One of the most influential figures in musical history, Stravinsky went to law school before embarking on private composition lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov, and beginning his legedary collaboration with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in paris. Early works such as the The Firebird and The Rite of Spring were dissonant, rhythmic and often contained references to Russian folk song. Then followed from around 1921 a neo-classical phase which lasted thirty years. Stravinsky shocked the musical estblishment by adopting serialism in his later years, a technique which he had hitherto shunned, in works such as Canticum Sacrum and Threni.
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(1916; soloists, ensemble)
- L'Histoire du soldat
(1918; narrators, chamber ensemble)
- Les noces
(1923; choir, soloists, ensemble)
- Suite No 1
- The Firebird: Suite
(1910 rev. 1945; orchestra)
- Ebony Concerto
(1945; chamber ensemble)
- 1910-4 lived and worked in Paris producing several notable works for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes
- 1914-20 moved to Switzerland to avoid World War I; began work on Renard and Les Noces
- 1920-39 returned to Paris, becoming a French citizen in 1934; writes neo-classical works
- 1939 moved to USA, later becoming a US citizen
- 1956 premiere of Canticum Sacrum, his first significant serial work
Stravinsky’s relations with his various publishers would make a fitting subject for a long-running TV soap opera, complete with courtroom dramas, emotional farewells, some embarrassing contractual wrangles, and of course background music based on the ‘Ronde des princesses’ in The Firebird. The association with Chester Music would certainly provide some of the best episodes. Stravinsky landed in Chester’s lap after the First World War, a conflict which, among other things, played havoc with international publishing. And he remained with them until he signed an agreement with Editions Russes de Musique (ERM) in September 1923. Before the war he had first been taken up by the Moscow house of Jurgenson, who published The Firebird, and then by Koussevitsky’s recently founded ERM, who brought out Petrushka and the piano-duet score of The Rite of Spring, and had its full score in proof when war broke out and put paid to their Russian operation for good. After the Revolution in 1917 Jurgenson’s firm was nationalized. However, his German office continued to function, and Jurgenson later (apparently without telling the composer) sold the rights in The Firebird to the Leipzig house of Robert Forberg (a conjunction which recalls Stravinsky’s American train as Mr Fireberg). This transaction subsequently gave rise to a lawsuit between Forberg and Chester.
Meanwhile Stravinsky had been stranded in Switzerland by the outbreak of hostilities. “It seems,” he had written to Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov in 1912 whilst working on The Rite of Spring, “as if not two but twenty years have passed since The Firebird was composed.” What must he have felt in August 1914? A mere five years earlier he had been an all but unknown Russian composer, living and working in his native St. Petersburg, a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, certainly, but with no major successes to his name. Though his music had been played – thanks to the good offices of his teacher – he had had no independent recognition until Serge Diaghilev heard two of his orchestral works in February 1909 and decided to commission some arrangements from him for the 1909 Paris season of the Ballets Russes. Not until the autumn did the crucial Firebird commission materialise.
Stravinsky certainly seems to have felt no qualms or anxieties about this turn in his fortunes. Yet even he must have been surprised by the scale of his success when The Firebird had its first performance in Paris in June 1910. Effectively it distanced him from Russia once and for all. With his wife, who was expecting their third child, he went first to Brittany for a holiday, and then on to Lausanne, where the baby was born. Here, in the French-speaking Swiss canton of Vaud, he was to live for the next ten years. Much of Petrushka and the whole of The Rite of Spring were composed at Clarens, on the northern shore of Lake Geneva. The summers were still spent at the Stravinskys’ dacha at Ustilug, near the Polish border of the Ukraine. But even this became inaccessible after 1914. Suddenly Stravinsky was uprooted from his native soil. He was not to set foot on it for another forty-eight years. In 1920 he would move to France (and would eventually become a French citizen in 1934); and in 1940 he would settle in the USA, becoming a US citizen in 1945. Long before Schönberg or the rest of the great Jewish Diaspora, the gentile Stravinsky was archetypecast as that symbolic twentieth century figure: the exile.
The wages of exile are insecurity. Uncertain of his income and with little confidence in the future of the Russian publishing houses, Stravinsky began in due course to cast around for publishers for the music he had been writing in Switzerland. The first to come to his ‘rescue’ was a Geneva concert agent, Adolphe Henn, who in 1917 brought out the as yet unperformed Renard (1916) together with a number of shorter works, including the Pribaoutki (1914), the two sets of Easy Pieces for piano duet (1914-17), and the Berceuses du Chat (1916). At the very end of the war Blaise Cendrars negotiated the publication of Ragtime (1917-18) by the Parisian Editions de la Sirène. But these were stopgap arrangements, and by 1918 Stravinsky was already seeking a more dependable contract with a major publishing house. In 1919 Jurgenson’s London representative J. & W. Chester (in the person of its director Otto Kling) acquired the still incomplete Les Noces, together with rights in the already published wartime scores, and several that had not yet been published, including The Soldier’s Tale (1918, but not published until 1924), the Three Tales for Children (1916-17), and Four Russian Peasant Songs (1914-17).
Soon afterwards Chester brought out the vocal score of Pulcinella (1919, but not the full score, which was still in composer’s hands when he signed his ERM contract in 1923), the Piano Rag Music (1919) and the Three Pieces for Clarinet (1918-19). The little piano pieces Les Cinq Doigts (1921) followed in 1922, and the Four Russian Songs (1918-19) in 1923, the year in which Les Noces was at last performed and published in full score. On the other hand Kling resisted the two radical works of 1920, the Concertino for string quartet (which went to Edition Wilhelm Hansen in Copenhagen, and so came back to Chester under the agency umbrella), and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments which, with its awkward instrumentation and forbidding yet no longer topical Russianism, remained unloved even by ERM, who spent fifteen years pretending to publish it before war once again put them out of their misery.
Chester’s were thus Stravinsky’s publisher for a mere four years. But because of the war they harvested the produce of a decade, which happened moreover to be the most fascinating, whether or not the richest, Stravinsky decade of all. Les Noces, Renard and The Soldier’s Tale are perhaps the most radical group of masterpieces, both musically and theatrically, by any modern composer, while the Russian songs and choruses of this period have an experimental brilliance and charm unmatched in the music of the time. These pieces were admired not only by modernists on the radical Franco/Russian wing, but also by the Second Viennese School. After a Schönberg Society concert in Vienna in June 1919, Webern wrote to Berg: “The Stravinsky was magnificent. These songs are wonderful. This music moves me completely beyond belief. I love it especially. The cradle songs are something so indescribably touching. How those three clarinets sound! And Pribaoutki! Ah, my dear friend, it is something really glorious. This realism leads on to the metaphysical…” On the other hand the Easy Pieces and certain parts of The Soldier’s Tale already point towards the ‘synthetic’ style of neo-classicism, and this line is pursued in the ragtime-based pieces and of course most famously in Pulcinella. The Concertino is something of a fusion of the two tendencies, and thus clinches – if the phrase is not a contradiction – the transitional character of the period.
The 'Chester' period does have, then, integrity of its own. Before it stands The Rite of Spring, a culminating masterpiece of post-romanticism whose extravagance Stravinsky later to some extent regretted but was unable to moderate; after it came full-blown neo-classicism, Mavra, the Octet, the Piano Concerto – works which Stravinsky accompanied with written apologias or manifestos, which aligned him firmly with the Parisian intellectual set. On the left, the Russian Stravinsky, on the right the French Stravinsky, and in between – Stravinsky the déraciné, the exile, searching for ways of transplanting his Russianness into a new and perhaps alien soil. The major work of the period, Les Noces, is symptomatic of this quest. Originally conceived in 1910 (one of its inspirations, according to the composer, was the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral), it belongs in essence to the ethnic ritual strain of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. But Stravinsky seems to have realized at once that the scale of The Rite was unrepeatable and no longer appropriate. Although, in Expositions and Developments, he mentions an early version of Les Noces using an orchestra as big as that for The Rite, the many sketches which survive all indicate something more in the nature of an outsize chamber orchestra, very much in the spirit of the first fully drafted score, which he completed in 1917 (and which was reconstructed in the early 1970s by Robert Craft and Ramiro Cortes). Here the scoring is for a glorified village band of woodwind and brass, mixed percussion including piano and cimbalom, and eight solo strings: an appreciably bigger group than the fifteen-man Renard band, but not dissimilar in character, with the cimbalom mimicking the twang of the Russian guzla. And the same preoccupation is apparent in Pribaoutki, with its squeaky little woodwind and string octet; in Berceuses du Chat, with its burbling clarinet trio; in The Soldier’s Tale, whose commando-unit septet was not only devised for reasons of economy; and finally in post-war scores like Ragtime (cimbalom still prominent) and the Four Russian Songs, for which there survives and accompaniment scored for cimbalom and flute – an intention perhaps reflected in Stravinsky’s arrangement of two of these songs in the 1954 set with flute, harp and guitar.
For Les Noces itself, however, Stravinsky was unable to finalise the orchestration quite so readily. Despite the interruption of Renard, written in 1916 to a commission from the Princess de Polignac, the work was finished in substance (though with many differences of barring and accentuation, and shorter coda) by 1917. But if it took him another six years to find a satisfactory and workable accompaniment to the voices. In 1919 he experimented with a version for harmonium, two cimbaloms, pianola and percussion, but abandoned it after the first two tableaux because, he later (unconvincingly) claimed, it proved impossible to coordinate the mechanical pianola with other instruments (the real reason may have been the difficulty of finding two cimbalom players anywhere outside Hungary). Only in 1921 did he hit on an orchestra of four pianos with percussion, which is the version Chester published in full score in 1923, the year after the vocal score. This remained the definitive version, although the 1917 and 1919 scores are today performable and have been presented in public as well as recorded. Of the four-piano version it can be said that its sound is much closer to the Stravinskian palette of the early twenties than to that of the war years. This is the period not only of the Piano Rag Music and the Three Movements from Petrushka, but also of the Piano Concerto and the solo Sonata and Serenade, where the crisp, percussive piano writing accords with Stravinsky’s stated interest in a quasi-mechanical, un-nuanced music (see for instance his article Some Ideas About my Octuor, written in 1923). How far this truly affects the original image of the work we may never know. But Diaghilev’s first production, with the four pianos on stage framing the ritual action of the peasant wedding, was certainly in keeping with Stravinsky’s long-standing interest in alienation devices, itself probably inspired by the work of the St. Petersburg theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold. This comes out equally in the separation of voices and action both in Les Noces and Renard (where the singers are not identified with particular roles), and in the unpredictable relation between the narrator and the action in The Soldier’s Tale, a work that is widely regarded as a prototype of the much later genre of music-theatre and still its great exemplar. It is a realism which leads on, not (or not only) to the metaphysical, but to the meta-theatrical: to the idea of theatre as subject-matter.
While Les Noces was going through these various transmogrifications, Stravinsky was making (or planning to make) other arrangements, mostly with a more practical motive. The Song of The Volga Boatmen, hastily arranged for a Diaghilev gala in Rome at the time of the February 1917 Revolution, the piano version of Ragtime (with its famous Picasso cover) and the Concertino, and the orchestral suites based on the eight Easy Pieces, reflect Stravinsky’s perennial willingness to adapt his more occasional works to useful ends. The trio suite from The Soldier’s Tale is the most important such case, not the least because it was the first version of the work to be published (in 1920). By contrast, the much later arrangements of Les Cinq Doigts (as Eight Instrumental Miniatures) and the Concertino (for twelve instruments) probably reflect an actual change in creative focus.
Finally there is the special case of the 1919 Firebird Suite, which Stravinsky arranged for a more manageable orchestra than the vast array of the original ballet and the 1911 Suite, at the same time fixing on a new sequence of pieces ending with the final scene of the ballet instead of the ‘Infernal Dance’. Kling was at first cautious about taking this suite into the Chester catalogue, but did so on the condition that Stravinsky indemnify the company against any claim by Jurgenson. It is fairly clear that Stravinsky acted a shade deviously in this matter, being anxious to seize the opportunity provided by the chaos of war and revolution to establish copyright in a work from whose Russian editions he stood to gain nothing (because Russia had never signed the Berne Copyright Convention). Jurgenson had, however, sold his rights retrospectively to the Leipzig firm of Robert Forberg, who (not unnaturally) took Chester to court. The court decided in Forberg’s favour but in 1933 Schott, who had subsequently bought the rights in The Firebird from Forberg, reached an out-of-court agreement, which allowed Chester to continue to distribute the 1919 Suite in a restricted territory. Stravinsky’s indemnity had proved worthless. And the saga does not end here. In 1945, fundamentally in order to secure copyright protection in the USA, Stravinsky created a third Suite (called a ‘Ballet Suite’) for publication by the Leeds Music Corporation (although controlled outside the USA by Schott and Chester on the same terms as for the 1919 Suite). The 1945 Suite is longer than the 1919 but is written for the same reduced orchestra.
Though it caused ill-feeling between composer and publisher, the 1919 Suite is a true Chester-period score, an apt symbol of the trials and tribulations of the exiled artist in an age in which commerce ran ahead of the regulation of copyright. The remarkable thing is that, with all his well-documented eye for the main chance, Stravinsky seldom sacrificed his artistic instinct to pecuniary gain. Certainly the Chester catalogue is a living witness to the triumph of artistic exploration over the market-place: radicalism in full flow at a time of greatest anxiety, and generating work of an enduring appeal and profound influence.