Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky

Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky (1843-1902) in 1887
Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky (1843-1902) in 1887

We mark the birth on June 20, 1843 – 179 years ago today – of the Russia bass opera singer Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky, in the city of Minsk, which is today the capital of Belarus but was then part of the Russian Empire.  Considered one of the greatest singers of his time, Fyodor Ignatyevich has largely been forgotten because, one, he never recorded and, two, he’s been eclipsed by the fame of his son, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

He was born of Polish descent in the “Government (province) of Minsk”, in what had been part of Poland until 1793, when the Russian Empire sliced off and annexed a large chunk of Poland in what is euphemistically called the “second partition of Poland.”  (Today, the “province of Minsk” is part of the “nation” of Belarus, which is advised to mind its P’s and Q’s, as Tsar Putin no more considers Belarus to be separate country than he does Ukraine.  Not that you need me to point this out, but I’ll do it anyway: the “annexation” of Crimea in 2014 and the present attempts to destroy Ukraine and annex the Donbas demonstrate that Russian actions towards its neighbors have not changed a whit in hundreds of years: invade, occupy, and annex; invade, occupy, and annex; repeat as necessary until the desired result has been achieved.)

In 1959, Igor Stravinsky explained the origin of his family’s name:

“‘Stravinsky’ comes from ‘Strava’, the name of a small river, tributary to the Vistula, in eastern Poland. We were originally called Soulima-Stravinsky – Soulima being the name of another Vistula branch – but when Russia annexed this part of Poland the Soulima was for some reason dropped.”

Fyodor Stravinsky grew up and attended gimnaziya (grammar school) in the formerly Polish city of Nezhin.  (For our information, Nezhin is today located in Ukraine. 72 miles northeast of Kyiv, it has been badly damaged by rocket attacks during Putin’s invasion.)  As a student, Fyodor Stravinsky sang as an amateur, first in choirs and then as a soloist.  Although he attended law school and had a career as a civil servant ahead of him, his abilities as a singer convinced him to take a shot at making a career of it.  In 1869, at the rather advanced age of 26, he enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  On graduating in 1873, he sang the role of Don Basilio in a student performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.  Critics were in attendance, and they were impressed.  

He was immediately engaged by the Kyiv Opera Theater in Ukraine, where he made his professional debut on September 3, 1873, in the role of Count Rodolpho in Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula (composed in 1831).

And that was that:  Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky became an up-and-coming star in a country where audiences worshipped (not too strong a word) bass singers like himself.  …

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