Music between the wars – Stravinsky

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum (Lomonosov) near Saint Petersburg on the seventeenth of June, 1882. He had early exposure to music thanks to his father who was a bass voice initially with the Kiev opera, then with the opera in St Petersburg. Stravinsky Jr. took up the piano and studied music theory and his enthusiasm grew with his skill, enabling him to play Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor by the age of fifteen while making some early attempts at composition.

Although his natural talent and favour was with music, his father’s influence led him to study law at St Petersburg University for four years although his attendance record in classes was very poor, allegedly only making an appearance at around fifty class sessions. Upon his father’s death in 1902 he was better able to pursue his true calling, music, and although he remained at university until 1906 he was only awarded an incomplete degree.

He had met Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1902 and after his formal studies in law had ended Stravinsky took private lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov until the master’s death in 1908. During this period he also formalised his relationship with and married his cousin Katya.

Stravinsky came to the attention of the wider public upon the release of his 1908/9 pieces “Scherzo Fantastique” (1908) and “Feu d’artifice” (Fireworks). One particular listener, the opera impresario Sergei Diaghilev, heard “Fireworks” and asked Stravinsky initially to orchestrate some works by Grieg and Chopin, which eventually led to Diaghilev commissioning a full-length piece, “The Firebird”.

The Firebird premiered in Paris on 25 June 1910, and became an immediate success, securing Stravinsky’s international reputation. Numerous successful compositions followed, including “Petrushka” (1911) and “The Rite of Spring” which was so controversially avant-garde that it caused a near riot when premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913.

The onset of World War One the following year led Stravinsky to move his family to safety in Switzerland, the war effectively exiling him from his native Russia. This time in Switzerland allowed the composer to muse on his homeland and the folk traditions and music that were such a major part of Russian life. The result of this was the 1923 work Les Noces (The Wedding), his most notable composition of the Swiss period.

Two other notable pieces from this period which marked Stravinsky’s movement into neoclassicism are “Pulcinella” and “Symphonies of Wind Instruments”, both premiered in 1920 and both receiving critical acclaim. His neoclassical period was to last for almost thirty five years and produce some of his best known and most accessible work including Oedipus Rex (1927), the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938) and The Rake’s Progress, an opera from 1951.

Receiving inspiration from Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky began experimenting with serialism and dodecaphonic (twelve-tone) compositions, initially at least based around religious choral concepts, such as his 1952 work “Cantata”. Although he had already provided us with his greatest work by this time he still demonstrated his mastery of composition and ability to embrace the new with pieces such as In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954).

Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) – 1913

Possibly Stravinsky’s most famous work, it broke new ground in popular music at the time with unusually heavy stresses on rhythm and dissonances which hint at the serial experimentation which would occupy his last creative period in the 1950s. As previously mentioned, the work divided opinion at the Paris premiere with a portion of the audience appreciating and supporting the work with another portion treating it with derision. Although the uproar was as much in reaction to the performers on stage, their costumes and movement, the credit historically goes to “Le Sacre”.

The piece is in two parts: L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth) and Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice), running to around 35 minutes. A ballet based around the Pagan celebration of rebirth, Le Sacre guides us through a series of choreographed ritualised dance scenes culminating in the sacrifice of a victim who dances herself to death.

Unusually aggressive and visceral in its use of percussive rhythm, The Rite also makes frequent use of competing and contrasting woodwind parts which compliment and oppose each other in turn.

Concerto in E flat (Dumbarton Oaks) – 1938

One of Stravinsky’s most obviously neoclassical works, the Concerto in E flat is almost a showpiece for his appreciation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and as such is much more accessible to an ear that is tuned for music from the Baroque to the Romantic rather than the modern which Stravinsky inhabited.

Written in three movements totaling around twelve minutes, the work is deceptively complex with a bass-heavy rhythm and strident horns and woodwind, one rarely has the chance to relax as the musical ideas tumble over one-another.

Although this concerto is considered by many to be a “minor” piece by Stravinsky, Dumbarton Oaks exemplifies the composer’s neoclassical period without sounding hackneyed or false. This allowed future composers leeway to create new works without feeling the need to betray their primary influences. It was acceptable to be a “classical” composer again.

Routh, Francis (1975). The Master Musicians – Stravinsky. London: J M Dent and Sons Ltd.. 1-14, 130-135.

Sadie, Stanley and Latham, Alison (1990) The Cambridge Music Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grout, Donald and Palisca, Claude V. (1960) A history of western music. Fifth edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 724-728.

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