Composer Biography: Igor Stravinsky

This is a biography of the highly influential and revolutionary modern composer Igor Stravinsky, one of the most important of the twentieth-century.

Perhaps no other modern classical composer has influenced and astounded the unassuming public as much as Igor Stravinsky did. Moving wildly and unpredictably from textural experimentation to neo-classism to the challenging edges of atonality, Stravinsky has inspired awe and adulation from many artists in the music world, as well, including those in jazz and popular music.

It was around the turn of the century that modern music began its transition from romanticism to experimentalism, following the insurmountable legacy of Wagner. Many new styles and techniques were beginning to form, including the dreamlike impressionism, the totally foreign and controversial serialism, and various other stylistic advances. Some of the most notable composers of the period include Claude Debussy, Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, and Edgar Varese. These revolutionary musical artists were forging new ground, along with the other arts. Writing, painting and filmmaking were all finding new ways of exploring art and emotion, for a new kind of society: restless, impatient, and industrious. But a new Russian composer would soon create modern music's penultimate work.

Studying under the revered Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky learned the tools of composing by a renowned master. To show his appreciation, he composed an orchestral work, entitled "Fireworks", for his teacher's daughter's wedding. Unfortunately, the elder man died before getting a chance to hear it. But someone else central to Stravinsky's career heard it. His name was Sergey Diaghilev, a ballet company owner. Impressed by the young Russian's capabilities, he hired him and commissioned two ballets, "The Firebird" and "Petrouchka". Both were astoundingly successful and pointed the way to new artistic ground, with their polytonality, occasionally violent rhythms and seemingly manic emotional swings.

What followed was a musical event that no one could have predicted or was seemingly ready for. When "The Rite Of Spring" debuted, it was completely derailed by the audience. They laughed at it and booed, drowning out the music and causing an out-and-out riot. But what the public witnessed that first night was something that would come to be respected and appreciated by many as the greatest piece of music produced in the twentieth-century. And without a doubt, there has never been anything like it, and probably never will be. It is so genuinely of it that Stravinsky never composed anything like it, ever again. From slow, melancholy passages to some of the most violent and spiritually draining in all of music, this is art which takes experimentalism and forces it to a kind of absolution, making spring a deadly metaphor for the cycle of life.

The next phase of his career showed the composer forsaking his stylistic exercises for something more conservative, if no less compelling. It was called neo-classism and Stravinsky was at the forefront of it. Neo-classism is a retreat back to the music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, to a time when pretentiousness was seemingly left behind in favor of order and structure. The challenge of neo-classism is to make something new out of something old. And Stravinsky forged ahead in this new direction, making some of his most memorable music, such as " Pulcinella, " "Oedipus Rex," "Ebony," and "The Rakes Progress," sometimes ironically inflecting it with elements of jazz.

Then Stravinsky completely switched styles again, baffling and intriguing his followers. In approaching serialism, the composer again returned to his experimental roots. Serialism is the process of composing in which there is usually no tonal center and, therefore, no sense of cushion or familiarity throughout the piece. This intrigued Stravinsky and many other musical artists as well. But again, he proved that he could bring just as much passion and invention to this approach as he could to neo-classism. Among his memorable efforts in serialism techniques are "In Memoriam Dylan Thomas", "Agon, "Threni", and "Three Easy Pieces For Piano Duet".

Stravinsky's career was a wild, unpredictable ride, full of intrigue, contradiction, and richness. Among the many works he produced, perhaps his most recognizable is "The Rite Of Spring", but that doesn't take anything away from his overall achievement. In fact, it makes it richer, for his career ebbs and flows much like the music of that famous ballet, reminding us all that art and life have to keep moving or it will die. Stravinsky was a restless artist and spirit, but that restlessness paved the way to immortality. Few composers will be remembered as endearingly as Stravinsky, because he took the normally unexpressed recesses of the soul and pasted them on to any style of music he happen to take an interest in.

And like Beethoven before him, Stravinsky's deft touch has influenced all music of his century and beyond. Stravinsky was equally fascinated with neo-classism, serialism, experimentalism and jazz, at various phases of his career. This willingness to pursue new paths has led him to be mentioned as an inspiration, not only in the highly contained world of art music, but also in jazz, rock, and techno. In reaching out to audiences of high intelligence, as well as the casual listener, Stravinsky brings a community sense to his music, making changes in style in order for the ongoing battle of life, and the various phases of it that we have to go through. Like all-great art, Stravinsky's music wasn't just about its surface, but the trials and tribulations of life itself.

© High Speed Ventures 2011