Igor Stravinsky: pianist and composer

Aside from a very few surviving earlier works, Stravinsky’s Russian Period begins with compositions undertaken under the tutelage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he studied from 1905 until Rimsky’s death in 1908, including the orchestral works: Symphony in E-flat major (1907), Faun and Shepherdess (for mezzo-soprano and orchestra; 1907), Scherzo fantastique (1908), and Feu d’artifice (1908/9). These works clearly reveal the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, but as Richard Taruskin has shown, they also reveal Stravinsky’s knowledge of music by Glazunov, Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Dvořák, and Debussy, among others.
Performances in St. Petersburg of Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice attracted the attention of Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate two piano works of Chopin for the ballet Les Sylphides to be presented in the 1909 debut “Saison Russe” of his new ballet company. Diaghilev subsequently commissioned Stravinsky to write scores for three ballets: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). These ballets have overtly Russian scenarios and, as Richard Taruskin has shown in his revisionist 1996 study Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through “Mavra”, all three make significant use of Russian folk tunes, although Stravinsky consistently downplayed this aspect of the music.
Around 1920, Stravinsky’s music began to reflect interest in new compositional strategies. He turned more frequently to concert works with no theatrical connections (though a number were later choreographed by George Balanchine, among others). The absence of a narrative scenario required Stravinsky to develop purely musical means to create coherent structures. Contemporary critics applied the label “neoclassical” to these works, although Stravinsky himself despised the term, calling it “a much-abused expression meaning absolutely nothing.”
On 15 May 1920, at the Paris Opéra, the Ballets Russes gave the premiere of Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s first new score commissioned by Diaghilev since The Rite of Spring in 1913. Sets and costumes were by Pablo Picasso with the scenario and choreography by Léonid Massine. The music was based on 18th-century compositions thought at the time to have been composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Pulcinella is scored for three solo singers (soprano, tenor, and bass) and a relatively small chamber orchestra (divided into concertino and ripieno in keeping with the music’s Baroque origins, though there is no keyboard instrument to represent the continuo function).
Also dating to 1920 is the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which is scored for 24 players (essentially the wind and brass sections of the orchestra without strings).
Oedipus Rex (1927), Apollon musagète (1928), and the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1937–38) continued his re-thinking of 18th-century musical styles. Other works from this period include his Symphony of Psalms (1930), Symphony in C (1940) and Symphony in Three Movements (1945).
Apollon (1928), Persephone (1933) and Orpheus (1947) exemplify not only Stravinsky’s return to the music of the Classical period, but also his exploration of themes from the ancient Classical world, such as Greek mythology. In 1951, he completed his last neo-classical work, the opera The Rake’s Progress, to a libretto by W. H. Auden that was based on the etchings of William Hogarth. It premiered in Venice that year and was produced around Europe the following year, before being staged in the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1953. It was staged by the Santa Fe Opera in a 1962 Stravinsky Festival, in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday and was revived by the Metropolitan Opera in 1997.
In the 1950s, Stravinsky began using serial compositional techniques such as dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique originally devised by Arnold Schoenberg. He first experimented with non-twelve-tone serial techniques in small-scale vocal and chamber works such as the Cantata (1952), the Septet (1953) and Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953). The first of his compositions fully based on such techniques was In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954). Agon (1954–57) was the first of his works to include a twelve-tone series and Canticum Sacrum (1955) was the first piece to contain a movement entirely based on a tone row. Stravinsky expanded his use of dodecaphony in works such as Threni (1958) and A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), which are based on biblical texts, and The Flood (1962), which mixes brief biblical texts from the Book of Genesis with passages from the York and Chester Mystery Plays.

Comments are closed.