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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Igor Stravinsky

It's always fascinating to hear music by famous composers before they became famous and this music is a perfect example. At first hearing, you could be forgiven for suspecting it was written by one of the late Russian romantics, such as Tchaikovsky, Taneyev or Glazunov. It was certainly written by someone from that era - a pupil of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, in fact - but the late romantic style is one we don't usually associate with this particular composer. This music was written by Igor Stravinsky.

The town of Oranienbaum is now called Lomonosov and it's about 40 km west of St Petersburg. It was in Oranienbaum in June 1882 that Igor Stravinsky was born. His mother, Anna Kholodovskaya was a good singer and pianist but didn't perform professionally. His father, Fyodor Ignat'yevich Stravinsky had begun his professional life studying law. During his studies, however, he discovered that he had a fine voice, and entered the St Petersburg Conservatory on a scholarship. In 1876 he made his debut at the Mariinsky Theatre, and by the time of Igor's birth in 1882 was regarded as one of the finest bass baritones of his time.

Fyodor Stravinsky's work was integral to Igor's childhood. Major figures in Russian music of the time were frequent visitors to their home and the boy would have grown up in a vibrant musical environment. He attended the theatre regularly and showed early talent at the piano.

Fyodor Stravinsky as the Miller in Dargomyzhsky's opera Rusalka

Stravinsky's earliest surviving compositions date from 1898. In 1901, at his father's insistence, he began studying law at St Petersburg University, even though his own desire was to pursue music as a career. He continued his private piano study, though, and in late 1901 also began lessons in harmony and counterpoint.

While at the university, Stravinsky met Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, son of the famous composer, and this friendship not only led to Stravinsky meeting Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - then one of the most famous composers in Russia - but it also led to him eventually becoming his student.

Igor Stravinsky (1903)

Stravinsky's earliest works show little promise; one writer describes the Scherzo of 1902 (written when he was 20) as "barely competent". The F sharp minor piano sonata, though - a composition exercise for Rimsky-Korsakov begun the following year - was a huge advance. This is the piece referred to above and it shows that the young composer had completely assimilated the prevailing style of the time. An even greater advance was his next work written under Rimsky-Korsakov's guidance, the Symphony in E flat which was eventually published as Stravinsky's opus 1. This of course is nothing like the Stravinsky we know; it too could have been written by any Russian romantic. But it's certainly more than competent and even the fact that it's a student work doesn't prevent us from appreciating it today as a good piece of art. [listen]

L to R: Igor Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, his daughter Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova, her fiancé Maximilian Steinberg, and Yekaterina Gavrilovna Stravinskaya née Nosenko, Stravinsky’s first wife. (1908)

The Rimsky-Korsakov circle Stravinsky moved in in his early 20s was a very conservative musical environment. Newer music which "broke the rules" was dismissed as worthless by Rimsky-Korsakov and his associates, and initially Stravinsky seems to have regarded these views as gospel. Despite the presence of an anti-establishment musical scene in St Petersburg at the turn of the century, Stravinsky rarely got involved. He was - externally, at least - conservative in his approach to music until his mid-20s.

In 1906, aged 24, he married Yekaterina Nosenko, who was his first cousin. It was a love match and one which lasted until her death in 1939, but it only lasted because she was willing to tolerate her husband's many infidelities. For most of their married life, Katya (as she was known) suffered debilitating ill health.

It wasn't long before Stravinsky started to chafe at the restrictions placed on him by his teacher, and his teacher's disciples. At the time of his marriage, and shortly after, he wrote a number of songs which demonstrate how far away from Rimsky-Korsakov's ideas he was moving, and how rapidly he was doing it. After setting some erotic poetry of Pushkin under the title of The Faun and the Shepherdess in 1906, his next songs made his teacher distinctly hostile. A song called Vesna from a set titled Two melodies - written in 1907-08 - was described by Rimsky-Korsakov as "frenetic and harmonically senseless", while this song without words, called Pastorale (also from 1907) he simply described as "strange". [listen]

This song is in some ways a missing link. I've often wondered how Stravinsky could possibly have gone from the traditional, conservative composer of the E flat Symphony in 1907 to the dazzling, imaginative composer of The Firebird only two years later. While there is much in The Firebird which can be seen to have come directly from Rimsky-Korsakov, nonetheless the metamorphosis is astonishing.

Two other works also come before The Firebird, and these help fill the gap between the symphony and the ballet, too. An orchestral scherzo, called Scherzo fantastique (completed in 1908), shows how Stravinsky was adapting the glittering orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov's late operas into his own technical arsenal. [listen]

And a second orchestral scherzo, Fireworks (also from 1908), shows further advances towards the more familiar early Stravinsky style of the Diaghliev ballets. [listen]

Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was in its infancy when it made its appearance in Paris in 1909. For this season Diaghilev took the risk of commissioning the almost completely unknown Stravinsky to orchestrate a couple of Chopin piano pieces for Fokine's ballet Les Sylphides. Stravinsky knew this was a major opportunity and he put aside the opera he had started working on (called The Nightingale) in order to fulfil the Diaghilev commission.

Bakst: Sergei Diaghilev (1906)

If orchestrating two Chopin pieces for the 1909 season was a risk, then this risk was multiplied a hundredfold when Diaghilev commissioned a completely new ballet score from Stravinsky for 1910. Much comment had been made in Paris about the lack of new music in the company's first season; commissioning the score for The Firebird was a direct response to this, but Stravinsky was far from Diaghilev's first choice. Once he landed the commission, though, Stravinsky grabbed it with both hands. The speed with which the piece was written was phenomenal. It was composed in short score - mostly playable on the piano - between December 1909 and early April 1910. The orchestration was finished in mid-May, and the premiere took place on 25 June. That performance - the opening night of The Firebird - catapulted Stravinsky to instant international fame. [listen]

Bakst: Costume sketch for THe Firebird

The sensational success of The Firebird in 1910 led to a commission for a new ballet in 1911, and another sensational success attended the new work, Petrushka. [listen]

While The Firebird was being created, discussion had been underway regarding a "prehistoric" ballet and this led to Stravinsky's third and most famous score for Diaghilev. Premiered on 29 May 1913 and accompanied by a famous riot (directed more towards the choreography than the music, it must be said), The Rite of Spring is one of the pivotal scores of the 20th century, and it still has the power to shock more than a century later. [listen]

The trajectory from Fireworks through the three "great" Diaghilev ballets seems like a straight line, but Stravinsky was actually experimenting with different styles and forms in the years immediately before the first world war. The songs setting poetry by Konstantin Bal'mont and the choral/orchestral work known in English as The King of the Stars [listen] were written between Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, showing that the composer was flirting with very different modes of expression. In 1912, while putting the finishing touches to The Rite of Spring, he was in Berlin and saw one of the first performances of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and this probably inspired the Three Japanese Lyrics for voice and small ensemble written in early 1913. [listen]

After The Rite of Spring Stravinsky returned to the unfinished opera, The Nightingale, which he had started in 1909 - before The Firebird - when he was a very different composer. It was finally finished in 1914 and premiered in Paris in May of that year. The Grove article succinctly points out that he did this while "somehow managing to paper over the development his style had undergone since 1909". [listen]

Stravinsky and his family (he and Katya had their fourth child in January 1914) were still officially Russian residents although most of their time was now spent in the west. Between 1914 and 1920 they saw out the war and its immediate aftermath in exile in Switzerland. These were difficult times for the family, with Katya's continued ill-health and Stravinsky struggling to find work.

Blanche: Igor Stravinsky (1915)

During the early years of the war, Stravinsky began a very different sort of ballet score, using choir and soloists, based on a Russian peasant wedding. Simply called Svadebka (The Wedding), this would take quite some time to reach its final form. It's usually referred to these days by its French title: Les Noces. At this stage of its evolution, the accompaniment comprised a large mixed band of about 40 wind and brass instruments, a small group of strings, a lot of percussion, and folk instruments including the cimbalom.

In the meantime he quickly wrote two small-scale theatre works which would be easy to tour and which, hopefully, would generate some income. The first was a "burlesque in song and dance" called The Fable of the Fox, the Cock, the Tomcat and the Ram, although it's better-known these days by its French title, Renard. This earned Stravinsky a little money but other sources of income were drying up. He extracted a ballet score for Diaghilev from The Nightingale (calling it The Song of the Nightingale) but Diaghilev was notoriously slow in paying his composers. These straightened circumstances led to the other small-scale theatre piece, The Soldier's Tale, which Stravinsky and its co-creator, CF Ramuz, hoped would be able to tour cheaply and make a little money. It was written in 1918. [listen]

In 1919 Stravinsky extracted an orchestral suite from The Firebird in yet another attempt to earn some money, and he returned to The Wedding, completely overhauling its instrumental accompaniment and scoring it for a small ensemble which included a pianola.

Delaunay: Igor Stravinsky (1918)

In the following year, 1920, he produced three very different works. The first, the Concertino for string quartet, is a terse, tense little piece which seems to distil everything powerful in his music from the preceding decade. [listen]

The Symphonies of Wind Instruments also dates from 1920, and it's a wind-instrument companion piece to the Concertino, in that it summarises so much of what was important to Stravinsky at the time. But it's such a different piece, being built around ritual and inspired by the death of Claude Debussy, who had been publicly and personally supportive of Stravinsky when he first started working in Paris. [listen]

In between these came the most shocking of all, the ballet Pulcinella. It was Diaghilev who suggested basing a new score on 18th century music by Pergolesi and his contemporaries. Initially sceptical, Stravinsky eventually warmed to the idea, providing the Ballets Russes with a delicious 1920s-tinted-glasses version of the old melodies, scored for chamber orchestra and three singers, and based on commedia dell'arte characters. [listen]

1920 saw the Stravinskys relocate to France and in 1921 the composer was still working on The Wedding. He considered a wholesale revision of the instrumental parts yet again, considering for a time having the piece accompanied by four pianolas. He eventually developed the definitive version of the accompaniment which is one of its hallmarks: four pianos and percussion. It remains one of his most driven, most powerful works since The Rite of Spring. [listen]

In 1921-22 Stravinsky produced a short opera, Mavra. This half-hour ironic comedy turns its back on almost everything he had written to this point, both modernist and neo-classical. It sets a mock-banal story by Pushkin about a girl who persuades her mother to employ a handsome soldier in drag as her cook; the music paraphrases Tchaikovsky and Glinka. It touches on the peasant mood of The Wedding but embodies it in the music as well. Stravinsky thought it among his best works; posterity has not always agreed with him. [listen]

The upheavals in Stravinsky's music - such a variety of styles, and a variety of forms and inspirations - were reflected in his private life. Never the most faithful of husbands, moving back to France - and particularly Paris - meant more women came into his life. In 1921 the probable affair with Coco Chanel took place, followed by another with the Russian cabaret dancer Zhenya Nikitina. Then came the affair with Vera Sudeykina, wife of Diaghilev's former stage designer. With Vera things became serious; they fell in love, then Vera left her husband. She and Stravinsky maintained a relationship which ran in parallel with his marriage to Katya. Katya turned a blind eye to this public humiliation, probably knowing that had she protested he would have abandoned her.

The Wedding finally had its premiere in Paris in 1923, the year in which Stravinsky showed that the neo-classical approach of Pulcinella in 1920 wasn't a one-off. The Octet for winds [listen] is clearly inspired by and based on music of the 18th century, while the Concerto for Piano and Winds, written in 1923-24, was designed for Stravinsky himself to play on concert tours. We tend to forget that apart from being a composer, he was also a gifted pianist, and performing was an integral part of his life, usually on extensive international tours. [listen]

Solo piano works were specially written for the tours he undertook, for example, in 1924 and 1925. In addition to the Concerto, the Piano Sonata [listen] and the Serenade in A [listen] were tailor-made for Stravinsky to perform himself.

In composition, though, he immersed himself totally in his neo-classical phase in the late 20s. Subjects from the past, musical forms from the past, texts from the past informed all his musical decisions at the time. Between 1925 and 1927 he composed an opera-oratorio in Latin, designed to be performed by singers in masks, using non-realistic, stylised movements to tell the Greek legend of King Oedipus. Based on a pared-down version of Sophocles's play, Oedipus Rex is a powerful masterpiece which seems to marry the 18th century and the 20th, musically speaking. [listen]

The classical world was evoked in another work from this period, the ballet Apollon musagète, but where Oedipus Rex was violent and bloody, Apollo (as it's sometimes called) is gentle and elegant. [listen]

Igor Stravinsky (1920s)

Another ballet quickly followed in 1928, The Fairy's Kiss. Here a much more recent past was evoked, that of Tchaikovsky. And a second piano concerto (again for the composer himself to play) followed in 1929, called Capriccio, itself a very classical term.

But it was a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a work to be performed as part of the orchestra's 50th anniversary celebrations at the start of the 1930s which saw Stravinsky produce possibly his most famous neo-classical work. Considering it was written for an orchestral anniversary, it seems almost perverse that he produced a work which uses no violins, violas or clarinets, and which requires a chorus. But posterity has forgiven him; the Symphony of Psalms - looking backwards again to Latin, to the Bible, to fugues - is one of his most enduring works. [listen]

An important, constant and time-consuming aspect of Stravinsky's life which is often overlooked is the fact that he regularly undertook concert tours. Initially this was as a pianist (mostly playing his own music) but increasingly he conducted his own music as well. He alternated periods of touring with periods of composition and was constantly busy with multiple projects simultaneously.

In late 1930, at the end of an exhausting tour, he met the violinist Samuel Dushkin. This friendship blossomed into a creative partnership as they toured for many years as a violin-and-piano duo. Stravinsky wrote a number of works for Dushkin, the most important of which was the Violin Concerto, completed at the end of 1931 and premiered with Dushkin as soloist and Stravinsky conducting. It's in the composer's by now trademark spiky neo-classical style. As an in joke between the two, each of the concerto's four movements starts with the same violin chord, which Dushkin told Stravinsky was unplayable. Stravinsky clearly thought otherwise. [listen]

Samuel Dushkin

It was for the Dushkin/Stravinsky duo partnership that the composer also created a number of recital works, including the Duo Concertant, the Danse russe, the Divertimento, the Scherzo for violin and piano, and the Suite Italienne (the last of these based on music from Pulcinella).

Stravinsky had always had an eager audience for his music in France, and until the early 30s German audiences had also welcomed him as both composer and performer. But with the rise of Nazism this welcome in Germany became seriously eroded. The fact that Dushkin was Jewish was a major issue, but there was a strong belief in Germany that Stravinsky himself was Jewish, which wasn't the case. And regardless of racial matters, Stravinsky's music - even the neo-classical works - was regarded as degenerate by the Nazis, who hated modernism and embraced tradition (or what they perceived as tradition) to a fetishistic extent.

The neo-classical works were singled out xenophobically by one German writer as a desecration of Bach (who was regarded as the foundation of German musical tradition), dressed up in French make-up and revealing "the savagery of half-Asiatic instincts".

Igor Stravinsky (c. 1930)

At this time - 1934 - Stravinsky clearly saw France (where he'd been living on and off for years) as his future. He became a French citizen in that year and it became evident that his style was subtly changing yet again. A number of works (including the Concerto for Two Solo Pianos) were being sketched at the time, but these were put aside so that he could work on a new theatre piece. Perséphone sets a text by André Gide and breathes a new pastoral spirit, distant from the energetic, sewing machine style of the neo-classical (or rather, neo-Baroque) works. When it was premiered in Paris in April, 1934, Perséphone puzzled its audience, who nevertheless treated it with respect. Grove describes it as Stravinsky's most hybrid work, as it involves elements of ballet, pantomime, melodrama and singing. As it ticks so many boxes - or perhaps because it refuses neat categorisation - Perséphone is little-known today. [listen]

The years immediately before the second world war saw Stravinsky undertake some major international tours (usually with Dushkin). His second visit to the USA took place in 1935, followed by a South American tour in 1936. He returned to North America in 1936-37. This last tour ended with Stravinsky conducting the premiere of his new ballet, Jeu de cartes in New York. The title is translated as "A Game of Cards", and wittily subtitled, "A ballet in three deals". [listen]

The more mechanised aspects of Stravinsky's neo-classicism returned in the major works which followed Perséphone: the Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (which is a concerto without orchestra), the Concerto in E flat ("Dumbarton Oaks") and the Symphony in C. The "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto is perhaps his most Bach-indebted work. Scored for a chamber orchestra made up of soloists, it was commissioned by Mrs Robert Woods Bliss, at whose home in Washington DC (called "Dumbarton Oaks") the work was premiered in 1938. Mrs Bliss requested a work "of Brandenburg Concerto dimensions", and Stravinsky took her literally, even going so far as to start the work with an obvious reference to Bach's third Brandenburg Concerto. [listen]

The "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto was Stravinsky's last work composed entirely in Europe. A series of traumatic personal experiences in late 1938 and 1939, plus the deteriorating state of Europe itself as it headed towards war, led to his decision to live in America. Firstly, his daughter Lyudmilla died of tuberculosis in November 1938. Four months later his long-suffering wife Katya also died, after 25 years of ill-health. Then in June 1939, his 84-year old mother died.

Stravinsky and two of his three surviving children were also treated for tuberculosis but they recovered. Then, in September 1939 as war was breaking out in Europe, the composer sailed for America, alone. His relationship with Vera Sudeykina - the ex-wife of Diaghilev's former stage director - had continued in tandem with his marriage, and she followed him to America. They were married there in March, 1940.

A major work had been on and off the drawing board through all this time, the Symphony in C. This doesn't seem to have been in response to a commission, and as it turned out, only the first two of the work's four movements were completed by the time Stravinsky relocated to America. The remaining two movements were composed there and completed in 1940. It's a fascinating piece for many reasons. The two halves of the work, composed on opposite sides of the Atlantic, can be clearly discerned, almost as if they were different pieces. Further, the work contains opposite extremes in terms of his use of meter, and specifically, changing time signatures. The first movement of the Symphony in C is the longest movement in his music which has no changes of time signature at all, while the third movement bristles with so many changes of meter that it's almost as if he's being deliberately perverse.

For some reason the Symphony in C didn't have many performances in the composer's lifetime. Stravinsky himself wryly noted that for many years he was the only person conducting it. This is the third movement, the start of the "American half" of the piece. [listen]

Stravinsky's second emigration was nothing less than a complete upheaval of almost every aspect of his life. He gave the Norton lectures at Harvard (in French; he spoke very little English at this stage) in two stages, in late 1939 and early 1940 but eventually settled on the west coast, in West Hollywood. He and Vera initially spent most of their time with fellow Russian émigrés, so their adopted country stayed strange to them for a long while. Money was always short and Stravinsky sought to increase his meagre income with conducting engagements, although he only really wanted to conduct his own music, which Americans generally regarded as scarily modern. His European royalties were interrupted by the war and there was little similar income to be had in America.

Still, he must have sensed that he had a better chance of a secure future in the USA as in 1940 he applied for American citizenship. This took some years to confirm but was made official in December 1945.

Stravinsky on the cover of Time (1948)

Between 1940 and 1946 Stravinsky composed a large number of works, and these divide into two streams. On the one hand are what might be termed his "commercial" works. For example, he doesn't seem to have protested in 1940 at the hatchet job done on The Rite of Spring in Disney's Fantasia; other works intended to turn a quick buck include the Tango for piano (which was written to be used in a commercial), the Circus Polka (designed for a ballet of circus elephants), Babel (a short Biblical cantata designed to be part of a composite work with other composers), Scherzo à la russe (written for a broadcast given by the Paul Whiteman Band) and Scènes de ballet (written for a Broadway revue).

The Circus Polka is still performed today, not least because of its wicked parody of Schubert's famous Marche Militaire near the end. [listen]

The Scènes de ballet is more substantial and hardly written to match the popular taste on Broadway - or anywhere else for that matter - and it still stands up well today as a concert work. [listen]

In parallel with the commercial works of the early to mid-40s are what we might call Stravinsky's serious works. The brilliant Danses concertantes was written between 1940 and 1942 and is a concert work rather than a ballet score. [listen] The Ode of 1943 fulfilled a commission from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Stravinsky claimed it grew in part out of music from an abandoned film score project but there is little evidence for this. Another work from this period, the Ebony Concerto of 1945, was written for Woody Herman and his band "First Herd", perhaps the best example of a neo-Baroque Stravinsky score flirting with jazz. [listen]

Overlapping the creation of both the Danses concertantes and the Ebony Concerto was work on a much larger score, Stravinsky's last using the word "symphony" in its title. The Symphony in Three Movements was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered by them under the composer's baton in January 1946. Grove describes this important score as Stravinsky's "most 'Stravinskian' work for almost 30 years". Here, amazingly, he manages to blend aspects of his neo-classical style with the monumental modernism of the earlier ballet scores like The Rite of Spring. And at the same time it sounds - appropriately - like a work written in America. [listen]

Two other, very different, works came from Stravinsky's pen in the late 1940s. His Mass for choir, soloists and double wind quintet (completed in 1948) is an austere and beautiful miniature which harks back to the composer's Russian Orthodox heritage, even if it does set the Mass in Catholic Latin. [listen] Of a very different nature, but no less anchored in the past, is the Concerto in D for string orchestra, composed in 1946 for Paul Sacher's Basle Chamber Orchestra. [listen]

At the end of the 1940s Stravinsky created two more theatrical works - a ballet and an opera - which emphatically mark the end of his neo-classical phase. The ballet Orpheus was intended as a companion piece for Apollon musagète but at first they were not performed together. It was composed in 1947 and Stravinsky conducted the premiere in New York in 1948. The music is no mere rehash of old ideas, though, but rather a new approach to neo-classicism. Clearly change was in the wind... [listen]

In 1948, shortly before the premiere of Orpheus, Stravinsky met a young Julliard graduate called Robert Craft. They'd been corresponding for some time and from this point onwards, Craft became essential to the composer, as an assistant, collaborator, friend and almost an adopted son. He shadowed Stravinsky and provided a new conduit for information, ideas and simple day-to-day practicalities. By the end of 1949 he was living with Stravinsky and Vera in California and he remained at his side for the rest of the composer's life.

Robert Craft

There can be no doubt that Craft's position in Stravinsky's life was a great help to the aging composer, but this position was also controversial. The control he exercised and the proximity he had to Stravinsky was an obvious cause of jealousy among others, and his writings about him and his music are also contested and debated to this day. Craft conducted the premieres of many of the composer's late works, and had unrivalled access to him. There can be no doubt that Craft (who died in 2015) was one of the major figures in 20th century music not only by virtue of his connection with Stravinsky but also because of his pioneering work in so many fields, especially as a conductor.

By the time he conducted the premiere of Orpheus in 1948, Stravinsky had received the final draft of the libretto for his last neo-classical work and was ready to start composing an opera inspired by the art of William Hogarth to a text in English by WH Auden: The Rake's Progress. Here Stravinsky looks back without hesitation to the mature operas of Mozart. Using a Mozart-sized orchestra complete with keyboard recitatives, and setting an 18th century story inspired by 18th century pictures, he created an enduring masterpiece which was premiered at the Fenice in Venice in September, 1951. [listen]

The Rake's Progress: a scene from John Cox's production for Glyndebourne

1951 was a crucial year for Stravinsky. He conducted the premiere of The Rake's Progress in Venice himself, the first time he had returned to Europe since 1939. After his time in Italy he went to Germany to conduct and while there heard recordings of recent music, including works by Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg, one of the most important and controversial figures of 20th century music, had died earlier that year. His "school" of composition - based since the 1920s on 12-note serialism and not on conventional western tonality - had always been something Stravinsky had avoided. Until now.

Back in California Stravinsky wrote nothing for six months. He then wrote two works which are so completely at odds with the Mozartian world of The Rake's Progress that it's hard to believe they were written by the same man.

The first was Cantata, for female chorus, two solo voices and a small instrumental ensemble, setting medieval English texts. It's a transitional work, with nods in the direction of neo-classicism (ancient texts, and using archaic forms) while at the same time playing with aspects of what would be his next phase: serialism. It's also a beautiful work which deserves to be better-known. [listen]

Cantata was finished quickly so that Stravinsky could get to work on his next piece, the Septet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano, violin, viola and cello. This was to be his first full essay using his own version of serial technique. He wasn't interested in imitating Schoenberg; Schoenberg's version of serialism was 30 years old by this stage anyway. But the late works from Stravinsky's serial period show how he adapted serial techniques for his own ends. Sometimes he uses nine-note or six-note tone rows, rather than Schoenberg's twelve. Sometimes he plays with these in ways which are far more arbitrary and "free" than Schoenberg would ever have countenanced. But there's no getting away from the fact that Stravinsky's late works require a very different sort of listening, because they're a very different sort of art, and for this reason they're less frequently performed and recorded. [listen]

The Septet was premiered in 1953. Stravinsky's next major works were the ballet Agon (completed in 1957) [listen] and the choral work Canticum sacrum (written in 1955). [listen] Both of these works make partial use of twelve-tone rows, but not in a way Schoenberg would have recognised.

Most of the music Stravinsky composed in his serial period - from 1951 until his death twenty years later - was religious in inspiration, if not in actual subject matter. Canticum sacrum (which sets Biblical texts in a homage to Venice and its patron saint, St Mark) set the tone, and after Agon came another choral work, Threni. This, like Canticum sacrum, was premiered in Venice, and sets parts of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Here, for the first time, Stravinsky based an entire work on a twelve note series. [listen]

A final work for piano and orchestra, Movements, was written in 1958-59. This is based on a twelve-note row but it's treated in a very "non linear" way, working through various combinations of notes which are derived from a grid made up of the rotated tone rows stacked up one on top of the other. Stravinsky described it as "anti tonal". [listen]

In the 1960s Stravinsky continued to produce serial works, all searching for new ways of exploring the technique. A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, for solo voices, speaker, chorus and orchestra, was premiered in 1962 [listen], while a work designed specifically for television - The Flood - was first broadcast the same year. [listen]

1962 was also the year Stravinsky turned 80. He was still touring and conducting (he visited Australia in this capacity in 1961) and would keep on conducting until 1967. After Abraham and Isaac, a "sacred ballad" for baritone and small orchestra composed in 1962-63 [listen], there came four memorial pieces. The first three were for people Stravinsky knew: Elegy for JFK in 1964, a set of orchestral variations called Aldous Huxley in memoriam which was premiered in 1965, and Introitus (TS Eliot in memoriam), also premiered in 1965.

Stravinsky conducting (1965)

The last of these memorial works, Requiem Canticles, was a commission commemorating someone Stravinsky didn't know - Helen Buchanan Seeger - and this is probably a factor in its success. Here in his last substantial work, completed at the age of 84, he wrote music which still fiercely proclaims the efficacy of serialism while returning to an objective sense of ritual which was never far away from his music, and often at the centre of it. It sets sections of the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead and Robert Craft conducted its premiere in October 1966. [listen]

Small works and sketches followed the Requiem Canticles but after 1966 Stravinsky produced nothing of significance. He and Vera moved to New York in 1969 and in 1971 they moved again, within New York, to an apartment on Fifth Avenue. In this apartment, barely a week later, he died, aged 88. Both Igor and Vera Stravinsky are buried on the cemetery island of San Michele in Venice.

Stravinsky's grave on San Michele, Venice

For all his centrality to music of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky was and remains in some ways a controversial figure. There can be no doubting that the early modernist works like the first three ballets for Diaghilev are among the most important and influential works of their time. But questions are often raised as to whether Stravinsky was marking time, even being lazy, by supposedly "falling back" into neo-classicism. And the fact that he didn't start using serial techniques until immediately after the death of Schoenberg also strikes some as suspect. He is music's Picasso in many senses.

Picasso: Igor Stravinsky (1920)

Regardless of these quibbles, Stravinsky was unique and wrote fascinating music throughout his life which still challenges and excites, and probably always will. The 20th century's music is unthinkable without him and that alone is reason to continue exploring his legacy.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2015.

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