Paris' Theatre des Champs-Elysees, on May 29, 1913, was the setting of the most notorious event in the musical history of this century--the world premiere of The Rite of Spring. Trouble began with the playing of the first notes, in the ultrahigh register of the bassoon, as the renowned composer Camille Saint-Saens conspicuously walked out, complaining loudly of the misuse of the instrument. Soon other protests became so loud that the dancers could barely hear their cues. Fights broke out in the audience. Thus Modernism arrived in music, its calling card delivered by the 30-year-old Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
Born in 1882 in Oranienbaum, Russia, a city southwest of St. Petersburg, Stravinsky was rooted in the nationalistic school that drew inspiration from Russia's beautifully expressive folk music. His father was an opera singer who performed in Kiev and St. Petersburg, but his greatest musical influence was his teacher, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. The colorful, fantastic orchestration that Stravinsky brought to his folk song-inspired melodies was clearly derived from Rimsky-Korsakov. But the primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive he added was entirely his own. The result was a music never before heard in a theater or concert hall.
In 1910 Serge Diaghilev, then director of the world-famous Ballets Russes, invited Stravinsky to compose works for his company's upcoming season at the Paris Opera. The Firebird, the first to appear, was a sensation. Petrushka and The Rite of Spring quickly followed. Soon Stravinsky's audaciously innovative works confirmed his status as the leading composer of the day, a position he hardly relinquished until his death nearly 60 years later.
After leaving Russia, Stravinsky lived for a while in Switzerland and then moved to Paris. In 1939 he fled the war in Europe for the U.S., settling in Hollywood. In 1969 he moved to New York City. (The story goes that when asked why he made such a move at his advanced age, he replied, "To mutate faster.") Over the years, Stravinsky experimented with virtually every technique of 20th century music: tonal, polytonal and 12-tone serialism. He reinvented and personalized each form while adapting the melodic styles of earlier eras to the new times. In the end, his own musical voice always prevailed.
In 1947 Stravinsky befriended Robert Craft, a 23-year-old conductor who was to become his chronicler, interpreter and, oddly, his mentor in some ways. It was Craft who persuaded Stravinsky to take a more sympathetic view of Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone school, which led to Stravinsky's last great stylistic development.
In his long career, there was scarcely a musical form that Stravinsky did not turn his hand to. He regularly produced symphonies, concertos, oratorios and an almost bewildering variety of choral works. For me, however, Stravinsky was at his most sublime when he wrote for the theater. There were operas, including The Rake's Progress, composed for a libretto by W.H. Auden and one of a handful of 20th century operas that have found a secure place in the repertory. The ballets also continued; the last of his masterpieces, Agon (composed for another Russian choreographer, George Balanchine), came in 1957.