Stravinsky: Problems for Biographers

(read at Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University, March 29, 1973, and at Breasted Hall, University of Chicago, April 10, 1973)

Reviewing a recent life of Wagner, W.H. Auden writes that “on principle, I object to biographies of artists, since I do not believe that knowledge of their private lives sheds any significant light on their works…. However, the story of Wagner’s life is absolutely fascinating, and it would be so if he had never written a note.”

But if Wagner had never written a note, would he have had that life? And, apart from the doubtful assumption that we read an artist’s biography primarily for illumination of his work, is it always true that nothing “significant” about the art is revealed from study of the life? (I am thinking about Joyce and other authors of disguised autobiography.) Further, can it be taken for granted that public and private are always separable? They are not, at any rate, in the case of Igor Stravinsky.

A celebrated artist for more than sixty years, Stravinsky has left an immense, perhaps immeasurable, public biography. This can be found in newspaper files, in recorded talk, and on film1 in the cities in which he performed, attended performances, and toured as a private yet always inescapably public person. Some of this public view of him blends into the private. It does not do so in a taped public interview such as he gave at the University of Cincinnati in 1965, for he was conscious of himself and the audience in his every remark. But the several reels of his talk made by Columbia Records in the 1960s contain glimpses of the private Stravinsky, since he was unaware that the machines had been left on when he was not conducting, and that in effect he had been Watergated.

The same can be said of at least some of the more than two hundred hours of film which CBS took of him in 1965, as well as of footage, official and unofficial, from the USSR and other countries, by cameramen known and unknown, professional and amateur, including members of the orchestras he conducted.2 No one can say to what extent Stravinsky may have been conscious of the lens, but it must be conceded that the line between public and private is difficult to draw. No less apparently, the forms of biography have changed. Ideally, Stravinsky’s should be issued in cassettes with accompanying album notes.

But the intersection of public and private goes beyond these electronic encroachments. Stravinsky’s art was directly altered by public events—unlike, for example, Wagner’s, whose external career may have been disrupted by the Dresden Revolution of 1848 but whose music does not seem to have been affected in either its course of development or in substance. The Russian Revolution, on the other hand, changed both the direction and content of Stravinsky’s work, first of all by depriving him of his mother tongue as the language of his vocal music, Russian being impractical for him in his life as an exile. What is more, this deprivation occurred just as he had begun to…

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