Igor Stravinsky


20th Century

Igor Stravinsky was like an inventor in music, creating one ingenious idea after another. For many, he is the greatest composer of the 20th century.

He actually studied law to begin with. It was only in 1902, when he stayed with the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, that his focus shifted to music.

In 1909 a man called Serge Diaghilev heard Stravinsky’s Fireworks – a whizz-bang whirl of a piece. He was impressed. Diaghilev was big news: he was going to produce Russian opera and ballet in Paris, and he asked Stravinsky to write music. Three ballets catapulted Stravinsky to fame: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). They were all written for Diaghilev. The Rite of Spring, a groundbreaking masterpiece, was certainly not what the audience was expecting from a ballet: it is brutal, violent music, with pounding rhythms and shrieking woodwind. People started booing, hissing, shouting… Stravinsky was notorious.

He left Russia when World War I broke out in 1914. First he lived in Switzerland, then in Paris, and then – because of the Second World War – America. He didn’t set foot in Russia again until 1962. He married his first cousin, Katherine, but he met Vera de Bosset in Paris and married her in 1940 after Katherine had died of tuberculosis.

Stravinsky’s music sparkles with invention. He took rhythm and played with it in a way that nobody had before. You can always hear his rhythms driving forwards, punching through, or dancing about. Building-blocks of sound make up his pieces like jigsaw puzzles. He was bold. He let individual instruments speak, loud and clear, from the orchestra. He fused old and new: he looked back 200 years, harnessed the music, and flung it into a new 20th-century style. That was called his ‘neo-classical’ period. He then had a go with Schoenberg’s 12-tone idea. He made plenty of money, too. He was a clever man!

Having changed music forever, he died in New York of heart failure. He was buried near to Diaghilev on the island of San Michele in Venice.

Igor Stravinsky, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Highlights from Stravinsky are below…

The Rite of Spring: Part I: Adoration of the Earth: The Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Young Girls)

This bold, barbaric music is the second number in Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet The Rite of Spring. It caused complete chaos when it was first performed in Paris in 1913, because it was such a shock to people in the audience to see and hear brutality in a ballet. The tight orchestral writing and the insistent, vibrant rhythms are typical of the young Stravinsky.

Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557508

The Firebird: The Firebird’s Lullaby

Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird tells a story based on Russian folk tales. This lullaby, with its spooky stillness created by long held notes on the string instruments and its snaking melody introduced by a bassoon, conjures up a magical sound-world.

Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557500

Agon: Four trios

Agon, Stravinsky’s final ballet, was written in 1957. It is a sequence of dances with no plot. This is the very last section. Feel the rhythm!

Performers: Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557502

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Stravinsky was born in which country?

a. Germany
b. Russia
c. France

 The first performance of which work apparently led to a riot?

a. Les Noces
b. Pulcinella
c. The Rite of Spring

 Stravinsky was friends with which great artist?

a. Picasso
b. Matisse
c. Banksy

 Stravinsky died where?

a. London
b. Venice
c. New York

 Stravinsky studied with which Russian composer?

a. Tchaikovsky
b. Rimsky-Korsakov
c. Mussorgsky

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Stravinsky loved art and became friends with Picasso. Picasso produced the set and designs for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.
  2. Stravinsky’s ability to use repetition looked forward to later minimalist composers, like Philip Glass.
  3. Stravinsky put a strange chord into his arrangement of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and the Boston Police warned him that he could be fined for rearranging the National Anthem (though actually they were wrong!).
  4. Stravinsky has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  5. When Stravinsky returned to Russia in 1962, he was greeted like a long-lost brother. The Soviet leader, Khrushchev, begged him to stay, but he declined and returned to America.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!


The Firebird Suite (1919)

This famous ballet was completed in 1910 for the Russian choreographer Diaghilev and his ballet company, the Ballets Russes, in Paris. It is a magical story, which is given sparkling music by Stravinsky. Prince Ivan captures the exotic Firebird in the magic garden of the ogre, Katschei. She gives him a magic feather that he can use to summon her if he needs help, and he lets her go. Ivan then falls in love with a princess held captive by Katschei. He summons the Firebird, and defeats Katschei. The very beginning creates a hushed atmosphere by very low notes on the double basses – we don’t often hear double basses on their own. They play a group of notes that is like a kind of skewed circle, and keeps coming back on different instruments: at 1.40, after the strings have played ‘harmonics’ (a spooky effect produced by a finding specific place on a string and just touching it, without putting the finger all the way down, then bowing the string), the flute has that group of notes, then the oboe takes over.

Performers: Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550263

Petrushka Suite

In 1911, Stravinsky completed his vibrant ballet Petrushka, which was performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. It is time for the Shrovetide Fair: the showman draws back the curtain of his puppet theatre to reveal three characters: Petrushka, a Ballerina, and the Blackamoor (Petrushka’s rival). Petrushka is eventually killed and the crowd is assured that they’re only puppets, so it’s okay. But as night comes on, Petrushka’s ghost is seen hovering above the booth… What does this mean? The crowd is left wondering. The music for Petrushka is bright, energetic and rhythmic. From the beginning, you can sense the bustling fair, with crowds of people and lots happening. It builds to a great sprung rhythm at 0.48: true Stravinsky, with off-beats (beats where you don’t expect them) spicing things up!

Performers: Robert Groslot, piano; Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550263

The Rite of Spring

The third of Stravinsky’s wonderful early ballets created such a stir when it was first performed in 1913 (again by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes) that the audience became completely out of control. Some cheered; others booed and hissed. In the end the conductor and musicians fled from the chaos! We now see the work as one of the major masterpieces of the 20th century. Even just the very opening is famous – a solo bassoon playing so high it almost doesn’t sound like a bassoon… a scary task for the bassoonist! There isn’t really a plot, but it involves celebrating spring by primitive rituals (a ‘rite’ is a ritual), and then a sacrificial victim dances herself to death. This meant that the music and the dancing were a bit of a shock to an audience more used to nice, gentle ballets by Tchaikovsky. But this work smashed open the door for musical language, and showed, with thumping, whirling, wild music, that art should never be predictable!

Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557508


This ballet tells a story from the Italian Commedia dell’arte – a form of professional theatre in Italy beginning in the 16th century that used the same characters again and again. It is in a ‘neo-classical’ style: Stravinsky took music by Italian Baroque composers such as Pergolesi, and used it to conduct his own musical experiments. So as the work begins, you’d think you were listening to the music of someone 200 years earlier; and track 2, with its lovely oboe melody… very Baroque. But it’s not quite that simple: Stravinsky jazzes things up a bit. So at 3.46 in track three, for example, we hear a kind of ‘oom-pah’ pizzicato from the strings – that wouldn’t happen in the 18th century. And then the music speeds up… that wouldn’t happen either! By the time we reach the end of track three, it’s sounding a lot more like quirky Stravinsky – but with a Baroque flavour. A trombone is used like a 1920s jazz instrument, with rude ‘glissandi’ (sliding)! Listen at 1.27 in track 5, or at 0.20 and various other places in track 17. Picasso designed the original costumes and sets for Pulcinella for its premiere in 1920.

Performers: Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano; Robin Leggate, tenor; Mark Beesley, bass; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557503

Agon (excerpts)

This ballet, completed in 1957 for 12 dancers, marks the point when Stravinsky moved on to using a 12-tone method of composition first devised by Arnold Schoenberg. There was not a key-centre anymore, but he used a group of 12 notes in a particular order. It took Stravinsky a long time to write the whole ballet, and it has no story: it is a sequence of dances. The music is edgy and actually difficult to dance. Try it – you’ll have to make some unusual and sudden moves in order to stick with the music! But this doesn’t mean there is no rhythm – just that it is not in obvious patterns. Stravinsky was a complete master of rhythm, and you can hear from these extracts how important the rhythm is – how some beats seem to step down strongly and others to spring up. Although the music was based on a more modern, 12-note, system of composition, the dances themselves were actually based on 17th-century court dances. Stravinsky was brilliant at combining the old and the new to create something completely different.

Performers: Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.558186-87


Symphony of Psalms

In 1930 Stravinsky wrote this choral work using texts of Psalms from the Bible. It is ‘neo-classical’ in style – its style, clear and lean, looks back to music of years earlier. The first movement uses part of Psalm 38 (‘Hear my prayer, O Lord..’); the second uses part of Psalm 39 (‘With expectation I have waited for the Lord’); the third uses the whole of Psalm 150 (‘Alleluia. Praise ye the Lord in his holy places…’). In the third movement, the music goes from being spiky to very gentle and soothing: when they sing ‘Laudate eum in cymbalis benesonantibus’ (‘Praise him on high-sounding cymbals’, beginning at 7.07 in track 3), a musical phrase is repeated as if casting a blanket of peace of everything.

Performers: Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557504

Requiem Canticles (excerpts)

A late work, composed in 1966, this uses a 12-tone technique as well as elements of Stravinsky’s style from earlier years. It sets some of the words of the Catholic Mass and was performed at Stravinsky’s funeral in 1971. Two of the nine movements are included here: ‘Libera me’ has an atmospheric chanting of the words with whispering in the background, and ends with a cry of ‘Libera me’ (‘Deliver me’). The postlude is just for instruments: you can hear an eerie combination of tubular bells and vibraphone chiming at intervals.

Performers: Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557532


Circus Polka

Stravinsky wrote piano music across 40 years, though it is not as well-known as his ballet music. Here’s a little Circus Polka, cheeky and fun. He was asked to write it by an actual circus: the famous Barnum and Bailey’s. So, unlike his other ballet music, this was danced to by elephants!

Performers: Victor Sangiorgio, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570377

Three Movements from Petrushka

The ballet Petrushka is featured above, but in 1921 Stravinsky used music from it to create this piano work for the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein. One of the most difficult piano pieces ever written, it is a serious test of a pianist’s technique. What is so clever is that the original music was so full of colour from all the different instruments – and yet here, with only the piano, Stravinsky seems to draw out something almost as dazzling.

Performers: Antonii Baryshevskyi, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572573

Chamber and Orchestral

The Soldier’s Tale Suite

The Soldier’s Tale dates from 1920 and is another colourful masterpiece for the theatre, ‘to be read, played and danced’. The full original version has three actors; the suite is for a small ensemble of seven instruments with prominent percussion. Stravinsky really celebrates the sound of individual instruments in his music: listen in track 1 to how clear the lines are, and how each instrument has a chance to speak: at 0.26 the clarinet, then the trumpet, then the clarinet again, then the violin, then the bassoon… all underpinned by a ‘marching’ double bass. The tale involves a soldier who, returning from the war, forms a pact with the devil (represented by the violin). After various scenes involving the soldier, the devil and a princess, the devil wins.

Performers: Tianwa Yang, violin; Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players; JoAnn Falletta

Taken from Naxos 8.573538

Concerto in E flat major, ‘Dumbarton Oaks’

‘Dumbarton Oaks’ was an estate in Washington DC: the couple who lived there asked Stravinsky to write this piece for their 30th wedding anniversary. He wrote it in 1938 after conducting Bach’s Third ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto – he couldn’t get Bach’s piece out of his mind, and so the beginning of his own adapts the theme of Bach’s. You have to know Bach’s concerto well to hear the connection, but if you do know it well, it’s clear! However, the music does not sound like Bach’s: Bach doesn’t use any woodwind in the Third ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto but the woodwind instruments here are very important, and the quirky style is very different. The whole work is fresh and alive: it has Stravinsky’s hallmark sprung, syncopated (off-beat) rhythms and clear instrumental sounds. Every single note is important, and different fragments of melody play off each other as if the instruments are all in a playground together.

Performers: Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557507

Violin Concerto in D major

A lot of violin concertos we hear come from the Romantic era, with a violin part that dazzles with difficulty, swoons with big tunes, and is supported by a huge orchestra. For his Violin Concerto, Stravinsky looked back to music before the Romantic era – music with cleaner lines and thinner chords (fewer notes played together). Listening to Stravinsky’s music is like looking through a sharp lens and seeing everything really clearly. The violin part is still very difficult, but that isn’t the main point of it. All four movements begin with the same, unusual, chord. It is quite breathless in places, the violin given non-stop music that makes you want to smile, especially in the final movement (track 4): the violin seems to be running around and asking the other instruments to chase it!

Performers: Jennifer Frautschi, violin; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557508

Symphonies of Wind Instruments

This piece also dates from 1920. It is for a group of woodwind and brass instruments. The title ‘symphonies’ doesn’t mean it is a symphony – it is used in its original, literal sense of ‘sounding together’. It draws on Russian folk music, and is quite experimental. Instruments leap out with sudden energy, and there is Stravinsky’s great sense of rhythm here. He plays with patterns, with where the beats fall, so that our ears don’t always get what they expect – and that makes it more interesting. Stravinsky dedicated the piece to Debussy, who had died in 1918.

Performers: Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557508