Igor Stravinsky, Iconic Slav

[I started this blog a week ago in order to remember an iconic Russian composer, who after  undergoing various ‘naturalizations’ eventually ended up becoming a United States citizen. He died 46 years ago on April 6, 1971. Due to the complexities of his life story and achievements in Russia , Europe and America, it’s taken awhile for me to summon up all his particulars.]

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky
was born in Oranienbaum, Russia on 17 June 1882. He was a  composer, pianist, and conductor, and is doubtless  considered widely one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. He was the son of a succdessful opera singer. Originally directed to law rather than music, he attended the University of St. Petersburg. While there he began studying harmony and counterpoint mostly by himself. He later drew guidance and inspiration from Rimsky-Korsakov, who became his teacher in instrumentation.  After graduation, Stravinsky decided to abandon law for music. Under Rimsky-Korsakov, he completed  several large works, including  a symphony introduced in St. Petersburg on January 22, 1908.

Stravinsky’s compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

The last of those transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design. His “Russian phase” which continued with works such as Renard, The Soldier’s Tale and Les Noces was followed in the 1920s by a period in which he turned to neoclassical music. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms, drawing on earlier styles, especially from the 18th century. In the 1950s, Stravinsky adopted serial procedures. His compositions of this period shared traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells and clarity of form and of instrumentation.

The early period of Stravinsky’s work would be incomplete without an in-depth research of his life while in Ukraine, as well as his connection with Ukrainian culture. Besides his Ukrainian ancestry on both his father’s and mother’s side, he maintained his personal connection with the culture of his family for as long as it was possible in a difficult political situation of that time.

From approximately 1890 till 1914 the composer was frequently visiting Ustyluh, a town in Volyn Oblast, Ukraine. He spent most of his summers there and that’s where he met his cousin, Katherine Nosenko (daughter of his mother’s sister) who he married in 1906. In 1907 Stravinsky designed and built his own house in Ustyluh where his own family stayed often during summer times until 1914. His new Ukrainian home he called “My heavenly place”. In this house Stravinsky worked on his seventeen early compositions, among which were the orchestral fantasy Fireworks, and the ballets The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. Currently, after its renovation this house is the only composers house-museum opened to the public. There are many documents, letters, and photographs on display there; also, a Stravinsky Festival is held annually in the nearby town of Lutsk.

It is quite natural that Igor Stravinsky expressed his fascination and deep understanding of the Ukrainian folk elements in his early orchestral compositions, as well as his revolutionary ballets. Based on the significant composer’s output of that period, it is apparent that the inspiration to write such rich folk-element masterpieces was drawn from the legends, melodies, and sounds of the Ukrainian tradition.

Stravinsky became an overnight sensation following the success of The Firebird’s premiere in Paris on 25 June 1910.

Incidentally, the composer had travelled from his estate in Ustilug, Ukraine, to Paris in early June to attend the final rehearsals and the premiere of The Firebird: its superb Finale may be heard here on YouTube with Pierre Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival.

Stravinsky’s family joined him before the end of the ballet season and they decided to remain in the West for a time, as his wife was expecting their third child. After spending the summer in La Baule, Brittany, they moved to Switzerland in early September. On 23 September, their second son Sviatoslav Soulima was born at a maternity clinic in Lausanne; at the end of the month, they took up residence in Clarens.

Over the next four years, Stravinsky and his family lived in Russia during the summer months and spent each winter in Switzerland. During this period, Stravinsky composed two further works for the Ballets Russes: Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Shortly following the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky contracted typhoid from eating bad oysters, and was confined to a Paris nursing home, unable to depart for Ustilug until 11 July.

During the remainder of the summer, Stravinsky turned his attention to completing his first opera, The Nightingale (usually known by its French title Le Rossignol), which he had begun in 1908 (that is, before his association with the Ballet Russe).The work had been commissioned by the Moscow Free Theatre for the handsome fee of 10,000 roubles.

The Stravinsky family returned to Switzerland (as usual) in the fall of 1913. On 15 January 1914, a fourth child, Marie Milène (or Maria Milena), was born in Lausanne. After her delivery, Katya was discovered to have tuberculosis and confined to the sanatorium at Leysin, high in the Alps. Igor and the family took up residence nearby, and he completed Le Rossignol there on 28 March.

In April, they were finally able to return to Clarens. By then, the Moscow Free Theatre had gone bankrupt.  As a result, Le Rossignol was first performed under Diaghilev’s auspices at the Paris Opéra on 26 May 1914, with sets and costumes designed by Alexandre Benois.
Le Rossignol enjoyed only lukewarm success with the public and the critics, apparently because its delicacy did not meet their expectations of the composer of The Rite of Spring. However, composers including Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok, and Reynaldo Hahn found much to admire in the score’s craftsmanship, even alleging to detect the influence of Arnold Schoenberg.

In July, with war looming, Stravinsky made a quick trip to Ustilug to retrieve personal effects including his reference works on Russian folk music. He returned to Switzerland just before national borders closed following the outbreak of Worldc War I. The war and subsequent Russian Revolution made it impossible for Stravinsky to return to his homeland, and he did not set foot upon Russian soil again until October 1962.

In June 1915, Stravinsky and his family moved from Clarens to Morges, a town six miles south-west of Lausanne on the shore of Lake Geneva. The family lived there (at three different addresses) until 1920.

Stravinsky struggled financially during this period. Russia (and its successor, the USSR) did not adhere to the Berne Convention and this created problems for Stravinsky when collecting royalties for the performances of all his Ballets Russes compositions. Stravinsky blamed Diaghilev for his financial troubles, accusing him of failing to live up to the terms of a contract they had signed. He approached the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart for financial assistance while he was writing L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). Reinhart sponsored and largely underwrote its first performance, conducted by Ernest Ansermet on 28 September 1918 at the Théâtre Municipal de Lausanne. In gratitude, Stravinsky dedicated the work to Reinhart and gave him the original manuscript. Reinhart supported Stravinsky further when he funded a series of concerts of his chamber music in 1919: included was a suite from L’Histoire du soldat arranged for violin, piano and clarinet, which was first performed on 8 November 1919, in Lausanne. In gratitude to his benefactor, Stravinsky also dedicated his Three Pieces for Clarinet (October–November 1918) to Reinhart, who was an excellent amateur clarinetist.

In May 1921, Stravinsky and his family moved to Anglet, near Biarritz, southwestern France. From then until his wife’s death in 1939, Stravinsky led a double life, dividing his time between his family in Anglet, and Vera in Paris and on tour. Katya reportedly bore her husband’s infidelity “with a mixture of magnanimity, bitterness, and compassion”.

In September 1924, Stravinsky bought “an expensive house” in Nice: the Villa des Roses.

From 1931 to 1933 the Stravinskys lived in Voreppe, near Grenoble, southeastern France.

The Stravinskys became French citizens in 1934 and moved to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris.  Stravinsky later remembered this last European address as his unhappiest, as his wife’s tuberculosis infected both himself and his eldest daughter Ludmila, who died in 1938. Katya, to whom he had been married for 33 years, died of tuberculosis a year later, in March 1939. Stravinsky himself spent five months in hospital, during which time his mother died. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky had developed professional relationships with key people in the United States: he was already working on his Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and he had agreed to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University during the 1939–40 academic year.

Despite the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, the widowed Stravinsky sailed (alone) for the United States at the end of the month, arriving in New York City and thence to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to fulfill his engagement at Harvard. Vera followed him in January, and they were married in Bedford, Massachusetts on 9 March 1940.

Stravinsky settled in West Hollywood. He spent more time living in Los Angeles than any other city. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1945.

Stravinsky had adapted to life in France, but moving to America at the age of 57 was a very different prospect. For a while, he maintained a circle of contacts and immigrant friends from Russia, but he eventually found that this did not sustain his intellectual and professional life. He was drawn to the growing cultural life of Los Angeles, especially during World War II, when so many writers, musicians, composers and conductors settled in the area: these included Otto Klemperer, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, George Balanchine and Arthur Rubenstein. Bernard Holland claimed Stravinsky was especially fond of British writers, who visited him in Beverly Hills, “like W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas. They shared the composer’s taste for hard spirits – especially Aldous Huxley, with whom Stravinsky spoke in French”. Stravinsky and Huxley had a tradition of Saturday lunches for West Coast avant-garde and luminaries.

In America, Stravinsky was richly productive, turning out numerous works for orchestra, ballet, chorus, and the stage. In some of his latest compositions he made skilful use of the twelve-tone technique, yet another radical departure for him from earlier methods and idioms. In 1949 he received the gold medal for music from he National Institute of Arts and letters. In 1954 the Royal philharmonic Society of London presented him with its gold medal, and one year after that he was honored with the Sibelius Award.

Postscript: As a teenager, I was a newbie, when it came to Stravinsky. I first became aware of his sheer genius when as a student at London University in the mid-1950s I met Edward (Eduardo) Budden of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

August 1957 Caption on Back:
Mar del Plata, Argentina
Azim & Eduardo 
on the rocks and gardens between  Playa Grande (background)
and Playa Chica, below the Esplanada (road). Hotels & flats above,
are located in the south part of the city between Casino and port.
(My dear friend died in an air crash in Argentina soon after I returned to India.)

We became close friends because of our abiding interest in classical music. Eduardo himself was making a name as a composer in his hometown, and in London he persuaded me to attend concerts at Albert Hall and Festival Hall to listen to ‘modern’ orchestral compositions, including those by Messiaen, Schonberg, Stravinsky and others even more avant garde at that day and age.

References: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen, My London  and Buenos Aires Diaries.

Dear Readers,
You number over 70,000 in just over 2 years ago back in February 2015, when I first began to put “some of my thoughts, written down” and posted them in the blogosphere. Since that time, many of you have urged me to seek support of my site and my writings by way of donations.

 My blog is about my life. It’s about what I’ve learned through the span of my life. It’s about things I love, and things I know and things I have experienced. I am humbled that so many of you want to join with me in my reflections. If you like what you find here, if it inspires or informs or amuses you, then I am content.

It would mean a lot to me, if you would please consider making a donation of US $1.00, $2.00, $5.00, or whatever amount you deem fit to sustain my work.
And thank you for being a regular reader of the Azim Mayadas Blog!

Copyright © 2017 Azim Lewis Mayadas