverson offers a crash course in the life and work of a 20th-century titan on the 50th anniversary of his passing.

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Stravinsky in 1929. Credit: Boris Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

When investigating musical modernism, the composer, conductor and pianist Igor Stravinsky is the perfect place to start. A giant of 20th-century classical music, his diverse output charts not only his own fascinating development but also offers a benchmark in achievement and sustained exploration. Think of him as a musical analogue of his friend and collaborator Pablo Picasso: Like that painter, sculptor and printmaker, Stravinsky reformed the traditional grammar of his field into something abstract yet recognizable.

He was born into a musical and intellectual family near Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1882. Studying under the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, he wrote his Opus 1, the Symphony in E-flat (1907), in the style of conventional 19th-century models. This student approach was soon forgotten, as the young composer found his original voice when working in the theatre. At the time, ballet was one of the most popular entertainments, and three exciting and kaleidoscopic scores written for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes made Stravinsky’s name. The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and the Rite of Spring (1913) were immediate successes and remain Stravinsky’s most popular scores to this day.

The premiere of the Rite, at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, was an infamous scandal and did much to further Stravinsky’s reputation as a revolutionary. If Vaslav Nijinsky’s intentionally primitive choreography, depicting a virgin sacrifice, wasn’t audacious enough, the music itself was astonishingly provocative. In time, Stravinsky’s cubist patterns featuring repetitive yet unpredictable rhythms would become commonplace. One can hear much of 20th-century music as descended from the Rite, from film scores to prog-rock, and an excerpt of the Rite accompanies the Big Bang and the dinosaurs in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

Having upended the musical world with those early ballets, Stravinsky set the pace while pursuing a range of idioms. But no matter the disparate material at hand, a Stravinsky piece always somehow sounds like Stravinsky, with those varied repeating patterns and a certain directness of style. In Paris, where he traveled to and worked and eventually settled, Stravinsky explored all that modernity had to offer, enjoyed friendships with Picasso, Claude Debussy and Jean Cocteau — and even possibly had an affair with Coco Chanel. Bits of ragtime and tango inform the darkly comedic chamber piece L’Histoire du Soldat (1918). Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), comparatively short in duration, summons unique melodies and harmonies in a heartless sequence of breathtaking beauty. He loved the player piano, and in Les Noces, premiered in 1923 but begun a decade earlier, he pitted four machine-like pianists against the sorrowful, unearthly wails of a nervous bride and groom.

Next on his docket: historically informed grace and balance. Pulcinella (1920), a suave ballet based on old Italian themes, premiered with sets and costumes by Picasso, was Stravinsky’s first piece to exhibit the new aesthetic that would be termed neoclassicism. Thus began an extraordinary two-decade run of top-shelf work indebted to Bach and Mozart but laced with unexpected dissonances and shot through with an irresistible rhythmic drive. None of this repertoire has captured the general public’s imagination quite like the early ballets, but many musicians and experienced listeners regard this era as some of the purest and deepest Stravinsky: Octet (1923), Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924), Serenade in A (1925), Apollo (1928), Violin Concerto in D (1931), Duo Concertant (1932), Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (1935), Concerto in E-flat, a.k.a. “Dumbarton Oaks” (1938), the list goes on. In Oedipus Rex (1927), a surreal and arch libretto by Cocteau interacts with a rich vocal and orchestral palette worthy of Handel. Symphony of Psalms (1930) is one of the finest religious works written for the symphonic concert stage.

After moving to America in 1939 and later taking up residence in Los Angeles, Stravinsky produced the glistening and propulsive Symphony in Three Movements (1945), which the composer acknowledged as his “War Symphony,” with a menacing final movement inspired by newsreel footage of the German army goose-stepping on parade. Stravinsky’s final neoclassical statement was the substantial opera the Rake’s Progress (1951), with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

What next? Entering his 70s, the composer was not done innovating. When his great competitor, Arnold Schoenberg, died in 1951, Stravinsky unhesitatingly moved onto Schoenberg’s turf of atonal composition, in part inspired by his young associate Robert Craft. This last period of comparatively intellectual and obdurate music would (unsurprisingly) produce Stravinsky’s least popular work, but at least two pieces must be heard by anyone with more than a passing interest in the composer. Agon (1957) is a joyful and tuneful sequence of dances, written for a longtime collaborator, the choreographer George Balanchine, while Requiem Canticles (1966), completed five years before Stravinsky’s death in New York, is a sonorous valediction crafted in perfect proportion. The composer had traversed a universe since the Firebird over a half-century before — but again, the music always sounded like Stravinsky, from the first note until the last.

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