With a life and career spanning two world wars, revolution and the Cold War, Igor Stravinsky was one of the 20th century’s most revolutionary composers. He shot to fame in 1909, presenting the audiences of operas, ballet and theatre with a new concept of music characterised by constantly changing rhythms, original imbalances and brilliant orchestration.
In fact, Stravinsky was such a revolutionary composer that his piece, The Rite of Spring, caused one of music history’s most famous riots. His influence has been immortalised – among other ways – in a golden star along Hollywood’s ‘Walk of Fame’, in one of the many places Stravinsky called home during his lifetime.
Here are 10 facts about the revolutionary life of Igor Stravinsky.
1. Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born into a musical family
His early life was comfortable and immersed in music. Stravisnky was the third of four sons born to his parents’ Polish-Russian family in the town of Lomonsov near St Petersburg in June 1882. Stravinsky’s father, Fyodor, was one of Russia’s top operatic bass singers and performed regularly in the Kiev Opera and historic Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
2. He studied law and philosophy at university
Undoubtedly, young Igor’s later career would benefit from a childhood spent in Russia’s greatest musical, theatrical, and literary spheres. Yet his musical talent emerged slowly, and despite lessons in piano and music theory, Stravinsky was encouraged by his parents to study law at St Petersburg University in 1902.
When he showed a few musical pieces to the composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, he was impressed enough to bring Stravinsky on as a pupil.
3. His most famous composition caused a riot
For the 1910 ballet season Diaghilev approached Stravinsky again, this time commissioning the musical score for a new full-length ballet on the subject of the Firebird. The Firebird premiered at the Paris Opéra on 25 June 1910. Stravinsky became known overnight as one of the most gifted of the younger generation of composers.
He began pioneering his own style of composing, realising his idea of writing a symphonic pagan ritual. The result was The Rite of Spring, first performed at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées on 29 May 1913, provoking a first-night riot. The original, modernist composition paired with suggestive choreography caused such a stir the dancers could not hear the orchestra.
4. He is rumoured to have had an affair with Coco Chanel
In February 1909, Stravinsky’s short but innovative orchestral piece called the Scherzo fantastique was performed at a concert in St Petersburg. Listening was Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes who was so impressed that he quickly commissioned Stravinsky for the Ballets’ summer season in Paris.
The Stravinsky’s soon heard from designer Coco Chanel, who invited the family to live in her Paris mansion until they had found their own residence. The Stravinskys accepted. Chanel even helped guarantee a revival of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes in December 1920 after making an anonymous gift worth 300,000 francs to Diaghilev.
5. He was exiled from his homeland of Russia
Having followed the Ballet Russes to Paris, Stravinsky found himself and his family stranded in Switzerland when war broke out across Europe in 1914. After weathering World War One in the family’s winter home, any hope of returning to Russia dissolved along with Tsarist rule in October 1917.
With the family fortune abandoned in Russia, Stravinsky’s survival depended on composing. Much of what he created during the 1920s and 30s were written for Stravinsky himself to perform as a concert pianist or conductor. A religious note crept into his new pieces, now more Neoclassical in influence than Russian, as Stravinsky turned to Christianity to make sense of the rapidly changing world. Indeed, the Symphony of Psalms has some of the antique austerity of Russian Orthodox chant.
6. He married his mistress Vera de Bosset
Stravinsky met Vera de Bosset in Paris in February 1921. Vera was an American-Russian dancer married to the stage designer Serge Sudeikin, and the affair led to de Bosset leaving her husband. From then until his wife Kayta’s death of tuberculosis in 1939, Stravinsky led a double life. While her husband divided his time between the family in Anglet (near the French-Spanish border) and Vera in Paris and on tour, Katya silently dealt with her husband’s infidelity.
7. His success post war was a time of personal creative crisis
After World War Two, Stravinsky composed his only full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress. This Neoclassical work was based on the moral engravings by the 17th century English artist, William Hogarth. The Rake’s Progress was a similarly sartorial piece, harking back to 18th century grand opera but reflected Stravinsky’s brilliance and good sense of humour.
Yet it was around this time that the musical scene rejected the Neoclassical influences that had been present in Stravinsky’s work. Instead ‘serialism’, a type of music that repeated melodies and was originally popular during the medieval period, came into vogue.
From his sense of creative desperation came some of Stravinsky’s most experimental work.
8. He moved to Hollywood in 1941
Stravinsky was drawn to Los Angeles during World War Two, as other writers, musicians and composers gathered in the area. Hollywood was the perfect setting for Stravinsky to move into film music. The first major film his music was featured in was Walt Disney’s animated feature Fantasia which included rearranged parts of The Rite of Spring.
Stravinsky and Vera gained American citizenship in 1945. On the same day his citizenship arrived, the composer arranged for some of his best-known works to be published under copyright so he could earn money from them.
9. Stravinsky met President Kennedy
During his world tour, which departed for London in 1961, Stravinsky stopped in Washington DC. He attended a dinner at the White House with President John F. Kennedy in honour of his 80th birthday, where he received a special medal for “the recognition his music has achieved throughout the world”. The next year, Stravinsky returned to Russia for the first time since 1914.
10. He died on 6 April 1971
Stravinsky conducted his Pulcinella in Toronto, Canada in May 1967. He spent the performance sitting, and it was to be his last. After several years of improved health, Stravinsky became unwell with an edema again in spring 1971 and died in New York apartment aged 88.
He was buried in the Russian corner of the cemetery island of San Michele in Venice, just feet from the tomb of ballet-master Sergei Diaghilev.