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An Interview with Igor Stravinsky

New York Review: We hope you are enjoying your stay in New York, Mr. Stravinsky. Have you attended any interesting concerts or other performances?

I. S.: No concerts, but I heard a good Falstaff at the Metropolitan. And, oh yes, there was a television program, the wisdom of Pablo Casals, I believe. That was an interesting performance. In one scene the cellist and a composer, Zoltan Kodaly, are shown together with their great-granddaughters—or so the viewer supposes until learning a blush later that they are the wives. And what are the two racy octogenarians talking about? Well, they are talking about the trouble with me which is that I must always be doing the latest thing—they say, who have been doing exactly the same old thing for the last hundred and eighty years. Señor Casals offers extracts of his philosophy, too. It is a matter of some simplicities; of his being in favor of peace, for example, and of playing Bach in the style of Brahms. But I have strayed. You wished to talk about music reviewers.

N Y. R.: We wanted to ask why you bother to complain about them; what they say seems to be of such slight importance.

I. S.: I agree that what a reviewer says may be inconsequential, even in the short run. What I protest is his right to say it—Voltaire in reverse. Some people have earned the right, by knowledge and skill, but they are not the present—and yesterday’s present, and, in fact, the perennial—crop of reviewers. To protest is to plead for higher standards, and it is a duty to do that. Incidentally, it has been said to me in argument that certain reviewers are wrong but honest. I find this illogical as a defense and alarming as an indication of the state of ethics. I am not concerned with the honesty of an opinion but its worth. And what a condition we are come to that honesty is so exceptional as to deserve citation.

N. Y. R.: What are your principal strictures of the present system, Mr. Stravinsky?

I. S.: When a short time-limit has been imposed on the reviewer he should confine himself to reporting rather than, as at present, snap-judging. I would also suggest that his investiture be made to depend on the possession of certain qualifications (a good audiogram report, to begin with). There is but one at the moment, the knack of delivering five hundred more or less readable words in the allotted hour or half-hour. Under the present system this ability to deliver the pulp, both the daily dose and the Sunday causerie, can win for its owner a throne of authority in each of several specialized fields, as we well know in New York where a certain newspaper’s promiscuous hospitality has encouraged a sports writer to become both a music critic and drama critic.

N. Y. R.: But does it matter? After all, there are critical organs of a different caliber from the dailies and weeklies.

I. S.: Criticism, as distinguished from reviewing, is deliberated and therefore delayed reaction; as such it has less effect on the immediate commercial processes by which musicians live. A bad, meaning unfavorable, review may have disastrous consequences for a gifted young composer whose work probably cannot be evaluated on a single hearing in any case.

N. Y. R.: What sort of consequences, and does the composer’s position in such matters differ substantially today from any other time?

I. S.: To the first question the answer is that performance and publications are very definitely affected by reviews, as is evidenced by their quotation (often distorted) by impresarios and publishers. To the second, I would say that the position of the composer has changed radically in recent years, though whether it is more parlous practically and commercially I cannot say. It seems that performance outlets available to him are few, however, and the circuits heavily over-loaded, which is why he has lately formed concert societies with which he can swap performances with other composer-entrepreneurs. The young composer’s musical position, on the other hand, could be described as a variety of dilemmas. “Long live chance,” he hears from one side, and “long live combinatoriality,” from another, yet his conservatory failed to inform him even of the existence of the words, and his subsequent teachers, instead of helping him, only bewilder him the more by their own ever more cynical departures on the seasonal bandwagons. Never before have composers been so unprepared by their schooling. The compositional techniques still generally taught are about as useful as spare parts for machinery last manufactured about seventy-five years ago. With this equipment the young musician must steer between the Scylla of neo-classic serialism and the Charybdis of Cage—though hopefully the metaphor may soon lose its aptness for the reason that younger musicians are showing a desire to avoid these particular straits in favor of the open sea. But the contemporary composer’s very writing desk is in a jumble. At no other period has notation itself fallen into such chaos that composers were able to confuse notational gimmicks and musical invention. Truly, contemporary music, the life of it as well as the art, is a complex affair. It should not be ruled over at any level by amateur critics.

N. Y. R.: But composers are published and performed, some good ones included, presumably, if only by accidents or laws of averages.

I. S.: Certainly, but you cannot absolve the industry by its happier accidents. And in any case, the typical quantity arguments are specious at best, and at worst grossly misrepresentative. Some recent hoopla on the nation’s culture reported by Time magazine included the claim that our symphony orchestras have grown in number “from 800 to 1300” since 1950, and that “eighteen million classical records” were sold in the United States last year. Now, though these figures must contain a slant of truth, the slant is as misleading as an outright falsehood. They are, in fact, outrageously incomplete, and as such are not harmless nonsense but culpable distortion. Which classical records? 17.9 million Tchaikowsky retreads? (And why, incidentally, should they be called High Fidelity records? Isn’t fidelity enough?) The count of symphony orchestras, I can assure you, is close to a hundred per cent inflated. Of those deserving the name we have more likely grown from eight to thirteen, though I doubt that as many as thirteen offer full-time livelihood to their entire personnel, and I am certain there are not thirteen capable of preparing first-rate performances of the new works of our outstanding younger composers. In fact, I know of no combination of a major orchestra with its resident conductor (the failure of the New York Philharmonic to play the complete Wolpe Symphony last year is a crowning case in point) to which such a composer as Elliott Carter might entrust his new piano concerto, as he could so have entrusted it to Hans Rosbaud and the orchestra of the Sudwestfunk; but the lack of alignment in the purposes of our composers and performers is another argument, the argument as to whether we prefer Centers for Performing Arts to Centers for Creative Arts. For the moment it is enough of a point to expose the disservice in most culture publicity, and to warn the gulled readers of statistical fictions.

N. Y. R.: Would you care to comment on any other aspect of that culture cover-story in Time?

I. S.: Well, it confirmed the dowager as the dominating figure in American cultural life, and the fact that our muse looks suspiciously like Mother. Apart from that, the value of such a view of culture is in the need it shows of redefining the object—even the object of a Music Center, which, it appears, is not by any means music tout simple. Los Angeles, for example, chose to baptize its new Center with such beer as Strauss’s Fanfare and Respighi’s Feste Romane—both products, incidentally, of what not long ago was called the Axis. Now, chauvinism has never counted even among the critics’ lists of my sins, but I will risk the suggestion that music by Los Angeles composers might have been a more mature choice even possibly a piece by a refugee from the Axis—for instance, Schoenberg, the fact of whose residence in the movie village would now be generally acknowledged in other less remote parts of the world as the choicest flower the village could have worn in its musical button-hole on such an occasion. To play Respighi instead of Schoenberg at the debut of a Los Angeles Music Center is comparable to the unveiling of a bust of Lysenko rather than Einstein at the opening of a museum of science at Princeton; or the dedication of a museum of art in Cannes with an exposition of Buffet rather than Picasso. In the dark of these antics the celebrations of our cultural “coming of age” seem a little ludicrous. Our cultural politics are in fact no more competent than our world politics, and we are still playing at the game of American civilization vs. European culture. America was already eminently “of age” with Thoreau, C. S. Peirce, Charles Ives, Wallace Stevens, and others, I would think, and in fact it sometimes looks—the view from the eastern side of the bridge, anyway—to be growing the other way. But I am too discursive. You must stop me.

N. Y. R.: May we return to our question about reviewers, Mr. Stravinsky? Are they alone responsible or are they also victimized by the system?

I. S.: They are both, sometimes, but I have tried to impute to them no more than their share, and I certainly do not hold them guilty every time. In fact, only yesterday I found myself defending them. This remarkable occurrence came about as a result of listening to a tape of the new Wozzeck from Covent Garden, and at the same time reading a file of reviews. To compare the performance with the reports of it was to be struck by the universal failure of the latter to mention the fact that the singing was at least half of the time very wide of the mark in respect to pitch. But can one blame the reviewers? The vocal parts in the denser passages are difficult to follow even now; and, anyway, is the reviewer not justified in assuming that at some point in the preparation the conductor would have discovered and arrested a wholesale tendency to sing wrong notes? The picture must be restored to status quo however, and I will therefore conclude with another instance, fresh from my own experience, in which I think the reviewer is at fault. At the recent New York performance of my Abraham and Isaac a hireling of the newspaper which knows what is “fit to print” described the piece as “monotonous” and “minor.” Now, both words may very well be “true” (I have no doubt that they represent the “honest opinion” of the unfortunate oldster who scribbled them) and surely the point of view of them can be sustained and justified (I could do it myself; I might add that I have grown quite a garden with the flowers that reviewers have thrown at the supposed grave of works of mine over the past fifty years). But they have to be explained. The reader deserves the dignity of argument, and if the reviewer cannot supply one he should give the facts of the concert and other bits of reportage about it, and no more. The two words, just by themselves and thrown like mud, are nothing.

N. Y. R.: Do you, Mr. Stravinsky, have any fuuther observations to offer concerning the approach to criticism?

I. S.: Well, conception comes first, of course; you must be able to listen when you are hearing. And you must find a point of balance between past and present. This is difficult even in considering the work of a single individual, where the new cannot be isolated from the old yet must not be judged entirely in terms of it either. Perhaps the central problem, then, is to measure the individuating newness. I have been thinking about this in connection with my own latest work, the Variations, and wondering how to describe whatever in it is new, but all I can say is that this newness came to me naturally, and that it cannot seem natural to a critic, even to one who knows me in the form of my entire past, for the simple reason that he is not me. The standard approach to any aspect of the new consists in identifying the so-called influences; a device that in my case has resulted of late in some jejune comparisons with isorhythmic motets. With the Variations it will no doubt be discovered that I have been sideswiped by Stockhausen, or that I have received major transfusions from Boulez. But I am prepared….

N. Y. R.: Surely the practices you deplore will be corrected, Mr. Stravinsky, on the accession of a new generation?

I. S.: For what reason, by what training and what example now in operation? No. In fact, I am tempted to fly to the other extreme of “Plus ça change…” though that is an equally unlikeable complacency. Suppose that someone were to discover a kind of Bertillon measurement for reviewers? After all, there has been no change in cockroaches these 150,000,000 years.


Musical News July 1, 1965

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