Stravinsky & Copland: Ballet Contributions and Styles

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  • 00:00 Ballet
  • 00:44 Igor Stravinsky
  • 3:16 Aaron Copland
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland were two ballet composers who were very different, yet similar in many respects. Explore the styles and contributions of each artist and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


What a night we've got ahead of us! Two different performances, two different countries, all in about six minutes. Oh yeah, we're doing this.

You see, we're going to be watching ballet, a form of theatrical performance dance in which movement and music together tell a story. But why should we be limited to just one style of ballet when we have this: a magical travelling ballet theater! It's totally a thing. With our magical travelling ballet theater, we can witness ballet from around the world and that's just what we're going to do. So dust off your tux and shine your shoes; we've got some ballet to see.

Igor Stravinsky

Now, before we head off to our first destination, we need to update your wardrobe a bit. Lovely. You guessed it, we're off to Russia.

Russia has one of the most respected traditions of ballet in the world, but today, we're focusing on one artist: Igor Stravinsky, a Russian ballet composer of the early 20th century. Why Stravinsky? Because I want to see something that is both integral to modern ballet as well as really Russian. And that's where we find Stravinsky. It has been said that the only thing consistent about Stravinsky is his lack of consistency; he was constantly experimenting and pushing the rules of theater.

But his works were also deeply connected to a sense of Russian national identity, at least up until roughly 1920. The most famous ballet to build upon this nationalist pride is Petrushka, composed in 1911. In this ballet, Stravinsky actually used pieces of Russian folk songs, which at the time was shocking. Folk music and high culture, like ballet, were supposed to be separate, but Stravinsky fused them together to present an artistic synthesis of Russian identity.

In technical terms, Stravinsky constantly experimented with new ideas and sounds. Two of the major areas where we see this are in the use of rhythm and harmony. Rhythmically, Stravinsky's ballets feature abrupt shifts, with unexpected pauses or changes to the tempo.

In terms of harmony, Stravinsky was known for polytonality, the use of two or more keys at the same time. Most music (practically all music from a European background) has one key. If I say that this is a symphony in D minor, that's the key. Stravinsky wrote the ballet so that different parts of the orchestra were playing in different keys at the same time. This radical idea became one of the defining traits of modern and experimental ballet, but it sure caused a stir when he first tried it. In fact, when Stravinsky premiered what has become his most famous ballet, The Rite of Spring in 1913, people literally rioted after the first act. Police presence was required in the theater throughout the second act. Who ever said that ballet is boring?

Aaron Copland

Well, that was fun. But I'm ready for another type of ballet and through the magic of our travelling ballet theater, we are no longer in Russia. Where are we? That's right, back in the United States. Why? Well, to see Aaron Copland of course, the American composer of the 20 century!

Just as Stravinsky was known for capturing a sense of Russian-ness in his ballets, Copland is remembered for defining an American sound. Part of this comes through his themes. Appalachian Spring, which premiered in 1944, tells the story of American pioneers in rural Pennsylvania. The ballet Rodeo, which came out in 1942, tells the tale of a brave, roping and riding cowgirl looking for love. And Billy the Kid, a ballet that premiered in 1938, follows the story of the famed American outlaw.

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