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Stravinsky: The Last Interview

I

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive.

—Arthur Hugh Clough

(March 1-2, 1971)

NYR: What are your thoughts about the new euthanasia movement, Mr. Stravinsky?

I.S.: First of all, I noticed on their appeals that the two leading promoter organizations share the same building as The New York Review; which, I hope, affords you a little cold comfort now and then. I hope, too, that they are merely passing the hat around, and that the contribution they want is not me.

Surely many or most of us believe that when we lose control, it would be better not to come in from, but rather, like Eskimos, to go out into the cold. The rub is that we also lose control of that belief. A friend of mine, a lifelong proponent of “voluntary death,” was stricken some years ago by paralysis which, however, apart from some speech impairment, did not cripple his faculties. His friends, knowing his state of awareness, expected a quick surrender, since he obviously could have given up the ghost, and was in the first place, or so it seemed, possessed by a “death wish.”

But was he? Is he now? And can we ever know very much about the life incentives of people in his condition? The American Sociological Association reports that deaths decrease in the month before a birthday and increase in the month after it, and people appear to postpone their deaths until after an election, or other event of general, even if possibly quite trivial, interest. No doubt the moon landing kept many people alive; and I might even derive another few years myself from further shortcuts, such as Cambodia and Laos, to the end of the war.

I want to die with dignity,” the euthanasiast says. And, “I don’t want to leave my family with the image of deterioration”; which sounds like the speaker’s fear of deterioration. But these are present sentiments, and future ones are not predictable. Deterioration, moreover, is insidious, and the lines shift or become indistinct. What if, after committing someone else to draw them for us, we feel ourselves to be less concerned about our dignity than about even a very little more life? I once thought that my own criterion for a proper time to pull the plug would be the moment when my more and more furtive memory had retreated to a point where I could no longer recollect which of my coevals was alive and which dead. But I have long since passed beyond that, and now simply, and on the whole correctly, assume that they are all dead.

Finally, the “modesty” of some of the proposals of the right-to-die lobbyists is as horrifying as Swift’s. One doctor has stated that “anyone over sixty-five should not be resuscitated if his heart stopped.” (But Schoenberg dramatized his own resuscitation by a needle directly into the heart, at an age well beyond that, in his String Trio.) And another doctor has argued that our already overstrained medical resources should not be wasted on anyone over eighty and very ill. (But I was both when I wrote my Variations and Canticles, and they are superior, I think, to some of the music I was writing in my early seventies.) And why not increase the medical resources, even at the cost of diminishing some of the military ones? Or slow down on Project Methuselah? For the fifty-year increase in life expectancy by the end of the century, thanks to anti-oxidents such as BHT, and hormone rejuvenators such as prednisolone, is surely the grisliest of all the fates in store for the future beneficiaries of our current medical miracles. In short, gerontological retrogression is as important as euthanasia, if ounces of prevention are worth their proverbial weight in cure.

II

(March 6-10, 1971)

NYR: Is your interest in new medical developments largely the result of the disasters that have befallen you in that line?

I.S.: It certainly got a boost from them. Thus an unfounded prognosis, a year and a half ago, of atypical tuberculosis naturally aroused my curiosity in the whole subject of atypical diseases. Thus, too, my interest in fluorocarbons and synthetic blood substitutes may be attributed to years of contradictory and conflicting treatments of my own blood disease. And thus my confinement last year in a cardiac unit—the wrong department for the illness from which I was actually suffering—greatly stimulated my interest in auxiliary hearts, and in defibrillators, pacemakers, vitallium mitral valves. The latter are not yet soundproof, and the man who has one installed, like the crocodile with the clock in Peter Pan, is unable to hide himself—or, worse, from himself—though undoubtedly the thought of this tell-tale heart is more distressing to a metronomically minded musician than to other people.

But while countless unsuccessful experiments with behavior modification drugs have had a deleterious effect on me, they have not shaken my faith in that boundless domain. The effectiveness of lithium in constraining our manic friends during their cliff-hanging phases has already been demonstrated, after all, and probably more of our other friends than we suspect are kept going by amphetamines. And in spite of all the failures in my own case, I prefer to attribute my depression to a so-called sodium leak into the cells, rather than, say, to “the state of the arts” or the “philosophical overview.”

Another malady, but this one not my own, is responsible for my keen interest in the science of diagnosis by smell. I think it was Coleridge’s “Every teacher has a mental odor” that first drew my attention to the subject. Then, recalling what my Danish nurse had said about Følling’s detection of a metabolic disorder in babies from an odor in their urine; and remembering that the perspiration of schizophrenics is distinguished by an odor (trans-3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid), I began to wonder whether other biochemical disturbances might identify vocational aptitudes and inaptitudes. Music critics, for example. That most of them “stink” is obvious, of course, but what is the chemical basis?

Perspiration may be a primary odor, by the way, since some people are “odor blind” to it. But unlike the primary color receptor sites in the eye, the primary odor receptors in the olfactory tissue—which could conceivably identify by shape, on the grounds that molecules with different chemical properties but similar shapes possess similar odors—have not yet been isolated. And we should be grateful for that, otherwise television would come not only in deadly color but with the living smellies as well.

III

(April 1-2, 1971)

NYR: How do you feel since your return from the hospital, Mr. Stravinsky?

I.S.: Worse, thank you. And apart from being fleeced, I do not know what happened to me there. “Recycling,” perhaps, to borrow the term for reprocessing discarded containers. But the doctors say that worse means better, since it indicates that I am more aware of how bad it is. And by that logic I could hardly welcome a euphoric sense of improvement.

NYR: Is life more pleasant in your new neighborhood?

I.S.: It is safer, I think, judging by the numbers of prams for both age extremes, and by the relative absence of suspicion among them, as standards of paranoia go in the rats-in-overcrowded-cages neighborhoods. The atmosphere is no purer, though, and in fact the incidence of emphysema is reported to be about equally high among zoo inmates (ophidians are especially susceptible) in all of the boroughs; woe to anyone who comes here to “take a breather.”

But whether the noise is less, or I am deafer, I cannot tell. There are no wrecking balls and no Hell’s Angels, but the street is the City’s parade ground, the line of march for all militant “minorities,” and I expect to hear more Sousa this spring than any other live music. Night noise is lighter, but it is not of the sleep-inducing—crickets, town-criers (“Oyez!“)—kind. As a substitute for sheep-counting, I have tried to disentangle it strand by strand, from fire engines trying to break the sound barrier down to burglar alarms and buses changing gears, but without success (i.e., sleep). And the noise hazard is still the strongest argument for emigration. It not only fatigues, destroys concentration, and causes premature presbycusis, but it can be fatal. “Infra-sound,” if it comes to that, is more destructive to the cells than atomic fallout, and noise machines already exist that can homogenize you, whatever that means. Already now we need an absorbent, like the moth’s fur, which diffuses the shrieks of the bat.

IV

(March 15-16, 1971)

You must write the variations in a familiar, easy and brilliant style, so that the greatest number of our ladies can play and enjoy them.

—G. Thomson of Edinburgh to Beethoven (!)

NYR: Have you heard any new music this winter?

I.S.: I seldom listen to new music any more, in fact since my own Muse went out on a wildcat strike, and by preference never. Nor have I kept track, let alone 4-track, of Stock-hausen. So much of it seems arbitrary to me, which all true art is, of course, but by my lights—dim as they are by Day-Glo—must not seem to be. So I must ask you what is new? Who are the leading Ivy League composers now? Am I the only listener who finds Pli selon pli both pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty? And do the new starlets of the podia lean as heavily on the music here and there, by way of “interpretation,” as their elders used to do? And what kind of beat is “in” now, small and power-steering? And is Mr. Bernstein still the man for all channels?

NYR: What do you think of Liszt and Berg as material for exploration by the Philharmonic?

I.S.: Not very promising. Berg should be played more regularly but is hardly unknown. Besides, his orchestral music, apart from the opera excerpts, fills no more than a single, rather suffocating program. A Berg “retrospective” is needed, but in the opera house, an undertaking the local establishments will continue to avoid; and could avoid with a good excuse, namely, that they are waiting for the third act of Lulu; if they had ever heard of it.

The pertinacity of Liszt’s orchestral music, on the other hand, wholly eludes me. The Dante Symphony is hell, and the tone poems can survive only by constantly renewed neglect. A precursor? But that is pedagogy; and, anyway, who wasn’t? (To my mind the Faust Symphony, one of the better pieces, and Tasso, one of the worst, precurse Wagner less than they do Tchaikovsky, which I think is not the Philharmonic’s point.) An inventive harmonist? Well, he contributed more than he stole, but we cannot listen to music one element at a time. A master of the orchestra? Yes, again, but not always; his lower brass parts are unwieldy, and on at least one occasion (cf. Mazeppa, pp. 40-41) he does not know how to deploy the strings in a middle-to-low range and maintain a balanced volume. His colors are sometimes novel (the organ in The Huns, for example), but tinted bathos is still bathetic. The Christus is reputedly superior in orchestral technique—I have not heard the Frankfurt tape and cannot vouch for it—and a performance of that opus is probably at least warranted, if not, by my prejudices, altogether urgent.

A Grade B, no-budget-for-music film company will find richer ore for its purposes in the poems than the Philharmonic, from accompaniments for cavalry chases (The Huns) and nick-of-time rescuing armies (Mazeppa), to music for flights of souls not rescued in time (the harp arpeggios in virtually every piece) and brass band, Salvation Army piety, wrong notes and all (the “Andante religioso” in the Mountain Symphony). The parodistic possibilities, moreover, are unlimited. (The fugue in Prometheus is surely intentional parody, but of what? A fugue?) Which is the reason that the most astute critic and truest prophet of Liszt’s music is that unhonored genius of the radio era who branded the “Lone Ranger” with Les Preludes (and vice versa). Les Preludes, by the way, is the only one of the poems, together with the brief and quiet Orpheus, that I can get all the way through. It is also the only one in which galumphing rhythms, nagging sequences, turgid developments, lifeless pauses, and bombastic triumphs fuse into a really winning piece; in fact, it is one of the rare works in all of Liszt that I can take—though the expression may sound somewhat personal in his case—“warts and all.”

V

(March 17, 1971)

NYR: Does the state of the arts really depress you?

I.S.: Oh no. We live in a very exhilarating time, a little short of a Golden Age, perhaps, but, well, consider, in the visual arts, the recent Warhol retrospective at the Tate; in the dramatic arts, Broadway category, the revival of the Betty Boop period; in literature, the new genre of reality recalled on tape (bestselling fall title: “Manson’s Love Life As Told By His ‘Family’ “); and in music, the increasing involvement of everybody except the composer. And these developments have in turn produced a great critic, Jimmy Durante, who described it all very accurately when he observed that “Everybody is getting into the act.”

(unfinished)

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