Igor Stravinsky, arguably the most influential of all 20th-century composers and probably still the most famous and widely performed, was born in St. Petersburg. He started piano lessons at the age of nine but only began studying composition seriously when, as a law student of twenty, he met Rimsky-Korsakov and a few years later became his private pupil. His conservative early scores are heavily indebted to his teacher, as well as to Glazunov, another Rimsky pupil, and even Tchaikovsky. The defining moment in Stravinsky’s musical development came through an association with Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Russian ballet company, for which Stravinsky wrote The Firebird in 1910. Its premiere launched his international career, and the two radical Diaghilev-commissioned masterpieces that followed—Petrushka (1911), and especially The Rite of Spring (1913), which set off a notorious riot at its premiere—decisively changed the course of music history.
What came after that from Stravinsky’s pen was a seemingly endless series of new surprises, influenced as much by the mobile geography of a life in exile from the Revolution—he resided successively in Switzerland (1914–20), France (1920–39), and America (1939 to his death)—as by an insatiable compositional appetite that digested and transmuted the most incredibly diverse styles. He spoke most of the musical languages of his time—notably the neo-Classicism that culminated in his 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress and, during the 1950s and 60s, Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, which he had previously disparaged—but always in an individual, unmistakably Russian voice. And he embraced nearly every important genre from Baroque to modern, as well as inventing some new ones and participating in curiosities like the Genesis Suite, to which he was the only non-Jewish contributor. (For much of his life Stravinsky was a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church and a foe of “internationalism,” having been attracted to facism as well as being an ardent admirer of Mussolini; and he was demonstrably “tainted”—as the scholar Richard Taruskin has shown—by anti-Semitism and outright antipathy toward Jews collectively, even in his American years.) The discography of his major works conducted by him during the last decades of his life for Goddard Lieberson’s Columbia Masterworks represents a landmark of recording history and one of the most precious musical documents in existence.
By: Richard Evidon
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