Catherine and Igor Stravinsky

Catherine Nossenko Stravinsky, first wife of the composer, is not mentioned by name in the three references to her in his Autobiography (1935), and her roles in his life remain virtually unknown. Any full study of Stravinsky must include the story of both of his marriages, but while Vera Stravinsky’s place has been at least partly established, no publication does the same for Catherine. Although the deficiency will not be rectified by the excerpts from Catherine’s letters to her husband presented here, they should help to give some sense of her personality as well as to contribute to an expanded and intimate view of his character.

More than once, Stravinsky testified to the unhappiness of his childhood and youth. Of the four sons, he was apparently the least favored, at any rate by his mother, and he hated school, where he was constantly taunted because of his short stature. One exception to this antagonistic treatment was the kindness, affection, and encouragement shown to him by Catherine Nossenko, his year-and-a-half-older cousin, who may have perceived the genius, not yet visible to most others. Like Igor, she had a talent for painting and calligraphy, making copies of some of his earlier manuscripts that are all but indistinguishable from the originals and that still pose problems of attribution. Before showing his newly composed music to anyone else, Stravinsky played it for Catherine,1 as he did in later years for Vera.

Catherine must have been aware of Igor’s explosive and tyrannical qualities, and of the will that could crush any obstacle.2 But she seems to have understood him, and during the summers of their late adolescence, these first cousins—their mothers were sisters—were as close as siblings, the more so, no doubt, because the “brother” had only brothers, the “sister” only another sister. Stravinsky’s letters to his parents in July 1901 show that he enjoyed Catherine’s artistic companionship and was grateful for her goodness and generosity. In retrospect, that she and Igor should marry (1906) seems almost inevitable. The match within the family3 was practical and successful, until The Firebird (1910) took him into a new, lionizing world, and tuberculosis (1914) made her a chronic invalid.

Fifteen years after the marriage, Stravinsky met and became infatuated with Vera de Bosset Sudeikina. He told Catherine that he could not live without this other woman, expecting his wife not only to accept the triangular relationship, but also to join him in admiring and befriending Mme Sudeikina. Since Catherine had always subordinated her wishes to her husband’s, he correctly anticipated that she would do the same in this new situation. It may, of course, be said that she had no alternative, her illness precluding a full participation in his life, and divorce between two people so closely united being unthinkable. But these obvious explanations are less important than those of her absolute devotion to Stravinsky and to what she saw as his divine creative gift.

The new relationship does not seem to have…

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