S is for Stravinsky

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S is for Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky was born June 5, 1882, near St. Petersburg, Russia. A prolific composer, he is probably best remembered for two of his ballets, Firebird and Rite of Spring.

Though he took music lessons as a boy, he studied law and philosophy at St. Petersburg University, while experimenting with musical composition on his own. In 1902 he had an opportunity to show some of his pieces to the father of one of his classmates. Igor_Stravinsky_EssaysThe father (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a great Russian composer in his own right) was so impressed that he offered to mentor Stravinsky, and dissuaded him from enrolling in the music conservatory.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s contacts included Sergei Diaghilev, founder of Ballet Russe, who commissioned Stravinsky to write music for a ballet about the mythical Firebird, a recurring character in Slavic folklore. When Firebird premiered in Paris in 1910, its success gave Stravinsky the reputation of being one of the most promising new composers.

When I taught elementary general music, the Infernal Dance from Firebird was my favorite example of the use of sforzando (Italian shorthand for “suddenly, with force,” or a distinct accent).

Relocating to France, Stravinsky spent the next two years working on a musical image of a pagan ritual sacrifice. Paired with choreography by Nijinsky, the premiere of Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913, sparked a legendary riot. The provocative dance and the harsh rhythms and dissonance of the music offended the sensibilities of the audience, accustomed to a more genteel Russian ballet.

I’m not sure how the choreography in this clip compares to the original, but do you see how it could have enflamed the observers?

The dancers’ movements remind me of bird mating rituals, or meercats.

When Walt Disney set beloved works of the musical canon to animation in Fantasia in 1940, here is how he and his artists interpreted Rite of Spring:

Excerpt from Fantasia:

World War I and the Russian Revolution made return to Russia out of the question for Stravinsky. However, references to Russian folk texts continued to show up in his music.

In 1940, Stravinsky moved to Hollywood, California. He lived and and worked in the United States until his death on April 6, 1971, in New York City.

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