Igor Stravinsky

The son of the great Russian bass Fyodor Stravinsky, Igor Fyodorivitch Stravinsky was born in Oraienbaum, near St Petersburg, Russia in 1882. His childhood was dominated by his father and older brother and he did not remember it fondly. He studied Law at St Petersburg University from 1901, but increasingly began to indulge his musical interests. This led to him meet the composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose pupil he became in 1903. Two years later, he began work on his first symphony.

In 1907 and 1908 respectively, he wrote the short orchestral works, Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks. These were performed in St Petersburg in 1909 and heard by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. After first asking Stravinsky to arrange some Chopin piano pieces for him, he commissioned a ballet on an old Russian fairytale from the young composer, for his Ballets Russes. Given its premiere in 1910, The Firebird, with choreography by Fokine, was the result. It brought Stravinsky immediate fame and further commissions from Diaghilev.

Stravinsky's next ballet, again choreographed by Fokine, was Petrushka (1911). Like The Firebird, it was a huge success and brought the composer international recognition. However, his third ballet for the Ballets Russes was to cause one of the great theatrical scandals of the 20th century. Together, Stravinsky and Nicholas Roerich (who also designed the sets and costumes), came up with a scenario for a ballet based upon the rituals of ancient pagan Russia. With choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was premiered on 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris. Stravinsky's dissonant, violently rhythmical music and Nijinsky's angular, anti-balletic choreography quite literally caused a riot. The work was to receive six performances, three in Paris and three in London before Diaghilev struck it from the repertory. It was only revived, with new choreography by Massine, in 1920. The Rite of Spring was followed by Stravinsky's last Russian ballet, Les Noces (1914-17).

With the outbreak of the revolution in 1917, Stravinsky left behind the huge orchestral forces of his early ballets and concentrated on smaller, ragtime and popular-dance infuenced works, such as L'histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale, 1918). By 1920 he had developed a great interest in the music of the 18th century and the period from 1920 to 1951 is generally known as his neo-classical period. His next ballet for Diaghilev, and his first major neo-classical work, Pulcinella (1920), was based on the music of the 18th-century composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Settling in France, he began writing works which evoked the spirit of 18th-century music, but which were unmistakably of the 20th century including, the Concerto for Piano and Winds (1923-4), Apollon Musagète (1927-28), the Violin Concerto (1931), Duo Concertant (1931-32), Jeu de cartes (1936), Dumbarton Oaks (1937-38), Circus Polka (1944), the Ebony Concerto (1945), the Concerto in D for Strings (1946) and the opera, The Rake's Progress (1951). Most of these works ultimately became ballets. During this period, he also wrote the ballet, Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss, 1928, revised 1950) based on music by one of his great musical icons, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In 1939, to escape the war, the 57-year-old Stravinsky moved from Switzerland to America, finally settling in Los Angeles. Stravinsky's creative relationship with Balanchine had begun in 1928 with Apollon Musagète and continued throughout the 1930s and 40s. His first major American work was the Symphony in Three Movements (1945), later choreographed by Balanchine, closely followed by the ballet Orpheus (1947).

Arnold Schönberg, the originator of 12-tone or Serial music, died in 1951. Soon after, Stravinsky became interested in his techniques, particularly as practised by his pupil, Anton Webern. This sudden and dramatic shift in his compositional style shocked many of his supporters, but encouraged by Robert Craft, his young and enthusiastic assistant, he began to compose serial works. These include the ballet Agon (1953), Canticum Sacrum (1955), Threni (1958), and Variations in memoriam Aldous Huxley (1963-64).

By the time of his death in New York in 1971, Stravinsky was a world-famous figure. He has been honoured with an 80th birthday dinner at the Whitehouse in 1962 and Time magazine listed him as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. He is now counted amongst the greatest and most prolific of ballet composers of the 20th century, and one of the most influential figures in the history of music.