Born in Russia in 1882, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was mentored by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and worked as a composer first in Russia, then in Switzerland and France. As he began to make a name for himself in Russia with works influenced by Russian folk culture and music, he came to the attention of the great Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who asked Stravinsky to compose a ballet for the celebrated Ballets Russes. The result, The Firebird (1910), was so successful that another commission quickly followed for the ballet Petrushka (Petrouchka), which premiered in 1911 starring the great Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. .
But it was his next ballet that established Stravinsky's international reputation as an enfant terrible and THE quintessential modern composer. The iconic ballet The Rite of Spring exploded upon the 20th century, inciting a full-scale riot at its 1913 Paris premiere. Heralding a revolution in classical music, The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) has been called the most famous musical work of the 20th century, an icon of modernism, and the Rosetta stone of modern art. Between Stravinsky's music and Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography, this ballet about ritual pagan sacrifice, with its intense rhythms and barbaric, inelegant dance movements was like nothing seen or heard before. The audience went crazy with catcalls, whistles, boos, fistfights and brawls, and the Paris police had to be called in to restore order.
Of The Rite of Spring, Leonard Bernstein said, It's also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.
By 1940 a severely edited version of The Rite of Spring had found its way into Walt Disney's Fantasia, and the revolutionary work had lost some of its capacity to scare audiences. But it still dazzles and is considered as significant to the 20th century as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was to the 19th.
When World War I broke out, Stravinsky moved to Switzerland; finances were tight, and he worked on smaller scale works such as the 1918 theatrical work The Soldier's Tale, based on a Russian folk tale. After the Russian Revolution it became impossible for him to return to Russia, and in 1920, he settled in France where he began to compose in the neo-classical style, re-examining the music of Mozart and Bach.
In 1939 Katerina, Stravinsky's wife of 33 years, died of tuberculosis; their eldest daughter had died the year before. When World War II broke out in 1939, Stravinsky moved to the US where he taught for a year at Harvard. He stayed on in America, marrying his longtime mistress Vera de Bosset and settling with her in Hollywood.
In 1941, to show his gratitude to his adopted country, Stravinsky harmonized and orchestrated his own arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner. It was performed without incident in Los Angeles. But when he came to Boston in 1944 to conduct it in a series of three concerts with the Boston Symphony, he ran afoul of a 1917 Massachusetts law forbidding tampering with the National Anthem. Before the second concert, the Boston police arrived to confiscate the sheet music. The law is still on the books in Massachusetts.
CHAPTER 264. CRIMES AGAINST GOVERNMENTS
Chapter 264: Section 9. National anthem; manner of playing
Section 9. Whoever plays, sings or renders the "Star Spangled Banner" in any public place, theatre, motion picture hall, restaurant or café, or at any public entertainment, other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays, sings or renders the "Star Spangled Banner", or any part thereof, as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a medley of any kind, shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.
Source: The General Laws of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Government Web site
This law would theoretically make performances of Madama Butterfly illegal, as Puccini's opera quotes a brief excerpt of The Star-Spangled Banner
Shortly after the war ended, Stravinsky began to compose The Rake's Progress. He was nearly 70 when The Rake's Progress premiered in 1951; the opera seemed almost quaintly old-fashioned in a world where with-it composers were conjuring up new harmonic adventures in atonality, aleatoric music, serialism, minimalism, and other isms . . . not that Stravinsky would be left behind. Rake was his greatest – and last – neoclassical work.
Stravinsky would soon begin exploring serial compositional techniques, including the twelve-tone technique originally devised by Arnold Schoenberg. He was influenced in this new direction by Robert Craft, a young conductor whom he met in 1948. Craft became his musical aide and the two wrote a number of books about Stravinsky's life and musical views. The artistic partnership continued until Stravinsky's death in 1971. Craft has conducted throughout the world, and continues to be influential in supporting contemporary music; he is the first American to have conducted Alban Berg's operas Wozzeck and Lulu. He has conducted pioneering recordings of works by Schoenberg, Varèse, and Webern, and led the world premieres of several of Stravinsky's later masterpieces.
Stravinsky was a major influence on 20th century music and many consider him the greatest of the century's composers.He won a number of Grammy awards:
Stravinsky also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6340 Hollywood Boulevard.
I chose Wystan Auden as librettist for my opera "The Rake's Progress" because of his special gift for versification . . . I simply gave all priority to verse, hoping that we could evolve the theatrical form together and that it would inspire Wystan to dramatic poetry. I think he was inspired, and in any case he inspired me . . . I wonder whether any poet since the Elizabethans has made a composer such a beautiful gift . . .
W. H. Auden brought Chester Kallman in as co-librettist for The Rake's Progress. Kallman (1921 to 1975) was an American poet, librettist and translator, whom Auden had met shortly after his arrival in New York in 1939. Kallman published three collections of poems, Storm at Castelfranco (1956), Absent and Present (1963), and The Sense of Occasion (1971); he wrote the libretto for an opera by Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and translated libretti for a number of operas, among them Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók and Falstaff by Arrigo Boito. However, he is best known for being Auden's promiscuous lover and lifelong companion and for his collaborations with Auden on opera libretti and translations.
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 to 1973), best known as W. H. Auden, is considered by many to be the greatest English poet of the twentieth century. He was born in York, England and studied at Oxford, majoring first in biology, and then switching to English. He was part of a group of young intellectuals that included poets Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender and novelist Christopher Isherwood, who was his mentor and later his lover.
After graduation, Auden worked as a schoolmaster and as a freelance reviewer and essayist, and began to make a name for himself with his first collections of poems (1928, 1930, 1933, and 1934), each slightly different, all entitled simply Poems. In 1937 he was awarded the King's Gold Medal for Poetry.
Through his work with the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit, he met composer Benjamin Britten, and the two collaborated on the classic 1936 documentary Night Mail.
Excerpt from Night Mail, featuring a poem by Auden.
In 1935 Auden married Erika Mann, daughter of the great German novelist Thomas Mann, in order to provide her with a British passport to escape the Nazis. He served in the Spanish Civil War and in 1938 went to China with Isherwood to observe the Sino-Japanese War; out of this trip came their book Journey to a War.
His political awareness and opposition to totalitarianism came out strongly in his writing of the time; a memorable example is the concise little poem called Epitaph on a Tyrant, which he wrote around 1939, and which ends with these lines:
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
In January 1939 Auden and Isherwood emigrated to America. Within three months Isherwood moved to California, while Auden settled in Brooklyn, where he met the poet Chester Kallman. The two became lovers; however, while Auden saw their relationship as a marriage, Kallman was a philanderer; the relationship fizzled after two years, although the two remained friends, companions, and collaborators until Auden's death.
In 1940 George Davis, an editor recently fired from Harper's Bazaar (and the future husband of singer Lotte Lenya), leased a dilapidated house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights and invited Auden to move in. The building soon became an exciting experiment in communal living, housing an amazing cross-section of American and expatriate artists who, in between fighting and drinking, actually managed to get some work done. The building was christened February House by writer Anaïs Nin because so many of the residents had February birthdays. The inhabitants – and the works they created while living in February House – included the following:
Visitors to the house included a who's who of American and European artists, among them painter Salvador Dali, poet Louis MacNeice, choreographer George Balanchine, and composers Virgil Thomson. Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein (composer of The Cradle Will Rock and Regina) and Leonard Bernstein.
February House has been called a Petri dish for literary creativity. When Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont visited the house, he wrote:
All that was new in America in music, painting, or choreography emanated from that house, the only center of thought and art that I found in any large city in the country.
The hotbed of creativity that was February House inspired a 2005 book by Sherill Tippins – February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America.
Auden left February House in the fall of 1941 to teach at the University of Michigan; the other residents drifted away, and in 1945, the house was demolished to make room for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Auden continued to work as a poet, reviewer, lecturer and editor. He taught at various schools and universities and became a US citizen in 1946. From 1956 to 1961 he was a professor of poetry at Oxford. His long poem The Age of Anxiety won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
After writing the libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Auden and Kallman collaborated on two libretti for Hans Werner Henze, Elegy for Young Lovers (1961) and The Bassarids (1966), and on the libretto of Love's Labour's Lost for Nicolas Nabokov (1973). They also collaborated on translations of Mozart's The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni, and on translations of Seven Deadly Sins and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
As a librettist, Auden is frequently compared to the great Hugo von Hofmannsthal. His libretto for The Rake's Progress continues to be admired for its beauty, wit, and profundity, and Auden is widely considered the 20th century's finest librettist.
Auden was a longtime friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and among the most prominent early critics to praise The Lord of the Rings when it was first published in 1954. Tolkien wrote of his support:
I am... very deeply in Auden's debt in recent years. His support of me and interest in my work has been one of my chief encouragements. He gave me very good reviews, notices and letters from the beginning when it was by no means a popular thing to do. He was, in fact, sneered at for it.
Throughout his life, Auden remained active as a poet, reviewer, lecturer and editor. From 1939 to 1953 he taught at various schools and universities, becoming a US citizen in 1946. From 1956 to 1961 he was a professor of poetry at Oxford. His long poem The Age of Anxiety, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
In 1972 Auden moved back to England, but spent his summers in Austria. He died in Vienna in September, 1973. W.H. Auden continues to be seen as one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century.
Auden's popularity and familiarity increased after his poem Funeral Blues was read aloud in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
... He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong...