The Russian period: 1902 - 1914

Igor Stravinsky – 1907 *

During a 1902 holiday in Bad Wildungen near Heidelberg, Igor Stravinsky had the opportunity to meet Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, to whom he expressed his desire to become a composer. Stravinsky showed Rimsky-Korsakov his first attempts at composition and subsequently became the composer’s pupil. Igor Stravinsky said "His knowledge was precise, and he was able to impart whatever he knew with great clarity. His teaching was all technical" ***. After the death of Stravinsky’s father in November 1902, the Rimsky-Korsakov clan became a second family for the young Igor. Through them, he made many new friends and, from 1905 to 1908, studied orchestration regularly with his master.

Early 20th century Russia was the scene of a brilliant cultural movement. Igor regularly attended the "Evenings of Contemporary Music", meeting all the composers, poets and artists of St. Petersburg and performing his first works. In 1906, Stravinsky became independent and married his cousin, Catherine Nossenko, with whom he had a son in 1907 (Theodore) and a daughter in 1908 (Ludmila). Catherine provided unlimited support to her husband and encouraged his work.


Igor and Catherine Stravinksy – Clarens, 1913 *

In 1907, Stravinsky completed his Symphony in E flat major, whose form and orchestration were strongly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov. Indeed, Stravinsky dedicated the score "To my dear master Nicolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov". While working on Fireworks, an orchestral fantasy planned for the wedding of Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter, Stravinsky learned of his master’s death. Shocked and saddened by the news, he wrote Chant Funèbre in his memory. He then resumed work on Fireworks. It was performed on the same night, February 6, 1909, as his Scherzo Fantastique at the influential Siloti Concerts in St Petersburg. That evening would be crucial for Stravinsky's career : Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the famous "Ballets Russes", happened to be in the audience and listened attentively to the unknown young man’s music. Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to orchestrate two Chopin pieces for his ballet "Les Sylphides", shown in Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet on June 2, 1909.

Diaghilev’s faith in the young man eventually led him to commission a ballet, Firebird. The theme comes from a Russian folktale wherein Prince Ivan Tsarevich captures a firebird, which gives him a magic feather in exchange for his freedom.

The ballet was written for a large symphony orchestra. Although the score retains the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, it is marked by Stravinsky’s personal style. The young composer was already experimenting with new processes and unusual rhythms. Stravinsky’s collaboration with choreographer Michel Fokine was a great success. The power of the final dance hints at the future violence of The Rite of Spring. The first performance, on June 25, 1910 at the Paris Opera, delighted the audience and made the young Stravinsky famous overnight.


Nijinsky as Petrushka - 1911

The following year, on June 15 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, confirmed Stravinsky’s fame with Petrouchka, the second part of the Russian composer’s trilogy. The new ballet was a triumph due to the novelty and quality of the score, but also because of the memorable and moving interpretation of Vaclav Nijinsky. Petrouchka, set in 1830 during the Mardi Gras festivities in St. Petersburg, tells the story of a puppet who suffers from being a mere puppet unable to express his love like a human being. Stravinsky’s sometimes dissonant music illustrates Petrouchka’s pain and the score for a large orchestra has an extraordinary strength. Stravinsky turned the ordered, predictable world of classical music upside down. Petrouchka’s rhythm, with its frequent variations, is a primordial element. "In composing this music, I had the clear vision of a puppet suddenly unleashed, who, by diabolical cascades of arpeggios, exasperates the patience of the orchestra, which in turn responds to him by threatening flourishes. " **

After his first attempts in the Firebird and Petrushka, Stravinsky intensified the rhythmic brutality of his composition. With The Rite of Spring, the composer achieved his musical independence. "In my imagination, I glimpsed the sight of a great pagan sacred rite", he said. **

Stravinsky translated this vision into musical language, employing a large orchestra dominated by percussion and woodwinds to express the pagan sound required.

The composer himself designed the booklet with the painter Nicolas Roerich, who also did the décor and costumes. The show consists of "Pictures of Pagan Russia". In Act I, "A Kiss of the Earth” (L’Adoration de la Terre), the characters engage in a dance to glorify the spring ahead. In Act II, "Exalted Sacrifice” (Le Sacrifice) a girl is offered up to the god under the eyes of the ancestors.


Igor Stravinsky – Ustilug, 1913 *

One of the most daring achievements of "Ballets Russes", The Rite of Spring caused a riot when it premiered on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Stravinsky's revolutionary score on one hand and Nijinsky’s confusing and complicated choreography on the other, set off the first round of the "Battle of the Rite", with critics and defenders of the work attacking each other. The Rite of Spring shocked the audience with its impression of chaos and its break with the then-conventional criteria of dance. The complex and subtle composition with abrupt rhythms imposed a new concept of music. Leaving the theater, Maurice Ravel hailed Rite as a work of genius. Since then, it has become an indispensable classic, one of the pillars of 20th century music. A new musical aestheticism had been born.

This first period of the composer's life, during which he displayed remarkable energy, is that of his most famous works.

"Should we not wonder",  asked his son Theodore, "at the stunning creative vitality displayed by the young musician of 30 years ? Did he not, in three years, create three masterpieces that put him at the pinnacle of fame? All the while assuming the responsibility of a family who lived in an atmosphere of perpetual transhumance, in addition to his many personal trips... "

* © Fondation Théodore Strawinsky, Genève. Use or reproductions strictly forbidden.
** An Autobiography
*** Memories and Commentaries