Great Masters: Stravinsky-His Life and Music

Course No. 754
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 754
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Course Overview

When it comes to creative longevity, brilliance across a range of styles, and near-universal fame, Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) is nearly unrivaled among 20th-century artists. As told by Professor Robert Greenberg, Stravinsky's career is a dizzying, enthralling progression across the miles and the decades from fin de siècle Czarist Russia to Southern California in the 1960s.

It features styles ranging from nationalism and Impressionism to Fauvism, neoclassicism, and the 12-tone ultra-serialism of Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

Professor Greenberg presents this long-lived master of musical creativity as a one-man compendium of people, places, compositional styles, and techniques, his life and music a virtual artistic history of the West from the 1890s to the late 1960s.

Even a partial list of Stravinsky's friends and collaborators reads like a "who's who" of 20th-century Western culture: Picasso, Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Puccini, Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Jean Cocteau, Dylan Thomas, Nicholas Nabokov, Paul Klee, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Walt Disney, Edward G. Robinson, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Herman, even Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Among other things, then, these lectures on Stravinsky will give you a sense of the kaleidoscopic changes in musical expression that took place during the first 70 years of the 20th century.

From Nationalism to Modernism and Beyond

Stravinsky began as a 19th-century musical nationalist. He was privileged to receive the benefits of an upper-middle-class Russian upbringing in St. Petersburg, where he was born in 1882.

In this city at the turn of the 20th century, the young and impressionable Stravinsky was exposed to an amazing, kaleidoscopic interweaving of Western and Eastern European cultures.

His was a musical family. His father, Fyodor, was a professional opera singer, considered one of the great bass-baritones of his day.

By his late teens, Stravinsky's interest in music had developed into an ambition to become a composer, despite the fact that he had not, to that point of his life, demonstrated any exceptional musical talent.

Certainly, his potential was not recognized by the eminent Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, when Stravinsky approached him for lessons in 1902.

Rimsky-Korsakov's opinion changed dramatically, however, when he heard Stravinsky's Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor of 1904. The work gained Stravinsky a powerful ally and influential teacher in that great Russian master.

Between 1904 and 1909, Stravinsky developed his compositional technique and style, absorbing a diversity of musical influences.

During this period, Stravinsky married his cousin Katya, who would prove an invaluable support to her husband during these musically formative and professionally difficult years.

The Rite—and Riot—of Spring

Stravinsky's audiences enjoyed his highly successful music for The Firebird and his next ballet, Petrushka, but they could not have anticipated what would come next.

Stravinsky's music for The Rite of Spring was like nothing he or any other composer had written before it. To convey the sense of the ballet's primitive, earthy, and sexual theme, Stravinsky had to forge a new musical language.

The resultant ballet score caused one of the most celebrated scandals in music history. At The Rite's Paris premiere on May 29, 1913, the audience broke into a riot.

"This music still sounds 'modern' almost a century after its first performance," states Professor Greenberg.

You learn why the Rite is one of the 20th century's two most important musical compositions.

After 1918: Seeking Humane Times

Appalled by the horrors of World War I, Stravinsky, after 1918, couched his modernistic impulses in the musical styles of seemingly simpler, "more humane" times.

From the 1920s on, he was drawn as well by the energy of ragtime, tango, and big-band jazz, writing pieces in all these popular idioms. In 1925 he made a highly successful tour of several U.S. cities, conducting his own works.

Through the end of the 1920s, Stravinsky continued to produce music that filtered its modernisms through the lens of the musical past, such as the ballet Apollo Musagète of 1928 and The Symphony of Psalms of 1930. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Symphony of Psalms is a deeply religious work, of the sort that Stravinsky had never written before.

The works of the 1930s exhibited a neoclassical, or neotonal, style. These works included the Concerto in D for Violin and the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, among others.

Soon his music was being attacked as "degenerate art" by the Nazis in Germany, and he suffered the multiple tragedies of the deaths of his daughter, Lyudmilla; his wife, Katya; and his mother.

When World War II broke out in September 1939, Stravinsky and soon-to-be second wife, Vera Sudeykin, settled in Los Angeles, where Stravinsky immediately became one of the city's most sought-after celebrities. His first major work composed in the United States was his 1945 War Symphony, the Symphony in Three Movements. This was the year the Stravinskys became American citizens.

Among other works Stravinsky wrote between 1945 and 1953 was the Ebony Concerto, written for Woody Herman's band. This work "objectifies" elements of jazz in the way that Ragtime for 11 Wind Instruments had 20 years before.

These years were perhaps the best of Stravinsky's life: He was happy and flourishing in his private and professional lives; financial hardship was a thing of the past.

In 1948, Stravinsky befriended Robert Craft, a young conductor with a fanatical admiration for the older composer. They formed a highly unusual relationship in which Craft wrote diaries of his life as Stravinsky's aide and friend. Craft introduced Stravinsky to the 12-tone music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

A "Supreme Original"

Finally and most astonishingly, at the age of 70, Stravinsky underwent yet another aesthetic metamorphosis, reinventing himself musically with pieces in the ultramodern serialist style associated with composers one-third his age.

Like Haydn and Beethoven in their later works, Stravinsky in his Agon of 1957, Requiem Canticles of 1966, and other late pieces, attained a level of spirituality, clarity—and novelty—that would be stunning in a composer of any age, at any time.

After the Stravinskys and Robert Craft returned from a landmark visit to Russia in 1962, Stravinsky's output began to slow. By the late 1960s, Stravinsky was enjoying a level of celebrity and wealth rarely accorded a composer in his lifetime. His last public appearance was in 1967 and he died in 1971.

"Stravinsky, without a doubt, was a supreme original," says Professor Greenberg. "We study him to see what, aside from the unaccountable gift of genius, made this originality possible. What are the artistic constants that run throughout his long career, gathering all its shifting currents into the main stream of greatness?

"Diversity, synthesis, and reconciliation are the keys to Stravinsky's musical personality."

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

The Firebird (1909)
Petrushka (1911)
The Rite of Spring (1912)
Ragtime for 11 Instruments (1918)
Pulcinella (1919)
Les Noces [The Wedding] (1923)
Symphony of Psalms (1930)
Concerto in D for Violin (1931)
Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938)
Symphony in C (1940)
Symphony in Three Movements (1945)
The Ebony Concerto (1953)
Agon (1957)
Requiem Canticles (1966)

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8 lectures
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction and There’s No Place Like Home
    Igor Stravinsky was raised in a St. Petersburg that was an amazing mix of Western and Eastern Europe, a blend that is a key to understanding Stravinsky's musical development. His father, Fyodor, was one of the great Russian operatic bass-baritones of his time. Accepted into law school, he continued music lessons and was steadfast in his ambition to become a composer. x
  • 2
    From Student to Professional
    Rimsky-Korsakov was so impressed with Stravinsky's Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor (1904) he agreed to take Stravinsky as a private student. In 1909, Stravinsky met the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky to write a ballet on the folk tale The Firebird, which was followed by the ballet Petrushka, a great success. Stravinsky's next score, The Rite of Spring, would become arguably the most influential work of its time. x
  • 3
    The Rite of Spring
    The Rite of Spring changed the way we think about rhythm, melodic patterning, compositional technique, and expressive content. When it opened in Paris in 1923 it caused a scandal unparalleled in the history of music. Its lasting modernity is a testament to the fact that it does not sound like any work that preceded it, nor any that followed it. x
  • 4
    The War Years (WWI)
    The war years enforced an economy of means on the composer; large-scale works were out of the question. Among the creations of these years were the Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914), Renard (Fox) for four voices and small orchestra (1916), Ragtime for 11 Instruments (1918), and L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) (1918). Les Noces (The Wedding), finished in 1923, is a great masterpiece of this period. x
  • 5
    In 1919, Diaghilev proposed a ballet based on music by the Italian baroque composer Pergolesi. Immediately after the war, Diaghilev and Stravinsky, collaborated on a ballet—Pulcinella—based on music by the Italian baroque composer Pergolesi. From 1920 to 1923, Stravinsky composed the Symphonies for Wind Instruments, the opera Mavra, and the four-piano version of The Wedding. x
  • 6
    By the mid-1920s, Stravinsky's musical philosophy embraced the belief that a composition should be governed by purely formal considerations. In 1930 he wrote The Symphony of Psalms, a deeply religious work with elements similar to, and an austerity totally different from, The Rite of Spring. x
  • 7
    A Citizen of the World
    With the outbreak of World War II, Stravinsky and his wife settled in Los Angeles, where he became one of Hollywood's most sought-after celebrities. In 1948, Stravinsky met Robert Craft, who exposed the composer to 12-tone music. Stravinsky, in his early 70s, was about to change his compositional language and enter an entirely new musical world. x
  • 8
    The New Stravinsky
    The parallels between Schoenberg and Stravinsky are many. In the early 1950s, Robert Craft began conducting serial works by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, which captured Stravinsky's interest. In 1962, Stravinsky visited Russia for the first time since 1914. Requiem Canticles (1966), Stravinsky's last major work, is considered the most accessible of his late works. He died April 6, 1971, and was buried in Venice on the island of San Michele. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Great Masters: Stravinsky-His Life and Music is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 39.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course, and the entire series: Superb On finishing this course--and the series--in 2015, I wrote the following analysis of both the Stravinsky component and the whole series. This finally completes this 10-part series—2 years after the course on Mahler with which I started. This one is not only about Stravinsky (an interesting, complex individual on several levels) and his music, but also about 20th-Century music and art in general. Because Stravinsky wrote many great ballets, Greenberg provides extensive discussion of Serge Diaghilev and other aspects of this topic, as well as of Arnold Schoenberg, whom he considers the other greatest 20th-Century composer in terms of overall impact and contribution. He makes a compelling case for The Rite of Spring being the most important single work of the 20th Century, just as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was of the 19th Century. This is a remarkable set: 10 composers, 80 lectures, 60 hours altogether. It’s now about 15 years old but that makes no difference—although you have to get used to a less gray, slimmer, mustachioed Robert Greenberg. Greenberg is truly a master of this particular form, and the premier Teaching Company professor whom a few of the others might approach but not surpass. His presentations are masterfully constructed, articulate, dynamic, funny, pithy, and as far as I can tell truly authoritative. He goes to great length to distinguish between objective historical and musical information and his own views; he doesn’t overload the viewer with the latter but they provide perspective and enrich the experience. Constructing ten 8-lecture courses in the same format, each providing a biographical and musical summary of a different composer, without making them formulaic, mechanical, and redundant must have been challenging, but Greenberg succeeds stunningly. Each course takes a different tack—focusing on a global aspect of music, European history, or human nature that is applicable to that particular composer but also to the course as a whole. Examples are anti-Semitism with Mahler, mental illness with Schumann, the musician as international celebrity with Liszt, homosexuality with Tchaikovsky, and world events and political oppression with Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Each course could stand perfectly well on its own, and the whole set is a truly spectacular achievement.
Date published: 2018-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is yet another of Dr. Greenberg's skillfully-presented and highly-educational series of lectures...(8 lectures on 2 DVDs). Allow me to whet your appetite with a few terrific insights provided right from the start which eventually lead to a broad and complete view of the man Stravinsky and his music. Dr. G's opening point is that Stravinsky was a composer of incredibly diverse works. The musical examples he gives to illustrate this argument, comparing the homogenous works Mozart and Tchaikovsky with the widely-differing works of Stravinsky, are completely convincing, showing, as he states, that Stravinsky, "...was a supreme original. Stravinsky's compositional career is a virtual catalog of musical styles from the turn of the 20th century to the mid-1960s...from the nationalism of late 19th century Imperial Russia, to post-WWII intellectual modernism." Dr. G presents a bounty of compelling details about Stravinsky's early life, beginning with his childhood, growing up in a cultured, westernized Russian home listening to his father singing opera, and surviving ill health. He takes us through his school days spent absorbing the sights and sounds and smells of the colorful, varied, stinking, overbearing, overcrowded, artistic atmosphere of 19th century St. Petersburg, a city offering a true confrontation of East and West, related, yet interdependent, and offering cultural mayhem. Dr. G shows how such details and many others influenced Stravinsky's musical development. Dr. G. is intimately acquainted with practically every conceivable nuance of Stravinsky's life, and has the teaching skill to put each nuance in its proper place as he helps us to understand how an essentially self-taught young musician became the leading composer of the 20th century. Dr. G reveals the importance of Stravinsky's private lessons in composition and orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov. Equally vital in Stravinsky's life were the unqualified support and affection of his new wife Katya. These two close events led to his extraordinarily rapid development. And even more momentous was Stravinsky's meeting with Sergei Diaghilev (1909-1910), and the resultant writing of The Firebird--a true watershed in his life. Diaghilev was a manager and a brilliant artistic director. His formation of the Ballets Russes was a major milestone in the artistic world of the time, eventually becoming the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. Under Diaghilev's leadership, Ballets Russes promoted unprecedented artistic collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all cutting-edge in their fields. Dr. G tells how, at the premiere of The Firebird, Diaghilev addressed the dancers, pointed to Stravinsky, and said, "Mark him well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity." The collaboration of Stravinsky and Diaghilev led to The Rite Of Spring, which was to the 20th century what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was to the 19th: the most influential work of its shockingly original that it literally changed the way we think about music. As Dr. G says, "Like it or hate it, the genius of the work and its revolutionary impact on western music was apparent to almost everybody from the beginning." The musical world would never be the same. What anomalies the Stravinskys of the world were and are...(Jacob Collier, for example.) By the way, did you know that the violent and scandalous public reaction at the Rite's premiere performance in 1913 was carefully orchestrated and staged by Diaghilev? I didn't. Just a year later, when The Rite of Spring was performed as a concert piece, Stravinsky was honored to the point of being carried out of the theater on the shoulders of the audience. These sorts of inside information, including the effect of WWI, the Russian Revolution and Civil War which followed, and WWII on Stravinsky's life and works make the reader feel as though he really knows and understands the composer and his music. This is the type of backstory information which Dr. G is so good at, providing a complete and unabridged picture of whatever composer he is talking about...and I have only provided a few of such details. Each of his series of lectures comes with a Course Guidebook which, among other things, provides an extensive bibliography. This is simply music history at its best--music history come alive. Dr. G rigorously analyzes the musical components of nearly ever major work Stravinsky created. He meticulously reveals the growth and development of Stravinsky's mature compositional style as well as his complex and contradictory personality. This is Stravinsky Revealed. You've got to hear this! Just take a Saturday and listen to the whole thing at once. And as I have said before, the occasional light humor Dr. G uses is just the touch needed to make a serious and historic account listenable and enjoyable. No, it goes beyond enjoyable; it's...scholarly, entertainment is not the right word, either--it's simply teaching at its best. What an attainment! Bravo!
Date published: 2018-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good value Excellent example of the value of streaming education
Date published: 2018-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intro to 20th Century Music Like many other reviewers and semi-knowledgeable music lovers, I was familiar with “The Rite of Spring” and “The Firebird”. Less so with Stravinsky’s other works. Sure I had heard the “Violin Concerto in D” and had pretty much dismissed it, just as I had done with “Petrushka”. Thanks once again to Professor Greenberg, I am beginning to see the light. I really had no idea as to the scope of Stravinsky’s music over the scores of years. We are helped in this at the beginning of the very first lecture. Dr. Greenberg gives us three samples of Mozart’s music over his compositional career and asks if we can tell that the music was written by the same person. Of course, we can. Then we get three excerpts of three pieces by Tchaikovsky and once again it is easy to tell that the music was written by the same man. Now we are presented with five different pieces of “Stravinsky’s music over the years: “Firebird” of 1910, “The Rite of Spring” of 1912, “Pulcinella” of 1920, “Ebony Concerto” of 1945 and finally “Abraham and Isaac” of 1963. Here the music is radically different, even though the first two pieces were composed only two years apart. This lays the foundation for the lectures that follow, where we see the radically differing styles of music and compositional techniques. Interspaced with all of this we get the life and times of Igor Stravinsky. Here again I learned a lot as I was largely unfamiliar with his bio. As usual, Professor Greenberg does not shy from the less savory aspects of Stravinsky’s life, such as his estrangement from his mother, his affairs and difficulties with other composers. All of this is delivered in Dr. Greenberg’s trademark shtick, which is something that for me adds to the lectures, but that other reviewers dislike. Dr. Greenberg is very clearly a far of Stravinsky’s music and it comes across strongly. For me his discussion of “The Symphony of Psalms” and “Requiem Canticles”, neither of which I had heard, gave me just enough background and inspired me to listen to them on my own. And to this I would add a new appreciation of the “Violin Concerto in D”. Thank you Professor Greenberg.
Date published: 2018-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Composer of the 20th century I am half way through these CD’s and am really enjoying them. Professor Greenberg’s way of showing how Stravinsky’s music evolved over his lifetime by comparing him to the evolution of Mozart and Tchaikovsky’s music was effective and entertaining. Although I have some familiarity with Stravinsky’s life and works, this course has enriched my understanding and appreciation of his accomplishments.
Date published: 2018-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from ROBERT GREENBERG IS A NATIONAL TREASURE! Robert Greenberg is a national treasure. His courses are the best of the best. His erudition, and vast knowledge are integrated into everything he does. He can talk off the cuff as easily as he does with his beautifully written lectures. He's funny, entertaining, brilliant, informed, wonderfully opinionated, and his delivery is as good as everything else. If you are a professional musician or a musical illiterate he's equally valuable. I've recommended him to every student and parent in my studio. I've bought his course "Music as a Mirror of History" three times because I can't help giving it away. Listen to this guy. He will change your life and give you a deeper understanding of more things and in more ways than you can imagine. He's wonderful! If you had 10 stars instead of five he'd get 10 - or 100!
Date published: 2018-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another splendid biography Prior to hearing this course, I was familiar with Stravinsky’s “the rite of spring” and “Firebird”, and had also heard quite extensive coverage of Starvisky’s life and music in Professor Greenberg’s recently released course “Great music of the Twentieth century”. This course went into more depth and complemented to a large extent Twentieth, but there was also quite significant overlap – as there is in many of his courses. Actually, I did not find this detrimental because there is so much to cover, and Professor Greenberg is so fascinating and knowledgeable (and also really just fun to listen to because of his great wit), that even the material that is repeated simply has a further opportunity to sink in. I find that one listening to much of the content is not sufficient and if it is repeated, or covered again, in another course it is usually not redundant (at least for me). Maybe for people with more background this overlap could be somewhat of a drag… Overall, another wonderful course by Proffesor G.
Date published: 2018-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I was somewhat familiar with Stravinsky's work but I really learned history in this course. Somehow I missed a lot of what was going on is Russia during his time. Thanks Dr. G. for a great lesson.
Date published: 2017-09-08
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