Igor Stravinsky

Composer Igor Stravinsky

One of the most influential composers of the early 20th-century modernists, and also one of the most popular.

Vital Statistics
June 17, 1882, in St. Petersburg, Russia
April 6, 1971, in New York City
20th century
Performed As:
Pianist and conductor
During Lifetime:
Sergei Diaghilev establishes the Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet) in Paris, filled with Russian-trained dancers and choreographers. It becomes the most influential ballet company in the world, establishing dance as a major genre for 20th-century composers. At the turn of the century, Paris is the international center for the avant-garde in all artistic disciplines.
Biographical Outline
  • 1890s: Stravinsky learns music through his father, a star bass-baritone at the Imperial Opera of the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, and a descendent of landowning gentry.
  • 1901-02: His career ambitions turning away from law, Stravinsky begins lessons in music theory and composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
  • 1910-1913: Stravinsky writes three ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Le Sacre du printemps (The rite of spring, 1913). In spite of, or perhaps thanks to, the controversy generated by The Rite, these works make Stravinsky famous and place him at the head of the Parisian avant-garde.  
  • 1914: With the onset of World War I, Stravinsky moves to Switzerland. He works on smaller-scale pieces, including L’Histoire du soldat (A soldier’s tale, 1918), becomes interested in American ragtime and jazz, and also explores early music.
  • 1917: The Russian Revolution makes Stravinsky a permanent exile, influencing his music and his outlook for the rest of his life.
  • 1920-23: Back in Paris, Pulcinella (1920), another ballet, premieres; it has costumes and sets designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky conducts the premiere of his Octet for Winds, an early hallmark of his so-called “neoclassical” period, in which he radically reinterprets the musical language and syntax of the 18th century.
  • 1924-34: Stravinsky embarks on an active concert career as a pianist; moves to Nice, France; and writes many theatrical works, including the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927) and the ballets Apollo (1928) and Le Baiser de la fée (The fairy’s kiss, 1928). In 1926, he becomes a communicant in the Russian Orthodox Church, and writes the Symphony of Psalms (1930).
  • 1939: Stravinsky relocates to America. In 1940, his lover, Vera Sudeykina, becomes his second wife. They settle in West Hollywood in 1941, living there until 1969.
  • 1948-1955: Stravinsky meets the conductor Robert Craft, with whom he collaborates for the rest of his life. Disturbed by the negative reaction of the avant-garde to his opera The Rake’s Progress (1951), Stravinsky asks Craft to help him learn serial composition, the avant-garde language of the postwar period. Canticum Sacrum (1955) is his first piece to include music based on a 12-tone row.
  • Last years: Stravinsky works in his own brand of serialism as his output slows. He moves to New York City for medical treatment in 1969 and dies there two years later.
Fun Facts
  • Riot: The audience protest at the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring was so loud that neither the dancers nor the audience could properly hear the music.
  • Marketing master: Stravinsky supported his lavish lifestyle by aggressively marketing his music. Disney’s Fantasia (1940) uses an altered version of The Rite of Spring, and his Circus Polka (1941-42) was conceived as a ballet for circus elephants.
  • Man of style: Stravinsky liked fine clothes and had many romantic affairs. His second wife, Vera, left her husband for Stravinsky in 1921. Stravinsky split his time between his family with his first wife (who was also his first cousin) and Vera until the death of his first wife in 1937.
  • Buried friendship: Stravinsky was buried in Venice next to the grave of Diaghilev.
  • A Hollywood star: Stravinsky has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Modern Languages: Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg, apostle of 12-tone music, were two of the most talked-about (and notorious) composers of modern music in the early 1920s, but they were opposites in personality and goals. Schönberg ridiculed Stravinsky's "neoclassicism" and the opposition extended to their respective followers in a famous 20th-century battle of aesthetics.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Icon of the 20th century: Stravinsky wrote across many genres and even across many styles. His work has roughly three periods: his Russian-inspired early ballets; his “neoclassical” music from the early 1920s to the early 1950s; and his late music, which uses serial techniques. The Rite of Spring is a landmark, with enormous consequences. Stravinsky’s neoclassical style also influenced a wide variety of composers, including almost an entire generation of Americans.
  • Box Office Bling: Despite its undoubted modernist credentials, Stravinsky's music has always had wide audience appeal. His opera, The Rake's Progress is one of a select few post-1950 works in the international repertoire, the early ballets are staples of ballet companies, and are regularly played on orchestra concerts, the Symphony of Psalms is a popular work with choruses, the Violin Concerto, the Symphony in C, the Ragtime, and the Octet are all full of brilliant melody. In fact, with the possible exception of a few later works, almost none of Stravinsky's oeuvre is indigestible or off-putting.
Recommended Websites
  • Early Ballets:
    • The Firebird
    • Petrushka
    • The Rite of Spring
  • Neoclassical Orchestral Works:
    • Symphony of Psalms
    • Symphony in Three Movements
    • Symphony in C
  • Opera and Other Theater Works:
    • The Rake’s Progress
    • Oedipus Rex
  • Shorter and Chamber Works:
    • L’Histoire du soldat
  • Late Works:
    • Agon (ballet, 1957)
    • Requiem Canticles (1966)