Music History 102

The Twentieth Century

Igor Stravinsky

Born: Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, June 17, 1882
Died: New York, April 6, 1971

While pursuing law studies in 1902, Stravinsky met Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who advised the young man to study music. Stravinsky began studying with the famous Russian composer in 1903, and after Rimsky’s death in 1908, never had another teacher. His early works caught the imagination of ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), impressario of the famed Ballets Russes, who invited Stravinsky to compose a ballet. The result was the voluptuous and impressionistic (with Stravinskian overtones) The Firebird in 1910. This was followed by the even more successful Petrushka in 1911. With his ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913, with its representations of prehistoric pagan Russian rituals and sacrifice, Stravinsky’s music ignited the most famous riot in the history of music. With its savage rhythms, absence of melody, and barbaric energy, The Rite of Spring marks the true beginnings of Twentieth Century music, and even today never fails to thrill or amaze listeners.

Portrait d'Igor Stravinsky

With the advent of World War I, the production of large, spectacular ballets became financially unfeasible. Stravinsky applied his imagination and the energetic rhythms of The Rite of Spring to the choral work Les Noces (The Wedding), a piece scored for only four pianos, percussion, and voices. A further reduction of instrumental forces followed with the musical fable L’histoire du soldat (The Story of a Soldier), which requires only a narrator and seven instrumentalists, after the model of the Dixieland Jazz combo. The story concerns a soldier returning from war, a violin (the soldier’s soul), and the devil. In the end, of course, the devil is triumphant.

In 1920, Stravinsky settled in Paris, and entered a period of neo-classicism, in which he composed music modeled on the styles and forms, if not the melodies and harmonies, of Mozart and Haydn. Some of the works composed in this style are the Octet for Winds, the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, the ballets Pulchinella and Apollon Musagète, the Symphony of Psalms, and Stravinsky’s only full-scale opera, The Rake’s Progress . When World War II broke out, Stravinsky fled Europe and came to the United States, where he settled in Hollywood, California. He eventually became an American citizen in 1940. In the 1950s, Stravinsky shocked the musical world by turning to serialism and produced the twelve-tone ballet Agon and the choral work Canticum Sacrum, among others. By this time, Stravinsky had lived long enough to see himself internationally honored as the western world’s greatest living composer, and spent his last years conducting, recording his works, and granting interviews. His musical influence on composers of this century has been limitless.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane