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.

Stravinsky’s 1962 visit to Russia was a turning point in the musical life of his homeland, although at the time it was widely regarded as merely another in the composer’s pattern of reversals. Host and guest alike had been pouring abuse on each other for forty years, and, by the date of the trip, neither side had recanted. Officially, Stravinsky was still the USSR’s arch symbol of capitalist decadence, and as late as the late Fifties his Harvard lecture on Soviet music was considered too rabidly reactionary even to be published in France. A rapprochement seemed improbable, to say the least. Yet the visit took place. And now, only two years after Stravinsky’s death, his music is played and recorded in the USSR, and his early compositions, his letters, and biographies and analyses of his work are published with ever greater momentum. The return of the native in 1962 provided the impetus, but the change in the last two years has been greater than in the preceding eight. In short, a historical switch occurred, not comparable to Constantine’s conversion of the Empire, perhaps, but certainly to the cessation of persecution before it.

The following selection from the list of Soviet publications begins with two that Stravinsky himself knew, the volume of Soviet Music (Moscow, 1966), containing his letters to N. Roerich, and the monograph Stravinsky’s Early Ballets (Moscow, 1967) by Vershinina. The composer read the former in a fever of rediscovery, the latter with mixed emotions, for while its very existence was a proof of the growing popularity of his music in the USSR, the naïveté of the explications and the rudimentary errors annoyed him.4 I should add that Russian recognition meant more to him than that of the rest of the world, a fact I myself failed to realize until 1962. Coming to the Stravinsky household in 1948, I did not perceive the degree of its Russianness and have only recently discovered that as late as 1947, the year 1 BC, the language, friends, habits of life of the home were almost exclusively Russian. It follows that I was also unaware of the extent to which my American views, language, and attitudes were displacing their Russian ones. And, finally, I did not see that Stravinsky’s constantly expressed antipathy to most things Russian was a question of protesting too much.

Among present and forthcoming Soviet publications the following are especially important:

  1. Creative Formative Years of I.F. Stravinsky, by V. Smirnov (Muzika, Leningrad, 1970). This book contains a facsimile of a Piano Scherzo, composed in 1902.

  2. Storm Clouds, a romance for voice and piano, words by Pushkin, composed in 1902. The manuscript, in the Leningrad State Library, is not yet published.

  3. A Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, composed in 1903-1904 (Moscow, 1973).

  4. F.I. Stravinsky: Articles, Letters, Souvenirs, edited by A. Gosenpude and Kutateladze (Muzika, Leningrad, 1972). The book contains letters to F.I. Stravinsky (father of the composer) from Borodin, Stassov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatoly Tchaikovsky, Chaliapin, Cui—and the teenage Igor Stravinsky.

  5. Igor Stravinsky: Documents and Materials, edited and annotated by Igor Blazhkov^5. The book includes sixty-two letters from Stravinsky to Russian addressees.

  6. A collection of over 300 pages of Stravinsky’s letters, including a newly discovered cache of twenty from the composer to Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov.

  7. Dialogues, an omnibus of volumes 1-4 of the Stravinsky-Craft conversation books, edited and annotated by I. Beletsky and I. Blazhkov (Muzika, Leningrad, 1971).

  8. A monograph, Igor Stravinsky, by Michael Druskin, has been announced for publication in 1974.

The subject matter of Number 7 being the most familiar to me, I will confine my discussion to it and to the letters, but to the letters in general, rather than to these Russian collections, for the composer’s correspondence forms a truer autobiography than the one which he published in 1935.

First a word must be said regarding Number 4, the book about Stravinsky’s father. A booklet on the composer’s parent appeared in 1951, and was read by Stravinsky without comment, probably because it consisted of little more than an outline of the eminent bass’s career, a listing of his sixty-six roles at the Mariinsky Theater, and a garland of quotations from Tchaikovsky and others on the elder Stravinsky’s remarkable artistic and intellectual qualities. But, unlike the earlier publication, the new book looks at him as the father of the composer, though without slighting the achievements of the parent in his own right.

One of the outstanding opera singers and actors of his time, Feodor Ignatievich Stravinsky was also renowned as a gifted graphic artist and a littérateur and bibliophile. I have often heard Stravinsky refer to his father’s talents as a painter and watercolorist but had seen no example of his work until a few months ago when George Balanchine acquired some color photographs of it in a Leningrad library. The most striking of these are self-portraits in the costumes of various operatic roles, of which the new biography reproduces thirty-two, unfortunately not in color. Feodor’s library was among the largest privately owned ones in all Russia, of such importance that in January, 1919, the Ispolkom of the Union of Communes of the Northern Territory passed a resolution placing his apartment under protective guard, Three years later his widow bequeathed the music section to the Petrograd Conservatory, and in 1941-1942, during the siege of Leningrad, most of the remaining books 6 were destroyed.

The biography of Feodor Ignatievich Stravinsky—bookish singer, actor in public, and introvert in private—is indispensable to anyone interested in the son, for the composer inherited not only his father’s musical gifts but his complex character as well. And Feodor Ignatievich endowed Igor Feodorovich with other talents too: histrionic (the composer’s early letters describe his acting in amateur theatricals, and C. F. Ramuz’s correspondence reveals that Stravinsky entertained the idea of playing the part of the Devil in the premiere of Histoire du Soldat); graphic (as a young man Stravinsky painted in oils, and throughout his life did sketches and drawings); literary and bibliophilic (Stravinsky had a fanatical respect for learning, and he bound in leather many of the books that had influenced his thinking).

Before examining the Soviet edition of the Stravinsky-Craft Dialogues, I must explain that the junior partner in this collaboration always regarded the senior’s recollections, with their exaggerations, distortions, and other nuances of memory, as more important than the encyclopedia facts. Junior thought that “anyone” could dig out the dates and places, and though “anyone” could not, Soviet musicologists could and did. I am grateful to them for their paralipomena, and I am certain that Stravinsky would have been too.

Apart from the data on the composer’s early years, the Dialogues offer several glimpses concerning the state of the arts in the Soviet Union in the all-too-recent past. Some of the cultural blind spots are familiar, and when the Soviet editors chide Stravinsky for his partiality to Kandinsky, Larionov, Malevich, and other émigrés, while ignoring the Socialist Realist School, the reader feels that Zhdanovism is not altogether dead. But when the editors identify Lourdes (which Stravinsky mentions in connection with Werfel’s Bernadette) by referring to Emile Zola’s writings on the subject, the effect is bizarre. Readers should be advised, too, that the Soviet text is not always reliable on Stravinsky’s non-Russian music. Thus the Ugly Duchess, in Auden’s first draft of The Rake’s Progress, was not, as the Soviet editors suppose, based on Marguerite, Duchess of Tyrol (1318-1369), the protagonist of Feuchtwanger’s The Ugly Duchess. Stravinsky knew Feuchtwanger in California but had not read this novel; furthermore, the conception and the name originated with Auden.

The book’s scholarship on the Russian works is more sound. The Saucers, Stravinsky’s songs of Yuletide divination, for female chorus, are traced to Afanasiev’s The Slav’s Poetic Attitudes Toward Nature (Vol. II, Moscow, 1868, p. 194), and the texts are analyzed both linguistically and in terms of their symbolism; by means of the former, one of them, Chigisy Across Yauza, is identified as Central rather than, as Stravinsky mistakenly thought, Northern Russian. This may be run-of-the-mill research, yet it is a run that no one else had taken. More leg work of this kind provides information concerning the concerts and operas which the composer attended in his youth, his studies with Rimsky-Korsakov, and the discrepancies between Stravinsky’s accounts of the stagings of his Russian theater pieces and those of his collaborators.

These new corrections and amplifications do not alter our picture of Stravinsky in any fundamental, but they help to complete it, and they modify the colors of some of its details. The composer’s birth-place, which he was unable to find when he went in search of it October 5, 1962, because of a change of street names, has now been established as Khudyntzev Cottage, 137 Shveitzarsky Street (now Uprising Street), in Oranienbaum (now Lomonsov). Corrective surgery has also been performed on Stravinsky’s version of his family tree, its two oldest branches now being regrafted. The great-grandfather who lived to 111 was not Ignace Ignatiavitch Stravinsky, as the greatest of his great-grandsons wrote, but I. I. Skhorokhodov, the composer’s maternal great-grandfather. Furthermore, this Methuselah reached the age of 112 (1767-1879). Stravinsky’s error probably occurred while identifying a medallion portrait of the centenarian on its reverse; he appears inadvertently to have switched the family names, both ancestors having the same initials. As for Ignace Ignatiavitch, he died in Tiflis, May 29, 1893, at the early age of eighty-four.

Stravinsky’s memory of distances and dates has provoked extensive correction, but seldom in a subject of much consequence. And in at least one instance the Soviet editors base their rectification on a dubious premise. Stravinsky recalled that in his youth he had admired Tanaev’s Mobile Counterpoint of the Strict School, but this treatise appears not to have been published until 1909, by which date, the editors reason, the composer would have been beyond consulting a textbook. Yet Stravinsky was never above studying even the most elementary theoretical writings, and this was true throughout his life; at the age of seventy, for example, he was deeply influenced by Krenek’s Studies in Counterpoint. Whatever Stravinsky’s opinion of didactic music, he did not despise didactic books.

The addressees of Stravinsky’s Russian letters include members of the Rimsky-Korsakov family, musicians, publishers, editors, artists of the Diaghilev circle, even government officials. To one of the latter, Commissar Arthur Lourié, Stravinsky wrote on September 9, 1920, asking for assistance in obtaining a visa for his mother to leave the USSR and come to France; in later years Lourié became the composer’s musical secretary and philosopher éminence grise. Here is another note to an official, this one the Commissariat of Education, which I quote because it reveals the composer trying to keep the door open and adds to the back-ground of his return to Russia thirty-seven years later:

Madame [Bryussov],…Owing to numerous prior engagements abroad, extending into the foreseeable future, I am unhappily obliged to decline your kind invitation to undertake a concert tour of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Odessa.

I thank you very much for your kind words, in any event, and I hope that in the future it will be possible personally to acquaint my countrymen with my art.

Pray accept, Madame, assurances of my utmost respect.

Igor Stravinsky
Paris, August 18, 1925

P.S.: Forgive me, Madame, for not answering you in Russian, but I do not have a typewriter with Russian letters.7

Stravinsky’s correspondence grew with his fame, of course, and by the Twenties had reached unmanageable proportions. French superseded Russian as the language of the larger part of it, though important French letters were usually drafted in Russian, Moreover, most letters from the beginning of the French years until the end of his life were written with secretarial assistance, from which point they decline in interest. This is partly because the letters of the Russian years were not concerned with posterity, and because, as he grew older, his disputes with publishers, conductors, critics consumed time that formerly might have been spent sharing artistic conceptions with friends.

The following pair of letters to C. F. Ramuz was written directly in French. I have chosen these two from the composer’s vast correspondence because they show contradictory sides of his character as well as reveal the profound change in that character which took place when Russian influences began to give way to French. (Note that the letters are dated eight years apart.) In the first, he writes with gusto about his ill-health, as he continued to do up to his eighty-eighth year. But he states his grievance immediately, whereas in the second letter his true feelings can be found only between the lines. The second letter is as circumspect and stingy with words, I might add, as the first was generous with them, but I offer only extracts from the first:

Carantec, Brittany
August 23, 1920

My dear Ramuz,

…After my return to Carantec I had an attack of indigestion and it is only now that I feel well enough to write to you—on a disagreeable subject.

My role in Histoire du Soldat was not limited to composing music for a play that already existed. And yet one would deduce from the credits page that the Soldier could be played with other music, just as it could be acted (which goes without saying) in front of other décors. Is this how you feel about it, Ramuz? I don’t think it is, for you know only too well the part that I played in the development of the scenario; and that if a genuine collaboration had not existed between us, the “story” of the Soldier would be completely different. Do not construe this as a desire on my part to have my name placed next to yours when the text is published separately. As I wrote on my card, I suggest simply that this faulty first page be replaced with the page from the premiere program…. This would be enough to suggest to the reader an intimate collaboration between us for our Soldier. I stand firm about this, my dear Ramuz, and it pains me a great deal, this unfortunate single page, which you have composed quite consciously and for your own reasons….

I await your prompt response….

…Enough of this! I am sick of it all! How are you? Myself, I have felt rather poorly of late, and only sporadically normal. I don’t know why, but I do know that the number of days when I feel well is regrettably small. People here (some acquaintances from Paris) bore me to death. Then, too, I can’t say that I’m particularly fond of Brittany (in the way that I loved the Vaudois countryside!). The weather is always bad, and, so far as I’m concerned, bad weather is not French but English. Some of the peasants are good people, but peasants are good everywhere—even in Bochie! Why not, after all? The picturesque fatigues me, as do the races in the seaside village. The vacationing bourgeois come here because they can’t afford Deauville. Not at all amusing, these people who promenade in the street and sing songs under our windows when we are resting—much louder than necessary; they think that being on vacation justifies their lack of restraint. I don’t sleep much and I compose music.

Your Stravinsky

In the next letter Stravinsky acknowledges Ramuz’s Souvenirs sur Igor Stravinsky, the contents of which have clearly surprised the composer, and not altogether agreeably. Perhaps I am reading too much into his answer because I know that he disliked the book and that he felt a private relationship had been exploited. But observe the adroitness with which he avoids the larger questions, while meeting the request for criticism with only two insignificant details:

December 16, 1928

Dear Ramuz,

I thank you with all my heart for your Souvenirs, of which volume three is as fine as the preceding ones.

These Souvenirs have touched me deeply: the marc of the past, once deposited, begins its geological life carefully covered over by new layers, and this marc, no less potent than those we have often drunk together in three quick swallows (your three volumes), has gone to my head—which is spinning, and which turns to you in gratitude for having kept these memories, dear to both of us, in so safe a place.* I am therefore astonished by your proposal that I add some “notes” to your text expressing my personal reactions.

Of course I have reactions, dear Ramuz; but when someone asks me, as you have just done, to write them down, I recoil like a snail into its shell, apprehensive that I will reveal too much. Let me explain: in this instance it is a question, you will agree, of making intelligent statements. Now everyone (myself included) can make intelligent statements; but if I am asked to write them down, to fix them, I am quickly overcome by anxiety. It takes skill to write, as you know very well, and I must admit to you that I have never trained myself to do it. Then, too, I confess that I am slightly lazy.

But I will gladly satisfy you with a few remarks which you will find in the Post Script. Here they are:

1) It was not by “direct order from God” that Gogol wrote the second part of Dead Souls, but following the advice of his religious mentor, Father Rjevaki, a man of great spiritual qualities.

2) I have never lived in Candebec-sur-mer and, consequently, could never have written to you from there—a place not even mentioned in Larousse. Carantec does exist, however, and I wonder if you could have received my letter from there (in 1920, not 1921)?

3) Some other small errors are hardly worth mentioning.

Hoping that you will not be too angry by this somewhat evasive response, I humbly restrain myself from sending you any but the very best of my “souvenirs.”

P.S.: See my remarks above.

*Your bottle, which still seems to bear the label of the three bells, was delivered to me and was uncorked, as you predicted, by my “grand fils.”

The letters from the American period contain no example comparable to the first of this pair addressed to Ramuz. Furthermore, the editorial difficulties presented by the American letters, because of the farrago of styles in both English and French and the ever-varying Americanisms, are almost insuperable. Stravinsky’s principal scribe before 1947 was Mrs. Adolph Bolm, from which date and until 1969 the position was assumed by his son-in-law, an example of whose collaboration is apparent in a letter about Dylan Thomas published in the magazine Adam in 1954. Other letters of these years were written with my help, which is apparent in a note concerning Artur Schnabel written in 1961 and published in the Observer. Both missives say neither more nor less than what Stravinsky wanted them to say, but they lack the true mark of personality which can only be given by one’s own writing and which is found in these letters to Ramuz, namely style.

The word “problems” in my title refers in part to certain perplexing areas in Stravinsky’s life and work. Too many even to be enumerated here, they range from such large questions as his religious beliefs to a host of relatively minor ones. Among the latter, for instance, I would classify the gaps in our understanding of Stravinsky’s musical origins, for the leap from academic anonymity into the Firebird is extraordinarily sudden. No doubt the Soviet publications, above all of the Chant Funèbre for Rimsky-Korsakov, if it is ever found, will be helpful. One would also like to know more about Zvezdoliki, that work so rich in possibilities which the composer did not develop, and so startlingly unlike any other, though its intervalic motto (a major second up, then a downward fourth) lies at the center of Stravinsky’s music.

Still another area to be explored is that of the genesis of Stravinsky’s subject matter. André Rimsky-Korsakov broached this in the Russian magazine Apollo, No. 1, 1915, remarking that Stravinsky had begun with the fairy tale and “progressed” to primitivism. But fairy tales were to remain a part of Stravinsky’s imaginative world (in Le Baiser de la Fee), as did primitivism, but under the larger concept of ritual, both secular (Les Noces) and sacred (the Mass). To these he was to add morality plays (Histoire du Soldat, The Rake’s Progress), myths (Oedipus Rex, Perséphone), and, finally, Biblical drama (The Flood, Abraham and Isaac).

Stravinsky’s obsession with the player piano is an enigma of a different kind, important only because the transcribing of virtually all of his music for this instrument, up to the mid-1920s, occupied such a disproportionate amount of his time and energy. But what continues to be enigmatic in these labors is his failure to exploit the machine’s mechanical advantages, the composer never venturing to devise complex rhythms for it (by subdividing the beat beyond the possibilities of human performers, for instance), or even to employ such an effect as a glissando of the entire keyboard in the fraction of a second. His Etude for pianola (1917), and the pianola part in the penultimate version of Les Noces (1919), utilize the contraption only to the extent of assuring a rigid rendition and of economizing on live pianists.

Stravinsky’s “creative processes” are no less mysterious than those of any other great artist, but their patterns, when analyzed, often upset claims put forth by the composer himself. For example, he has said that as a rule his music was composed straight through, but his sketchbooks show that this was seldom the case and that he rarely began at the actual beginning. Thus the waltz variation in the Octuor, which occurs midpoint in the piece (and is itself an unused episode from the Symphonies of Wind Instruments), was composed before the theme.

Stravinsky also stated that musical ideas always came to him in the timbres of particular instruments or voices, which he seldom changed in later stages. Yet his sketchbooks again contradict him. Thus, the String Concerto included winds in the original drafts, while the Symphonies of Wind Instruments actually featured violin and viola, in what later became the duos for flute and clarinet. The string duet was obviously a continuing idea from the Concertino for string quartet (composed just before the Symphonies), with its violin and cello obbligati, and an idea—two solo string instruments in relief to a wind ensemble—to which he was to return when he arranged the Concertino for twelve instruments in 1952. For yet another example, the second section of the first movement of the four-hand Sonata was conceived, and even scored, as an orchestra piece, in which form it has nothing pianistic or percussive about it but might be an offshoot of the second movement of the symphony in C.

A larger and more puzzling question than any of these is this: Why, at the end of 1944, did Stravinsky, a communicant of the Russian Orthodox Church, compose a Kyrie and a Gloria for a Roman Catholic Mass? It was not in fulfillment of a commission and had not been proposed to him. His avowed reason, that he was inspired to write a more liturgical kind of music than he found in Mozart’s masses, is hardly a complete answer. So far as musical influences enter into the question, he was engrossed at the time in all the music he could find by Jacopo de Bologna and Machaut. Yet this Mass is no mere exercise in musical style but a work born of religious faith.

Having lived close to Stravinsky for nearly a quarter of a century, and much of that time in the same house with him, I knew him to be, as the expression goes, “profoundly religious.” What this means in his case, however, I am unable to say. He believed in the Devil Incarnate, and in a literal, Dantesque Hell, Purgatory, Paradise. And he was deeply superstitious, forever crossing himself and those around him, wearing sacred medals,8 and performing compulsive acts without which the auguries for the day were certain to be unfavorable. Furthermore, he believed in miracles, both large and of the Houdini sort, and never questioned the provenance of any sacred relic. Dogmatism was another part of his religion, as it was of Stravinsky himself. (It is ironic that the opinions of this least syllogistic and, in method, least Socratic of men, have appeared in the form of dialogues, yet that form is artificial, of course, and even so, was closer to Hebrew versicle and response, in Stravinsky’s mind, than to Platonic question and “answer.”)

That Stravinsky had reached a spiritual crisis in 1944 is evident in his reading, which consisted of parts of the Summa, Bossuet’s Lettres sur L’Evangile, Bloy, Bernanos, and T. S. Eliot.9 In that year, too, Stravinsky visited the convent of Santa Clara in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, and he was often with Jacques Maritain. At about the same time, the composer filled the margins of Ramuz’s Questions with criticisms of its Protestantism, while endorsing the Roman Catholic views of C. A. Cingria in the margins of his books. Yet none of this accounts for the creation of that Mass for a church which Stravinsky never joined and which disappointed him by failing to use the work in its services.

But a more powerful force than dogma in Stravinsky was his abiding intellectual curiosity—an openness to ideas, an irresistible attraction to new ones, and a limitlessly receptive mind. Finally, the genius of his artistic instinct overrode all else.


The Stravinsky Archive December 13, 1973

  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.

  4. 4

    On page 137, Vershinina refers to a “suite” from The Rite of Spring, and its wide performance during the years 1914-1921 when the ballet was not staged. Stravinsky has underscored this, and corrected it in the margin to “the whole ballet.” Also, on page 140, he has changed Vershinina’s comment on the reception of Nijinsky’s choreography of The Rite from “not just” to “unjust.”

  5. 6

    Among the few volumes in the composer’s possession was a copy of the original edition of the plays of Catherine the Great, stamped with the Imperial seal of Tsarskoe Seloe.

  6. 7

    Diaghilev found one in London shortly after the date of this letter, and made a gift of it to Stravinsky, who typed all of his own Russian letters, thereafter, and appears never to have made a typographical mistake.

  7. 8

    An image of “La Vierge de Perpétuel Secours” with votary candle, stood in his studio in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

  8. 9

    He has underscored approvingly two passages in his copy of the essay “Catholicism and International Order.” Incidentally, he credited his reading of Eliot to Nadia Boulanger.