Featured Composer IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

In the early years of the 20th century there was a struggle between two opposing creative groups - each responding to the need to move the art forward, to reinvent music for a new century. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and the members of his circle believed that tonality must be abandoned. Their new serial technique was the rage of the musical intelligencia. Igor Stravinsky and a small group of experimental Russian composers (Miaskovsky, Popov) sought to retain tonality by advancing it to its very limits. Stravinsky introduced fierce dissonance and driving rhythmic propulsion as an alternative to a melodic center. A century later only a small number of works by the Viennesse atonalists have achieved repertoire status while Stravinsky's works continue to play a dominant role in the programming of symphony orchestras, ballet companies, and, increasingly, major opera houses. 

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 in Lomonosov, Russia. His father was a leading basso at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater. The gifted Stravinsky studied with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov from 1902-08. Rimsky-Korsakov was the ultimate orchestral colorist and one of the leading lights of the Russian Five - a group of composers dedicated to an indigenous Russian Nationalist musical language. The Russian master would be the dominant influence on the young Stravinsky's early works. Stravinsky's Symphony, Opus 1 (composed between 1905 and 1907) could well have been written by Rimsky-Korsakov or Alexander Glazunov. An opulent orchestral canvas replete with melodies of decidedly Russian origin, the score is an impressive debut work. (Performances in the 1970's by the Cleveland Orchestra under Mathias Bammert and the New York Philharmonic conducted by the underrated Aldo Ceccato revealed that the score still has remarkable vitality, charm, and creative punch. This early work awaits a modern revival by a conductor who believes in its extroverted Romanticism - perhaps Neemi Jarvi?) 

The brilliant Russian impresario Sergei Dyagilev commissioned the composer to write the score for choreographer Mikhail Fokine's fairy tale ballet "The Firebird" (1910).The lush orchestral colors of that score clearly connect Stravinsky to his Russian past while the hard driving rhythms and dissonance of the evil magician's Infernal Dance point the way to the composer's future. The score for "The Firebird" would make Stravinsky an international celebrity. In 1910 Stravinsky traveled to Paris with the Dyagilev Ballets Russes. France would become his artistic base. In 1911 he would again collaborate with Dyagilev and Fokine on "Petrushka." This circus ballet marked a major creative advance when compared to the composer's previous works. Stravinsky incorporated Russian folk material into a context that relied to a greater degree on rhythm than harmony. Compared to the sensuous orchestration of "The Firebird," "Petrushka" is sparse and austere yet still distinctively Russian. 

With his next ballet score Stravinsky would cause a musical revolution and an artistic scandal and riot. "Le Sacre de Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring") was a collaboration with the legendary dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Based upon a Pagan rite of sacrificing a chosen maiden, the score's harsh dissonance, motor rhythms, and ambiguous harmonies drove tonality to its very brink. The score's astringent orchestration challenged the very capacities of the orchestral instruments. This was music of a bold new world! At the ballet's 1913 premiere in Paris (conducted by the legendary French conductor Pierre Monteux) a riot erupted. Nijinsky's experimental choreography and Stravinsky's unrelentingly fierce score shocked the Parisian swells. Championed by Serge Koussevitzky, the orchestral score would quickly become a mainstay of the concert repertoire. Today "Le Sacre de Printemps" continues to shock and astound! The score reaffirmed Stravinsky's creative genius. A series of similarly austere, rhythmically driven scores based on Russian themes followed that path breaking work. The choral ballet "Les Noces" ("The Wedding") recreates Russian rituals. Stravinsky's instrumentation was for two pianos and percussion - emphasizing the primitive ceremony. There followed the dance fable "Renard," the play with music "The Soldier's Tale" (a musically astringent anti war parable), and choral song settings. 

Beginning a new collaboration with the brilliant choreographer Leonid Massine, Stravinsky created a Chinese opera "Le Rossignol" ("The Nightingale"). This stunningly atmospheric, exotic score inspired an orchestral tone poem "Le Chant du Rossignol" ("The Song of the Nightingale"). Only the most virtuosic orchestras and brilliant conductors need attempt this daunting score. In "Le Baiser de la Fee" Stravinsky would adapt music by Tchaikovsky - a ballet score that pays tribute to Russia's greatest ballet composer by his 20th century successor. The opera-oratorio "Oedipus Rex" would mark Stravinsky's new found embrace of neo-classicism. With large orchestral, choral, and solo vocal forces, Stravinsky brought Handelian pageantry into the modern era.

Dyagilev introduced Stravinsky to the gifted dancer-choreographer George Balanchine. (Balanchine was a graduate of Russia's famed Kirov Ballet Academy and danced with the Kirov company. He even started his own modern ballet company before departing the Soviet Union.) Both artistic revolutionaries at heart, Stravinsky and Balanchine formed an artistic relationship that would last for nearly five decades. Their first collaboration "Pulcinella" was a spirited comedia del arte. For his score Stravinsky concocted a modernist transformation of themes by the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolessi. The composer even added vocal roles to compliment the music's quasi-operatic origins. A stunningly original reinvention of 18th century classicism! In "Jeu de Cartes" ("Card Game") music and choreography combined in neo-classical formation. Stravinsky's new simplicity of creative utterance would assert itself again in the dance drama "Persephone" (in collaboration with Gide and Balanchine) and the elegant "Duo Concertante" (for violin and piano). Stravinsky and Balanchine's final work for the Dyagilev Ballets Russes broke new ground. "Apollo" (1928) fused choreographic austerity with a score for strings alone. Here was music that celebrated both the French Baroque of Lully and Rameau and the Romanticism of Tchaikovsky. 

In 1926 Stravinsky rejoined the Orthodox Church. Two years later his wonderfully vital "Symphony of Psalms" would fuse neo-classicism with the Christian liturgy. Other works of the 1930's - all striking in their austerity and experimental tonality - include the virtuosic Violin Concerto, the "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto" for chamber orchestra (Stravinsky's version of a Bach "Brandenburg Concerto"), and the powerful, enigmatic "Symphony in C." During the composition of that work in 1939, Stravinsky and Vera Sudekina (who would become his second wife) moved to the United States. In 1940 they settled in Hollywood. Although embraced by the Los Angeles cultural establishment, various film projects failed to come to fruition. The unfinished score for the film version of Franz Werfel's "Song of Bernadette" was recycled into one of the composer's greatest works - the "Symphony in Three Movements" (1945) - a boldly dissonant score that rekindled Stravinsky's "Firebird" era sense of orchestral color. For Balanchine's newly formed New York City Ballet he composed the austere "Orpheus" - their first collaboration since "Apollo." 

Working with the brilliant librettists-poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky composed the neo-Mozartean opera "The Rake's Progress." Although this witty, touching work baffled audiences at its 1951 premieres in Venice and at New York's Metropolitan Opera, a new generation of singers and conductors have championed this masterpiece. Today an increasing number of the world's major opera houses carry this work in their repertoire. (A 1990's Metropolitan Opera production directed by Jonathan Miller and conducted by James Levine- with Dawn Upshaw, Jerry Hadley, and Samuel Ramey in the leading roles- was a smashing success.) While composing this score Stravinsky met the American conductor Robert Craft who soon became part of his artistic circle. An advocate of Schoenberg and Webern, Craft encouraged Stravinsky to experiment with atonality. The most arresting artistic result was Stravinsky's final official collaboration with Balanchine - the elegant, neo-Baroque, thoroughly atonal "Agon" - a masterpiece of musical simplicity and compositional ingenuity. (With Stravinsky's blessing Balanchine would continue to choreograph the composer's orchestral works including a powerful Vietnam era anti-war ballet set to the "Symphony in Three Movements.") Other serial based works include the music drama "The Flood" (originally composed for television but later produced by Balanchine at New York City Ballet) and the sacred works "Canticum Sacrum" and "Requiem Canticles." 

Stravinsky was a splendid conductor - and not only of his own music. He led hundreds of concerts around the globe. He was honored by President Kennedy at the White House. (His "Elegy for J.F.K." is a touching tribute to a fallen leader.) Stravinsky continued composing into his 70's and 80's. His final work "In Memoriam Dylan Thomas" is a brief, haunting, incredibly original chamber orchestral work that reinvents serial techniques. A master to the end! Stravinsky died on April 6, 1971 in New York City.

In ways large and small Igor Stravinsky rewrote music history. His brilliant, demanding orchestral scores paved the way for the new era of the superstar conductor. It is entirely appropriate to honor Stravinsky's unique contribution to music history with Guido Agosti's daringly original, virtuosic pianistic reinvention of music from "The Firebird." A tribute to a master and a 20th century creative icon! 


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