The incomparable genius of Stravinsky

The incomparable genius of Stravinsky Igor Stravinsky

Looking at a BBC Prom, devoted to Stravinsky, on TV recently reminded me that this year commemorates the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death in New York in 1971.

Igor Stravinsky was born into a musical family in Oranienbaum near St Petersburg in 1882. While his parents hoped he would become a lawyer Igor persuaded them to allow him follow a musical path.

Becoming a friend of Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, son of composer and brilliant orchestrator Nikolay, Igor was invited to their home. Impressed by Stravinsky as both pianist and composer, Nikolay suggested the lad study with him, which he did from 1905 until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death three years later.

In 1906 Igor married his cousin Katya Nosenko, who came from Ustilug – then part of the Russian Empire, but now in Western Ukraine. Living in St Petersburg they, with their increasing family, spent the summers in Ustilug. Stravinsky called it his ‘heavenly place’, writing many of his early works there. Hearing his orchestral Scherzo Fantastique, impressario Sergey Diaghilev invited the composer to become involved with his acclaimed Ballets Russes.

Stravinsky’s first major work for the company was the Russian fairytale, The Firebird, which had its Paris première in June 1910. A brilliant theatrical success, its music established Stravinsky among the most gifted young composers of the day.

Another Russian folktale – Petrushka – followed in June 1911. Equally appreciated, it led to Stravinsky’s most challenging work – Le Sacre du Printemps – that opened at the Théâtre des Champ-Élysées on May 20 1913.

The première of this ‘solemn pagan ritual’ was sensational. Stravinsky’s barbaric music with its complex rhythms and dissonances coupled with Vaclav Nijinsky’s provocative choreography caused uproar in the theatre.

Stravinsky’s next major work, The Nightingale (1914), brought him into the realm of opera. Its relative delicacy, after Le Sacre’s extravagance, meant it was not what the public expected, or maybe wanted, but Ravel and Bartók praised it.

Renard, again based on Russian folk idioms and amusingly called a ‘farmyard burlesque’, followed. However, A Soldier’s Tale (1918) moved away from Russia towards something more Western. Using speech, mime and dance, ragtime and tango are incorporated into its infectious instrumental sections.

Experiencing a renewal of his Orthodox faith, strong religious strains imbue his marvellous opera/oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927) and his Symphony of Psalms (1930), which possess elements of Russian Orthodox chant despite their Latin texts.

There is also a religious feeling to his ballets Apollon musagète (1928) and Persephone (1934). Between these two, Stravinsky’s homage to Tchaikovsky – Le Baiser de la fée – shows he had not altogether neglected his Russian ancestry.

A number of other ballets followed including Jeu de cartes (1936), Danses concertantes (1942), Scènes de ballet (1944) and Orpheus (1947). In the meantime Stravinsky had composed his Symphony in C. Dedicated to the Chicago Symphony, it had its first performance on November 7 1940.

Following the death of his first wife Katya in 1939, Stravinsky moved to the US where he married Vera Sudeykina whose long relationship with him beforehand was borne by Katya with ‘magnanimity, bitterness and compassion’. More anon.