Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky’s father was a leading singer of the Imperial Russian Opera, who encouraged his son to study law. Music was a personal interest that was greatly stimulated by Igor’s meeting with Rimsky- Korsakov in 1902, at which he played some of his works to the older composer. He eventually studied with Rimsky-Korsakov during 1907 and 1908, and his Symphony of 1907 reflects Rimsky’s nationalistic style. In 1909 Stravinsky caught the attention of Diaghilev, who commissioned him to write for his Ballets Russes company the score of a new ballet, The Firebird. Successfully produced in Paris in 1910, it was followed by Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), whose tempestuous premiere established Stravinsky together with Schoenberg as a leader of Europe’s musical avant-garde.

With the outbreak of World War I Stravinsky moved to Switzerland where he composed several works strongly influenced by Russian folklore, such as the ballet Les Noces (1923). After the end of the war he developed a Neo-Classical style of composition, for instance in his ballet Pulcinella (1920), for which he borrowed from the music of Pergolesi. Other notable works of the inter-war period included the opera Oedipus Rex (1927) and the Symphony of Psalms (1930). During this period Stravinsky also began to conduct, touring throughout Europe as both a conductor and a pianist, and to record, beginning a life-long relationship with the Columbia record label. He took French nationality in 1934, but emigrated to America at the outbreak of World War II, settling in Hollywood and becoming an American citizen in 1945.

He conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940 in his Symphony in C, and his compositions of the 1940s included the Ebony Concerto (1946) inspired by the Woody Herman Band, the Symphony in Three Movements (1946) and the ballet Orpheus (1948). A meeting with the poet W. H. Auden led to the composition of the opera The Rake’s Progress, first performed in Venice in 1951, after which Stravinsky turned increasingly to composing in the style of serial music. Major works from this period include Canticum Sacrum (1955), Agon (1957), and Threni (1958). The music from the final period of Stravinsky’s life was increasingly sparse, for instance his Requiem Canticles (1966), which were first performed at his funeral in Venice, the city that he considered to be his spiritual home.

It took time for Stravinsky to develop his skills as conductor, as is revealed by an amusing story from the 1920s. In 1924 the conductor Pierre Monteux returned to conduct Les Noces for the Ballets Russes after spending time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky, then a novice conductor, led the first performance, which was riddled with musical mistakes. Monteux requested more rehearsals from Diaghilev, and later recalled: ‘That evening I met Diaghilev in one of the foyers and asked him when I could have a rehearsal of Les Noces. He looked cross, and literally yelled at me, “Rehearsal, what? Mais mon cher Monteux, the composer just conducted it!” I answered, “The composer can do what he wants with his work but I have to play what is written.” ’ Stravinsky went on to record and to re-record many of his works for the 78rpm, mono and stereo LP formats, being assisted in several of his later recordings by his amanuensis, Robert Craft. He regarded his recordings as absolute statements of his intentions, even when they themselves varied in the performance of the same work. While his conducting may at times have been erratic, his recordings undoubtedly possess considerable importance as musical documents created by one of the twentieth century’s most influential composers.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).