Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky. Photograph held by the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, ggbain.32392


Igor Stravinsky was one of the most influential and innovative composers of the 20th century.

Early life

Stravinsky was born in Russia in a town now called Lomonosov near St. Petersburg on 5 June 1882, although he lived for most of his life outside his home country, in Switzerland, France and later America, also obtaining French and American nationalities.

Although encouraged by his parents to study law, gaining admission to St. Petersburg University in 1901, his real interest lay in music. He took piano lessons from a pupil of Anton Rubenstein, Leokadiya Kashperova, and harmony and counterpoint lessons from two graduates of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition class at St. Petersburg’s Conservatoire. Stravinsky became acquainted with Rimsky-Korsakov and his family, and from 1905 took regular private lessons with him in composition and orchestration. Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908 greatly saddened Stravinsky.

In St. Petersburg Stravinsky became immersed in both traditional and contemporary musical life, experiencing music by composers such as Debussy for the first time. It was here that Stravinsky also became acquainted with Sergey Diaghilev, impresario and founder in 1909 of the Ballets Russes Company, with whom Stravinsky would form a close working partnership. He married Yekaterina (Catherine) Nosenko and after her death in 1939, Vera Sudeykina.

Life in exile

Stravinsky remained in Switzerland during the First World War and subsequently, in 1920, settled in France. The outbreak of the Second World War forced him to emigrate once more and in September 1939 he travelled to America where he was to remain until his death in New York on 6 April 1971. Due to several misfortunes in his life, including the outbreak of the two World Wars, he did not return to Russia until 1962. Although Stravinsky did not fight in the two wars, they nevertheless had a strong impact on his life and compositional work, resulting in him spending most of his life in exile at a considerable cost. This was both emotional, by suffering several bereavements of family members and friends, and also financial, cutting him off from resources and income he relied upon.

Compositional style

Stravinsky’s works were often inspired or influenced by music of the past. His ballet Pulcinella first performed in 1920, for instance, was based on music by the 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolessi and other Italian composers of this time. Other works were inspired by Ancient Greek tragedy and mythology, ragtime, jazz and other influences. Stravinsky described this compositional borrowings as a ‘rare form of kleptomania’ although he had an amazing talent for making such ‘musical quotations’ his own and recreating original and innovative works. His musical borrowings of classical composers in Pulcinella mark this work as the beginning of what is called his neo-classical style which lasted 30 years.

Influences and collaborations

Stravinsky actively collaborated with eminent artists of his time, forming close working relationships with such figures as the ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev, the dancers and choreographers Vaslav Nijinsky, Leonid Massine, and George Balanchine, the writers Jean Cocteau and W H Auden, and the artists Léon Bakst and Pablo Picasso. Later in his life he was also influenced by the work of Arnold Schoenberg and twelve-tone music.

Ballet Music

Although Stravinsky composed important works for every musical genre, he is particularly well-known for the ballet music he composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Company. The two men enjoyed a very productive collaboration which resulted in the ballets The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913) – which caused enormous controversy at its first performance amongst the Parisian audience – Pulcinella (1920), and Apollo (1928), as well as the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927) and other dramatic works.

Other notable works that he composed include A Soldier’s Tale, which was written towards the end of World War I, the Symphony of Psalms, the opera The Rake’s Progress, the Requiem Canticles, as well as numerous solo vocal and instrumental, chamber, and piano works.

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