Igor Fyodorovitch Stravinsky (Игорь Федорович Стравинский) (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971) was a composer of modern classical music, best known for his work The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), near Saint Petersburg, Russia. He died in New York City on April 6, 1971 and was buried in Venice, Italy on the cemetery island of San Michele.
Stravinsky is regarded as one of the towering figures in 20th century art music. He is named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people of that century.
The Rite of Spring was composed during what is known as Stravinsky’s “Primitive Period,” in which he was composing primarily for Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes in Paris. The next phase of Stravinsky’s compositional style was the “neo-classical” period. This was by far his most productive period, in which he wrote the Symphony of Psalms and his Piano Concerto with Winds. Only after the death of Arnold Schoenberg in 1951 did Stravinsky make use of the 12-tone system, and eventually serialism in works like The Flood, Threni, and Requiem Canticles.
Stravinsky the man
Igor Fyodorovitch Stravinsky was very much a product of place. Brought up in an apartment in St. Petersburg, dominated by his father and elder brother, married to his cousin whom he had known since early childhood, and acquainted from an early age with leading Russian conductors and composers, his early life seems to have produced a ‘pressure-cooker’ effect when he left it effectively for the first time in 1910 to visit Paris for the first staging of ‘Firebird’, and his subsequent works, ‘Petrushka’ and ‘The Rite of Spring’, have more than a little of ‘cocking a snook’ at his background, or as he himself said, ‘sending them all to hell.’
That he was able to survive such a tethered upbringing with his identity intact testifies to his unquenchable thirst for discovery, which was to last all his life. He displayed an inexhaustible desire to learn and explore art, literature, and life. Not surprisingly his Russian background, with the inward-looking content of its cultural life, soon appeared very limited and provincial to him, and his desire for the world outside was increased.
Relatively short of stature and not conventionally handsome , he was nevertheless remarkably photogenic, as many pictures show. After the physical side of his marriage to Ekaterina came to an end with her contracting tuberculosis, he seems to have had little difficulty in attracting high-class partners such as Coco Chanel, who also supported him financially for a while. Patronage too was never far away. In the early twenties Stokowski was able to give him regular support, through a pseudonymous ‘benefactor’; another remarkable aspect of his life was his ability to attract commissions, most of his work from Firebird onwards being written for specific occasions and paid for. Igor Fyodorovitch was therefore able to escape that handicap of so many composers, a daily job.
For someone with such a confining background, he proved remarkably adept at becoming a ‘man of the world’, acquiring a keen instinct for business matters which puts him in a minority of composers (although it should be mentioned that his copyright difficulties were legendary), and appearing relaxed and comfortable in many of the world’s cities: Paris, Venice, Berlin, London, New York all saw his successful appearances as pianist and conductor. This provides a key to his personality. Most people who knew him through dealings connected with performances spoke of him as polite, courteous and helpful. For example, Otto Klemperer, who knew Schoenberg well, said he always found Stravinsky much more co-operative and easy to deal with. At the same time he had an aristocratic disregard of his social inferiors: Robert Craft was embarrassed by his habit of tapping a glass with a fork and loudly demanding attention in restaurants.
Igor Fyodorovitch was a family man and a considerable amount of his time, efforts and expenditure was occupied by his concern for his sons and daughters and their lives. He was repaid for this by a ferocious squabble over his property and performing rights after his death, which saddened the remaining years of his widow Vera.
This remarkable lady deserves a biography of her own to rank with other famous composers’ partners such as Alice Elgar, Ursula Vaughan Williams and Peter Pears. When Stravinsky met her she was married to the painter and stage designer Serge Sudeikin, but he soon began an affair with her which led to her leaving her husband. From then until the death of his wife in 1939, Stravinsky led a deft double-life, spending some of his time with his first family and the rest with Vera. Katherine Stravinsky soon learned of the relationship and accepted it as inevitable and permanent. After her death Stravinsky and Vera were married in New York, where they had gone from France to escape the war, in 1940 (Stravinsky was not welcome in the Third Reich).
For the remainder of his life Vera Stravinsky provided an increasingly supportive role in what was at first an alien environment, and the stories of her tireless solicitude for his welfare and the peace he needed to compose, are legion. Stravinsky had adapted to life in France but moving to America at 58 was a very different prospect. For a time he preserved a ring of emigré Russian friends and contacts, but eventually realised that this would not sustain his intellectual and professional life in the USA. When he planned to write an opera with W. H. Auden the need to acquire more familiarity with the English-speaking world coincided with the arrival in his life of the conductor and musicologist Robert Craft, who lived with him until his death, acting as interpreter, chronicler, assistant conductor and factotum for countless musical and social tasks.
Stravinsky’s taste in literature was wide and reflects his constant desire for new discoveries, The texts and literary sources for his work began with a period of interest in Russian folklore, progressed to classical authors and the latin liturgy, and moved on to contemporary France (André Gide, in ‘Persephone’) and eventually English literature, Auden, Eliot, the 1611 Bible, mediaeval English verse, and even at the end of his life he was setting Hebrew scripture in ‘Abraham and Isaac’. In his later years he was an avid fan of the word game Scrabble.
Stravinsky moved away to Switzerland and lived in a hotel. He didn’t compose unless he was sure no one could hear him, which was rare. Later, a dealer set him up with a piano. It was kept in a combination lumber storage-chicken coop. But, this is where he wrote some of his most famous works!
Igor Stravinsky has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6340 Hollywood Boulevard.