Stravinsky in America

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky; drawing by David Levine

“We hope the stupidity in this country will not kill you.”

(Jane Heap, writing to Stravinsky for The Little Review on the day of his arrival in America, January 6, 1925.)

Helmut Dantine: “Who was that man with whom you came to the airport? His face looks so familiar.”

Nicolas Nabokov: “Stravinsky.”

Helmut Dantine: “That’s what I thought. But what is he doing in Hollywood?”

(Nicolas Nabokov, Old Friends and New Music.)

The events of almost every day of Stravinsky’s thirty-two years in America can be reconstructed from diaries, letters, and other documents. Yet the sum of the parts is less than the whole, a casual remark by the man himself often casting more light than pages of biographers’ details. Thus the composer’s observation that “it is impossible for the brain to follow the ear and the eye at the same time” reveals the totality with which music absorbed his brain, while the exactness of the analogy, “Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody’s piano-playing in my living-room has on the book I am reading,” suggests an extraordinary power to visualize.1 Obviously dicta such as these2 are worth more than any amount of commentary on the composer’s “listening habits” and “visual imagination.”

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s France played a diminishing role in Stravinsky’s life, the United States an increasingly important one. Returning to Paris from his first American tour, in 1925, Stravinsky was interviewed by Joyce’s friend, Eugene Jolas:

M. Igor Stravinsky, famous Russian composer and iconoclast of rhythm [sic], arrived in Paris from the S.S. Aquitania last night, after being lionized in New York, Chicago, and other cities of the North American continent during a triumphant stay of more than three months. “I expect your country to bring us the new things in music,” Stravinsky told The Tribune at the Gare St. Lazare. “Your skyscrapers impressed me as leading to new visions in art. What work! What energy there is in your immense country!”…American jazz gave him a real thrill, he admitted, although he said he had heard much of it before going to America. “The music of the future will have to take it into account, no matter what the tendency of the composer.” 3 [The Tribune, Paris, March 21, 1925]

Stravinsky’s widespread fame in America dated from the visit of the Diaghilev company in 1916,4 but the music had been played in concert before then, and the “Three Pieces for String Quartet” received its world premiere in Chicago, November 8, 1915, by the Flonzaleys.5 In 1919, a New York newspaper reported that the composer was living in a Swiss garret on the verge of starvation.6 Two rescue operations were organized, and on June 2 Stravinsky received 1,913 francs, 40 centimes, “from his admirers in Boston [via] the…

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