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Igor Stravinsky and His Influence on 20th Century Music

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Igor Stravinsky has long been associated with ballet music, in particular with The Firebird, Petrouchka, and the Rite of spring, the trio of works that pushed and developed both dance and music into the modern age. His works also represent a sequence of works in which a thread of continuous growth can be observed. Even today his works have influenced many to take local music and singing lessons. It is on these three works that this paper will focus; firstly, by discussing the influences which affected Stravinsky in his formative years; secondly, by examining the foundations of his compositional technique; and finally, by an analysis of the innovations which Stravinsky introduced in his three early ballets.

Stravinsky’s major musical influences during his formative years were the two Great Russian nationalistic composers Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. At that time period, Rimsky Korsakov was a member of “the five” also known as “the mighty handful”. He worked with Stravinsky on his first compositions in sonata allegro form and had particular influence on his orchestration. (Stravinsky, igor p. 24) His first Symphony in E flat shows the obvious trademarks of his master’s influence. On the other hand, Druskin (1979, p.30) suggests that the influence of Mussorgsky was also of major significance: “Mussorgsky gave him a glimpse of the ancient Russian way of life before Peter the Great, and, more particularly, its association with church ritual”.

The first performance of The Firebird, composed at the same time as Stravinsky was still under the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. Interestingly enough, Stavinsky’s Firebird and Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet Le Coq d’Or share great similarities. Firstly, both compositions are based on Russian fairy tales and both deal with the conflict between good and evil. Secondly, he points out Stravinsky’s adoption of Rimsky-Korsakov’s technique of employing harmonic principles to differentiate between human and supernatural forces. For example, diatonic harmonies are used to depict human characters whereas chromaticism or the predominant uses of modes are used to signify supernatural elements.

Stravinsky’s use of the orchestra in The Firebird for the most part follows the normal romantic principle: the strings are used for their mellowness, and the brass and woodwind play their traditional role of lending tone color. Even so, it is apparent that Stravinsky is starting to experiment with new ideas, beginning to “delight in his own discovery of orchestral effects; trombone glissandi, glissandi for strings using natural harmonics”. The overall effect is one of “glitter, sparkle and brilliance; of extremes of contrast; of orchestral virtuosity” (Routh,1975, p.72). The gradual evolvement which has been the feature of Stravinsky’s work up to this point is suddenly swept aside by the dramatic changes.

Petrushka appeared on the musical scene in 1911 and it was consisted of a lot of revolutionary features. One of the most immediately striking features of Petrouchka is the use of the piano; not as a featured soloist but as an integral part of the orchestral sound. Also, the rhythmic intensity of the composition appears to exert a considerable influence on the melodic characteristics of the piece, which appear to be more fragmented and built on a restricted range of notes when compared to the flowing melodies of The Firebird. In fact, the melody could be said to be almost subordinate to the striking rhythmic vitality which drives the whole composition onwards.

Petrushka also introduced the use of polytonality. In the music, the first clarinet plays a melody that uses the notes of the C major chord, while the second clarinet plays a variant of the same melody using the notes of the F sharp major chord. He also uses this technique called pandiatonicism which is based on the superimposition of diatonic chords. By applying the technique of pandiatonicism, Stravinsky produces a result much more sophisticated than he achieved in his earlier efforts in The Firebird.

The Rite of Spring was performed in 1913 and after its first performance; he was seen as a revolutionary figure. With this composition, Stravinsky expanded and intensified the developments he in The Firebird and then in Petrushka. The elevation of rhythm to a place of primary importance; the use of polytonality, polymodality, and Pandiatonicism to blur the boundaries of traditional tonality; his assimilation of folk melody; all these elements which first appeared in his first two ballets are now applied with a greater intensity in The Rite of Spring. These elements will now be considered in turn, commencing with the rhythmic component in which Stravinsky places so much importance.

In the early twentieth century Stravinsky rescued Russian music using the musical ideas that he learned from Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Encouraged by Diaghilev, Stravinsky took the basic elements of traditional music and injected many startling innovations which were to mark his early ballets; commencing with The Firebird in 1910 and culminating with The Rite of Spring in 1913; as a watershed in the history of western music. His individualistic use of the orchestra, the virtual rhythmic revolution in which rhythm; freed from the restraints of the bar line; became the dominant structural element, his rejection of traditional voice leading in favor of polytonality and dissonance as a structural entity, and his subtle incorporation of folk elements, all combine to form the basis of Stravinsky’s early primitivistic style. His style truly have redefined the direction of music in the early twentieth century and resulted in many revolutionary concepts until today.

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