Lesson Twelve: Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Who was Igor Stravinsky? (1882-1971). A Russian American composer whose long career spanned much of the 20th century, and exhibited an eclectic style.

Historical context. Stravinsky's work followed the trend of the geo-political forces that shaped his life. The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917, forcing him out of his native land and away from the Russian nationalism that characterized his early style. Settling in Paris, he adopted the neo-classicism of the earlier Baroque and Classic styles for about 20 years. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 forced Stravinsky to emigrate to the United States, where he settled in Hollywood. He became a U.S. citizen in 1945 and began to incorporate aspects of modern music during his American period.

Summary of Stravinsky's teaching. The musical career of Igor Stravinsky reads something like a mystery novel: a "shocker" at both ends with a skillfully woven, balanced narrative in the middle. Even as Johannes Brahms challenged the radicalism of Richard Wagner, so did Igor Stravinsky challenge the innovations of Arnold Shonberg -- for most of his career.

After two initial ballet successes, Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911) written for the Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev, Stravinsky provoked a near riot at the first performance of The Rite of Spring in 1913. The driving rhythm and numerous unresolved chords completely unnerved an audience attuned to the familiar Romantic sound. The beginning of modern music is often traced to Stravinsky's first performance of Rite of Spring.

Not long after, Stravinsky settled into a long period of composition in the neo-classical idiom. This transition may have been prompted by a spiritual crisis in the mid-1920s during which he reaffirmed his membership in the Russian Orthodox Church. In his 1935 autobiography he explained his quest for objectivity of form during this period as a reaction to the subjective emotionalism of the Romantic era. He even instigated a "Back to Bach" movement. A centerpiece of his work at this juncture is a Symphony of Psalms (1930) (Movement 1, Movement 2, Movement 3) an interpretation of Psalms 39, 40 and 150 for chorus and orchestra. The composition moves from a plea for Divine mercy, to thankfulness for grace in forgiveness, to a final hymn of praise. This work affirmed Stravinsky's conviction that music is the language in which the heart communes with God.

In 1939 Stravinsky moved to the United States, where he began to diversify with pieces such as the Circus Polka, to be danced by circus elephants, and The Rake's Progress, an operatic morality play that sums up his neo-classical period.

Implications for subsequent history. In 1948 he became associated with the younger American composer, Robert Craft, who encouraged Stravinsky to reconsider the serialist approach of Arnold Schonberg and his disciple, Anton Webern. Although they comprise a relatively small portion of his life's work, he began to incorporate the 12-tone row into some of his later works, such as The Requiem Canticles. In Threni he used the technique to express the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah in an exhortation to submit to the sovereignty of God. In this and other works he provided an example of the appropriate use of various musical styles, even distortion, to accomplish a variety of purposes. As a master craftsman, he chose as it were from his musical toolbox the right tool for the right job.

Biblical analysis. Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms follows the biblical pattern for worship outlined in Isaiah's approach to the throne of God in Isaiah six. Isaiah first "saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple" (v. 1). This view of God's holiness led him to confess his sin, "Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips…for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts" (v. 5). This was followed by the assurance of God's cleansing and forgiveness when an angel laid a burning coal from the altar on his lips: "Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged" (v. 7).

Corrective or Prescriptive Actions: Church litany (order of worship) must follow the pattern laid down in the Bible because God is particular about the way that we approach Him in worship. Symbolizing this requirement, it was forbidden to construct the Old Testament altar with any stones that were hewn by the hand of man.

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Portraits of Composers courtesy of Classical Archives

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