Igor Stravinsky

1882 - 1971

Childhood

Igor Stravinsky was born in Russia in 1882. He was the third of four children, all boys. Stravinsky's father was an opera singer in the most famous opera house in the capital of Russia, which at the time was St. Petersburg. When he was a child Igor would go into the opera house and watch the operas and meet musicians and composers. He also went to ballets and when he was eight years old he saw Tchaikovsky conduct a Sleeping Beauty. Watching that ballet developed an interest and love for ballet that lasted for the rest of his life.

Stravinsky started piano lessons when he was nine years old and was able to play complicated pieces well by the time he was fifteen. But his parents expected him to study law and so, when he was old enough he went to law school. One of his good friends in law school was the son of a famous composer, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.  Rimsky-Korsakov started to give him music lessons and after Stravinsky’s father died Igor went to stay with Rimsky-Korsakov. He met many musical people there, and Rimsky-Korsakov taught him how to write for the different instruments. 

Stravinsky married his cousin, Katherine Nosenko, in 1906 and eventually they had four children. The Stravinsky family moved around a lot. They spent summers in Russia and winters in Switzerland until they left Russia in 1914. The Stravinskys lived in Switzerland for a few years, then they lived in France and after Katherine died, he moved to the United States where he remarried and lived for the rest of his life.

Ballet

In 1908 Stravinsky met Sergei Diaghilev, a famous ballet director and producer. Diaghilev wanted to put on performances of ballets that were modern and new. He needed a composer to write the music and he asked Stravinsky to write music for a ballet called The Firebird. The story of the Firebird is  a Russian fairytale about a Prince who rescues a magical bird (the Firebird) from an evil sorcerer named Kashchei.  When the prince wants to marry a princess who is under the Kashchei's power, the Firebird rescues him and together they are able to destroy Kashchei and his power. The ballet was first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1910 by a famous Russian Ballet company and it was a big hit right away and has remained one of Stravinsky’s most famous pieces of music. Stravinsky took some of the music and made it into a suite, a collection of dances that can be performed by an orchestra in a concert hall without the dancing.

The success of The Firebird made Stravinsky famous all over the world.The next ballet Stravinsky wrote was Petrushka. It is the story of three puppets that comes to life. One, named Petrushka, falls in love with another - the ballerina - but she doesn't' love him back. Petrushka was first performed in Paris in 1911 and became just as famous as The Firebird. Stravinsky turned Petrushka into a suite and he  also arrangement of three of the dances for piano.

Stravinsky's next ballet was The Rite of Spring. It was different from any ballet that had ever been written. The Rite of Spring is a story in two parts. The first part is about the awakening of Spring. It does not sound at all like the famous Four Seasons by Vivaldi! A "rite" is a ceremony that is part of a tradition. The "rite" in the ballet is supposed to bring good luck to the next year’s harvest. It's an ancient Russian dance in which one young girl is chosen to dance and dance until she dies. She is the sacrifice to the God of Spring. As you might guess from the story, the music is often very harsh, the rhythms are very complicated and The Rite of Spring sounded very different from any ballet music that came before it.

 

The Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in May 1913. Some people loved it and others hated it. The first night it was performed there was a big fight in the theatre and the police were called in. People were shouting so much that no one could hear the music. Stravinsky became sick afterwards and it took weeks for him to get better. When the ballet was performed again people were quieter and listened to the music.  The music of The Rite of Spring had a big effect and influence on the development of music in the 20th century. Walt Disney used it in his movie Fantasia.

Years of War

After The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky was famous all over the world. But things in the world were changing. In 1914 World War I began and the Stravinsky family left Russia. In 1917 there was a revolution in Russia and the Tzar (Russian King) was killed and the type of government changed. During this period, many of the people in Stravinsky's family got sick and Stravinsky wasn't able to make a lot of money because there wasn't really a way for him to get paid for work that he had done. 

The Stravinsky family moved to Paris and Stravinsky started to write music that sounded less modern. He became interested in the Classical Period and his musical style changed to be closer to the style of that time. The music that he wrote in those years is called Neo-Classical which means "new" classical. Some of the music he wrote in this period includes symphonies, solo piano pieces and some ballets. 

Stravinsky was still very popular and got an offer to become a professor at Harvard University, one of the best colleges in the United States. At this time a lot of his family were ill. Then his daughter died, his wife died and his mother died. He was ill himself. Then, by September 1939, just as World War II started, he was well enough to travel to North America.

Life in the United States

When Stravinsky arrived in the United States he was invited to conduct many concerts. He married his second wife, Vera and they became American citizens and settled in Hollywood in California. The Stravinskys didn't have a lot of money, because of that Stravinsky would accept and offer to compose and even had private students. 

Stravinsky composed different types of music in this period including a mass, which is a religious ceremony.  He also wrote an  opera in English called The Rake’s Progress. It was first performed in Venice in 1951. It is the best of his works in the neo-classical style. Another work from this period is his Symphony in C. 

Stravinsky made musician friends who helped him find work and experiment with different styles of composing. In 1962 he was invited to the White House by President Kennedy. In the same year he returned to Russia for a visit for the first time in almost 50 years. . It was a great success, and people in the USSR became more interested in Stravinsky’s music. It made Stravinsky very happy to know that Russians were interested in him again.

During his last years he became rather ill.  In 1969 he moved with his family to New York where he died two years later.

Stravinsky is buried in Venice.

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