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Music

Is Stravinsky the twentieth century’s foremost composer?

The Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) is certainly one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. Stravinsky wrote concerts, chamber music, piano pieces, and operas, as well as ballets, for which he may be most well known.

Between 1903 and 1906 Stravinsky studied under the great Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908). In 1908 Stravinsky wrote his first work of note, the orchestral fantasy Fireworks, which was in honor of the marriage of Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter. The piece caught the attention of Sergey Diaghilev (1872–1929) of the Ballets Russes, who invited the young composer to participate in the ballet company’s 1910 season (Ballets Russes had dazzled audiences the year before, bringing new energy to the art form). In collaboration with Diaghilev, Stravinsky went on to create masterpieces—The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Rite of Spring (1913) among them. The partnership served to elevate the role of the ballet composer in the art world.

Rite of Spring is either Stravinsky’s most famous or most infamous work. It was first performed by the Ballets Russes in the third week of its 1913 season. The choreography was arranged by the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950). But the performance stunned both the music and dance worlds. So extreme was the audience’s reaction to this premier work that a riot nearly broke out inside the theater. Stravinsky had composed his music not to express spring’s idyllic qualities but rather its turmoil and dissonance—similar to childbirth. Nijinsky paired Stravinsky’s composition with complicated and visually frenzied dance movements, later characterized by the composer as a jumping competition. Though many thought it a disastrous performance, when the Ballets Russes continued to London, Rite of Spring was more widely accepted there—largely because the audience had been duly prepared for it.

The following year, Rite of Spring was performed in concert in Russia, but the reaction was mixed. The young composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) was in the audience and later wrote that he had been so moved by the work that he could not recover from the effects. Listeners today are still moved by the elevated rhythm of Rite of Spring, which makes an entire orchestra into a kind of sustained percussion instrument. Ultimately, most musicians and critics came to regard the watershed work as one of the finest compositions of the twentieth century.



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