Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. The son of a famous bass singer at the Imperial Opera, Stravinsky showed little inclination to pursue a musical career until, while a law student, he began to study composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky was catapulted into the musical limelight with the composition of three ballets for the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev in Paris: Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The latter work caused a celebrated scandal at its first performance and remains one of the best-known and most influential pieces of 20th-century music. During World War I, Stravinsky lived in Switzerland, and shortly afterward he settled in France. His creative association with Diaghilev continued until 1929 and included notable collaborations with Pablo Picasso and Leonid Massine (Pulcinella, 1920), Jean Cocteau (Oedipus Rex, 1927), and George Balanchine (Apollon Musagete, 1928). In 1939 he moved to the United States.
The shimmering orchestral effects of Firebird, the novel bitonal Petrushka chord (combining C major and F-sharp major simultaneously), and the syncopated and irregular rhythms of both ballets paved the way for the harsh polytonal dissonances and the violent and percussive rhythmic techniques of The Rite of Spring. The use of repetitive folklike melodic motives, mixed meters, polyrhythms, and ostinatos are all characteristic, and most of these techniques remained distinguishing traits of Stravinsky’s style. Out of practical necessity, Stravinsky pared down the enormous performing resources of The Rite to more economical proportions in works such as L’Histoire du Soldat (1918), scored for seven instrumentalists. The influence of jazz is reflected in Ragtime (1918) and Ebony Concerto (1945).
A revived interest in the music of the past, particularly in that of the baroque and classical periods, as well as an aesthetic predilection for clarity and balance, led to the composition of a number of neoclassical works, including the Octet for Wind Instruments (1923), the Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924), the Piano Sonata (1924), and Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938). Profound religious feeling was expressed in works such as the Symphony of Psalms (1930) and Mass (1948). Stravinsky continued to compose ballets and collaborated with Balanchine on Jeu de cartes (1936), Orpheus (1947), and Agon (1957). His only full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress (1951), composed to a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, startled the musical world with its eclectic use of elements derived from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Italian opera. Even more controversial was Stravinsky’s turn to Anton von Webern-inspired serialism in works dating from the mid-1950s. An early example was Canticum Sacrum ad Honorem Sancti Marci Nominis (1955). Threni (1958) was Stravinsky’s first completely serial work. The use of serial technique in this and subsequent compositions, such as Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959), Elegy for J. F. K. (1964), and Requiem Canticles (1966), resulted in concise, highly structured works.
Stravinsky’s unpredictable individualism and originality precluded the formation of a school of composition, but the influence of his music has been widespread, ranging from Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich to Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland, and many others.