Stravinsky's 'Pictures of Pagan Russia', as The Rite of Spring was sub-titled, was first conceived in a dream in 1910. The composer had just finished The Firebird and had a vision of a solemn pagan rite, of wise elders watching a young girl dance herself to death. Work on his second ballet, Petrushka, intervened and Stravinsky didn't return to The Rite until the summer of 1911.
Having worked on the score throughout 1912, the first performance was given by Diaghilev's Ballet Russes on 29 May 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. The audience's reaction was legendary, as Stravinsky later recalled:
'..the first bars of the prelude..at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly deveopled into a terrific uproar.'
The Rite still sounds modern today, such is the power of its elemental rhythms and dissonances. Stravinsky used to say that he was merely 'the vessel through which The Rite passed', a telling comment that hints at the inventiveness and radical newness of this masterpiece.
The musical language in The Rite is pregnant with explosive energy, creating a wonderfully exciting and unpredictable score. Rarely performed as a ballet, but a favourite in the concert hall, The Rite continues to shock and impress generations of audiences with its earthy savagery. Particularly popular are The Augers of Spring and the final Sacrificial Dance.
One of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, Stravinsky's adoption of every important stylistic trend while still remaining indisputably himself, betrays a remarkable kind of creative kleptomania. Motivated no doubt by his emigré lifestyle, the constant re-invention of his musical voice produced a bewildering variety of works that span the final flowering of Russian nationalism under Rimsky-Korsakov to the severity of post-war Serialism.
Born in June 1882, the son of a fine bass-baritone opera singer, Stravinsky was exposed from a young age to a musical lifestyle, frequent visitors to the Stravinsky household including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky. Having begun to study law at St Petersburg University in 1901, his wish to follow a musical career led to harmony and counterpoint lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov's students and, eventually, to composition lessons with the old master himself.
Having married his cousin Katya in 1906, his glittering and polished orchestral works were becoming noticeable in St Petersburg's music circles. Although often dismissed as insubstantial, they caught the eye of impressario Serge Diaghilev and, after Stravinsky had orchestrated some music for his ballet russes, he eventually commissioned Stravinsky to write a ballet based on a Russian fairy-tale, The Firebird.
A spectacular overnight success in Paris, The Firebird was followed by Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). The latter ballet's infamous first performance riot was a merely a blip in Stravinsky's Parisian popularity; he was mobbed by admirers at a performance the following year.
The mixed reception of his works in Russia, however, prompted six years of self-imposed exile in Switzerland, during which time the Revolution further isolated him from his homeland. A permanent move to France took place in 1920, where Stravinsky embarked on a number of love affairs, notably with Coco Chanel and, most importantly, with Vera Sudeykina who became his mistress.
The years in France mark the start of Stravinsky's neo-classicism. With Works such as the Octet, he abandoned the old Russian style and began to take inspiration from the classicism of German traditions, from the Baroque and Classical eras, eventually producing such clean 'white-on-white' works as Apollon musagète.
An increasing commitment to concert tours, including a duo with Samuel Dushkin, and an interest in early recording technology also characterised these years. Several tours to the USA and a number of American commissions suggested the possibility of a move further West, and in September 1939, after the tragic deaths of his wife, daughter and mother, Stravinsky sailed for America.
After marrying his mistress, Vera, and filing for US citizenship, Stravinsky moved to Hollywood in the spring of 1941, moving in primarily emigré circles. With money short and royalties from war-ravaged Europe drying up, Stravinsky attempted to write more commerically minded music. His attempts at film music eventually found their way into the Symphony in Three Movements and Four Norwegian Moods.
The last neo-classical works, the ballet Orpheus (1948) and the opera The Rake's Progress (1951), to a libretto by W H Auden, coincide with the arrival on the scene of Robert Craft. Craft, as Stravinsky's assistant, began to introduce him to the works of the younger generation and to culturally alter his outlook.
Having heard tapes of Serial music including works by Webern and Schoenberg, Stravinsky became disturbed that his recent music did not interest the younger European composers in the way that Serialism did. Having written nothing for six months, he began to systematically adopt Serialism with works like Agon and Canticum Sacrum.
The severe Threni was the first work to make exclusive use of 12-note rows and marked the beginning of Stravinsky's last creative phase, in which the remainder of his output would use serial techniques. The late works, such as The Flood and Abraham and Isaac also betray the influence of the isorhythmic and canonic structures of Renaissance music.
Although creatively young and fresh, Stravinsky was becoming physically frailer, following a stroke in 1956. In 1962, he made his first visit to the Soviet Union and set foot on Russian soil for the first time in 50 years, an emotional homecoming for the old composer.
His last substantial work, Requiem Canticles, was written at the age of 84 and, shortly after a move to New York, Stravinsky died on 6 April 1971. His body was flown to Venice where it was buried a few yards away from the grave of Diaghilev.