Igor Stravinsky

By Holleran, Leslie | Dance Teacher, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Igor Stravinsky


Holleran, Leslie, Dance Teacher


The 20th century's leading ballet composer

"The first night of the ballet was the most astonishing event. ...At the first sounds of the music, shouts and hissing started in the audience, and it was difficult for us on the stage to hear the music, the more so as part of the audience began to applaud in an attempt to drown the hissing. We all desperately tried to keep time without being able to hear the rhythm clearly. ...And yet now there is no doubt that musically and choreographically, a masterpiece had been created that night."

- Dame Marie Rambert, Ballets Russes dancer (1912-13)

The scene that Marie Rambert describes in her 1 972 autobiography was the premiere of The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes on May 29, 1913, in Paris. The discordant music by Igor Stravinsky and experimental choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky were revolutionary for their time, resulting in a scandal on opening night. In the interest of advancing their respective artforms, both composer and choreographer ignored conventions that until then had governed how a ballet should look and sound. "No previous score so thoroughly challenged the fundamental concept of rhythm and meter that had held sway in standard, recurring patterns over the last 300 years," says Skidmore College music professor Charles Joseph. "Stravinsky liberated music from this history and opened the door to the world of modernism."

The Rite of Spring is just one score among many that Stravinsky created specifically for ballet. His collaboration . with choreographer George Balanchine spanned over 40 years and two con- - tinents, and together they produced almost two dozen ballets. This month, New York City Ballet opens its season with a two-week festival celebrating their great partnership that helped shape 20th-century dance.

Born in 1882 near St. Petersburg, Stravinsky showed an early interest in music. As a toddler,.he performed a song for his parents that he had heard sung by women in his town. Stravinsky's parents did not want him to pursue a musical career, even though his father was a renowned opera singer. They preferred that he study law instead, for reasons of status and income. But Stravinsky overcame their objections and studied under another legendary Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Stravinsky left St. Petersburg for Paris in 1910 to further develop his musical talent, given Paris' more vibrant artistic scene. Additionally, Stravinsky had been commissioned by Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev to create a new ballet score. When The Firebird - a narrative ballet based on a Russian legend, choreographed by Michel Fokine - premiered in 1910, Stravinsky moved to Paris to oversee its debut.

Stravinsky composed often for the Ballets Russes over the next 20 years, in collaboration with its choreographers, until the sudden death of Diaghilev in 1929. Other notable ballets produced during this period include Petrouchka by Michel Fokine (1911) and Les Noces by Bronislava Nijinska (1923) - both with themes drawing from Russian rituals and customs. Rite also had Russian roots: Its harshness was inspired by the natural force of ice breaking up along a Russian river in spring.

Diaghilev introduced Stravinsky to Balanchine in 1925, and in 1928, the two collaborated on Apollon Musagète-now known simply as Apollo. This score heralded a new age for the composer; it favored classicism, not ethnicity. Inspired by classical music and ancient Greek mythology, Apollo is Stravinsky and Balanchine's first neoclassical masterpiece. …

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