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Stravinsky: End of a Chronicle

1971

February 19. New York. Asked by a friend what he would have chosen to be if he weren’t a composer, I.S. frowns suspiciously and says, “Why, who wants to know?” (He might have chosen to be a grammarian, among many possible alternative careers, as I realize at table when he conjugates a Russian verb for my edification, a hopeless goal.) Pursuing the matter from another angle, the friend then asks him to “suppose that when you were a young man a beautiful goddess had offered you any career other than that of composer, what would you have chosen then?” “Well, if she were really beautiful,” he says, “I’d probably have chosen her.”

By all reports his mother’s style of repartee was much the same. Thus, at a performance of Les Noces, Madame Stravinsky mère is said to have reassured someone who had expressed concern lest she “siffler la musique,” that she would most certainly refrain, “parce que je ne sais pas comment siffler.”

February 23. Pompano Beach. Calling New York this noon, I talk to I.S., my first long-distance telephone conversation with him since August, 1966! And it is startlingly like old times, his voice sounding much deeper than it does in person nowadays. His breathing is clear, too, which I say because it can sound like a soda fountain. After a moment of indecision as to which ear to apply to the receiver, he comes on, gruff and laconic, as he always was on the telephone. “It arrived to me” (i.e., happened), he says, explaining his latest indisposition, but “I gathered all my forces…”—which sounds like a general recalling a campaign, but merely means “force” in the sense of physical and moral strength. I propose a program of music to listen to on the day of my return, and his reply is “I have nothing against it,” but though the negative seems to imply a residue of skepticism, the expression is actually a sign of something akin to enthusiasm, a word he dislikes and avoids.

* * *

A dependable guide to the true situation of motels and hotels vis-à-vis the beach is the degree with which they overdo their claims to be directly on it. Thus, while the “Briny Breeze” and “Vista del Mar,” modest enough in name, are only a few blocks from the shore, the “Sea Spray,” “Surf-Side,” “Sea Wash,” and “Sandy Toes” are miles inland. On the whole, too, their true proportions can be deduced simply by inverting the measure of exaggeration in their self-descriptions. Thus the “Ocean Manor” and “Castle-by-the-Sea” turn out to be glorified bungalows.

Whatever the Miami hotels intend with their names, the partiality to the Scottish and the French is hardly borne out by architectural resemblances, at any rate in “The Kenilworth,” “The Ivanhoe,” “The Balmoral,” “The Versailles,” the “Eden Roc,” “The Fontainebleau,” and the “Fleur de Lit” (sic: this may be a way of indicating room service beyond the routine).

But while hotels frequently advertise their accommodations in acronyms—“SGL,” “DBL”—most flying ads are spelled out to a tee. One small airplane buzzes our beach at crop-dusting level, trailing what looks like a tennis net, lettered “KEEP FLORIDA GREEN: BRING MONEY.” And another low-flying machine drapes the warning: “LIFE BEGINS AT 40 BUT EVERYTHING ELSE BEGINS TO GIVE OUT, WEAR OUT, SPREAD OUT: WATCH YOUR WATE.” This is a pitch for the macrobiotic, unbleached bread, and health food markets, and for still more of the unhealthy looking types who seem to be their principal patrons, and in whom last year’s saccharine panic evidently failed to arouse any suspicion. Related appliances such as “wiglets” are widely available hereabouts, too, and related stimulants such as “Stagarama” cinemas. But to most outward appearances, the “life” that “begins at 40” centers on lawn-trimming, bridge, and the phosphor dots.

I am alone on the beach this afternoon except for a man feeding dog biscuits to gulls unable to fend for themselves. “After all,” he tells me, not quite analogously, “the mother wolf nourishes her youngest and weakest cubs first.” One-legged birds, losers of contests with rival predators of the deeps or shallows, are surprisingly common. They reduce their landing speed with a flurry of flapping, but alight off-kilter, and find their balance only by hopping about. The older birds are yellow and scruffy, the younger ones sleek and white-and-gray, like West Point Cadets, which I say for the further reason that they look so much like sentinels. Nor is there any amorous billing and cooing among them, but only the squawk of the pecking-order top sergeant.

March 1. New York. An article on euthanasia in this morning’s Times provokes several pertinent remarks from I.S., and I take notes for an interview with him on the subject.

Talking about the Mayakovsky vogue, I.S., who knew the poet in Paris, remembers him as “très arrogant,” while V. recalls that when she first saw him, in “Petrograd” in 1917, the point was that he should not see her. “I was in a cabaret in the Champs de Mars one night when Mayakovsky came in, but Soudeikine quickly put a napkin over my head and pushed me under the table. Mayakovsky was supposedly irresistible to women.”

We listen to Pli selon pli after dinner, I.S. pillow-enthroned, like a pasha. But he is in a mischievous mood, counting the remaining pages of each section of the score as I hold it for him, and muttering, “Tout ça, c’est bien égal.”

At midnight the sky is topaz where the glow of the city strikes the fog bank. But in spite of the cold and damp, or because of it, the Uranian professionals are out hustling on Central Park West, as are their brawnier female rivals on Central Park South, some of whom bask under the infrared, meat-grill marquees of the Fifty-Ninth Street hotels. A young man, long hair greatly in need of a shampoo, is picketing the Plaza, but for a remote cause, it seems to me, in view of the overloaded nags on this very block, hauling the tourist hansoms. “Stop the Brutal Canadian Sport of Clubbing Baby Seals to Death,” his placard reads on one side, and on the other, instead of letting it go at that, “KILL SEALS HUMANELY.” Why not simply leave them alone?

March 3. I.S., at a two-year peak, composes this morning, for the first time in months, as we are suddenly aware because of the greater intensity of his playing, and the complexity of the harmony—though talking about it later he says that he “had an idea beginning with a combination of tièrces.” His memory is wide open, too, and his verbal powers are quick and fluent. I ask about his working method in translating Les Noces with Ramuz and he describes how, after preparing several crude French versions for his collaborator, they would refine one of them together, always settling for the best musical solution. “Would you like to hear a recording of Noces?” I ask, but he refuses, saying, “I like to compose music, not to listen to it. All my life I have been pursued by ‘my works,’ but I don’t care about ‘my works.’ I care only about composing. And now that is finished.”

March 4. Still in marvelous form, he composes again today, this time for about an hour. Besides which he is clairvoyant, above all about himself, though he also describes everybody’s mood in the morning before seeing anybody (which, around here, may be simple prediction). He is struggling to understand himself. “Sometimes I am frightened because I can’t remember,” he says. “Tell me, when did Bertha die?”

March 12. I.S. makes the Congressional Record, his tax predicament with regard to his manuscripts and personal papers being cited by Senator Church, in connection with a proposed revision of the law. “One extremely important collection denied to the Music Division [Library of Congress] has received recent public attention,” the senator remarked. “Because of a change in the Law, Igor Stravinsky has been forced to place his manuscript collection, valued at $3.5 million, on the open market when, prior to the change, he could have donated it to the Library and not been penalized financially.” The last phrase indicates that the senator reads The New York Review, but he goes on to quote the Washington Star:

A few months ago Igor Stravinsky’s original manuscripts and personal papers were put up for sale in the open market. The price tag was $3.5 million, and considering their importance, anyone buying them would be getting a bargain.

These days it costs $25 million per mile or more to build a super-highway. Are the thousands of items offered by Stravinsky, including the manuscripts of compositions which altered the entire history of twentieth-century music, worth less than one-fifth of a mile of concrete?

March 14. I.S. is still super-swift, at times, in unmasking the villain in a film play or detective story, as he should be considering how many of them he has read and seen. Thus, during a brief, sweeping landscape shot in an animal soap opera on TV today he instantly spots and points to a hidden alligator that none of us has noticed. He is also hypersensitive to the weight, no less than to the texture, of clothes and bedding. He was always shielded by layers of coats and sweaters when I first knew him, and it was the same when he was young: that awning-stripe blazer, which he wears in so many old photographs and which dates from Ustilug, concealed several thicknesses of clothing. But now he prefers to go about in shirtsleeves, and to sleep under only one, not-tucked-in blanket (though a beret is also a part of his night garb at times). Like the princess and the pea, a fold or wrinkle at the back of his pajamas is enough to keep him awake.

March 15. Talk by a visitor this noon about the Philharmonic’s plans for a Liszt survey provokes us to listen to half a dozen of the tone poems tonight, but we do not make much headway with any of them. Several times I.S. actually giggles; at other, rare times, he follows the score for a few moments with real interest, and expectations always unfulfilled; but most of the time he is simply bored.

March 18. Tikhon Khrennikov calls from Moscow this morning, but V. will not talk to him until I have looked up his patronymic in Grove. “Tikhon Nikola’itch,” as she then greets him, invites the S.’s to spend the summer in the USSR, assuring V. that they will be treated like Tsar and Tsarina, which is exactly what she is afraid of.

But I.S. is unwell. His pulse is labile, and his coughing spells are deep and prolonged. Dr. Lax diagnoses it as pulmonary edema, and within an hour I.S. is litter-borne and on the way not only to the hospital that was the scene of last year’s crimes, but to the very same lumber room (891). “What should I do? What should I do?” he asks V. again and again in the ambulance, but V., choking back her tears, can only say, trying to calm him, “You do nothing. Other people will do.”

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