Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky is one of the most celebrated and influential composers of the twentieth century, particularly with regard to his innovative approach to harmony, rhythm and orchestration. The Russian-born (naturalised French, then American) composer, conductor and pianist wrote ballets, symphonic works, operas, concertos, masses and vocal compositions; the orchestral suite of his ballet The Rite of Spring is the most-recorded piece of orchestral music. His works are generally categorised into three periods: Russian (1907-1919), Neoclassical (1920-1954) and Serial (1954-1968). Although he was not directly at risk of persecution during the Second World War, Stravinsky emigrated to America in September 1939. Scholars have debated the extent to which the composer expressed antisemitism in his writing as well as his musical works.

Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, near St Petersburg, where he studied piano from a young age. His father was an esteemed bass singer at the Mariinsky Theatre, but the young Stravinsky was discouraged from pursuing music as a career. After studying law at university in St Petersburg, he met Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and began studying composition until the latter’s death in 1908. Shortly after this Stravinsky met the ballet and opera impresario Serge Diaghilev, who was creating a showcase of Russian opera and ballet to be shown in Paris. Diaghilev commissioned a new ballet from Stravinsky, and in 1910 The Firebird premiered in Paris, making the young composer an overnight sensation. Two further ballets, Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), and an opera, Le Rossignol (The Nightingale, 1913), propelled Stravinsky to international fame. These early compositions are still amongst the composer’s most well-known works. They include Russian folk quotations and harmonies, as well as influences from Glazunov, Wagner, Debussy and Dvořák.

Because of the outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky was unable to return to his native country until 1962. Instead he settled in Switzerland and then Paris, becoming a naturalised French citizen in 1934. Stravinsky is known to have been Fascist and anti-Bolshevik, and some of his actions have been interpreted as sympathetic towards the Nazis; he also admired Mussolini, playing for him on a number of occasions in Italy and giving him gifts. In contrast, Stravinsky’s confidante, Robert Craft, has written that Stravinsky ‘loathed’ the Nazis, and kept a scrapbook filled with annotated pictures of Himmler and Goering in bizarre poses. Throughout the 1930s Stravinsky travelled to Germany to conduct and perform, and was still corresponding with publishers in Germany until 1939. He refused to sign Otto Klemperer’s petition on behalf of musicians who were losing their jobs in the Third Reich, perhaps because a large proportion of his income came from Germany in the early 1930s. He also failed to respond to Arnold Schoenberg’s suggestion that he help set up a Conservatoire in Palestine. Stravinsky travelled to Germany in 1936 to play his Concerto for Two Solo Pianos at the Baden-Baden International Festival of Contemporary Music which had been organised by the Nazi Party; the concerto was performed next to a work by official Nazi composer Paul Graener. In May 1938 Stravinsky’s music was pronounced Entartete Musik (Degenerate music) in Germany and his works were largely banned. The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung reported that ‘Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg are […] the leaders of the decadent cultural Bolshevist tendencies in art today.’

Stravinsky appears to have been aware of the Nazis’ racial ideology (in 1933 he wrote to his publisher that he was ‘surprised to have received no proposals from Germany,’ for the next season, despite the fact that his ‘negative attitude towards communism and Judaism – not to put it in stronger terms – [was] a matter of common knowledge’) but scholars have disagreed about the extent to which he supported this ideology. Robert Craft has described the composer’s antisemitism as ‘lifelong and undying,’ and Richard Taruskin has argued that Stravinsky’s antisemitism may have stemmed from his rivalry with Jewish composer Maximilian Steinberg, whose early career outshone the young Stravinsky’s when they were studying together with Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg. However, Stravinsky did maintain friendships with Jewish musicians including violinist Samuel Dushkin and composer Arthur Lourié; he also conducted in Jerusalem in 1962. His ballad for baritone and orchestra, Abraham and Isaac (1962-63), was set to a Hebrew text and premiered in Jerusalem in 1964 with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The composer engaged in an argument – and eventually refused to conduct a concert – with a radio station in Turin, Italy, in December 1938 because the station refused to allow him to conduct Rieti’s Second Piano Concerto as their racial politics prevented them from broadcasting music by a Jewish composer. This incident has been interpreted variously as evidence of Stravinsky’s willingness to stand up for his Jewish acquaintance and as simply a demonstration of the composer’s political naivety. Similarly, some scholars have suggested that Stravinsky’s use of antisemitic language in his correspondence must be understood in context of his White Russian background; he may not have intended to convey hatred towards Jews, more a lack of understanding of the way his language could be offensive.

Although Stravinsky’s emigration to America in September in 1939 coincided with the outbreak of war in Europe, his move was not motivated by the political situation. Throughout the 1930s he had begun to feel unhappy in France and looked increasingly towards a move to America. His candidacy for acceptance into the French Academy in 1935 had been rejected, and he had begun to fall out of favour with French audiences, critics and impresarios – his ballet Jeu de Cartes (Card Game, 1937), for example, was premiered in Dresden rather than in Paris. The composer was struggling financially and many of his commissions were coming from America; friends such as Dushkin and pianist Nadia Boulanger had also emigrated, and he had built contacts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Harvard University. In addition, Stravinsky’s wife, daughter and mother had all died in Paris in 1938-39 and the composer himself been infected with tuberculosis. When he was invited to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard University as Chair of Poetry, Stravinsky was not in a financial position to turn down the offer; he also believed that the American air may be better for his lungs.

From America, Stravinsky followed European politics, commenting that ‘war can never be good for the arts. Musicians are mobilised. Life is deranged,’ and writing to a friend that the ‘terrible’ events in Europe had made him ‘ill and unable to work.’ His youngest son was mobilised in the French army in late 1939 and later had to prove (successfully) that his father was not Jewish. Stravinsky’s eldest son was interned near Toulouse in June 1941, and his Jewish son-in-law was murdered by the Gestapo, leaving his granddaughter an orphan. The composer was able to transfer money to his family in occupied France through fellow composer Darius Milhaud, whose mother remained in France until her death in 1943. During this time Stravinsky composed two important works including the neoclassical Symphony in C (1938-40) and the concerto-symphony, Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45).

His Cantata (1951-2) is an English-language choral work for soprano, tenor, female choir and instrumental ensemble set to four anonymous, late-medieval English poems suggested by W. H. Auden. The choice of text in the Cantata, which marks Stravinsky’s first move into Serialism, is often interpreted as further evidence of his antisemitism. The Second Ricercar, ‘To-morrow shall be my dancing day,’ describes Jesus’ life and contains couplets that have antisemitic connotations. The offensive nature of the lyrics was brought to the composer’s attention after the premiere of the Cantata in a letter from Stravinsky’s then-biographer, Alexandre Tansman, who expressed regret that Stravinsky had chosen to set such a text, ‘only seven years after the opening of the death camps.’ Scholars have largely agreed that although Stravinsky was probably not motivated to choose an antisemitic text, he may have been ignorant to the fact – or simply did not care – that it could be offensive. Indeed, in August 1953 he inscribed a score of his Cantata to his friend and neighbour, Otto Klemperer (the Jewish conductor whose petition Stravinsky had refused to sign in 1933), who had fled to America from the Nazis. The Cantata has since been performed both in its original form, and with alternative lyrics, with the composer’s consent.

Stravinsky settled in California and became a naturalised US citizen in 1945. He returned to Leningrad in 1962 to conduct a series of concerts, and met Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian. He died from heart failure in 1971, aged 88, and is buried near Diaghilev in San Michele, Italy.

By Abaigh McKee


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Rockwell, J. (1988) ‘Music View; Reactionary Musical Modernists,’ New York Times, 11/9/1988 (available online at www.nytimes.com, accessed 14/6/2016)

Slim, C. H. (2006) ‘Stravinsky’s Star-Spangled Banners and His 1941 Christmas Card,’ The Musical Quarterly, 89 (2/3) 321-447

Stravinsky, V. and Craft, R. (1978) Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents (New York: Simon and Schuster)

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and Hermeneutical Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Taruskin, R. (2008) The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press)

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Yuzevich, V. and Kostalevsky, M. (2002) ‘Chronicles of a Non-Friendship: Letters of Stravinsky and Koussevitzky,’ The Musical Quarterly, 86 (4) 750-885