Home Backstage Stravinsky

Return to BalletNotes Home Page

Igor Stravinsky, composer


(Compiled September 2003)

Igor Stravinsky was born in Lomonosov (formerly Oranienbaum), a town 10 kilometers to the west of St. Petersburg on June 17, 1882. Considered one of the leading figures of twentieth century music, Stravinsky divided his time and his career among Russia, France and America.

The immediate presence of music in the Stravinsky household fueled young Igor's early love for music. His musical training began at home listening to his father rehearse his roles with opera companies in Kiev and St. Petersburg. He was able to participate himself when, at the age of nine, he began piano lessons. However, despite these lessons and frequent trips to the Maryinsky for opera and ballet, his mother and father would not approve a musical career for their son. Instead, they placed him in St. Petersburg University where he studied criminal law and legal philosophy. He graduated in 1905.

During his time in St. Petersburg, his growing love for composition lead him to seek out the great composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov who agreed to take him on as a student. His private studies lasted from 1903-1906 during which time Rimsky-Korskov helped Stravinsky bring his compositions to the public through various concerts.

In Russia, Tchaikovsky formed a firm foundation for ballet music with Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. It was these works that convinced Stravinsky, a great admirer of Tchaikovsky, that ballet music was a worthwhile pursuit. During the early part of his career, he composed several ballets that enjoyed great visibility, if not the greatest success, through his collaboration with Serge Diaghilev and The Ballets Russes.

Diaghilev founded The Ballets Russes with the mission of bringing Russian art to the West. For him, Russia had languished too long, envisioning itself as a second class citizen to the art of Europe. Through a series of art exhibitions and a performance of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Gudonov, Diaghilev sought to change all of that. For his 1910 season, he commissioned a new ballet from Stravinsky.

With a libretto based on a Russian folktale, a fiery rhythmic intensity and complex orchestration, The Firebird was on the cutting edge of European art. The music was said to be so unfamiliar that Diaghilev's leading ballerina, Anna Pavlova, refused to dance it. For her, the aggression in Stravinsky's music was a far cry from the danceable melodies she heard in Tchaikovsky. She was replaced with Tamara Karsavina who danced the role of the firebird for the Paris premiere. The ballet's choreographer, Michel Fokine, partnered her.

Stravinsky continued his collaboration with Diaghilev adding his ballets Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) to the repertoire. Both ballets built on his already established Russian themes taken from history and folklore and through them, Stravinsky continued to cultivate his personal musical style.

Stravinsky's style in these ballets is described as aggressive, percussive, and sometimes mechanical. With each piece he was moving away from the Romanticism of his predecessors. Sacre, in particular, caused quite a stir at its premiere in Paris.

Diaghilev had made a bold move when he asked his principal male dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, to choreograph a ballet for the company. His first, set to Debussy's Prelude a l'Apres- Midi d'un Faune, stunned the Paris artistic elite with its two-dimensional movement, erotic subtext and apparent lack of musicality. When audiences heard about the premiere of his second ballet, set to music by a new talented Russian composer, they were ready for it. The theater was filled with supporters and detractors alike who were prepared to either cry "ENCORE!" or boo the ballet off the stage. When the orchestra began, Stravinsky's music sent the audience into a frenzy. The din was so incredible that the dancers could not hear the music on the stage. What was already a difficult task (Diaghilev had brought in experts to help the dancers count the music in rehearsal) became impossible. Nijinsky was forced to stand on a chair in the wings and yell counts to the dancers.

In 1926, Stravinsky met yet another one of Diaghilev's young protégés. George Balanchine had left Russia and was touring Europe with a small group of Russian dancers when Diaghilev invited them all to join his company. In 1928, Balanchine set what would become one of his masterpieces to Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète. It was the end of Stravinsky's time with The Ballets Russes (the company folded when Diaghilev died the following year), but the beginning of a collaboration that would continue beyond Stravinsky's death in 1971 as Balanchine continued to put dance to his compositions until the last, Persephone, in 1982.

Ultimately, what the partnership between Stravinsky and Balanchine gave audiences what an enhanced experience of each artist's work. Stravinsky applauded the choreography for bringing out physical nuances in the music, and the music served as a constant inspiration for Balanchine. Balanchine went as far as to express to one interviewer that his relationship with Stravinsky mirrored the collaboration between Petipa and Tchaikovsky in the nineteenth century.

"Dissonance is thus no more an agent of disorder than consonance is a guarantee of security." Igor Stravinsky

When Stravinsky composed Apollon Musagète in 1928, he was entering what musicologists and historians refer to as his "neo-classical" period, which is marked by a newfound "objectivity and restraint" that was not present in his earlier works. However, there were still new areas to be explored, new combinations of tones to be experimented with and new rhythmic patterns to layer within his scores.

Despite so many new possibilities, Stravinsky insisted that true freedom was in self-imposed restraint. Maneuvering through these barriers is what drove his musical inventions, not divine inspiration or the need for emotional expression. "Music," he said, "by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc…. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence." Much like Balanchine, Stravinsky concentrated on "execution" over "interpretation" so that technique and structure spoke volumes without a necessary emotional accompaniment.


A Selected list of Stravinsky's ballets and music used for ballet



(date of composition)


(date of premiere)
 Firebird (1910)  Michel Fokine (1910)
 Petrushka (1911)  Michel Fokine (1911)
 Le Sacre du Printemps (1913)  Vaslav Nijinsky (1913)
 Les Noces (1917)  Bronislava Nijinska (1923)
 Le Chant du Rossignol (1917)  George Balanchine (1925)
 Pulcinella (1920)  George Balanchine (1972)
 Apollon Musagète (1928)  George Balanchine (1928)
 Le Baiser de la Fée (1928)  George Balanchine (1937)
 Capriccio for piano and orchestra (1929)  George Balanchine (1967)
 Symphony of Psalms (1930)  George Balanchine (1972)
 Violin Concerto (1931)  George Balanchine (1972)
 Persephone (1934)  George Balanchine (1982)
 Symphony in Three Movements (1945)  George Balanchine (1972)
 Orpheus (1948)  George Balanchine (1948)
 Agon (1957)  George Balanchine (1957)
 Movements for Piano
and Orchestra (1959)
 George Balanchine (1963)
 Variations in Memory of Aldous Huxley (1965)  George Balanchine (1966)