When it comes to creative longevity, brilliance across a range of styles, and near-universal fame, Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) is nearly unrivaled among 20th-century artists. As told by Professor Robert Greenberg, Stravinsky’s career is a dizzying, enthralling progression across the miles and the decades from fin de siècle Czarist Russia to Southern California in the 1960s.
It features styles ranging from nationalism and Impressionism to Fauvism, neoclassicism, and the 12-tone ultra-serialism of Anton Webern and Alban Berg.
Professor Greenberg presents this long-lived master of musical creativity as a one-man compendium of people, places, compositional styles, and techniques, his life and music a virtual artistic history of the West from the 1890s to the late 1960s.
Even a partial list of Stravinsky’s friends and collaborators reads like a “who’s who” of 20th-century Western culture: Picasso, Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Puccini, Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Jean Cocteau, Dylan Thomas, Nicholas Nabokov, Paul Klee, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Walt Disney, Edward G. Robinson, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Herman, even Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Among other things, then, these lectures on Stravinsky will give you a sense of the kaleidoscopic changes in musical expression that took place during the first 70 years of the 20th century.
From Nationalism to Modernism and Beyond
Stravinsky began as a 19th-century musical nationalist. He was privileged to receive the benefits of an upper-middle-class Russian upbringing in St. Petersburg, where he was born in 1882.
In this city at the turn of the 20th century, the young and impressionable Stravinsky was exposed to an amazing, kaleidoscopic interweaving of Western and Eastern European cultures.
His was a musical family. His father, Fyodor, was a professional opera singer, considered one of the great bass-baritones of his day.
By his late teens, Stravinsky’s interest in music had developed into an ambition to become a composer, despite the fact that he had not, to that point of his life, demonstrated any exceptional musical talent.
Certainly, his potential was not recognized by the eminent Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, when Stravinsky approached him for lessons in 1902.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s opinion changed dramatically, however, when he heard Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor of 1904. The work gained Stravinsky a powerful ally and influential teacher in that great Russian master.
Between 1904 and 1909, Stravinsky developed his compositional technique and style, absorbing a diversity of musical influences.
During this period, Stravinsky married his cousin Katya, who would prove an invaluable support to her husband during these musically formative and professionally difficult years.
The Rite—and Riot—of Spring
Stravinsky’s audiences enjoyed his highly successful music for The Firebird and his next ballet, Petrushka, but they could not have anticipated what would come next.
Stravinsky’s music for The Rite of Spring was like nothing he or any other composer had written before it. To convey the sense of the ballet’s primitive, earthy, and sexual theme, Stravinsky had to forge a new musical language.
The resultant ballet score caused one of the most celebrated scandals in music history. At The Rite‘s Paris premiere on May 29, 1913, the audience broke into a riot.
“This music still sounds ‘modern’ almost a century after its first performance,” states Professor Greenberg.
You learn why the Rite is one of the 20th century’s two most important musical compositions.
After 1918: Seeking Humane Times
Appalled by the horrors of World War I, Stravinsky, after 1918, couched his modernistic impulses in the musical styles of seemingly simpler, “more humane” times.
From the 1920s on, he was drawn as well by the energy of ragtime, tango, and big-band jazz, writing pieces in all these popular idioms. In 1925 he made a highly successful tour of several U.S. cities, conducting his own works.
Through the end of the 1920s, Stravinsky continued to produce music that filtered its modernisms through the lens of the musical past, such as the ballet Apollo Musagète of 1928 and The Symphony of Psalms of 1930. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Symphony of Psalms is a deeply religious work, of the sort that Stravinsky had never written before.
The works of the 1930s exhibited a neoclassical, or neotonal, style. These works included the Concerto in D for Violin and the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, among others.
Soon his music was being attacked as “degenerate art” by the Nazis in Germany, and he suffered the multiple tragedies of the deaths of his daughter, Lyudmilla; his wife, Katya; and his mother.
When World War II broke out in September 1939, Stravinsky and soon-to-be second wife, Vera Sudeykin, settled in Los Angeles, where Stravinsky immediately became one of the city’s most sought-after celebrities. His first major work composed in the United States was his 1945 War Symphony, the Symphony in Three Movements. This was the year the Stravinskys became American citizens.
Among other works Stravinsky wrote between 1945 and 1953 was the Ebony Concerto, written for Woody Herman’s band. This work “objectifies” elements of jazz in the way that Ragtime for 11 Wind Instruments had 20 years before.
These years were perhaps the best of Stravinsky’s life: He was happy and flourishing in his private and professional lives; financial hardship was a thing of the past.
In 1948, Stravinsky befriended Robert Craft, a young conductor with a fanatical admiration for the older composer. They formed a highly unusual relationship in which Craft wrote diaries of his life as Stravinsky’s aide and friend. Craft introduced Stravinsky to the 12-tone music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.
A “Supreme Original”
Finally and most astonishingly, at the age of 70, Stravinsky underwent yet another aesthetic metamorphosis, reinventing himself musically with pieces in the ultramodern serialist style associated with composers one-third his age.
Like Haydn and Beethoven in their later works, Stravinsky in his Agon of 1957, Requiem Canticles of 1966, and other late pieces, attained a level of spirituality, clarity—and novelty—that would be stunning in a composer of any age, at any time.
After the Stravinskys and Robert Craft returned from a landmark visit to Russia in 1962, Stravinsky’s output began to slow. By the late 1960s, Stravinsky was enjoying a level of celebrity and wealth rarely accorded a composer in his lifetime. His last public appearance was in 1967 and he died in 1971.
“Stravinsky, without a doubt, was a supreme original,” says Professor Greenberg. “We study him to see what, aside from the unaccountable gift of genius, made this originality possible. What are the artistic constants that run throughout his long career, gathering all its shifting currents into the main stream of greatness?
“Diversity, synthesis, and reconciliation are the keys to Stravinsky’s musical personality.”
Works you’ll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:
The Firebird (1909)
The Rite of Spring (1912)
Ragtime for 11 Instruments (1918)
Les Noces [The Wedding] (1923)
Symphony of Psalms (1930)
Concerto in D for Violin (1931)
Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938)
Symphony in C (1940)
Symphony in Three Movements (1945)
The Ebony Concerto (1953)
Requiem Canticles (1966)
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