Stravinsky’s “Orpheus”: Melancholy, Love, and Mystery

“Myths never were, but always are,” wrote the 4th century Roman commentator, Sallustius. So it is with the story of Orpheus, which inspired Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine in mid-twentieth century Hollywood as deeply as it did Claudio Monteverdi in 1607 and the lyric poet Ibycus in the 6th century BC. In 1946, Stravinsky received a commission from Balanchine and the impresario, Lincoln Kirstein, for a contemporary treatment of the Orpheus story. The resulting …

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Stravinsky Meets Tchaikovsky: Reimagining “The Sleeping Beauty”

Tchaikovsky’s fairytale ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, was first performed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on January 15, 1890. Among the audience members of this premiere production was the eight-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who later noted it as a formative musical experience. For the first time, the young Stravinsky was struck by the majesty of the orchestra, and well as the music of Tchaikovsky, a personal friend of Stravinsky’s father. In January of 1941, Stravinsky received a …

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Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements: Rhythmic Delirium

Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements is a delirious celebration of rhythm. This bright, exuberant music leaves behind the rapturous, primordial jabs of The Rite of Spring to enter the crisp, spare world of neoclassicism. Witty and spirited conversations unfold between instrumental voices. Quirky, irrepressible ostinatos propel the music forward amid unpredictable and swiftly changing rhythmic currents. The outer movements hurtle forward with the hyper, unrelenting energy of an action film, whisking us from one …

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Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments: Enter Neoclassicism

Igor Stravinsky’s 1923 Octet for wind instruments is a playful drama filled with zany, spirited voices. Its comic “characters” take the stage with endearing exuberance and sincerity. With witty allusions to Baroque and Classical form, it represents the beginning of Stravinsky’s dry, pared-down neoclassical period. When this piece was premiered at the Paris Opera in October, 1923, it was met with bewilderment and what Jean Cocteau called, “a scandal du silence.” Among the …

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Stravinsky’s “Song of the Nightingale”: A Shimmering, Impressionist Tone Poem

In 1908, the 26-year-old Igor Stravinsky, still a student of Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, completed the first act of an opera, Le Rossignol (“The Nightingale”), based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. When Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write the ballet score for The Firebird, the work was set aside. Only in 1914, after the completion of The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, did Stravinsky return to the project. Listening to the complete …

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“The Fairy’s Kiss”: Stravinsky’s Musical Homage to Tchaikovsky

In 1893, while attending a performance at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, the 11-year-old Igor Stravinsky caught a fleeting glimpse of Tchaikovsky. The occasion was the 50th anniversary production of Glinka’s opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, in which Stravinsky’s father, Fyodor, an acclaimed bass, was singing. Tchaikovsky would die two weeks later. Stravinsky recalled, I looked and saw a man with white hair, large shoulders, a corpulent back, and this image has remained in the retina of …

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Stravinsky’s “Ode”: An Elegiacal Chant in Memory of Natalie Koussevitzky

In 1943, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write a piece in memory of his wife, Natalie, who had died the previous year. During his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra between 1924 and 1949, Koussevitzky commissioned and championed numerous works by contemporary composers. Many of these commissions were funded with the help of money from Natalie Koussevitzky’s family. In addition to Stravinsky’s Ode, the the Koussevitzky Music Foundation’s early commissions …

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