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Igor Stravinsky, The Greatest Composer Of The 20th Century

Igor Stravinsky is considered by many the greatest composer of the 20th Century. Several composers have made breakthroughs and great accomplishments in the past 100 years, but Stravinsky has dominated nearly every trend set. He was born near St. Petersburg, Russia in Oranienbaum, on June 17, 1882. He was born to a famous Russian bass opera singer, Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky. Igor Stravinsky was third of a family of four boys. He grew up hearing his father practicing his opera and attending local ballets.

He also started taking piano lessons when he was 9 years old and continued on with musical notation and composition instruction. All throughout his early life he studied music. However, although he had been brought up with music and loved it dearly, his parents did not want him to pursue a musical career. His background was musical. His parents viewed his efforts as a musician as childish, but on the other hand indulged him in it with the piano and the operas and the ballets. In 1902 he was sent to St. Petersburg University to study criminal law and legal philosophy to honor his parents wishes.

While he was there, he still concentrated on his music and especially his composing. In the summer of 1902 he was introduced to the Russian composer, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky was extremely impressed with Stravinskys early compositions that he convinced him not to enter the conservatory for academic training, but to study privately with him as his teacher. He was tutored privately by Rimsky in instrumentation and orchestration for about three years. In 1905, Stravinsky graduated from the St. Petersburg University. In the meantime, he continued his studies with Rimsky.

The next year, his mind still not made up about becoming a professional musician, he married his second cousin, Catherine Nossenko. Stravinskys Symphony in E Flat Major (1905-1907) was his first piece picked by Rimsky to be performed in private and public concerts in St. Petersburg. His last composition approved by Rimsky was Fireworks (1908). This was a brief symphonic “poem” that Stravinsky wrote as a wedding present for Rimskys daughter. Sadly however, Rimsky died in the summer of 1908 before he could hear it performed.

After Rimskys death, Stravinsky composed a funeral march in memory of his teacher and friend. When Fireworks and an earlier orchestral piece, Scherzo Fantastique (1907-08), were performed in St. Petersburg on Feb. 6, 1909, they were heard by the impressario Sergey Diaghilev. He was so impressed by Stravinsky’s promise as a composer that he invited him to join his small group of artistic assistants. For the rest of the 1909 season Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose various pieces of ballet music. Then, in 1910, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to compose his new ballet, The Firebird.

The result of his commission was the first real modern ballet. It set the example of the composer consulting both with the choreographer and the stage/costuming artist during the composition. For the next few years, Stravinsky and Diaghilev worked very closely together. Diaghilev wanted all of Stravinskys new works to be produced by his company. Stravinsky’s next two works for the ballet, Petrouchka (1910-11) and The Rite of Spring (1912-13) are perfectly crafted, powerful pieces, drawing on Stravinsky’s rhythmic and harmonic imagination.

The most amazing part is that Stravinsky had not even reached middle age at the time he composed these pieces. The Rite of Spring created a violent reaction because no one had ever heard music that carried this much premature power. It was almost as though there was a sense of jealousy from his colleagues. The entire musical establishment criticized stravinsky, but he didnt really seem to care. During World War I, Stravinsky lived in Switzerland. There he concentrated on smaller-scale chamber pieces, piano works, and songs.

One of these, The Soldier’s Tale, was a chamber ensemble, with speaking actors, and one dancer. He also started a career as a conductor, most of the time performing his own music, and toured Europe and America after the end of the war. As soon as the war was over, Stravinsky decided to move from Switzerland and settle in France; during the next 20 years (1920-39) he lived in various places there – Biarritz, Nice, Voreppe, and Paris. During these years some important changes happened in his music.

He abandoned the Russian features of his earlier style and the adapted to a neoclassical expression. Shortly after the war, Stravinsky’s and Diaghilev were reunited. He started writing for ballets again, but in 1929, Diaghilev died, and his ballet company folded. However, Stravinsky’s composition of ballet scores did not come to an end with Diaghilev’s death. In the late 1920s, a Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein started a company of her own and commissioned two ballet scores from Stravinsky, The Fairy’s Kiss (1928) and Persephone (1934).

In the fall of 1938 his oldest daughter died of tuberculosis. The deaths of his wife and mother followed in March and in June 1939. Soon after came the outbreak of World War II. At right about the same time, he received an invitation from Harvard in the United States to give lectures on composition. This gave him the opportunity to leave Europe and get a little further away from the war. He ended up making his home eventually in Hollywood, California. During the war years, two important symphonic works were composed, the Symphony in C Major (1938-40) and Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45).

The Symphony in C Major represents a bringing together of Neoclassical principles in symphonic form, and the Symphony in Three Movements combines the features of the concerto with the features of the symphony. Neoclassicism was a return by composers of the early 20th century to the forms and styles of the 17th and 18th centuries, as a reaction against 19th-century Romanticism. Stravinsky was very famous for his neoclassicism. From 1948 to 1951 Stravinsky worked on his neoclassical opera, “The Rake’s Progress”.

Then a few years later in 1956 Stravinsky suffered a stroke and from that point his health slowly deteriorated. Eventually, his bad health caused a slowing down of his compositional activity, but even as late as 1970 he was working on instrumental transcriptions of some of Bach’s preludes and fugues. He died in New York City on April 6, 1971. He was buried in Venice on the island of San Michele. Overall, Stravinsky has given major contributions to the history of music. He never seemed to start a composition with partial ideas, but always examined his works with a critical ear.

He made bold experiments with harmony and used a wide knowledge of music of all kinds for his effects. This had neat results whenever time, meter, and dynamics were concerned. Stravinsky explored patterns of compound meters and broke down the tradition of symmetrical phrasing. He restored to music the sense of an unwavering pulse, and this helped to make so many of his works just right for dancing. His music made a “clean” sound, meaning there was no filling in just for the sake of filling in. All these contributions are so essential to the development of music in the 20th century.

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