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Igor Stravinsky

The Beginnings

Igor Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, Russia in 1882. We can celebrate his birthday on two days, June 17 and 18. The Orthodox Eastern religion had a different calendar than North America.

Two birthdays a year is not such a bad idea!

Although Stravinsky was born in Russia, his parents were Polish. His father was a bass-baritone singer in the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg. Igor first saw his father perform in Glinka's opera Ruslan and Ludmilla. He was allowed to go backstage after the performance and see the great Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky was especially glad to have seen that admired composer because only two weeks later Tchaikovsky died of cholera.


At nine years old, Igor started taking piano and harmony lessons. At 18, he met Vladimir, the son of the famous Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Vladimir and Stravinsky became friends. Through his friend, Igor met Rimsky-Korsakov and studied orchestration and musical form with him. Rimsky-Korsakov held weekly gatherings at his house where his students played their compositions. Stravinsky learned a lot from his teacher and these gatherings. When Igor was 26, Rimsky-Korsakov died. Stravinsky never studied with anyone after that. He said that Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Wagner and Tchaikovsky had influenced his work.

Stravinsky loved going to the theatre and the opera as well as reading the many books in his father's library.
Igor's father helped him learn to love music and also made sure he studied law.When Igor was 23 years old, he received his law degree from the University of St. Petersburg.

Married Life

When Igor Stravinsky was 24, he married his cousin and childhood friend, Catherine Nossenko.They both loved painting, amateur theater and playing the piano. Catherine had studied singing in Paris. She was Igor's greatest source of encouragement. They built a riverside home and lived there for eight years. Stravinsky called it a "haven for composing". They had four children - two sons and two daughters.

Links to the West

Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, wanted a composer to turn the Russian folktale, The Firebird into a ballet. He chose Igor Stravinsky.

Opening night was in Paris, France, July 10, 1910. The Firebird was a marvelous success! The French composers, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, were in the audience. This ballet began Stravinsky's relationship with western culture. It made Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes famous! It also caused Igor's Russian colleagues in St. Petersburg to feel very jealous.

Three years later, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring premiered in Paris. The audience rioted because they found the music and choreography so shocking. Stravinsky became ill with typhoid fever right after this performance. It took six weeks for him to get well again.

In 1914, Stravinsky and his family packed some things from their river side home and moved to Clarens, Switzerland for the winter. They never saw their home again. In 1917, the Russian Revolution cut them off from their homeland, properties, possessions, and income. It was a troubled time, but Stravinsky and his family had many friends in the arts community.

Time of War

Stravinsky and his poet friend, Charles Ramuz, set up a miniature traveling theatre.v To earn their living, they took the theatre on village tours. Igor assembled a seven-player orchestra with instruments from every instrument family.
He composed The Soldier's Tale (L'Histoire du soldat).
It had the perfect theme for a war-torn continent. Stravinsky placed the orchestra on one side of the stage, the narrator on a platform on the other side, and left a space in the middle for the action to take place.

In 1917, Stravinsky met the great artist Pablo Picasso in Italy. While visiting him, Picasso drew a picture of Stravinsky. Igor packed it in his luggage to bring back to Switzerland.
When the customs officer inspected the suitcase, he thought the portrait was a spy plan. Their conversation went like this:

"What is this sketch?"
"My portrait drawn by Picasso."
"Nonsense. It must be a plan."
"Yes - the plan of my face."

The official believed that Stravinsky was a spy carrying a secret military plan.
The composer called on his friends at the British Embassy to identify him and get the picture back. That customs official had quite an imagination!

After the War

The war ended in 1920 and Stravinsky moved to France where he was very popular. His new ballet, Pulcinella, opened on May 15, 1920 at the Paris Opera House.

Igor preferred composing to performing, but he began touring Europe as a conductor and pianist. In 1925 he made his first appearance in the United States.

Stravinsky composed Oedipus Rex in 1927 with the French dramatist Jean Cocteau. It was written as a gift for Serge Diaghilev, the man who had selected Stravinsky to compose The Firebird. Two years later, his good friend Diaghilev died.

In 1934, Igor Stravinsky became a French citizen and published his memoirs in French.

Personal Tragedy

War threatened Europe again in 1937 when Stravinsky was having family troubles as well. His wife Catherine and their two daughters, Ludmilla and Milena, were in a Swiss sanatorium. They were receiving treatment for tuberculosis. A year later, while Stravinsky was on a tour in Italy, Ludmilla died. The next year his beloved Catherine also died. Three months after that, his mother died. If that wasn't enough heartbreak, Stravinsky was diagnosed with tuberculosis too. He spent five months recovering in the same sanatorium as his surviving daughter, Milena. She received treatment for six years.

A Fresh Start

The same year his wife and mother died, Stravinsky moved to the United States. He gave six music lectures at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The following year, 1940, Stravinsky married Vera de Bosset, a close friend. They settled in Los Angeles, California. He continued composing and gave concert tours around the world.

In 1945, Igor Stravinsky became a citizen of the United States of America.

This is what Stravinsky said about being a composer.

"I know that the twelve notes in each octave and the varieties of rhythm offer me opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust."

On his 80th birthday, in 1962, he accepted an official invitation to visit the Soviet Union (Russia). It had been 48 years since Igor had seen his homeland.
In 1965, Stravinsky visited Poland, but he wasn't able to visit his riverside composer's haven.

His daughter Milena moved to California and her husband, André Marion, became Stravinsky's accountant and business manager.
One of Stravinsky's sons stayed in Switzerland while the other joined his father and sister in the United States.

Stravinsky's Routine

Having had enough of poor health, Stravinsky decided to start each day with 15 minutes of exercise. The rest of the morning was spent composing music.
Lunch was at 2 p.m.; afterward he played his favourite game, Chinese checkers.
(Just so you know...Igor did not like to lose at anything.) Later he worked in his garden and took care of his pet birds. The rest of the day was spent writing letters and taking care of personal business.

Stravinsky was an orderly man. His compositions and workroom were always very tidy.

How does your day compare with Stravinsky's? What would you think he'd say about the neatness of your schoolwork and bedroom?

Later Compositions

In 1953, Igor Stravinsky met the poet Dylan Thomas.
They planned to compose an opera together, but Thomas died before that could happen.

Influenced by movies and visual effects, Stravinsky composed The Flood in 1960.

In 1962, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, and Mrs. Kennedy invited Stravinsky and his wife for dinner. One year later, Stravinsky composed Elegy for JFK to honour Kennedy after the assassination.

Inspired by his 1962 visit to Israel, Stravinsky composed the vocal work, Abraham and Isaac. In 1964, he was invited back for its premiere by the Committee of the Festival of Israel. Stravinsky said it was the highlight of his year.

In 1965, Stravinsky was even decorated by Pope Paul at a concert in the Vatican.
It was about that time when he began work on his last major composition, Requiem Canticles.

The Final Years

Igor Stravinsky gave his last concert in Toronto in 1967.
He conducted Pulcinella. It was the only time in his conducting career that he had to remain seated. Stravinsky was 87 years old.

Although he no longer composed music, he loved listening to recordings.Stravinsky was hospitalized in 1970, but recovered long enough to make one more visit to Europe.

Igor Stravinsky died on April 6, 1971. There was a private funeral service on April 9th. Three days later, his body was flown to Venice, Italy, for a public funeral. The funeral Mass included his own Requiem Canticles. The coffin was taken by gondola to the island of San Michele. Igor Stravinsky was buried there near his old friend Serge Diaghilev.