The Riot of Stravinsky’s Spring

Russian composer, pianist and conductor, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born on 17 June, 1882, in Oranienbaum, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, 25 miles west of St. Petersburg.  The Stravinsky family was of Polish and Russian heritage, descended from a long line of Polish grandees, senators and landowners.

Igor Stravinsky showed an interest in music from an early age and began piano lessons at the age nine, followed by tuition in music theory and composition. Despite Stravinsky’s enthusiasm and ability, his parents wanted him to study law.  In 1901, he enrolled at the University of St Petersburg, to study criminal law and legal philosophy. However, his interest waned and he did not complete it. Stravinsky met fellow student Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, the youngest son of renowned Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music. Stravinsky spent the summer of 1902 with the Rimsky-Korsakovs in Heidelberg, Germany after the untimely death of his father from cancer. By 1905, two significant events occurred for the 23 year old Stravinsky. In August, 1905, announced his engagement to his first cousin, Katherine Gavrylivna Nosenko. He also began studying with Rimsky-Korsakov and came to regard him as a second father. In spite of the Orthodox Church’s opposition to marriage between first cousins, the couple married on 23 January 1906. Stravinsky and Nosenko’s first two children, Fyodor (1907) and Ludmila (1908) were born. He continued his music lessons until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908.

While his wife was expecting their third child, Stravinsky spent the summer in La Baule in western France. In September, 1910, they moved to Clarens, Switzerland where their second son, Sviatoslav (Soulima), was born. Their fourth child Marie Milène was born on 15 January, 1914. After her delivery, Nosenko contracted tuberculosis (TB) and was confined to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.

  • Over the next five years, Stravinsky composed many successful compositions and opus works including Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3 and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks), Op. 4.
  • Russian impresario and owner of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, was so impressed with Stravinsky’s compositions, he commissioned Stravinsky to compose a score for Diaghilev’s forthcoming 1910 opera and ballet season in Paris. This was for a new ballet production based on the Russian fairytale of the Firebird. At 50 minutes in length, The Firebird premiered at the Opera de Paris on 25 June, 1910, to widespread critical acclaim and Stravinsky became an overnight sensation.
  • Stravinsky’s compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky for two more ballets which were first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The ballet Petrushka, based on a Russian folk tale about two puppets premiered at Théâtre du Châtelet, in June, 1911; and The Rite of Spring in 1913.
  • The Rite of Spring, caused a sensation among critics, fellow composers, and concertgoers. Based on an original idea offered to Stravinsky by Nicholas Roerich, the production featured a series of primitive rituals celebrating the advent of Spring, after which a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim to the sun god Yarilo, and dances herself to death. The radical nature of the music and choreography caused a near-riot at its premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May, 1913.

Shortly after the premiere, Stravinsky contracted typhoid from eating bad oysters and he was confined to a Paris nursing home. He left in July 1913. For the rest of the summer he focused on his first opera, The Nightingale (Le Rossignol), based on the same-titled story by Hans Christian Andersen, which he had started in 1908. Diaghilev agreed for the Ballets Russes to stage it.

  • In December 1915, Stravinsky made his conducting debut at two concerts in aid of the Red Cross with The Firebird. World War I (WWI) and the Russian Revolution evolved in 1917, preventing Stravinsky from returning to his homeland.
  • 15 May, 1920, saw the premiere of the Ballets Russes, production of Pulcinella in Paris. Stravinsky and his family left Switzerland for France, and sought a permanent home in Paris. The famous Parisian couturière Coco Chanel invited the family to live in her Paris mansion until they found their own residence. They accepted and arrived in September. In December 1920, Chanel secured a guarantee for a revival production of The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes, donating an anonymous gift of 300,000 francs, to Diaghilev.

Shortly after, in February 1921, Stravinsky met Vera de Bosset in Paris, while she was married to painter and stage designer Serge Sudeikin, and they began an affair that led to de Bosset leaving her husband. From then, until his wife’s death in 1939, Stravinsky led a double life, dividing his time between his family in Switzerland, and Vera in Paris and on tour.

The following years saw Stravinsky tour Europe and the United States (US). His first US commission was Apollo, a 30 minute ballet score for a festival at the Library of Congress which premiered in 1928. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky developed many professional relationships with key people in the US. He finally left Paris for Annemasse, near the Swiss border, to be near his family, after his wife and daughters Ludmila and Milena contracted TB and were in a sanatorium. Ludmila died in late 1938, followed by his wife of 33 years.

Stravinsky arrived in New York City on 30 September, 1939. His long-term lover, Vera, arrived in January, 1940 and the couple married on 9 March, in Bedford, Massachusetts. The two moved into a home in Beverly Hills, California before they settled in Hollywood from 1941. On 28 December 1945, Stravinsky and Vera became naturalized US citizens.

  • On 18 March, 1971, Stravinsky was taken to Lennox Hill Hospital where he stayed for ten days, with pulmonary oedema. After a period of well being, the oedema returned, and Stravinsky soon stopped eating and drinking, and died at 5:20 a.m. on 6 April, at the age of 88.
  • A funeral service was held three days later. As per his wishes, Stravinsky was buried in the Russian corner of the cemetery island of San Michele in Venice, Italy; several yards from the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev; having been brought there by gondola after a service at Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

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Source: Craft, Robert. A Stravinsky Scrapbook 1940-1971. Thames & Hudson: London, 1983

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