Odessa 1874 – Stravinsky’s parents

Odessa 1874 – Stravinsky’s parents *

Feodorovitch Igor Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 (June 5, according to the old Russian calendar) in Orianenbaum (now Lomonosov), a small Russian resort on the Gulf of Finland. Stravinsky spent his youth in nearby St. Petersburg, the city created by Peter the Great that became the Russian Empire’s political and cultural center for over 200 years. Igor’s father, Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky, first bass of the Imperial Opera, and his mother, an excellent pianist, held high intellectual standards. Their home and its exceptional library attracted many artists of the time and the young Igor grew up in a cultured atmosphere. From his earliest years, Stravinsky appreciated music and he began piano lessons at age nine. He also regularly attended performances at the famous Imperial Mariinsky Theater where his father often performed. During vacations in the country, Igor was also exposed to Russian peasant songs, music that would influence his early compositions.

Igor Stravinsky – St-Petersburg, 1904

St-Petersburg, 1904 *

Probably the most significant event of Igor Stravinsky’s childhood occured during one of his father’s performances in an opera by Glinka, when the boy glimpsed the melancholy figure of Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky would later say that “(Tchaikovsky’s) memory strengthened my desire to become a composer.” However, Igor’s parents did not want their son to become a musician and directed him towards law school after secondary studies. At university, Igor met Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, the youngest son of the famous composer. Through this new friend, Igor was able to show his first compositions to the master. Detecting talent in the young man, Rimsky-Korsakov gave Stravinsky private lessons in harmony and counterpoint until his death in 1908.

Omelno 1906 – Igor & Catherine Stravinsky

Omelno 1906 – Igor & Catherine Stravinsky *

After the death of his own father in 1902, Igor Stravinsky became financially independent and expanded his circle of acquaintances to include such artists as Claude Debussy, Cesar Franck, Emmanuel Chabrier and Paul Dukas. Igor completed his law studies in 1905. The following year, he married his cousin, Catherine Nossenko, with whom he had four children.

Igor and Catherine had known each other since childhood and shared many interests. Catherine, a fine musician in her own right, was a valuable aid for Igor, reading and faithfully copying his scores.

In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the itinerant ballet company Ballets Russes, discovered Igor Stravinsky’s compositions Scherzo Fantastique and Fireworks. Impressed by these works, Diaghilev encouraged Stravinsky to compose for his company. For the next 20 years, Diaghilev would remain both Stravinsky’s friend and impresario

Initially, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to orchestrate Chopin’s Nocturne and Valse Brillante. He then commissioned a ballet inspired by a Russian folktale. Firebird (L’Oiseau de Feu), choreographed by Michel Fokine, opened at the Paris Opera in 1910. The performance was a triumph and marked the beginning of fame for Stravinsky, then only 28. Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt welcomed him enthusiastically and the young composer joined the Parisian artistic circles of the time frequented by Picasso, Braque, Cocteau and Satie.

Clarens - 1913

Hôtel du Châtelard – Clarens – 1913

The following year, Stravinsky’s success was confirmed at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet with a second ballet, Petrouchka, the story of three puppets brought to life by a magician. Vaslav Nijinsky’s extraordinary performance in the role of Petrushka, made the dancer, as well, an over-night star. Diaghilev then entrusted Nijinksy with the choreography of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), on which Stravinsky collaborated with the painter Nicolas Roerich who created the sets and costumes. The originality of the music and its unconventional “anti-ballet” choreography (the dancers’ feet held in, arms and legs sharply bent) baffled the public. The ballet’s premiere on May 29, 1913, in the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, caused a near-riot. It also opened a new era in the history of music : the ”Rite” would soon be appreciated as one of the seminal compositions of the 20th century.

The breakout of World War I forced Diaghilev to curtail the activities of the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky and his family went into exile in Switzerland, a country he knew well from having stayed there many times. The composer, who had lost all his property in the Russian Revolution, began building a new life, surrounded by the writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, the painter René Auberjonois and the conductor Ernest Ansermet.

With major productions impossible during the war years, Stravinsky composed works requiring only limited resources, such as Fox (Renard) and Soldier’s Story (L’histoire du soldat) in collaboration with Ramuz. Stravinsky and Ramuz also worked together on the French version of Wedding (Les Noces). During a trip to Italy in 1917, Stravinsly became friends with Pablo Picasso.

Costume design for « Renard » by M. Larionov

Costume design for « Renard » by M. Larionov

In 1919, Diaghilev suggested that Stravinsky adapt a work by the 18th century Italian composer Pergolesi. Stravinsky began work on the score of Pulcinella, the Commedia del’Arte character, in collaboration with Picasso (sets) and the dancer Léonide Massine (choreography). Following the period often referred to as “Russian”, Pulcinella marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s “neo-classical” period. In 1920 the Stravinsky family moved to France, changing residence several times until 1939.

With the war years over, Stravinsky turned to a comic opera, Mavra. At the request of Diaghilev, he also orchestrated two movements of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. During the same period, Stravinsky signed a contract with French piano manufacturer Pleyel to arrange his works for piano rolls for the “Pleyela” player piano. In 1924, prompted by the Russian conductor Koussevitzky, Stravinsky began his career as a conductor and piano soloist, demanding many hours of rehearsal.

In 1925, Stravinsky made his first tour in the United States. During this stay in America, Stravinsky signed a contract with Columbia Records to record some of his works. “The work interested me very much because, here, even more than with the piano rolls, I had the opportunity to clarify and determine exactly my intentions “**. Attracted by classical subjects, Stravinsky, upon his return to Paris, asked Jean Cocteau to collaborate in the creation of an opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex.

That same year, Stravinsky was commissioned to write a ballet for a contemporary music festival taking place in Washington DC. As for Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky again chose to draw on a subject related to ancient Greek, the theme of Apollo. Serge Lifar played the title role in Apollon Musagète.

The famous dancer and patron Ida Rubinstein commissioned a new ballet The Fairy’s Kiss (Le Baiser de la Fée), a work inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky.

In August 1929, the death of Diaghilev left a terrible void in the life of Stravinsky, marking the end of a long friendship that had had its ups and downs but remained imbued with great respect and mutual admiration. Diaghilev’s death also symbolized the end of an era, as well as Stravinsky’s break with his native Russia.

Venice – Diaghilev’s grave

Venice – Diaghilev’s grave

In the 1930s, Stravinsky returned to the faith of his youth, the Orthodox religion, and composed three religious works, Symphony of Psalms (for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Credo and Ave Maria.

In 1931, Stravinsky met the violinist Samuel Dushkin with whom he would collaborate on a regular basis. The following year, at the request of Ida Rubinstein, Stravinsky composed a ballet based on a poem by André Gide. Although Stravinsky and Gide had a somewhat difficult relationship, their collaboration resulted in the creation of Persephone. That same year, at a festival in Barcelona, Stravinsky presented his pianist son, Soulima, to the public for the first time.

Igor Stravinsky became a French citizen on June 10, 1934. He wrote his autobiography, “Chronicle of My Life”, which was partially published in 1935, the year of his second American tour. Stravinsky also began working on the composition of a new ballet, Jeu de Cartes, choreographed by George Balanchine for the American Ballet. Stravinsky conducted the premiere at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The period 1938-39 was a trying time for Igor Stravinsky who lost, one after the other, his eldest daughter, Ludmilla, his wife, Catherine, and his mother, all to tuberculosis. Stravinsky himself was forced to spend five months in a Swiss tuberculosis sanatorium, during which time, he wrote his lectures on the poetics of music. Harvard University had awarded him its famous Poetics Chair to deliver a series of lectures before a delighted audience of students.

In 1940, Stravinsky emigrated to the United States with his second wife, Vera de Bosset, settling in Hollywood. His daughter Milène and his son Soulima, would also settle in America while the eldest son, Theodore, would remain in Switzerland. Igor Stravinsky became a naturalized American citizen in 1945.

Stravinsky found his new home in America stimulating. Stravinsky became considerably interested in jazz and considered a wave of new projects, including some highly original ones : Disney Studios used excerpts from The Rite of Spring for the animated film “Fantasia”; the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus commissioned a ballet for elephants called Circus Polka (1942). Also in 1942, Stravinsky composed Four Norwegian Moods, inspired by Norwegian folk tales, that was intended for the soundtrack of a film about the invasion of Norway (the project was never completed).
Between 1948 and 1951 Stravinsky composed The Rake’s Progress, a three-act opera in English that marked the end of his neoclassical period. Stravinsky’s subsequent composition, Cantata, was a transitional work into his serial period (1954-1968) when Stravinsky began exploring serial composition techniques.

In 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Krushev invited Stravinsky to celebrate his 80th birthday with a visit. After a massive world tour, Stravinsky returned triumphantly to his homeland, after 48 years of exile, visiting Moscow and Leningrad. That same year, U.S. President John F. Kennedy invited him to dinner at the White House. One year later, saddened by Kennedy’s assassination, Stravinsky composed a simple work, Elegy for J. F. K., that was performed in New York, under his personal direction, to mark the first anniversary of Kennedy’s death.

From 1957 to 1967, anxious to ensure their accurate execution, Stravinsky began recording virtually his entire works with CBS. In 1967, at the age of 85 and in declining health, he gave his last concert, in Toronto. Two years later, Stravinsky left his home in Hollywood and moved to New York. In 1970 he made a final visit to Europe, meeting his Geneva family in Evian: his son Theodore and daughter-in-law, his grand-daughter, Catherine and his great-granddaughter, Marie. Stravinsky’s niece, Xenia, made a special trip from Russia, more or less an emissary of the Soviet government who wanted the composer to return to his country of origin.

After several stays in hospital, Stravinsky died in New York, on April 6, 1971. His funeral was held on April 15 in Venice. Igor Stravinsky’s tomb is on Isola de San Michele.


Igor Stravinsky’s period of productivity lasted for an exceptionally long time, extending over some 60 years. A prolific composer, as well as a true original, he was an active participant in the various currents that crossed his time. Stravinsky was undoubtedly one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, imposing by his stature, his adaptability and his astonishing creativity.

* Fondation Théodore Strawinsky, Genève.
** An autobiography Isola di San Michele – Venice
Use or reproductions strictly forbidden.

Youth: 1882-1902

Kryukov Canal, St Petersburg - Stravinky’s family apartment

Kryukov Canal, St Petersburg – Stravinky’s family apartment

Igor Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 (June 5 according to the old Russian calendar) in Orianenbaum, a resort town on the Gulf of Finland where his family spent the holidays. He was the third in a family of four boys. Igor Stravinsky spent his childhood in St. Petersburg, in the Kryukov Canal district.

His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, of Polish origin, was a bass singer, famous for his exceptionally wide repertoire, with the Imperial Opera of St. Petersburg. Igor had the opportunity to attend the shows in which his father performed. His mother, Anna Kholodovsky, was herself an excellent pianist.

By 1890, Igor had begun taking lessons in piano and engaged willingly in improvisation. However, despite his evident talent for music, Stravinsky’s parents did not want their son to become a musician. They steered have him into law school, upon completion of his secondary education.

While at university, Stravinsky met Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, son of the famous composer, then in his full glory. Vladimir introduced Stravinsky to his father, who agreed to look at some of the young man’s compositions. Rimsky-Korsakov, a master of orchestration, was sufficiently impressed to take on Igor Stravinksy as his pupil for two years.

In 1902 Stravinsky’s father died and the young Igor became independent. He was now free to join St. Petersburg’s group of avant-garde artists.

* Photo Katya Chilingiri – katyachilingiri.com

The Russian period: 1902-1914

Igor Stravinsky – 1907

Igor Stravinsky – 1907*

During a 1902 holiday in Bad Wildungen near Heidelberg, Igor Stravinsky had the opportunity to meet Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, to whom he expressed his desire to become a composer. Stravinsky showed Rimsky-Korsakov his first attempts at composition and subsequently became the composer’s pupil. Igor Stravinsky said “His knowledge was precise, and he was able to impart whatever he knew with great clarity. His teaching was all technical” ***. After the death of Stravinsky’s father in November 1902, the Rimsky-Korsakov clan became a second family for the young Igor. Through them, he made many new friends and, from 1905 to 1908, studied orchestration regularly with his master.

Early 20th century Russia was the scene of a brilliant cultural movement. Igor regularly attended the “Evenings of Contemporary Music”, meeting all the composers, poets and artists of St. Petersburg and performing his first works. In 1906, Stravinsky became independent and married his cousin, Catherine Nossenko, with whom he had a son in 1907 (Theodore) and a daughter in 1908 (Ludmila). Catherine provided unlimited support to her husband and encouraged his work.

Igor and Catherine Stravinsky – Clarens, 1913

Igor & Catherine Stravinsky – Clarens, 1913*

In 1907, Stravinsky completed his Symphony in E flat major, whose form and orchestration were strongly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov. Indeed, Stravinsky dedicated the score “To my dear master Nicolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov”. While working on Fireworks, an orchestral fantasy planned for the wedding of Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter, Stravinsky learned of his master’s death. Shocked and saddened by the news, he wrote Chant Funèbre in his memory. He then resumed work on Fireworks. It was performed on the same night, February 6, 1909, as his Scherzo Fantastique at the influential Siloti Concerts in St Petersburg. That evening would be crucial for Stravinsky’s career : Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the famous “Ballets Russes”, happened to be in the audience and listened attentively to the unknown young man’s music. Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to orchestrate two Chopin pieces for his ballet “Les Sylphides”, shown in Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet on June 2, 1909.

Diaghilev’s faith in the young man eventually led him to commission a ballet, Firebird. The theme comes from a Russian folktale wherein Prince Ivan Tsarevich captures a firebird, which gives him a magic feather in exchange for his freedom.

The ballet was written for a large symphony orchestra. Although the score retains the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, it is marked by Stravinsky’s personal style. The young composer was already experimenting with new processes and unusual rhythms. Stravinsky’s collaboration with choreographer Michel Fokine was a great success. The power of the final dance hints at the future violence of The Rite of Spring. The first performance, on June 25, 1910 at the Paris Opera, delighted the audience and made the young Stravinsky famous overnight.

Ninjinsky as Petrushka 1911

Ninjinsky as Petrushka 1911

The following year, on June 15 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, confirmed Stravinsky’s fame with Petrouchka, the second part of the Russian composer’s trilogy. The new ballet was a triumph due to the novelty and quality of the score, but also because of the memorable and moving interpretation of Vaclav Nijinsky. Petrouchka, set in 1830 during the Mardi Gras festivities in St. Petersburg, tells the story of a puppet who suffers from being a mere puppet unable to express his love like a human being. Stravinsky’s sometimes dissonant music illustrates Petrouchka’s pain and the score for a large orchestra has an extraordinary strength. Stravinsky turned the ordered, predictable world of classical music upside down. Petrouchka’s rhythm, with its frequent variations, is a primordial element. “In composing this music, I had the clear vision of a puppet suddenly unleashed, who, by diabolical cascades of arpeggios, exasperates the patience of the orchestra, which in turn responds to him by threatening flourishes. ” **

After his first attempts in the Firebird and Petrushka, Stravinsky intensified the rhythmic brutality of his composition. With The Rite of Spring, the composer achieved his musical independence. “In my imagination, I glimpsed the sight of a great pagan sacred rite”, he said. **

Stravinsky translated this vision into musical language, employing a large orchestra dominated by percussion and woodwinds to express the pagan sound required.

The composer himself designed the booklet with the painter Nicolas Roerich, who also did the décor and costumes. The show consists of “Pictures of Pagan Russia”. In Act I, “A Kiss of the Earth” (L’Adoration de la Terre), the characters engage in a dance to glorify the spring ahead. In Act II, “Exalted Sacrifice” (Le Sacrifice) a girl is offered up to the god under the eyes of the ancestors.

Igor Stravinsky – Ustilug 1913

Igor Stravinsky – Ustilug 1913

One of the most daring achievements of “Ballets Russes”, The Rite of Spring caused a riot when it premiered on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Stravinsky’s revolutionary score on one hand and Nijinsky’s confusing and complicated choreography on the other, set off the first round of the “Battle of the Rite”, with critics and defenders of the work attacking each other. The Rite of Spring shocked the audience with its impression of chaos and its break with the then-conventional criteria of dance. The complex and subtle composition with abrupt rhythms imposed a new concept of music. Leaving the theater, Maurice Ravel hailed Rite as a work of genius. Since then, it has become an indispensable classic, one of the pillars of 20th century music. A new musical aestheticism had been born.

This first period of the composer’s life, during which he displayed remarkable energy, is that of his most famous works.

“Should we not wonder”, asked his son Theodore, “at the stunning creative vitality displayed by the young musician of 30 years ? Did he not, in three years, create three masterpieces that put him at the pinnacle of fame? All the while assuming the responsibility of a family who lived in an atmosphere of perpetual transhumance, in addition to his many personal trips… ”

* © Fondation Théodore Strawinsky, Genève. Use or reproductions strictly forbidden.
** An Autobiography
*** Memories and Commentaries
**** Catherine et Igor Stravinsky: A Family Album

The Swiss period: 1914-1920

Igor Stravinsky and his four children – Morges 1915

Igor Stravinsky and his four children – Morges 1915*

World War I and the Russian Revolution caused profound changes in the life of Stravinsky. After a brief stay in Russia, just before the conflict began, the composer was forced to leave the homeland that he would see again only in 1962 as a U.S. citizen.

During the war years, Igor Stravinsky chose to move to Switzerland rather than subject his family (now including four children) to the vagaries of a nomadic life. He settled on the shores of Lake Geneva where he had already stayed on several occasions and where his two youngest children were born, Soulima, in 1910, and Milène, in 1914.

Exile from his homeland created in Stravinsky the desire and need to draw on Russian folk themes for his new compositions. The collections of old folk songs gathered during his final trip to Kiev fed much of his work during this period in Switzerland. His two most important works are Wedding (Les Noces) and Fox (Renard).

Begun in 1914, Wedding was only completed in 1923 after a long process of instrumentation and many revisions. These dance scenes with song and music describe a Russian peasant wedding.

Fox commissioned by the Princess de Polignac was written between 1915 and 1916. Stravinsky inaugurated his trestle theatre, with dancers and acrobats improvising on stage. Also inspired by Russian folktales, this ballet features a fox who attacks a cock by disguising himself first as a nun, then as a beggar. A cat and a goat try to stop him and eventually kill him.

Several smaller pieces, again, steeped in Russian tradition, are also composed, such as the Pribaoutki songs based on popular texts (1914), The Cats’ Lullabys (Berceuses du chat), short stories set to music where Stravinsky uses the various registers of the clarinet (1915-16), and Four Russian Peasants Songs (Quatre chants paysans russes)) (1914/17), a capella choir music also based on Russian tales from the collection of Afanassiev.

Igor Stravinsky and Ramuz – Morges 1917

Igor Stravinsky and Ramuz – Morges 1917*

During this period, Stravinsky made new friendships which played an important role in his life : the conductor Ernest Ansermet, the painters René Auberjonois, Jean Morax, Alexander Cingria, and the writer Ramuz (with whom Stravinsky will work on the French version of Fox and Wedding). Stravinsky’s home in Switzerland sees a constant stream of friends and acquaintances. The composer also met Picasso, André Gide and Prokofiev during the many trips that alternate with his life at home with the family.

Meanwhile, the political situation had also affected Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, disrupting its activities. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 deprived Stravinsky permanently of his fortune. No longer receiving royalties from his Russian publisher, the composer now found himself in a precarious financial situation, forced to continue to write for a living. Thus he imagined with his friend Ramuz, a new piece: Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du Soldat). The war making large-scale performances improbable, this work, intended for a travelling theatre, would be on a much smaller scale. The two friends assumed that it would be given in small rooms. Despite his previous glory on the great stages of Paris, the composer enjoyed the more modest exercise.

In his “Memories of Stravinsky” Ramuz wrote “Stravinsky and I asked ourselves: Why not make it simple ? Why not write a play together that doesn’t need a big stage or a large audience; a piece whose music (…) would consist of a few instruments, with only two or three characters ?” The instrumentation is simple (seven instruments), with Stravinsky drawing his inspiration from street theatre and the circus and the popular music of the time : ragtime, tango, jazz and waltz. For the libretto, he turned again to the stories of Afanassiev. A naïve deserter, clutching a violin, sells his soul to the Devil. The text, written in a style that reflects both the poem and the tale, is not sung but spoken. The work premiered in Lausanne in September 1918 under the baton of Ernest Ansermet.

Igor Stravinsky – Les Diablerets 1917

Igor Stravinsky – Les Diablerets 1917*

Other works influenced by jazz followed, including Ragtime for 11 instruments (Ragtime pour 11 instruments) (1918) and Piano Rag Music (1919), dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, that continued the “satanic” exploration of jazz, begun in Histoire du Soldat and Ragtime.

Soon after the war ended, Diaghilev began to revive his company, making contact with Stravinsky. Their next meeting was delicate : Diaghilev finding it hard to accept the new independence of his protégé, while Stravinsky was hurt by the impresario’s lack of interest in Fox and Soldiers’Tale.

Stravinsky was nevertheless swayed by Diaghilev’s idea to orchestrate several pieces attributed to the 18th century Italian composer Pergolesi into a ballet based on characters of the Commedia dell’arte. Pulcinella, composed in Morges between 1919-1920, is a modern work – and the audience loved it. This ballet marked a milestone in the work of Stravinsky and inaugurated the composer’s neoclassical period. Having been influenced by Russian folklore and then by jazz, Stravinsky now discovered the music of the past.

With the war over, the brilliant composer contemplated leaving Switzerland to give a new boost to his career. Having considered Rome, the family Stravinsky instead uprooted to Paris.

* © Fondation Théodore Strawinsky, Genève.
Use or reproductions strictly forbidden.

The French period: 1920-1939

Igor, Catherine Stravinsky and their children – Passport photo – 1920

Igor, Catherine Stravinsky and their children – Passport photo – 1920*

After his exile in Switzerland during the war, Stravinsky settled for 20 years in France, where musical activity was intense.

The return of the composer on the Parisian scene took place on May 15, 1920 with the creation of Pulcinella at the Opera. The period known “neoclassical” had begun, characterized by Stravinsky’s interest in music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Stravinsky revived traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue, symphony) and his work took a new turn. Stravinsky now abandoned the great orchestras once required for his ballets, using wind instruments and piano, and turned to chamber music and vocal compositions. Stravinsky became one of the instigators of Neoclassicism, a movement also adopted by such composers as Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland and Serge Prokofiev. Their aim was not a return to pure classicism but, as indicated by the prefix “neo”, to develop a new form of classical music. Stravinsky constructed his scores according to classical forms, but they clearly bore his signature.

Igor Stravinsky in his Studio Pleyel – 1922

Igor Stravinsky in his Studio Pleyel – 1922*

For just over three years, the Stravinsky family moved to Biarritz, on the Basque coast. Here, the composer completed Wedding (Les Noces), a work begun in 1914, in which he was still using Russian folklore. But he renounced the orchestra originally planned that called for more than four pianos and a percussion ensemble. The final version, performed in 1923, won the public’s enthusiasm.

In the same period, the French piano manufacturer, Pleyel, signed a contract with Stravinsky, providing him with a work studio. The composer arranged some of his works for the “Pleyela” player-piano. The Aeolian Company of New York repeated this agreement in 1924.

During a European tour with Diaghilev, the two men hatched a new project, an opera based on a Pushkin story, “The little house in Kolomna”. This project became Mavra, a parody of opera bouffe. But the first performance, on June 3, 1922, in Paris, was a failure, the public perplexed by Stravinsky’s evolution. Faced with this criticism he wrote:

“We will not see me sacrificing what I love and to what I aspire in order to meet the demands of people who, in their blindness, do not even realize that they are merely asking me to back-track. To make it perfectly clear, what they want is out of date for me and to follow them would be to do violence to myself.” **

Igor and his eldest son Théodore

Igor and his eldest son Théodore

From 1923 Stravinsky asserted his interest in classical style with his Octet for wind instruments (Octuor pour instruments à vent), his first major non-theatrical composition. Octet required a reduced number of musicians and its use of counterpoint was a look back to Bach. Octet was the first in a long series of instrumental compositions making use of this process. The Russian folk melodies have been abandoned and Stravinsky developed new principles of writing reflecting Bach’s musical language.

These new principles are reflected in the following composition, Concerto for piano and orchestra (Concerto pour piano et orchestre d’harmonie), later known as Concerto for piano and wind instruments (Concerto pour piano et instruments à vent), where references to Bach are exploited in greater depth. Concerto is composed in three movements according to the classical model.

From 1921, Stravinsky divided his activities between composing, conducting and performing. Prompted by Koussevitsky, he began a parallel career as performer and conductor that lasted 15 years. He conducted numerous tours throughout Europe with his pianist son, Soulima.

Among Stravinsky’s interpretations was his Sonata for piano (Sonate pour piano), with elements of Beethoven, as Stravinsky noted in his autobiography. “The urge came to me during my work to examine more closely the sonatas of the classical masters (…. ) on this occasion I played, among others, many of Beethoven sonatas”.

Shortly thereafter, beginning in 1925, Stravinsky made his first trip to the United States where he signed a contract as conductor and soloist for a tour of two months. The American public, already well aware of his work, welcomed him warmly.

Meanwhile (1924-1931), the composer had moved to Nice on the Riviera, where the climate was more favourable to his wife’s health. Stravinsky continued to tour frequently throughout Europe as a conductor.

One of the compositions of this time, Serenade in A for piano (Sérénade en la pour piano) (1925), dedicated to his wife and loosely based on the nightlife of the 17th century, is regarded by many critics as his best work for piano.

1Igor Stravinsky – Nice 1928

1Igor Stravinsky – Nice 1928 *

Stravinsky wanted to compose once again a large-scale work based on a Latin text. Sophocles’ play, Oedipus, that he had particularly appreciated during his youth, inspired him to write an opera-oratorio. Stravinsky asked Jean Cocteau, whose adaptation of Antigone he admired, to write the libretto, which was subsequently translated into Latin by Cardinal Daniélou. Oedipus Rex (1927) is a work that is both confusing and austere, its characters stand like statues keeping their movements to a minimum. The music focuses on the drama of the story and includes motifs of the Baroque era inspired by Handel. The work premiered at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris on May 30, 1927, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Ballets Russes.

The year 1928 marked the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death. Stravinsky chose to pay him homage with a new score The Fairy’s Kiss (Le Baiser de la fée), a ballet commissioned by Ida Rubinstein.

In 1930, Stravinsky joined the Russian Orthodox Church and wrote a religious work Symphony of Psalms (Symphonie de Psaumes), based on biblical texts. His renewed religious sentiment was also felt in two ballets, Apollon Musagete (1928) and Persephone (1934).

Apollon Musagete (later known as Apollo) was the last ballet staged by Diaghilev one year before his death and the dissolution of the Ballets Russes. It is a classical ballet in which the composer celebrates the apotheosis of string instruments. The performance of this work marks the beginning of a close collaboration between Stravinsky and the choreographer George Balanchine.

Persephone, a melodrama in three parts also based on Greek mythology, was composed for the Ida Rubinstein ballet company. Stravinsky collaborated with André Gide and the relationship between the two men was not warm. Stravinsky chose musical freedom for Gide’s text, whereas Gide would have preferred a different approach. This text is assigned to a speaker, a tenor, and a chorus (mixed and children), accompanied by an orchestra whose melodic charm is undeniable.

In 1931, Stravinsky made the acquaintance of the violinist Samuel Dushkin with whom he collaborated on Concerto pour Violon, commissioned by the composer, Blair Fairchild, followed by a sonata for violin and piano, Duo Concertante.

Igor Stravinsky – Paris 1937

Igor Stravinsky – Paris 1937

In 1934, Stravinsky moved to Paris in (after two years spent in Voreppe, near Grenoble) and acquired French nationality. His second son, Soulima, began a career as a pianist, interpreting the works of his father. Stravinsky wrote Concerto for two pianos alone (Concerto pour deux pianos seuls) in 1935 so that they could perform together in public. In 1935, Stravinsky also wrote in French, his autobiography under the title of “An Autobiography” (Chroniques de ma vie).

A new ballet, inspired by the scenario of a poker game, followed Persephone. Card Game (Jeu de Cartes) is a work of pure entertainment in which Stravinsky paid tribute to Rossini. The first performance took place on April 27, 1937 at the Metropolitan Opera under his direction.

In the spring of that year, Stravinsky began work on a concerto for chamber orchestra, ordered by wealthy American patrons, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, on the occasion of their wedding 30th anniversary. This work would become the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, completed in 1938, modelled on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Stravinsky then, in 1939, composed his Symphony in C (Symphonie en ut) for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Tuberculosis struck the Stravinsky family with three deaths : his eldest daughter Ludmila (November 1938), his wife Catherine (March 1939) and his mother Anna (June 1939). Stravinsky interrupted his work.

Nadia Boulanger then informed Stravinsky that Harvard University had chosen him for its prestigious Poetry Chair for the year 1939-1940 for a series of lectures on his conception of music. Distraught with personal grief and by the outbreak of the World War II, Stravinsky arrived in the United States in September 1939.

He would remain in America and not return to live in France after the war.

* Fondation Théodore Strawinsky, Genève. Use or reproductions strictly forbidden.
** Message d’Igor Stravinsky

The American period: 1939-1971

Stravinsky’s home – Hollywood

Stravinsky’s home – Hollywood*

In September 1939, Igor Stravinsky left Europe for the United States to ensure a cycle of lectures at Harvard University. These lectures were subsequently published in a book entitled “Poétique Musicale” (1942), translated into English as “Poetics of Music” (1947).

America welcomed the composer as a prestigious guest. With demands on his time from all sides, Stravinsky decided to settle on the new continent. He wrote, directed, recorded and lectured incessantly and continued to create performances worldwide. At the beginning of 1940, he married his second wife, Vera de Bosset. Stravinsky and his new wife moved to Beverly Hills, then bought a house in Hollywood, a home where Stravinsky would remain for a long period of his life. In December 1945, he obtained U.S. citizenship.

Los Angeles, during the war, had a rich cultural life with many expatriate artists and intellectuals settled there. Stravinsky built a new circle of friends. He enjoyed, among others, the company of such English writers as Aldous Huxley and W.H. Auden, with whom he later collaborated, as well as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The post-war years were serene for Stravinsky who now enjoyed good health and was free of financial worries.

Arriving in the United States, Stravinsky had already begun his t (Symphonie en Ut), completed in 1940. Produced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it is his most important symphonic work. His first American composition was Tango (1940), inspired by his trips to Mexico. In 1941, his arrangement of the American national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, for mixed choir and orchestra led to his arrest during its performance in Boston. Stravinsky had inadvertently violated a federal law that prohibits changing the national anthem.

Thanks to his satisfactory working conditions, Stravinsky was able to fulfill many requests. Among the most important works produced were Danses Concertantes for chamber orchestra (1942), choreographed by George Balanchine, and Scenes de Ballet for orchestra (1944), intended for a Broadway revue entitled “The Seven Lively Arts.”

Igor Stravinsky in his study – Hollywood

Igor Stravinsky in his study – Hollywood

Stravinsky was also invited by a Hollywood impresario to work on a collective project, Genesis, for which he composed the cantata Babel (1944). Stravinsky simultaneously wrote a charming work, his Sonata for Two Pianos and Ode, an elegy dedicated to the wife of the famous conductor Koussevitzsky, founder of the “Russian Music Editions” which published most of Stravinsky’s early works. Stravinsky had grown more interested in jazz, composing Scherzo à la Russe for Jazz Ensemble in 1944 and, the following year, Ebony Concerto, a unique piece for the Woody Herman jazz orchestra. The year 1945 also saw the birth of one of his masterpieces, the monumental Symphony in Three Movements, dubbed by some the “War Symphony” in that Stravinsky was deeply moved by the events of World War II.

The Swiss conductor Paul Sacher commissioned a piece for string orchestra to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. In 1946, Stravinsky delivered a rather “neo-classical” composition, Concerto in D (Concerto en Ré). Jerome Robbins would later use this very accessible work for his ballet “The Cage”. In 1947, Stravinsky published a new version of Petrushka, after that of the Firebird. Taking advantage of his American citizenship to protect his copyright, he revised several of his earlier works : Symphony of Wind Instruments, Apollo, Oedipus Rex, Symphony of Psalms, Pulcinella Suite, Divertimento, Capriccio, Persephone, Piano Concerto, Fairy Kiss, Octet and the Nightingale.

Still inspired by Greece, Igor Stravinsky wrote Orpheus in 1947, a new ballet in three scenes inspired by Monteverdi’s Orfeo, commissioned for the Ballet Society. He then created Mass, conducted in 1948 by Ernest Ansermet at Milan’s La Scala. Mass, exceptionally, was not a command but an austere work composed spontaneously as an act of faith.

At the same time, Stravinsky discovered a series of 12 engravings by the English painter William Hogarth, entitled The Rake’s Progress. The subject inspired his opera of the same name. Stravinsky then worked for three years with the poet W.H. Auden on the libretto. The Rake’s Progress, a brilliant stylistic exercise, closed Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. On September 11, 1951, the opera was performed under Stravinsky’s own direction at the Fenice Theater in Venice. It became an international success. Stravinsky, who had not returned to Europe for 12 years, used this trip to travel around Europe.

In 1948, Stravinsky made the acquaintance of a young conductor, Robert Craft, who became his assistant. In the 1950s, facing the impact of the three Viennese – Schoenberg, Berg and Webern – and due to Craft’s influence, Stravinsky took a new direction, changing his musical language.

At the age of 70, the composer gradually and courageously turned to serial compositional techniques, referring especially to Anton Webern whom he admired. Stravinsky cautiously experimented with Cantata (1952) for the Los Angeles Chamber Symphony Society, Septet (1953) for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, and Three Songs from William Shakespeare (1953) for Los Angeles “Evenings on the Roof” concerts.

Very attached to Italy, especially to Venice, Stravinsky dedicated his next work, Canticum Sacrum ad honorum Sancti Marci Nominis to this city and its patron saint. This partially serial composition was given in the Basilica San Marco in September 1956 at the International Festival of Contemporary Music, which had commissioned it
It was also in Venice that Stravinsky gave the first hearing of Threni two years later. Fully serial, this austere work is still a major, profound piece.

Igor Stravinsky – Venice 1960

Igor Stravinsky – Venice 1960

Between 1953 and 1957, Stravinsky worked with the Balanchine Ballet on an abstract ballet for 12 dancers, Agon, partly inspired by French dances of the Renaissance. Much of the music is 12-tone. Agon, commissioned by the New York City Ballet (founded by Lincoln Kirstein and Balanchine), was first heard on June 17, 1957 in Los Angeles under the baton of Robert Craft at a concert to celebrate the composer’s 75 anniversary. The New York City Ballet brought Agon to the stage on December 1. Then, Stravinsky began a massive world tour, traveling the five continents (1959/1961).

Stravinsky next fulfilled a commission by Paul Sacher of the Basel Chamber Orchestra for a cantata, A Sermon, A Narrative, A Prayer (1961). Then, he created an entertaining piece of music for the CBS television program, “The Flood”, an account of the Noah and the Ark story (1962).

That same year, on January 18, the President and Mrs. Kennedy invited Stravinsky to the White House for a dinner in his honour. One year later, after the assassination of the President, he would compose Elegy for JFK, commissioned for a poem by his friend W.H. Auden.

In 1962, Stravinsky also accepted the USSR’s invitation to come and conduct his own music on the occasion of his 80th birthday. After 48 years of exile, on September 21, Stravinsky received a welcome worthy of a Head of State in Moscow. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev personally received the Stravinskys in the Kremlin during their stay. On October 4, the composer arrived in St. Petersburg (at that time, called Leningrad). For three weeks, Stravinsky gave concerts, attended performances, saw the sights, and participated in receptions, luncheons and dinners. From all sides, he received a warm and cordial welcome.

Igor Stravinsky – Hollywood 1962

Igor Stravinsky – Hollywood 1962

Returning to the United States, still inspired by sacred texts, Stravinsky began a new work, Abraham & Isaac, based on the Hebrew text of “Genesis”. In 1965, he attended its premier in Israel on the invitation of the Israel Festival Committee who had commissioned it. The Mayor of Jerusalem presented him on this occasion with the Golden Emblem of Jerusalem. In 1965, Pope John XXIII also decorated Stravinsky during a concert at the Vatican. Prestigious awards were nothing new to the composer. He had already received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London in 1954, been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1957, received the Sonnig Award, Denmark’s highest music honour, in 1959, the State Department Medal in 1962 and Jean Sibelius Gold Medal from Finland’s Cultural Foundation in 1963.

Stravinsky last major work was The Requiem Canticles (1965/1966), commissioned by the University of Princeton in New Jersey. This rigorous, abstract work created in 1966 under the direction of Robert Craft would be performed at Stravinsky’s funeral five years later, after the requiem of Alessandro Scarlatti. Stravinsky’s last composition, The Owl and the Pussycat (1966), based on a poem by Edward Lear, was dedicated to his wife Vera.

Stravinsky’s grave, San Michele cemetary - Venice

Stravinsky’s grave, San Michele cemetary – Venice

In 1967, Stravinsky, whose health had begun to decline, directed Pulcinella in Toronto, his last public concert. He also completed the last recordings of his music in New York. In 1968 and 1969, he continued to work on the arrangements of works by other composers, the Lieders of Hugo Wolf and the chorale variations of J.S. Bach.

In 1969 Stravinsky moved to New York. After several stays in hospital, he spent the summer of 1970 in Evian, where he visited with his European family. Stravinsky died on April 6, 1971 in his New York apartment at the age of 88. His funeral took place on April 15 in Italy, in the noble city of Venice. According to his will, he was buried in San Michele, near his friend and companion-in-exile Sergei Diaghilev who had first sensed Stravinsky’s genius and revealed it to the world.

* Photo Katya Chilingiri – katyachilingiri.com
Use or reproductions strictly forbidden.


Interview conducted in March 1945

By Jean Baudet – Radio Canada
(duration: 7’27)

In March 1945, Igor Stravinsky directed the Montreal Philharmonic Orchestra in an interpretation of his works. The day before the concert, he gave this interview to Jean Beaudet, Musical Director of Radio-Canada. The composer speaks about his work, including Scenes de Ballet and Circus Polka, but also about the art of conducting and the influence of war on art.

Interview conducted in April 1962 in Toronto.

By Maryvonne Kendergi – Radio canada
(duration: 7’17)

In this interview, Stravinsky shares his views on justice and vengeance, his research related to the instrument and timbre, his approach to creativity, his religious works and the prayer that they inspire, his use of original texts in his works, the factors that influence their interpretations, the relationship between the audience and the musical work.

Stravinsky In Rehearsal from 1947

By William Malloch
(duration: 8’28)

In 1947, William Malloch possessed of a sense of history, recorded Igor Stravinsky rehearsing his new revision of his symphonies of wind instruments in memory of Debussy. The sound is antique but the picture of what Stravinsky is striving for musically comes through clearly enough. Malloch won runner-up honors in the Eighth Annual Armstrong Awards, the seventh national award his programs have won.