Igor Stravinsky was born into a musical family: his father was the Principal Bass singer at the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg and one of the most well known and famous musicians in Russia. Young Stravinsky therefore met and knew many of the most important artists and composers of the time, and developed an early love for music. His father’s wishes for Igor to study law required that Stravinsky attend law school, which Igor dutifully did, but in a 4-year course at the University of St. Petersburg, Stravinsky only attended around 50 class sessions. Stravinsky was prevented from taking his law finals due to the 1905 revolution in Russia, so he received a ½ course diploma.

            With the death of his father in 1902, Stravinsky was free to pursue his musical studies actively, and he began his association with Rimsky-Korsakov, which lasted from 1903 until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908. Rimsky-Korsakov was the principal teacher of Igor Stravinsky, and much in Stravinsky derives from R-K influences:

  1. BulletBrilliant orchestration

  2. BulletUse of octatonic scales

  3. BulletExoticism in music

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Stravinsky was also influenced heavily by contemporary Russian composers, including (of course) Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and (especially) Scriabin.


You can listen to representative works of these composers in the “Audio and Visual Extras” section of this website to discern the influences these composers had on the young Stravinsky. In particular, Scriabin exerted a tremendous influence on Stravinsky’s HARMONY, through his use of ALTERED DOMINANT HARMONY, FRENCH 6th CHORDS, etc. This harmony finds its way into much of early Stravinsky, including Scherzo fantastique, Fireworks, and The Firebird, which is based on many harmonic ideas that were used by Scriabin.

The very early student works of Stravinsky do not show much individual character (again, please refer to the “Audio and Visual Extras” section for examples of early Stravinsky) and are heavily indebted to Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, and others.


Stravinsky composes two works which will help gain attention, and which for the first time show the “real” Stravinsky:

  1. 1.Scherzo fantastique (for large orchestra)

  2. 2.Fireworks (for large orchestra) 

Present at the first performance (January 24, 1909) of Fireworks was the great Russian impresario and director of the famous Ballets Russes, SERGEI DIAGHILEV (1872-1929), who immediately recognized the immense talent of Stravinsky and asked him to do some orchestrations for the ballet company. Based on the success of these, Stravinsky was asked to compose a full-length ballet for the 1910 season, and the result was The Firebird (1910), which catapulted Stravinsky to international fame and success, and launched his career as the most important and controversial contemporary musician (perhaps with the exception of Arnold Schoenberg). The Stravinsky-Diaghilev collaboration would span almost 20 years and create some of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.


Diaghilev and Stravinsky: an amazing photograph!




Diaghilev, being the master entrepreneur that he was, was eager to have Stravinsky follow up his immense success of the Firebird with another ballet, and Stravinsky at this time began to formulate ideas and concepts for The Rite of Spring, which sensed would be a monumental task to complete. Therefore, as the composer wrote in his Autobiography:


Before tackling The Rite of Spring, which would be a long and difficult task, I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part: a sort of Konzertstück. In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios.

The idea of turning this music into a ballet came to Diaghilev as soon as he heard the music, and thus was Petrouchka born. This work, completed and first performed (in Paris, again) in 1911, is a pivotal work in the career of Stravinsky, as author Stephen Walsh succinctly puts it:

“The emergence of Stravinsky as a modernist, with an individual manner unlike any other, can be dated with precision to his early work on Petrouchka.”


The story, which unfolds in four scenes, takes place in St. Petersburg in 1830 during the annual Butterweek Fair, the Russian equivalent to Mardi Gras. The first scene opens on a square filled with a rowdy crowd of peasants, aristocrats, soldiers, street performers, vendors, and various others, all seeking amusements and diversion. Their activities are interrupted by the appearance of a bearded showman, the Charlatan, who presents his three puppets – the doll-like Ballerina, the opulent Moor, and the sad Petrouchka – performing a mechanical dance.

Scene Two takes place in Petrouchka’s dark cell, dominated by a watchful portrait of the Charlatan, and reveals the puppet’s awkward and despairing love for the self- involved and uncomprehending Ballerina.

Scene Three shifts to the Moor’s colorful room. The Moor plays with a coconut and momentarily allows the admiring Ballerina to distract him. His rage at Petrouchka’s entrance results in a chase. In the final scene, back at the fair, Petrouchka runs out of the Charlatan’s booth, followed by the Moor, who kills him. The crowd is horrified, but the Charlatan picks up the limp puppet, convincing them that the corpse is just sawdust and rags. As the fair ends, the ghost of Petrouchka appears above the rooftop, both threatening and triumphant. The bewildered Charlatan drops the doll and flees in terror.

Stravinsky and Nijinsky (Petrouchka) at the first performance of the ballet (1911)

  1. BulletThe work is divided into two different worlds: the REAL world of the outer world, populated by real human beings—a “Symphony of the Street”, and the INTERIOR world of the puppets, introducing the love triangle between Petrouchka, the Moor, and the Ballerina. This is the magical world divorced from reality.

  1. BulletThe music for these two worlds is distinctly different!


  1. BulletThe outer world (which comprises Tableaux 1 and 4, or the outer scenes) is based on popular Russian folk tunes (15 of them, to be exact), is pan-diatonic in nature, and is more straightforward harmonically than the interior scenes.

DEFINITION: “Pan-Diatonicism”  à enriching the diatonic scale with other members of the scale in chord combinations.

  1. BulletThe interior scenes (Tableaux 2 and 3) are characterized by extremely progressive music, dominated by octatonic scale usage, C/F# bitonal usage, chromatic writing, and a much higher level of dissonance, relative to the outer scenes. Please remember that the octatonic scale dominates the ENTIRE work. In the words of the world’s most respected Stravinsky expert, Richard Taruskin,

“No composition, whether by Stravinsky or by anyone else, had ever been so completely octatonic in its structural conception. The octatonic collection is raised structurally to the level of a ‘key’.”

  1. BulletThe famous “Petrouchka Chord” dominates much of the work (the simultaneous keys of C and F# major). Note the tritone relationship, always an important factor in the music of Stravinsky’s Russian Period.

“I had conceived of the music in two keys in the second Tableaux as Petrouchka’s insult to the public.” --- Igor Stravinsky

  1. BulletThe work centers around 4 key areas: C/F#/A/Eb Major. If you combine all of the notes from these scales together and make a scale from them, you will wind up with an octatonic scale (try it!). Also note that these keys consist of two tritone relationships (C/F# and A/Eb).

  1. BulletThe motives and themes of the work are generated by very small cells of notes (reminiscent of how Debussy composed). As an example, the very beginning of the work (in your scores) is based on the notes D/E/G/A, which form the flute melody AND the underlying harmony and repeated notes in the horns as accompaniment.

  1. BulletPerhaps the most important innovations in the work have to do with RHYTHM:

  1. 1.POLYMETRIC MUSIC (use of two different time signatures simultaneously)

  2. 2.RHYTHMIC DISPLACEMENT (taken to a higher level than in The Firebird)

  3. 3.Much more prominent use of MIXED METERS and constantly changing meters (will become even more so in The Rite of Spring)

  4. 4.Prominent use of OSTINATO rhythms (again, taken to unbelievable heights in his NEXT work, The Rite of Spring)

Petrouchka opened on June 13, 1911, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris to overwhelming success. Conducted by Pierre Monteux, then 36, the performance was praised as a feat of sophisticated, intellectual theatrical folklorism.  Back in St. Petersburg the work was criticized by Russian ears that heard only a patchwork of Russian pop tunes, rural folksong, and ambient noise loosely tethered with “modernist padding,” as Prokofiev called it.  In the ensuing 106 years, the work has become one of the pillars of 20th century music and a beloved classic, and still one of the most forward-looking and prescient works in the history of Western music.


Igor Stravinsky

(1882 - 1971)