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Igor Stravinsky

Biography

Born: Jun 17, 1882; Russia   Died: Apr 6, 1971; USA   Period: 20th Century
Igor Stravinsky was one of music's truly epochal innovators; no other composer of the twentieth century exerted such a pervasive influence or dominated his art in the way that Stravinsky did during his seven-decade musical career. Aside from purely technical considerations such as rhythm and harmony, the most important hallmark of Stravinsky's style is, indeed, its changing face. Emerging from the spirit of late Russian nationalism and ending his Read more career with a thorny, individual language steeped in twelve-tone principles, Stravinsky assumed a number of aesthetic guises throughout the course of his development while always retaining a distinctive, essential identity.
Although he was the son of one of the Mariinsky Theater's principal basses and a talented amateur pianist, Stravinsky had no more musical training than that of any other Russian upper-class child. He entered law school, but also began private composition and orchestration studies with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. By 1909, the orchestral works Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks had impressed Sergei Diaghilev enough for him to ask Stravinsky to orchestrate, and subsequently compose, ballets for his company. Stravinsky's triad of early ballets -- The Firebird (1909-1910), Petrushka (1910-1911), and most importantly, The Rite of Spring (1911-1913) -- did more to establish his reputation than any of his other works; indeed, the riot which followed the premiere of The Rite is one of the most notorious events in music history.
Stravinsky and his family spent the war years in Switzerland, returning to France in 1920. His jazz-inflected essays of the 1910s and 1920s -- notably, Ragtime (1918) and The Soldier's Tale (1918) -- gave way to one of the composer's most influential aesthetic turns. The neo-Classical tautness of works as diverse as the ballet Pulcinella (1919-1920), the Symphony of Psalms (1930) and, decades later, the opera The Rake's Progress (1948-1951) made a widespread impact and had an especial influence upon the fledgling school of American composers that looked to Stravinsky as its primary model. He had begun touring as a conductor and pianist, generally performing his own works. In the 1930s, he toured the Americas and wrote several pieces fulfilling American commissions, including the Concerto in E flat, "Dumbarton Oaks."
After the deaths of his daughter, his wife, and his mother within a period of less than a year, Stravinsky emmigrated to America, settling in California with his second wife in 1940. His works between 1940 and 1950 show a mixture of styles, but still seem centered on Russian or French traditions. Stravinsky's cultural perspective was changed after Robert Craft became his musical assistant, handling rehearsals for Stravinsky, traveling with him, and later, co-authoring his memoirs. Craft is credited with helping Stravinsky accept 12-tone composition as one of the tools of his trade. Characteristically, though, he made novel use of such principles in his own music, producing works in a highly original vein: Movements (1958-1959) for piano and orchestra, Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam (1963), and the Requiem Canticles (1965-1966) are among the most striking. Craft prepared the musicians for the exemplary series of Columbia Records LPs Stravinsky conducted through the stereo era, covering virtually all his significant works. Despite declining health in his last years, Stravinsky continued to compose until just before his death in April 1971. Read less
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps (10 Reference Recordings)
Release Date: 05/21/2013   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 546174   Number of Discs: 10
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Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex, Les Noces / Wells, Craft
Release Date: 01/18/2005   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8557499   Number of Discs: 1
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Stravinsky: Three Greek Ballets / Robert Craft, Et Al
Release Date: 05/17/2005   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8557502   Number of Discs: 1
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Stravinsky: Later Ballets / Robert Craft, Et Al
Release Date: 12/11/2007   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8557506   Number of Discs: 1
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Stravinsky: Symphony In C, Symphony In 3 Movements / Craft, Philharmonia Orchestra
Release Date: 01/27/2009   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8557507   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony in Three Movements

 

About This Work
Igor Stravinsky completed his Symphony in Three Movements in 1945. The first movement was begun in April 1942, and the final work was completed a few months after the end of World War II. During this time the composer was engaged in contract Read more negotiations to write film scores. Among the film moguls interested in commissioning Stravinsky was Louis B. Mayer, then president of MGM. Stravinsky had already written music before the projects were scrapped, and much of it found its way into Symphony in Three Movements. The outer movements involved wartime news footage, and the central movement was written for the appearance of the Virgin Mary in the film The Song of Bernadette, based on the Franz Werfel novel.

To integrate the different groups of material, Stravinsky chose to feature the piano and harp in separate, concertante roles in the first two movements, and then combined them in the third movement in an extended fugal arrangement. The symphony is a great balancing act, weaving together disparate musical ideas. The outer movements are explosive, indicative of the film score style common to American war footage. Ironic artifice, a signature sound in his music, is particularly understated in this symphony. Likewise, the middle movement, originally intended for the Virgin apparition, is suitably wrought with veneration, though perhaps not to the extent that would have please the film's producers. Stravinsky was not the sort of composer who gushed excessively, if at all. His Symphonies of Wind Instruments was an elegy of Debussy's passing, a composer and friend of enormous importance to Stravinsky, but any lamentations in the work are under total control. It was not in his character to express his feelings musically, and in fact, felt that musical was incapable of "expressing" anything. That being the case, for him to depict Bernadette's shock and amazement at encountering the Mother of Christ would have sounded unnatural. The central movement is not rhapsodic or indicative of a human soul overwhelmed in the presence of a divine being. It is contemplative music, subtle and understated, and free of amazement. The outer movements are somewhat more successful in capturing the intended spirit of war footage. They feature tumultuous blasts of brass and driving rhythms but again the composer seems removed from the excitement and concern the music is supposed to convey, instead sounding rather bizarre and exotic. The focused intensity of a believer in either war or religion was too singular a nuance for Stravinsky to sustain for an entire film score. Ultimately, the result of this forgivable failing was an excellent and memorable symphony.

-- John Keillor
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