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Stravinsky: Problems for Biographers

(read at Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University, March 29, 1973, and at Breasted Hall, University of Chicago, April 10, 1973)

Reviewing a recent life of Wagner, W.H. Auden writes that “on principle, I object to biographies of artists, since I do not believe that knowledge of their private lives sheds any significant light on their works…. However, the story of Wagner’s life is absolutely fascinating, and it would be so if he had never written a note.”

But if Wagner had never written a note, would he have had that life? And, apart from the doubtful assumption that we read an artist’s biography primarily for illumination of his work, is it always true that nothing “significant” about the art is revealed from study of the life? (I am thinking about Joyce and other authors of disguised autobiography.) Further, can it be taken for granted that public and private are always separable? They are not, at any rate, in the case of Igor Stravinsky.

A celebrated artist for more than sixty years, Stravinsky has left an immense, perhaps immeasurable, public biography. This can be found in newspaper files, in recorded talk, and on film1 in the cities in which he performed, attended performances, and toured as a private yet always inescapably public person. Some of this public view of him blends into the private. It does not do so in a taped public interview such as he gave at the University of Cincinnati in 1965, for he was conscious of himself and the audience in his every remark. But the several reels of his talk made by Columbia Records in the 1960s contain glimpses of the private Stravinsky, since he was unaware that the machines had been left on when he was not conducting, and that in effect he had been Watergated.

The same can be said of at least some of the more than two hundred hours of film which CBS took of him in 1965, as well as of footage, official and unofficial, from the USSR and other countries, by cameramen known and unknown, professional and amateur, including members of the orchestras he conducted.2 No one can say to what extent Stravinsky may have been conscious of the lens, but it must be conceded that the line between public and private is difficult to draw. No less apparently, the forms of biography have changed. Ideally, Stravinsky’s should be issued in cassettes with accompanying album notes.

But the intersection of public and private goes beyond these electronic encroachments. Stravinsky’s art was directly altered by public events—unlike, for example, Wagner’s, whose external career may have been disrupted by the Dresden Revolution of 1848 but whose music does not seem to have been affected in either its course of development or in substance. The Russian Revolution, on the other hand, changed both the direction and content of Stravinsky’s work, first of all by depriving him of his mother tongue as the language of his vocal music, Russian being impractical for him in his life as an exile. What is more, this deprivation occurred just as he had begun to explore new possibilities of combining syllables and words with music, experiments that could not be pursued in the Latin, French, English, and Hebrew texts of the post-Russia years, despite his contentions that his approach was the same in these other languages as it had been in Russian.

The revolution of 1917 had indirect effects on Stravinsky’s music. For one thing, the accidents of Russian birth and American residence, and the failure of these two governments to sign the Berne Copyright Convention, cheated him of the largest part of his income from his works. To try to remedy this, he rearranged most of his “Russian” music for copyright purposes, often giving as much time to this task as he did to composing new music. On August 17, 1920, for instance, he informed a publisher: “I have spent six months (October, November, December, 1918, and January, February, March, 1919) composing [the new Firebird Suite].” As a further result of the same copyright predicament, Stravinsky was forced to earn a living as a conductor. He enjoyed conducting his music and hoped to establish performing traditions by doing so, but to play Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony more than two dozen times, largely for money, was another matter, and it kept him from composing. During the Second World War, when his European royalties were nonexistent and his semi-annual ASCAP payments averaged about sixty dollars, Stravinsky was better known in America as a conductor than as a composer.

During the Forties, too, the kind of commission that Stravinsky sought and often accepted reflects these straitened financial circumstances. In pursuit of a popular, paying success, or an acceptable film, for which he would write a do-it-once-and-retire score, he was forever chasing wild geese, among them Paul Whiteman, Billy Rose, Woody Herman, and even Sam Goldwyn. His most spectacular flops in this sense—the 1940 Tango, for one (Stravinsky’s “last tango,” mercifully!)—were in fact openly aimed at the commercial market. As a result, the Stravinsky Köchelverzeichnis contains too many tiny, if always genial, masterpieces-for-money—the Preludium, Circus Polka, Norwegian Moods, Scherzo à la Russe, Babel—and too few larger works, or works born purely of inner necessity.

I do not wish to add to the history-of-what-might-have-been, yet it is at least arguable that circumstances did send Stravinsky’s genius along some very strange detours. In contrast one thinks of the no less impecunious composer of the early Ring operas piling up the creations of his inner world even without prospects of their performance—though neither the artistic dimensions nor the ethical systems of the two musicians are comparable, Stravinsky having been a firm believer in earning his own way and paying his own bills.

Let me proceed to the “problems” of my title as they confront Stravinsky’s biographers. First and most troubling, does anyone have the moral right to use Stravinsky’s own materials for a biography he would not have wanted? In 1965, moving to a new home, he marked the two largest packets of his personal correspondence: “TO BE DESTROYED AFTER MY DEATH.” But since he was in his mid-eighties at the time, why did he not carry out this destruction himself—if that were what he really wanted? The answer, I believe, is that he did intend to read and destroy the letters; forced to postpone doing so, however, he was determined to prevent anyone else from seeing them in the eventuality that his own opportunity never came. He inscribed these testamentary instructions on a day when he had been destroying letters and papers by the bushel. Moreover, during the sixteen years before that, I had often seen him read and burn old correspondence. It seems clear that he wished to preserve nothing personal in his so-called archives, and that, if the occasion had arisen, he would have made an auto-da-fé of them.

So far from condoning any “personal” biography, if Stravinsky had allowed himself to think about it, he would surely have specified in his will that none be written. Further, I am bound to admit that he would have agreed with Mr. Auden on the irrelevance of biography. Several lives of the composer were published during his lifetime, after all, and none of them, in his opinion, was of the slightest use in relation to his art. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his autobiography is one of the least “personal” books of its kind ever written—viz., the unique reference to his first wife, the simple statement that he married her, I am convinced, incidentally, that his principal motive in writing this book was to bring in money, and that the formulation of his artistic creed and the correction of facts about his life were less important.3 That the book signally failed to accomplish even the financial objective, always ranking high as a worst seller, is patently due to this avoidance of the personal.

The moral question becomes more vexing to biographers when they learn that Stravinsky had no control over the microfilming of his “archives” and that he died without approving the materials that were photographed. This was the result of a series of mishaps. In October, 1967, the Stravinskys invited their friend Pierre Suvchinsky to visit them in Hollywood, Suvchinsky’s company always having had a salutary effect on the composer. But Suvchinsky’s arrival was followed by a letter from Stravinsky’s London publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, giving to themselves the exclusive rights to publish his “archives,” naming Suvchinsky as editor, and requesting Stravinsky’s agreement.

That he signed this paper, consenting, unrecompensed—except for far distant and insubstantial royalties—to the exploitation of the documents of his lifetime, is a measure of his desire to help his old friend. The failure to consider other consequences and contingencies is explained by the circumstance that an acute circulatory ailment had meanwhile put Stravinsky in the hospital. Whether in spite or because of that, the microfilming began immediately, at first under Suvchinsky’s guidance, then, after he returned to Paris, under no one’s, since Mrs. Stravinsky and I spent our days with the patient.

Quite apart from the questionable, and now permanent, invasion of Stravinsky’s privacy, the results of the microfilming are lamentable. Unsupervised in their work, the photographers copied not only priceless papers but also useless catalogues, programs of concerts in no way related to Stravinsky, and, in short, everything in the omnium gatherum of the storage area. At the other extreme, lacking a definition of “archives,” the photographers neglected to reproduce photographs (which in Stravinsky’s case often contain as much information as letters), ignored the contents of his libraries, and even failed to copy his piano and conducting scores. Stravinsky being a continual rewriter, for whom every performance yielded new revisions, these musical scores are rich in annotations that should have been preserved in a variorum edition. But none was photographed, and during the dismantling of the composer’s library in 1970 many items disappeared. I hardly need to add that the microfilmers also overlooked his library of music by other composers, some of it with comments in his hand.

It remains to be said that despite contractual arrangements Stravinsky never believed that his private papers would be published—for the same reason, or personality trait, that he rarely alluded to his death. This also explains why, in Zürich in October, 1968, he signed a new agreement to pay Suvchinsky’s salary (with no contribution from the publisher); and why, a month later, in Paris, after meeting separately with rival factions within the publishing company, Stravinsky still took no interest in the project except in so far as the plans had now been expanded to include a collected and corrected edition of his complete works.

At present the archives have not yet been disposed of (given to a university or public library), because of an impasse between the publisher and the fiduciaries, the former holding to their piratical letters of agreement, the latter contesting them on ethical grounds. From the standpoint of the outsider and musician, the worst of this is not only that the archives themselves will continue to be inaccessible, but also that collation with materials from other sources is impossible. Stravinsky possessed few documents dealing with the years before 1911, and not many more for the period between that year and 1914, when he was already thirty-two. Obviously this first third of his life, whether or not it included his greatest compositions, was as important in the formative sense as it is in anyone else’s. But the history of these years can be completed only by the cooperation of individuals and organizations in many countries, the Soviet Union above all. Most of the composer’s early letters are there, along with his early manuscripts (of works known and unknown) and all of his family’s papers. Clearly a full exchange with the USSR must take place before any biographical study can be considered.

  1. 1

    Films of Stravinsky conducting survive from as early as the 1920s, but his first sound film was a telecast concert, January 13, 1954, WGN, Chicago.

  2. 2

    A violist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mr. Philip Kahgan, has films of Stravinsky conducting in 1937; a tuba player in the New York Philharmonic, Mr. Sam Butterfield, has films of him rehearsing the Symphony of Psalms in 1966; et cetera.

  3. 3

    Many of these are mistaken, including the date of the first performance of The Rite of Spring.

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