An in depth exploration of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring") for Seminar In Musicology Summer I 2009 Dr. Melanie Foster Taylor Converse College

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Musical influences on Igor Stravinsky

Igor Fydorovich Stravinsky was born, in 1882 in Oranienbaum now called Lomonosov, Russia. In his auto-biography he recounts his first notable memory of sound. He describes a gnarled old man with red hair who performed a rhythmic clamor using a hand and an armpit that delighted area children. At home, young Igor imitated the man to his great satisfaction quite accurately. His parents, both musicians, forbade him to do so as the flatuentus sounds were off-color at best. He also recounts hearing women singing in the neighboring village and imitating them as well.

His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a lead bass singer for the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg and Stravinsky recalls hearing music in the house while he says “my brothers and sisters were neglected” . Igor began piano at age nine and quickly learned to read music. Improvising soon became his favorite diversion although his teacher and parents scolded him for wasting time. Young Stravinsky also recounts reading opera scores from his fathers library. Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar was the first symphony performance he heard and In his words “The impression was indelible”(Stravinsky, Igor p.6). He said “so intelligent is his balance of tone, so distinguished and delicate his instrumentation; and by the latter I mean his choice of instruments and his way of combining them” (Stravinsky, Igor p.6)

Later Igor’s mother took him to see Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathetique. He recalls catching a glimpse of the great master only a few weeks before his death. His admiration for the music of Tchaikovsky would grow over the coming years enough to say that he was a major influence on his own compositional style. (Stravinsky, Igor p.7)

Stravinsky’s uncle who was a wealthy liberal and music lover influenced him as well. He describes the mentality of his uncle's social set as being atheist, opposers of tyrannical government, interested in the sciences, concerned with the rights of man and admirers of Tolstoy . He add that along with these beliefs came a natural predilection for the music of Modest Mussorgsky and Richard Wagner. Stravinsky also observed performances by many great pianists as they were to appear in St. Petersburg. (Stravinsky, Igor p10)
Igor also studied the scores of Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov. His next piano teacher (he does not name) was a staunch follower of her mentor Anton Rubinstein and insisted that he conform more to his mold. Stravinsky confesses that this teacher did however bless him with greater technical mastery of the piano.(Stravinsky, Igor p.15) In 1901, Stravinsky's parents insisted that he study law at the University of St. Petersburg. During this time he began to study harmony although he recounts that he found it to be dry and unsatisfying. He insists that his favorite way to solve any problem is though his own industry rather than by following a set method or theory. At eighteen, he had tackled counter-point completely on his own and garnered more enjoyment from that experience than he got from any teacher or proscribed rote method. (Stravinsky, Igor p.14) This independent style and tenacity will become a hallmark of his following compositions.
“there is only one course for the beginner; he must at first accept a discipline imposed from without, but only as the means of obtaining freedom for, and strengthening himself in, his own method of expression ” (Stravinsky, Igor p20)

Stravinsky's greatest influence was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov a member of “the five” also known as “the mighty handful” . These were five Russian composers that would change music in a major way. Mily Balakirev, C├ęsar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin. Stravinsky met Rimsky's youngest son while at University and it was through him that he met the composers acquaintance. The first time Igor played for Rimsky-Korsakov, he was unimpressed and suggested to Stravinsky that he work with one of his pupils in order to master counterpoint and harmony. Rimsky-Korsakov also advised him not to attend the conservatory where he was a professor as the environment was not suited to him and that he could always confer with him if he needed help. It was then that Stravinsky began his tutelage with the old master. As he developed his craft, Stravinsky like his contemporaries, weighed the differences between the works of Debussy and that of Wagner and of modern forms of expression verses the old schools of thought. He was drawn to the freshness and freedom of Debussy and grew fond of the works Emmanuel Chabrier. Rimsky worked with Igor on his first compositions in sonata allegro form and had particular influence on his orchestration as he worked along side the young composer. Rimsky-Korsakov would give Stravinsky a piano score and have him orchestrate it. He would then show Igor his own orchestration of the same passage and they would compare them. Stravinsky gave up counterpoint but still practiced orchestrating the works of Beethoven and Schubert and analyzed the form of many other classical pieces. As Igor composed his first symphony he would show each passage and movement to Rimsky-Korsakov for his input. (Stravinsky, Igor p.24)

In the years leading up tho his Composition of ” The Right of Spring” Igor began his relationship with Serge Diaghilev a Russian art critic, founder of the Ballet Russes, and patron. After Diaghilev heard Stravinsky’s early orchestral work she approached the young composer and the two began a collaboration that lasted 20 years. It was Diaghileff who commissioned some of Igor Stravinsky’s greatest works The Firebird, Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) Pulcinella (1920) and Les Noces (1923). Stravinsky said of Diaghilev
“He had a wonderful flair, a marvelous faculty for seizing at a glance the novelty and freshness of an idea, surrendering himself to it without pausing to reason it out. ” (Stravinsky, Igor p.28)
The collaboration and commission brought Stravinsky and his family to Paris where he was able to meet some great musical minds of the time including Debussy, Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Manual de Falla and Eric Satie. 
 Igor's first idea of the Rite of Spring came to him as a “fleeting vision”
“I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps. (Stravinsky, Igor p.31)”
While composing the “Rite”, Igor heard a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal which he complained was far too long to sit though comfortably and he found the atmosphere of pomp and circumstance not to his liking.(Stravinsky, Igor p.39) Whether or not this performance or Wagner’s work in general had any influence on him is a question for us to ponder as Stravinsky himself is not forthcoming on the matter. This discussion is left to us as we listen and compare the works of the great composers of the time and their similarities and differences with the works of Stravinsky. And that shall be the next topic of concern.


"Igor Stravinsky -." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 04 June 2009 .

Stravinsky, Igor. Igor Stravinsky, An Auto Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1962.

1 comment:

  1. Love the blog! Don't forget Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance madrigal writer, whose music prefigured and, I like to think, inspired a lot of the chromaticism and short, tonal elements in Stravinsky's work

    Here's a representative work:

    Stravinsky once even made a pilgrimage to Gesualdo, Italy!

    Can't wait to read through the rest of your posts. Cheers!