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Stravinsky: End of a Chronicle

The chapel is just large enough, lengthwise, for the coffin and some journalists—the paparazzi and the TV crews having set up on top of the vined wall above the grave—but room remains on the sides for us. The archimandrite and his acolytes disappear into the narrow, curtained-off prothesis, ostensibly to prepare for the final rites—he strips for a moment to his black cassock—but actually to stall while a telephone call is put through to the mayor for clearance to begin the service without him. It starts behind the curtain, Malissianos chanting now in a dolorous and weirdly “white” voice. One of the acolytes answers with three sepulchral “Kyries.” The other acolyte begins to wail; and precedes the coffin outside to the grave, where he stands under a tree, wailing his unearthly music throughout the burial.

Before this actually begins, and while the scaffolding is being removed, Malissianos banters, Hamlet-like, but sotto voce, with two of the grave-diggers, telling them in Venetian Vulgo to get it right since burial is a more or less permanent condition. But he does so without compromising his sacerdotal dignity, which may be inviolate, in any case. Then—the most terrible moment—ropes lower the coffin, the archimandrite accompanies V. to throw the first handful of dirt, and “IGOR STRAVINSKY” on the steel nameplate gleams for a last instant in the sun.

* * *

April 16. The clouds break suddenly, during our flight to Paris, just as we are over Evian, and we can make out the Hotel Royale.

Suvchinsky, at dinner, encourages V. to write her memoirs, “the one really valuable book and the least postponable.” And he wisely counsels her to “write it, or tell it to a tape recorder, in Russian, English, French, German, or a mixture of them all; but apart from necessary annotations, do not allow anyone to ‘edit,’ ‘polish,’ or ‘rewrite’ it.”

He also airs a theory about my role. Which, he says, differs from the examples of I.S.’s earlier associates only in degree; and in that, being a conductor, I was a more broadly serviceable aide. At the beginning of the Fifties, so the theory goes, I.S., lacking a sense of direction, supposedly found one in, or by reaction to, me. But I was not so much an “influence” as a catalyst, in the sense that I.S. reacted to me, not only “in his own ways,” which would be obvious, but in ways that often ingeniously contradicted what I may have seemed to be espousing. Thus, if my advocacy of Schoenberg appeared to be uppermost, he would devote himself exclusively to Webern; and if I seemed to think that chromatic equality was a built-in tenet of serialism, he would opt for a diatonic species. (Which may or may not be true, I say, but all that anyone else can say, for certain, is that in my role as the Stravinsky house-dog I was more Cerberus than spaniel.)

The feelings of the children are plain enough,” he goes on. “You took their place. But never mind. It is more important to remember that a hero must be blameless. Which is the reason the USSR will blame you because he was not buried there, even though everyone knew that his visit there in 1962 was possible only because of your—in this instance the word is correct—influence.”

April 17. Paris. Anxious as she was to leave Venice, V.’s decision to come to this memory-laden city was wrong. Her face streams with tears during a drive through the Bois de Boulogne. And on the return, lighting an Easter candle for I.S. in the Rue Daru Church, she cries harder than at any time since his death. Nor is “the beauty of Paris” much balm. After the “coziness” of Venice—I.S.’s word and one of his reasons for living there—the Louvre looks merely pompous, and the “restored” Place des Vosges, where we go for lunch, seems as new as a Disneyland replica. But Suvchinsky’s conversation tonight is consoling.

April 19. We fly to Marrakech to visit Ira Belline, I.S.’s niece and V.’s closest pre-1939 friend. The two have not seen each other since then, Mademoiselle Belline having lived in Morocco since the war. Nor, for a nerve-wracking half-hour, is it at all certain that they will see each other now, our Royal Moroccan caravelle developing convulsions just as we are descending at Fez. The captain, with no respect for our imaginations, describes it as “motor trouble,” and says that our course has to be shifted toward the larger runway at Casablanca. We drift down like a glider, thereafter, and at a drastically reduced speed, and the runway, when we finally touch it, is flanked by ambulances and fire trucks with hoses-at-the-ready. Two hours after an announcement about a short delay for repairs, when no noticeable step has been taken in that direction, we hire a taxi and complete the trip by car.

The cactus and adobe landscape could be New Mexican, if not the traffic: donkeys, whose passengers sit far back as if to keep the animals from tipping forward; camels, dark-brown and shaggy except for a young, milk-white one tethered to a telephone pole; and women, in the same category as the donkeys except limited to freight, which they carry like canephoroi. Nor has Women’s Lib made any inroads in other directions. Practically all females are veiled, and not only to the eyes but over them, which in the case of white with a white garment (haik) is distinctly djinnish. Women turn away at our approach, but the turbanned and jellabahed men turn into salesmen, holding up clutches of eggs, bouquets of wild flowers, and, near the muddy Oum er Rebia, catches of fish skewered on sticks. But these are the unchosen few who lack the gift of doing absolutely nothing, the majority being asleep or sitting, legs akimbo, by the roadside. It is this inertness, in fact, which makes our driver’s feat in capturing a wasp with his hands—actually tweaking its wings—seem the more remarkable.

But no sooner do we reach the palm oasis of Marrakech, with its kilometers of medieval walls, and settle in the brass cuspidor hotel (a swimming pool, though, where Woman is displaying a lot more Lib), than we feel the emptiness at the center more acutely than ever. “I want to be near him,” V. says, and she asks for airplane schedules and makes plans to return to Venice.

Ira comes at six. Tall and sharp-featured, her family resemblance to I.S. is evident only in her quick brown eyes. She is a handsome woman, strikingly dressed in red turban, sweater, Spahi pants, gold Moorish bracelets. But both she and V. are nervous, even tremulous, and the meeting is a little stiff. I go, meanwhile, for a stroll in the gardens, but the gravel paths and the trees remind me of San Michele.

Averroës lived here, perhaps walked near these same ramparts. But all I can remember about him, and that vaguely, is his argument for the validity of alternative modes of access to truth; and defense of the right to coexistence of conflicting truths. Which seems reasonable enough now, at least to one who believes in “permanent” musical and poetic truths, highly adjustable scientific truths, and modal philosophical working hypotheses; and who thinks, in the first place, that the answer to Jesting Pilate is a circumstantial formulation of a culture and an age. In other words, not “revealed” truth. But why not? That is also a cultural mode. Why am I intellectually intolerant of “revealed” religion as fact, for I have the feeling but lack the belief? And intolerant of dogma, though nonetheless dogmatic concerning what I don’t know about it?

And for that matter, why these outpourings, why this soliloquy, why these particular questions? Because I have been more deeply shaken than ever before in my life, and because I am surprised—naïvely surprised, perhaps—to find that the arts, science, and philosophy are no succor at all, that the only help is to be found in other human beings. The change in me is that I am at least prepared to believe that other modes exist. V. has received word that Gerald Heard, who for some time has been semi-paralyzed and mute, became very agitated the night of April 5-6 and about three hours before I.S. died began talking to him.

* * *

We eat in the hotel, where the head waiter, whom I quickly recognize and greet—having an infallible memory for waiters, taxi drivers, and all “menials,” and being infinitely less well-bred than V., who was taught to take no notice of her “surroundings”—is from the Royale in Evian. At sundown the sky turns indigo, the olive trees silver, the palms dark green, and the mountains (below the snow line) pure purple. The hum of nesting swallows now fills the jasmine-sweet air and, after a signal of distant cock-crows, the night itself begins to snore, in and out, like a concertina.

April 20. We go to dinner at the Bellines. (Ira lives with her brother, Gania, a man so startlingly “Russian” in appearance—Tolstoy nose, “Russian” goatee, old-fashioned silver-rimmed “Russian” spectacles—that he might have been made up for a part in Chekhov.) It is a twenty-minute trip from the Mamounia—in our one-camel-power taxi—not including a skirmish, on arrival, with the dogs. For the house is guarded by no fewer than ten of the most vociferous canines in the world; they bark in concert throughout the evening, then suddenly fall silent when we leave, though not for that reason surely but because they are hoarse.

If the atmosphere of the house, which was once owned by a grand-daughter of Tolstoy, is “Russian,” that impression is not primarily due to the Bellines themselves, or even to the many mementos of the Diaghilev Ballet. It is, rather, in a similarity between a way of life sustained by Arab fellahin and Russian peasants, the peasants, that is, of I.S.’s creations. (The “domestiques” in the Stravinsky household during I.S.’s own youth were Tartars, i.e., Muslims.)

As if reading my thoughts, Ira tells a story remarkably similar to the world of Les Noces. It seems that when her Arab houseboy announced his forthcoming marriage, she unthinkingly asked a question about his betrothed, which obliged him to confess he had never seen her and that the wedding had been arranged by his mother. Ira gave him a brass bedstead for a wedding present, and found it, at the ceremony, in the center of the one-room shack, with about twenty veiled women seated on the floor around it. The bride sat in a corner, swaddled in white from head to toe…. Then when the marriage was consummated, the sheet, proof of hymen intactus, was held up for the inspection of the twenty women. Ira says that the bride is fifteen now, has two children, and in fact prepared tonight’s couscous which, I think, has cauterized my tongue.

Ira was in Ustilug during I.S.’s last summers there, but was too young to remember much about him. Her recollections of him in Morges, in 1919, when her family reached Switzerland after a six-month trek fleeing the Bolsheviks, are more vivid. But she remembers him better as a worried investor in the Château Basque, her family’s restaurant in Biarritz; and best of all when he first met V.: “Your Russian friends called you ‘Verinka,’ and Uncle called you ‘Verusha.’ ” But I hardly listen, being distracted by a lizard, on the wall, devouring a moth, whose rescue I fail to attempt only partly out of respect for the ecological balance. (In truth, I conduct a careful search of my room later for other lacertilians, as well as scorpions, millipedes, etc.)

Returning to the Mamounia—same one-camel-power taxi—V. is bursting to describe the evening to I.S. and missing him more than ever.

April 21. A sand-storm blows over the oasis, followed by violent rains.

We eat Moroccan-style, beginning with Harira (a soup), then a fish—succulent but viscous to touch, and everything here is eaten with the fingers—then a sugar and cinnamon pancake dunked in a bowl of orange juice and milk. The waiters wear tarbooshes and babouches, white jackets and white serwaks, which are pleated, ankle-length bloomers. Their trays are covered with conical wicker lids, to keep the food warm in transit. And to keep us from smelling fishy, in ditto, perfume is squirted in our cupped hands at the end of the meal, from what look like silver syringes.

April 22. The souks and the Jemaa el Fna are muddy from yesterday’s rain; which reminds Ira of Ustilug, and me of I.S. talking about the mud there (though with anything but “nostalgie de la boue“). Mere mud, however, does not interfere with the storytellers, the holy men reading from the Koran, the barbecuers, teeth pullers, water vendors, and snake charmers, all of whom live in the open air. Whether charmed or not, one of the snakes squirms very actively when suspended by the tail, but seems to suffer stage-fright the moment it is set down.

The souks are mazes of narrow alleys, roofed with rushes, and dense with animals and people—on bicycles and motorcycles, as well as on foot. We visit carpet stalls and caftan stalls, (silks, satins, and nylons!); wool dyers and leather tanners; metal embossers; spice and herb merchants (baskets of freshly picked mint); and fruit and vegetable charrettes. But “colorful” and “exotic” as it all is, one sight haunts me the rest of the day, that of a line of thirteen blind, ragged, barefoot, and (undoubtedly) consumptive and diseased beggars, chanting “Allah is good,” over and over, as they tap the ground with their white canes and hold out cups for alms. “Then let Allah give,” a blasphemous boy jibes at them, himself a beggar effectively shooed away by whatever Ira says to him in the demotic. Nor can I forget the sight of an old man displaying five pieces of candy on a dirty hand-kerchief. “On vend ce qu’on peut,” Ira says, truly enough, though that is hardly the point.

April 23. The Evian waiter tells us that whereas the poor can still be imprisoned for infractions of Ramadan, the King has a harem of 150, but my uppermost feeling about the latter part of this information is more one of envy than of moral righteousness.

We drive to Ourika, in an Atlas pass, seeing several Berber casbahs on the way. The Berber women dress more colorfully than the women of Marrakech, are not veiled, but apparently still do all the work, from swinging scythes to turning water wheels.

April 24. Casablanca. A dirty city; and noisy, radio music blaring in the streets from loudspeakers. The red fez is less popular here than the gray or black, and the turbans resemble bandages after skull surgery. Face-curtains are fewer, too, though we see girls on motorcycles wearing them. Are these veils exploited in the Venetian-masquerade sense, I wonder, as well as in the sense that probably many a disguise does not contain a blessing?

April 25. Casablanca to Rome. We leave for one of the two airports at 5 AM, because of uncertainty as to which one handles our flight, and the fear that it will take a long time to go to the other. As it happens, the extra time is needed because of sheep and camels on the road, and because of the rigmarole of document stamping, tax paying, customs declaring, and multiple inspecting of passports. Finally we are airborne for about ten minutes, before landing—over a muddy, meandering river—at Rabat, where everyone is obliged to leave the plane with all baggage for another infinite wait, then hurry aboard again.

April 26. Rome. We have come to ask Manzù to choose a stone, and to carve the name and dates and a cross that I.S. himself once drew for Giacometti.

Dinner at Passetto’s with Berman, who reminisces about I.S. on a trip to Naples in 1958.

April 27. The ride over the Apennines from Florence to Venice reminds us of an excursion with I.S. to Canossa, site of Ghibelline Henry’s three barefoot nights in the snow (surely with chilblains, at least?). We were driving to Milan, the day after a concert in Bologna (October 20, 1958), when I.S. expressed a desire to see the ruins, satisfied after bumping up a steep mountain road for two hours when at last we reached the remains of the grim, fairy-story castle.

In Venice V. hears herself referred to for the first time, with a small jolt, as “la vedova Stravinsky.” And the Royal Suite at the Gritti—beamed and coffered ceilings, baldachined bed, canopied bath—reminds her sadly of I.S.’s return to Paris from his first American tour. “He cabled from the boat asking me to reserve the most luxurious suite in the Grande Hotel for a few days; which I did, but without seeing it. It was decorated in a nouveau-riche style that so shocked Diaghilev, he was upset for days wondering what could have happened to Stravinsky in America.”

April 28. And so we go again to San Michele, past Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where the poster—“La Città Di Venezia…del Grande Musicista IGOR STRAVINSKY”—is still on the door; and past the Mendicanti, once renowned for its girl orchestra (admired by Goethe), but as neglected and impoverished now as the people—“blessed are the poor”—it was meant to comfort. And again into the lagoon, silent and empty today. And again to the walled isle of cypresses and of the dead. Again, too, we pass beneath Saint Michael’s pointed arch, a wind now blowing his rusty iron balances—so much for weights and measures—this way and that. And again pass through the Convento, a solarium at this hour for a lazing tribe of cats. (I.S. would have spoken to them and picked one of them up by the scruff; when the Gazzettino published a photograph of him after the funeral, it was not one of him conducting in San Marco, but one showing him feeding cats.)

And again we follow the path to the Orthodox section, where lilacs are in bloom and it is full springtime, except for the man who created a spring of his own that of all mortally begotten versions will give Nature its longest run for everlasting joy. And again we walk to the chapel, the vined wall, and the iron gate, ajar today, framing a veduta of the lagoon.

The moment has come, too, when we must raise our eyes toward the mound of newly turned earth, which is exactly where we know it will be, of course, the most cruelly certain of all places in our memories. It is covered with flowers, like Rakewell’s springtime grave; but the new earth is terrible to see, and terrible the bedlike form of the mound. V. weeps, laying her flowers on his head, and turns away. (Does she think of an afternoon long ago when, finding her fast asleep, he composed that most beautiful of all berceuses for her, Perséphone’s “sur ce lit elle repose“? And of that afternoon only a month ago when, instead of his name, he wrote, “Oh, how I love you!”) But three times as she walks slowly toward the gate, she is stopped and asked if she knows the direction—for it is already venerated ground—“to Stravinsky’s grave.”

My turn to turn away comes when I notice the word “Strasvischi” scrawled beneath the “36” on the marker; for it is exactly what I.S., in one of his ironies, might have invented himself so short a time ago. In fact it is impossible not to see and hear him saying it now, just as it is impossible to believe that the man whose immortal celebration of the resurrection of Nature, and all his other continuations of the highest humanizing art of man, lies beneath that mound of earth. Yet it is not that man we mourn, but the old, ill, frail, skin-and-bones one who was still so wonderfully alive. And it is that ill and frail old man I miss so much, miss more than I ever thought it was possible to miss anybody.

And again we leave. But will be back soon. And soon permanently, when my promise to him is fulfilled (if it should be V. first). And another promise, my own and unasked for, and I am somewhere nearby.

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