Russia’s Geniuses That (Re)Shaped America: Part 3. Igor Stravinsky

Click here to read the introduction to the Russia’s Geniuses That (Re)Shaped America series.


Part 3. Igor Stravinsky

Revolutions in music were happening long before Woodstock, Billboard and YouTube. Once, a premier of a new work by a young composer caused a riot at a Parisian theater. Hold ye rebel laurels, Lady Gaga! Although critics have traditionally held most conflicting opinions on the work of Igor Stravinsky, his legacy as one of the greatest influences on the evolution of 20th century music is undisputed. Not bad for a person who insisted that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.”

Igor Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 in the suburbs of St. Petersburg into the family of F. I. Stravinsky, the bass soloist of the famed Mariinsky Theater. Music and theater formed Igor’s childhood environment. The young boy used to visit performances featuring his father and family friends. The operas A Life for the Tsar by Glinka and Serov’s Judith made a deep impression and the complex sound of an orchestra fascinated him right away. He quickly learned to play the piano and improvise. At the anniversary performance of Ruslan and Ludmila in 1892, he got to meet the legendary Peter Tchaikovsky. Young Igor had decided to devote himself to music.

Parents insisted their son should pursue “a real job” and enrolled him in law school at the University of Saint Petersburg. Not surprisingly, Igor was “a bad student” attending just about 50 lectures in four years. Luckily, he found an unlikely mentor. The father of a classmate turned out to be Russia’s leading composer at the time, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He was so impressed with Igor’s early compositions he dissuaded Stravinsky from attending the Conservatory and offered private instruction instead. Their relationship lasted five years until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death.

The 1909 performance of Stravinsky’s Fireworks was attended by a distant relative Sergei Diaghilev, the creative director of Ballets Russes in Paris. He immediately extended patronage to the young composer commissioning scores. The Diaghilev – Stravinsky ballet collaborations would soon rock Europe and change the art form forever. The Firebird premier took place in 1910, Petrushka in 1911, and Le sacre du printemps in 1913. Stravinsky scores redefined rhythmic and stylistic possibilities for both dancers and audiences with intentionally brutal polyrythms and dissonances scored for unusually large orchestras. The May 29, 1913 premier of The Right of Spring at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris remains an epochal entertainment event. It featured choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and original designs by Nicholas Roerich. Fights broke out in the audience and police had to be called in while Nijinsky shouted counts to dancers from backstage because they could not hear the music. The next day everyone woke up famous! This shock-and-awe performance style helped usher in the pop star era of the 20th century. Stravinsky also collaborated with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, George Balanchine and other luminaries of the arts scene.

Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Igor Stravinsky

The demand for all things Stravinsky was such that he published Chronicles of My Life, his first memoir in 1936! The success and notoriety of Ballets Russes productions enabled Stravinsky to settle down in Switzerland and later in France.

Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger at La Schola circa 1937

Disregarding convention Stravinsky used all 88 piano notes to such extent that most players found it unfathomable to perform his works at the time. Now they are part of the standard repertoire redefining human and artistic possibilities. Over the years his passion for innovation impressed and influenced many composers who became legendary in their own right: Erik Satie, Aaron Copeland, and Philip Glass. In 1955 he daringly sampled the ubiquitous “happy birthday song” in one of his classical compositions advancing the now commonplace practice of music sampling.

The advent of World War II was further dramatized for Stravinsky by untimely tragic deaths of his older daughter, wife, and mother, all within months of each other. Faced with private loss and international tensions he made a decision to move to the United States. He settled in the West Hollywood hills of Los Angeles cultivating relationships with authors, artists and celebrities. His home became the informal creative hub for such contemporaries as Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley and others. Stravinsky was invited to give lectures at Harvard University, which he wrote and presented in French. They were later published as widely read Poétique musicale. He co-authored several volumes of non-fiction on the subject of music and performance, many still in print and used in class at most university music programs.

In his later years, Stravinsky composed much spiritual music, often turning to Old and New Testament texts for inspiration. A consummate performer himself (pianist and conductor), he toured extensively and often worked with regional theaters and orchestras raising the profile of classical music throughout the United States. Most notably, his long term collaboration with the Santa Fe Opera helped establish the town’s status as the premier cultural destination of the American Southwest.

Despite having been refuted by most biographers, the alleged romance between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky continues to be one of the 20th century’s most glamorous rumors, inspiring a novel and its screen adaptation Coco & Igor. However, by most accounts Stravinsky was a devoted family man. Katerina Nossenko and he married young and remained together for 33 years and separated only by her untimely death. They had two children. Vera de Bosset and the composer were married later on in Massachusetts and had two more children.

At the age of eighty six he committed to a move to New York City where he resided at the legendary Essex House and passed away on April 6, 1971. He often sited Venice as his spiritual home, so he was buried in the Greek Orthodox section of the old cemetery on the island of San Michele, not far from the tomb of his breakthrough partner Sergei Diaghilev. Stravinsky’s persona and impact were honored around the world with many awards, medals and honors including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a 2¢ US Postage stamp, also earning him a place on Time Magazine list of the one hundred most influential people of the twentieth century. Bravo, Igor, bravo!

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