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Music In The Modern Era

Igor Stravinsky

Peter Kun Frary


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a Russian composer, pianist and conductor, but spent most of his life in Europe and the United States. He was one of the most influential composers of the first half of the twentieth century.

Igor Stravinsky, c. 1920-30 | George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress


Stravinsky's early exposure to music came from his father, a bass in the Russian Imperial Opera. Young Igor took piano lessons, studied music theory and dabbled in composition at an early age. By age fifteen, he was an accomplished pianist, having mastered Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto in G minor.

His parents expected Igor to study law and, thus, he enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901. Music filled Igor's mind and he longed to study music at the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire instead. In the summer of 1902, Rimsky-Korsakov, the leading Russian composer of the time, suggested Stravinsky say in college and study composition via private instruction. In 1905, Stravinsky took twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, whom he regarded as a second father.

Young Woman Drawing The Muse, 1935 | Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) | Musée National d'Art Moderne

In February 1909, two of his orchestral works, Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks were performed in Saint Petersburg, where Sergei Diaghilev, a presenter of Russian opera and ballet in Paris, heard them. Diaghilev was impressed by Fireworks and commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate works by Chopin and, eventually, compose a full-length ballet score. This was the beginning of Stravinsky's long and fruitful career. Stravinsky’s life divides into three stylistic periods:

Russian Phase

Stravinsky first achieved international fame with three ballets performed in Paris by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). The Rite of Spring transformed how 20th century composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky's reputation as a musical revolutionary.

Igor Stravinsky, 1920 | Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) | Bibliothèque nationale de France

Neoclassical Period

Starting in the early 1920s, Stravinsky turned to Neoclassicism. Works from this time drew from traditional musical forms such as the concerto grosso, fugue and symphony, paying tribute to earlier masters such as J.S. Bach and Handel. The Pulcinella Suite (1922) is a prime example of Stravinsky's Neoclassical style. He borrowed extensively from the Baroque era: movement names and organization, phrasing, spinning out motives, extensive use of melodic sequences, consistent mood, small orchestra, etc. Listen to the Sinfonia (first movement) from the Pulcinella Suite:

Pulcinella Suite: Sinfonia | Igor Stravinsky | (0:00-2:25 only)

Serial Leanings

In the 1950s, Stravinsky adopted Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. Although atonal and serialized, works of this period still shared many traits with his earlier output: rhythmic energy and clarity of form, instrumentation and utterance. The Flood (1962) is an apt example of Stravinsky's serial style.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 | Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) | Museum of Modern Art | Picasso and many other 20th century artists were influenced by African art.

The Rite of Spring

Primitivism is an art movement that imitates or borrows materials from non-Western or prehistoric cultures. It was primarily a stylistic movement in early 20th century art, e.g., Paul Gauguin's use of Tahitian motifs in paintings, but also involved musicians and choreographers. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is a prime example of musical Primitivism.

The Rite of Spring is a ballet and orchestral concert work Stravinsky wrote for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company. The premier caused a near-riot due to the avant-garde music and choreography. Although originally conceived as a ballet score, The Rite of Spring went on to achieve greater recognition as a concert piece for orchestra. It's also one of the most influential works of the 20th century and a compendium of twentieth century music techniques. Even though a pivotable work in the style of Primitivism, Stravinsky never again wrote in this style.

Kiss to the Earth, 1912 | Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) | Nicholas Roerich Museum | Set design for The Rite of Spring

The subtitle of The Rite of Spring is Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts. And, obviously, it draws inspiration and material from ancient Russian folklore. The scenario of the Rite is a series of rituals celebrating the arrival of Spring, selection of a maiden as a sacrifice and her sacrifice by dancing to death. The entire work takes about thirty-five minutes to perform and flows continuously without pauses between sections. We'll listen to Part One, The Adoration of the Earth. Part Two, The Sacrifice, is available on the video if you continue watching beyond 14:15. Part One consists of three sections: Introduction, Omens of Spring—Dances of the Youths and Maidens, and Ritual of Abduction.

The Rite begins quietly with a Lithuanian folk song played in the high register of a bassoon:

As the Spring awakening unfolds, solos and choirs of wind and brass instruments join in, thickening the texture, increasing tempo and eventually building to a chaotic mass of sound. At the height of momentum, the peaceful opening theme returns with the bassoon. After the bassoon solo an ostinato motive is played by pizzicato violins, acting as a bridge to the next section, Omens of Spring—Dances of the Youths and Maidens:

Omens of Spring—Dances of the Youths and Maidens begins with throbbing dissonant chords punctuated by French horns and changing accents:

The throbbing dissonant chords are soon joined by a new motive in the bassoon section:

The oboes, flutes and trombones follow, imitating the bassoon motive at an increasingly frenzied pace. The pulsating tempo suddenly stops and French horns call out sustained tones while fortissimo timpani strokes and loud tubas explode. Ostinato patterns dance and multiply and, eventually, a new lyrical motive appears in the French horn and flute sections:

A new theme is sounded in the trumpet section:

The trumpet theme is repeated by various instruments and fragmented, all within a long crescendo and layering of orchestral sounds. The third section, the Ritual of Abduction, commences with sudden tympani blows followed by fast-note trumpets fanfares at breakneck speed with changing meters and accents. There are no strong melodic motives in the Ritual but, instead, it focuses on brutal rhythms, shifting accents and instrumental color and texture. The section ends with chord accents and violin and flute trills.

The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) | Igor Stravinsky | Part 1 (0:00-8:15): Introduction, Omens of Spring—Dances of the Youths and Maidens and Ritual of Abduction


Primitivism, The Rite of Spring, Neoclassicism

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