Igor Stravinsky, probably the most influential European-born composer of the 20th century, was born outside Leningrad. His father was a bass singer at the Russian Imperial Opera, but Stravinsky was encouraged to pursue a career as a government lawyer, studying music on an amateur level. However, with the encouragement of his teachers, when he was 20 he began to study composition seriously. By the time he was 30, two brilliant and audacious works, The Fire Bird and Petrushka, had thrust him into the forefront of the modernist movement. Both were ballet scores commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, director of one of the most important ballet companies of the early 20th century, the Paris-based Ballet Russe (Russian Ballet).
From 1911 to 1939, Stravinsky resided principally in France and Switzerland, touring Europe as a pianist and conductor of his own works. His third collaboration with Diaghilev,The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre de Printemps), provoked a near riot at its premiere in 1913. The choice of subject, a pagan ritual in which a virgin is sacrificed to propitiate the gods, reflects a fascination with “primitive” or preliterate cultures that also inspired Picasso’s collection of African sculpture and influenced the development of the Cubist style in art. This was also the period of Freud’s writings about the fundamentally savage impulses of human nature. The raw sensuality and hypnotic musical repetition, paralleled by compulsively repeated choreographic movements, were among the features found offensive by members of the audience. One critic expressed the opinion that the work “constituted a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art.” Others characterized it as “stupifying,” “haunting,” “a beautiful nightmare.” Almost a century after its composition, Rite of Spring no longer stirs such impassioned controversy but continues to arrest listeners with the elemental power of the musical materials and the overwhelming force of their expression. One section of Fantasia, the pioneering 1940 animated film from the Disney Studios, is based on the score of TheRite of Spring.
In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Stravinsky was presenting a series of lectures at Harvard. Rather than return to Europe, he decided to settle in the United States, where he remained until his death. Over his long life, he completed a huge body of work encompassing virtually every musical genre — opera, ballet, symphony, concerto, choral, chamber. T. S.Eliot, Charlie Chaplin, and Pablo Picasso, who sketched a famous portrait of Stravinsky while sitting at a Paris café, were among his friends. He collaborated with many leading artists of his time, including Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, and W. H. Auden. He had an affair with Coco Chanel, gave autographs to Sinatra and the pope, and was honored at a White House dinner given by the Kennedys (whom he called “nice kids”).
Like Pablo Picasso, Stravinsky went through different stylistic periods during which his works reflect a variety of past and contemporary traditions, most importantly the folk and classical music of his native Russia, the compositional practices of Bach and Mozart, jazz, and the serial technique of Arnold Schoenberg. Stravinsky seems to have been conscious of how seminal such influences had been on his evolution as a composer. When in 1969 he was asked to explain why, at age 87, he was moving from Los Angeles to New York, he replied, “to mutate faster.”