After his exile in Switzerland during the war, Stravinsky settled for 20 years in France, where musical activity was intense.
Igor and Catherine Stravinsky with their four children – Passeport photo, 1920 *
The return of the composer on the Parisian scene took place on May 15, 1920 with the creation of Pulcinella at the Opera. The period known "neoclassical" had begun, characterized by Stravinsky’s interest in music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Stravinsky revived traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue, symphony) and his work took a new turn. Stravinsky now abandoned the great orchestras once required for his ballets, using wind instruments and piano, and turned to chamber music and vocal compositions. Stravinsky became one of the instigators of Neoclassicism, a movement also adopted by such composers as Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland and Serge Prokofiev. Their aim was not a return to pure classicism but, as indicated by the prefix "neo", to develop a new form of classical music. Stravinsky constructed his scores according to classical forms, but they clearly bore his signature.
Igor Stravinsky in his Pleyel studio – Paris, 1922 *
In the same period, the French piano manufacturer, Pleyel, signed a contract with Stravinsky, providing him with a work studio. The composer arranged some of his works for the "Pleyela" player-piano. The Aeolian Company of New York repeated this agreement in 1924.
During a European tour with Diaghilev, the two men hatched a new project, an opera based on a Pushkin story, "The little house in Kolomna". This project became Mavra, a parody of opera bouffe. But the first performance, on June 3, 1922, in Paris, was a failure, the public perplexed by Stravinsky’s evolution. Faced with this criticism he wrote:
"We will not see me sacrificing what I love and to what I aspire in order to meet the demands of people who, in their blindness, do not even realize that they are merely asking me to back-track. To make it perfectly clear, what they want is out of date for me and to follow them would be to do violence to myself." **
Igor Stravinsky and his eldest son Théodore
From 1923 Stravinsky asserted his interest in classical style with his Octet for wind instruments (Octuor pour instruments à vent), his first major non-theatrical composition. Octet required a reduced number of musicians and its use of counterpoint was a look back to Bach. Octet was the first in a long series of instrumental compositions making use of this process. The Russian folk melodies have been abandoned and Stravinsky developed new principles of writing reflecting Bach's musical language.
These new principles are reflected in the following composition, Concerto for piano and orchestra (Concerto pour piano et orchestre d’harmonie), later known as Concerto for piano and wind instruments (Concerto pour piano et instruments à vent), where references to Bach are exploited in greater depth. Concerto is composed in three movements according to the classical model.
From 1921, Stravinsky divided his activities between composing, conducting and performing. Prompted by Koussevitsky, he began a parallel career as performer and conductor that lasted 15 years. He conducted numerous tours throughout Europe with his pianist son, Soulima.
Among Stravinsky’s interpretations was his Sonata for piano (Sonate pour piano), with elements of Beethoven, as Stravinsky noted in his autobiography. "The urge came to me during my work to examine more closely the sonatas of the classical masters (.... ) on this occasion I played, among others, many of Beethoven sonatas".
Shortly thereafter, beginning in 1925, Stravinsky made his first trip to the United States where he signed a contract as conductor and soloist for a tour of two months. The American public, already well aware of his work, welcomed him warmly.
Meanwhile (1924-1931), the composer had moved to Nice on the Riviera, where the climate was more favourable to his wife’s health. Stravinsky continued to tour frequently throughout Europe as a conductor.
Igor Stravinsky – Nice, 1928 *
Stravinsky wanted to compose once again a large-scale work based on a Latin text. Sophocles' play, Oedipus, that he had particularly appreciated during his youth, inspired him to write an opera-oratorio. Stravinsky asked Jean Cocteau, whose adaptation of Antigone he admired, to write the libretto, which was subsequently translated into Latin by Cardinal Daniélou. Oedipus Rex (1927) is a work that is both confusing and austere, its characters stand like statues keeping their movements to a minimum. The music focuses on the drama of the story and includes motifs of the Baroque era inspired by Handel. The work premiered at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris on May 30, 1927, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Ballets Russes.
The year 1928 marked the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death. Stravinsky chose to pay him homage with a new score The Fairy's Kiss (Le Baiser de la fée), a ballet commissioned by Ida Rubinstein.
In 1930, Stravinsky joined the Russian Orthodox Church and wrote a religious work Symphony of Psalms (Symphonie de Psaumes), based on biblical texts. His renewed religious sentiment was also felt in two ballets, Apollon Musagete (1928) and Persephone (1934).
Apollon Musagete (later known as Apollo) was the last ballet staged by Diaghilev one year before his death and the dissolution of the Ballets Russes. It is a classical ballet in which the composer celebrates the apotheosis of string instruments. The performance of this work marks the beginning of a close collaboration between Stravinsky and the choreographer George Balanchine.
Persephone, a melodrama in three parts also based on Greek mythology, was composed for the Ida Rubinstein ballet company. Stravinsky collaborated with André Gide and the relationship between the two men was not warm. Stravinsky chose musical freedom for Gide’s text, whereas Gide would have preferred a different approach. This text is assigned to a speaker, a tenor, and a chorus (mixed and children), accompanied by an orchestra whose melodic charm is undeniable.
In 1931, Stravinsky made the acquaintance of the violinist Samuel Dushkin with whom he collaborated on Concerto pour Violon, commissioned by the composer, Blair Fairchild, followed by a sonata for violin and piano, Duo Concertante.
Igor Stravinsky – Paris, 1937
A new ballet, inspired by the scenario of a poker game, followed Persephone. Card Game (Jeu de Cartes) is a work of pure entertainment in which Stravinsky paid tribute to Rossini. The first performance took place on April 27, 1937 at the Metropolitan Opera under his direction.
In the spring of that year, Stravinsky began work on a concerto for chamber orchestra, ordered by wealthy American patrons, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, on the occasion of their wedding 30th anniversary. This work would become the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, completed in 1938, modelled on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Stravinsky then, in 1939, composed his Symphony in C (Symphonie en ut) for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Tuberculosis struck the Stravinsky family with three deaths : his eldest daughter Ludmila (November 1938), his wife Catherine (March 1939) and his mother Anna (June 1939). Stravinsky interrupted his work.
Nadia Boulanger then informed Stravinsky that Harvard University had chosen him for its prestigious Poetry Chair for the year 1939-1940 for a series of lectures on his conception of music. Distraught with personal grief and by the outbreak of the World War II, Stravinsky arrived in the United States in September 1939.
He would remain in America and not return to live in France after the war.
* Fondation Théodore Strawinsky, Genève. Use or reproductions strictly forbidden.
** Le Message d’Igor Stravinsky (Théodore Strawinsky)