The son of a leading bass at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov (1902-8), who was an influence on his early music, though so were Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glazunov and (from 1907-8) Debussy and Dukas. This colourful mixture of sources lies behind "The Firebird" (1910), commissioned by Dyagilev for his Ballets Russes. Stravinsky went with the company to Paris in 1910 and spent much of his time in France from then onwards, continuing his association with Dyagilev in "Petrushka" (1911) and "The Rite of Spring" (1913).
These scores show an extraordinary development. Both use folktunes, but not in any symphonic manner: Stravinsky's forms are additive rather than symphonic, created from placing blocks of material together without disguising the joints. The binding energy is much more rhythmic than harmonic, and the driving pulsations of "The Rite" marked a crucial change in the nature of Western music. Stravinsky, however, left it to others to use that change in the most obvious manner. He himself, after completing his Chinese opera "The Nightingale", turned aside from large resources to concentrate on chamber forces and the piano.
Partly this was a result of World War I, which disrupted the activities of the Ballets Russes and caused Stravinsky to seek refuge in Switzerland. He was not to return to Russia until 1962, though his works of 1914-18 are almost exclusively concerned with Russian folk tales and songs: they include the choral ballet "Les noces" (The Wedding), the smaller sung and danced fable "Renard", a short play doubly formalized with spoken narration and instrumental music ("The Soldier's Tale") and several groups of songs. In "The Wedding", where block form is geared to highly mechanical rhythm to give an objective ceremonial effect, it took him some while to find an appropriately objective instrumentation; he eventually set it with pianos and percussion. Meanwhile, for the revived Ballets Russes, he produced a startling transformation of 18th-century Italian music (ascribed to Pergolesi) in "Pulcinella" (1920), which opened the way to a long period of 'neo-classicism', or re-exploring past forms, styles and gestures with the irony of nondevelopmental material being placed in developmental molds. The "Symphonies of Wind Instruments", an apotheosis of the wartime 'Russian' style, was thus followed by the short number-opera "Mavra", the "Octet" for winds, and three works he wrote to help him earn his living as a pianist: the "Piano Concerto", the "Sonata" and the "Serenade in A".
During this period of the early 1920s he avoided string instruments because of their expressive nuances, preferring the clear articulation of wind, percussion, piano and even pianola. But he returned to the full orchestra to achieve the starkly presented Handel-Verdi imagery of the opera-oratorio "Oedipus rex", and then wrote for strings alone in "Apollon musagete" (1928), the last of his works to be presented by Dyagilev. All this while he was living in France, and "Apollon", with its Lullian echoes, suggests an identification with French classicism which also marks the "Duo concertant" for violin and piano and the stage work on which he collaborated with Gide: "Perséphone", a classical rite of spring. However, his Russianness remained deep. He orchestrated pieces by Tchaikovsky, now established as his chosen ancestor, to make the ballet "Le baiser de la fée," and in 1926 he rejoined the Orthodox Church. The "Symphony of Psalms" was the first major work in which his ritual music engaged with the Christian tradition.
The other important works of the 1930s, apart from "Persephone", are all instrumental, and include the Violin Concerto, the Concerto for two pianos, the post-Brandenburg 'Dumbarton Oaks' Concerto and the Symphony in C, which disrupts diatonic normality on its home ground. It was during the composition of this work, in 1939, that Stravinsky moved to the USA, followed by Vera Sudeikina, whom he had loved since 1921 and who was to be his second wife (his first wife and his mother had both died earlier the same year). In 1940 they settled in Hollywood, which was henceforth their home. Various film projects ensued, though all foundered, perhaps inevitably: the Hollywood cinema of the period demanded grand continuity; Stravinsky's patterned discontinuities were much better suited to dancing. He had a more suitable collaborator in Balanchine, with whom he had worked since "Apollon," and for whom in America he composed "Orpheus" and "Agon". Meanwhile music intended for films went into orchestral pieces, including the Symphony in Three Movements (1945).
The later 1940s were devoted to "The Rake's Progress", a parable using the conventions of Mozart's mature comedies and composed to a libretto by Auden and Kallman. Early in its composition, in 1948, Stravinsky met Robert Craft, who soon became a member of his household and whose enthusiasm for Schönberg and Webern (as well as Stravinsky) probably helped make possible the gradual achievement of a highly personal serial style after "The Rake". The process was initiated in 1953 while composing the brilliant, tightly patterned ballet "Agon (1957)," which was interrupted by work on "Canticum Sacrum." The boundaries of this critical period in Stravinsky's evolution can be traced within this single work. "Agon" projects a remarkably unified compositional outlook: the tonal sections reveal distinct serial characteristics, while the serial ones, reflect a definite tonal bias.
Most of the serial works are religious or commemorative, being sacred cantatas ["Canticum sacrum"(1955), "Threni" (1958) (entirely twelve-tone), "Requiem Canticles" (1965)] or elegies ["In Memoriam Dylan Thomas" (1954), "Elegy for J.F.K."]. "In Memoriam...", a setting of a Thomas poem for tenor, string quartet, and four trombones, was the composer's first wholly serial composition, derived entirely from a five-note row and its strict serial permutations. All these were written after Stravinsky's 70th birthday, and he continued to compose into his mid-80s, also conducting concerts and making many gramophone records of his music. During this period, too, he and Craft published several volumes of conversations.
Stravinsky's music, even in his late period, is flavored with abrupt formal juxtapositions and polarized texture. His style was characterized by its harmonic innovations and perhaps even more by its primitive and brutal rhythmic patterns. The resulting complexities included the consecutive use of widely varying metric patterns and polyphony of widely differing rhythmic strata. The syncopations of jazz rhythms were often imitated. In many instances, rhythm constituted the single most important element in Stravinsky's musical fabric.
Stravinsky, following the model of his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, exploited tone color to its utmost in both large and small instrumental combinations. Typical examples of his unusual scoring include the elimination of all the violins, violas, and clarinets in the orchestra for the "Symphony of Psalms", or the accompaniment of four pianos and percussion in "Les Noces" (The Wedding).
(See The Music of Stravinsky: An Overview)