Biographical background

The Russian Exile

Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland opposite Kronstadt on 5 June 1882 (O.S.) or 17 June (N.S.). He yielded to his father's wish for him to study law, but later blossomed as a composer under the guidance of Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the famous Russian Five.

Stravinsky met Rimsky-Korsakov's son, and his interest in composition grew as he spent more time composing on his own. Up till then, he had taken private lessons in harmony, and he intended to enter the Russian Conservatory. It was in this mood that he brought his works before Rimsky-Korsakov, head of the Conservatory. Sensing the talent in the young man, Rimsky-Korsakov invited Stravinsky to take private lessons from himself. Stravinsky was delighted and readily accepted.

Rimsky-Korsakov had arranged for his students to perform their works. Stravinsky chose to exhibit Fireworks. His music sparked the interest of Sergei Diaghilev, who knew that Stravinsky would be the ideal composer to write ballet music for his Russian Ballet. Diaghilev commissioned his three famous works The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring.

With the outbreak of war, Stravinsky and his family moved to Switzerland, but after the end of the war, he found that he was too isolated from the main centers of musical activity in Europe. He made France his home in 1920.

The French Composer in France

With the death of Diaghilev on 19 August 1929, the Russian Ballet was disbanded and Stravinsky lost one of his last links to his native land. He had not seen Russia since 1914, and instead had emerged as the leading musical figure in France. After all, Diaghilev's troupe was based in Paris, and many of Stravinsky's works had received their premières in Paris.

However, he was only to receive only one commission for a work to be performed in France, namely Persephone for Ida Rubinstein and her company. Greater interest was shown by the Americans and the Germans. Even critical writings were more favorable in these countries than in France.

Success in Europe

Stravinsky played the solo part of his Capriccio on its first performance at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, on 6 December 1929 with Ansermet conducting. It proved to be a success, and his services were highly sought. Over the next five years, he performed it in many of Europe's important cities.

It was during this period that he was commissioned by his old friend Koussevitzky, who was now the permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to supply a symphonic work to commemorate their fiftieth concert season in 1930. This was the Symphony of Psalms which is also featured on my site.

Stravinsky found France's influence on his music was beginning to decline. After taking on French citizenship in June 1934, he applied to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which was met with a humiliating denial. Feeling that his music was underappreciated in France, and with more commissions arriving from America, he decided to move to America. Amid this occurred the deaths of his mother, his wife, and his daughter Mika. He married his mistress Vera de Bosset and they arrived in America in September 1939.

American Patriot

Stravinsky regained his composure in America, feeling that his music was once again being appreciated and being able to associate with intellectuals and celebrities. He even allowed Walt Disney (left in picture) to use The Rite of Spring in the music-synchronized animated movie Fantasia. Stravinsky did not think Disney's feat particularly impressive, though.

With several other works, including The Symphony in Three Movements, Ebony Concerto, The Rake's Progress and Mass under his belt, Stravinsky basked in the attention paid to him and was able to embark on several conducting tours with his newfound friend Robert Craft. Craft, a gifted conductor, became close friends with Stravinsky. In time, he became Stravinsky's sounding board for new ideas and compositions. Sometimes, Craft would conduct Stravinsky's newest work, without any special instructions from Stravinsky, while Stravinsky looked on. No doubt, Stravinsky's interpretation of his own music was influenced greatly by Craft. Craft went on to publish his interviews and diaries, contributing to the best first-hand knowledge of Stravinsky available today.

Craft also introduced Stravinsky to serial (twelve-tone) music. Briefly, serial music is based on a twelve-note progression of distinct pitches, which are repeated, along with variations. These variations include the retrograde, which is the sequence backwards; the inversion, which changes a rising interval to the corresponding falling interval, and vice versa, in the progression; and the retrograde inversion. Serial music was invented by the 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Stravinsky became interested in the music of Schoenberg's student Anton Webern. He began composing his own serial music, culminating in his final composition, the Requiem Canticles.

Stravinsky passed away April 6, 1971. His funeral was held on the fifteenth, and he was buried in Venice on the island of San Michele, near his friend Sergei Diaghilev.

Religious works

Before the Symphony of Psalms and the Mass, the number of Stravinsky's works composed before 1950 which were inspired by sacred texts included only a group of three short a cappella choruses and a very short cantata, Babel. This added up to a total of only fifty minutes of music.

Stravinsky's religious works differ from the majority of modern or even romantic and classical works of a similar kind. They are conceived with an eye to their particular purpose and the ideal place for their performance.

Before Stravinsky, composers have, as a result of an absolute faith and a romantic spirit, composed works that have by their sheer size limited themselves to be performed in the concert hall. Bach's B Minor Mass lasts nearly three hours, and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis hardly less.

In contrast, Stravinsky deliberately limits the instrumentation of his works, with careful control and economy being his guiding principles. All three religious works featured on this site are short, each lasting less than half an hour, and do not even require half of the instruments in the orchestra.

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