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Stravinsky in America

We hope the stupidity in this country will not kill you.”

(Jane Heap, writing to Stravinsky for The Little Review on the day of his arrival in America, January 6, 1925.)

Helmut Dantine: “Who was that man with whom you came to the airport? His face looks so familiar.”

Nicolas Nabokov: “Stravinsky.”

Helmut Dantine: “That’s what I thought. But what is he doing in Hollywood?”

(Nicolas Nabokov, Old Friends and New Music.)

The events of almost every day of Stravinsky’s thirty-two years in America can be reconstructed from diaries, letters, and other documents. Yet the sum of the parts is less than the whole, a casual remark by the man himself often casting more light than pages of biographers’ details. Thus the composer’s observation that “it is impossible for the brain to follow the ear and the eye at the same time” reveals the totality with which music absorbed his brain, while the exactness of the analogy, “Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody’s piano-playing in my living-room has on the book I am reading,” suggests an extraordinary power to visualize.1 Obviously dicta such as these2 are worth more than any amount of commentary on the composer’s “listening habits” and “visual imagination.”

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s France played a diminishing role in Stravinsky’s life, the United States an increasingly important one. Returning to Paris from his first American tour, in 1925, Stravinsky was interviewed by Joyce’s friend, Eugene Jolas:

M. Igor Stravinsky, famous Russian composer and iconoclast of rhythm [sic], arrived in Paris from the S.S. Aquitania last night, after being lionized in New York, Chicago, and other cities of the North American continent during a triumphant stay of more than three months. “I expect your country to bring us the new things in music,” Stravinsky told The Tribune at the Gare St. Lazare. “Your skyscrapers impressed me as leading to new visions in art. What work! What energy there is in your immense country!”…American jazz gave him a real thrill, he admitted, although he said he had heard much of it before going to America. “The music of the future will have to take it into account, no matter what the tendency of the composer.” 3 [The Tribune, Paris, March 21, 1925]

Stravinsky’s widespread fame in America dated from the visit of the Diaghilev company in 1916,4 but the music had been played in concert before then, and the “Three Pieces for String Quartet” received its world premiere in Chicago, November 8, 1915, by the Flonzaleys.5 In 1919, a New York newspaper reported that the composer was living in a Swiss garret on the verge of starvation.6 Two rescue operations were organized, and on June 2 Stravinsky received 1,913 francs, 40 centimes, “from his admirers in Boston [via] the American Consular Service in Geneva and Ignace Jan Paderewski”—who must have wondered what his neighbor had done to provoke such philanthropy.

On June 10, an additional 10,450 francs arrived from still more “American admirers and friends,” an amazingly generous and altruistic gift from a public that had never seen the composer and had been shocked and irritated by what little music of his that it had heard. But the dire-need rumor lived on, and as late as December 20 the New York Evening Post, reviewing the world premiere (in Aeolian Hall) of the original version of Pribaoutki, added that the composer was even then “lying ill and hungry in Switzerland.” At this point a large new envelope marked “Affaires Américaines” appeared in Stravinsky’s files.

The 1925 tour was a great success, both artistically and financially. One consequence was that throughout the remaining years of Stravinsky’s residence in France the majority of commissions for new works—the Serenade, Apollo, Symphony of Psalms, Violin Concerto, Jeu de Cartes, Concerto in E Flat, Symphony in C—came from the United States. Naturally his thoughts turned increasingly toward America, though a still more compelling reason for his eventual settlement in Los Angeles was the discovery, during a concert tour in 1937, that his lung disease had been arrested in the then-beneficial California climate and air.

In the meantime, Perséphoné, Stravinsky’s largest-scale composition in the 1930s, had had a lukewarm reception in Paris—which the composer attributed to the work’s idiosyncratic French diction7—while Jeu de Cartes, the last of his ballets to have been conceived8 and completed in Europe, was staged in Germany but not in France. Stravinsky reacted in an interview in Le Journal de Paris, October 13, 1938:

Stravinsky: From January to May [1937] I conducted the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra—splendid groups. Then I went to Toronto and Montreal, and from there to San Francisco and Hollywood. I also conducted the premiere of my new ballet Jeu de Cartes at the Metropolitan in New York.

René Simon: And are you saving nothing for Paris?

I.S.: Paris, a city I adore, does not give me the opportunity to exercise either my art [composing] or my profession [conducting]. Here no one seems to realize that I am not only an occasional conductor….

R.S.: And…the composer?

I.S.: Frankly, he is not much happier…. I do not have a single work in the French repertory.

R.S.: The symphony orchestras play your music.

I.S.: Yes, The Firebird, Fireworks. But the theaters ignore me.

R.S.: Wasn’t your marvelous Symphony of Psalms presented at the Exposition?

I.S.: Yes. But it was only by accident that I conducted it, my admirable friend Pierre Monteux being indisposed…. It is rather curious, you will agree, that having at present fourteen scores—operas and ballets—performed throughout the world, not a single one is now in France.

A different Stravinsky must be distinguished at every stage in the American years but especially between the first and last decades. The composer-conductor of the 1940s, still struggling to earn a living from his “art” as well as his “profession,” is remote from the world figure of the 1960s, just as the Stravinsky who used to visit the National Parks in a secondhand Dodge, eating in drugstores and sleeping in fleabag motels, is far removed from the elderly VIP who was whisked from airports to hotels in police-escorted limousines. So, too, the Stravinsky who was the personification of joie de vivre is understandably different from the man who, after the age of sixty-nine, lived under the constant threat of paralysis from a blood disease. And, finally, the Stravinsky who became the central figure in a retinue of nurses contrasts sadly with the younger man who did everything for himself and permitted absolutely no intrusion on his privacy.

With age, too, Stravinsky’s ambivalences became more pronounced. The proudest Russian in Hollywood during World War II, rejoicing in the victories of the Red Army and actively participating in Russian War Relief, immediately after the peace, the composer was offended by the mere mention of the USSR. Protesting the Waldorf Conference and refusing to add his name to a composers’ telegram welcoming Shostakovich to the United States, Stravinsky was still so anti-Soviet at the time of Sputnik that he fiercely berated the hapless headwaiter (in a Baden-Baden hotel) who first broke the news of this Russian achievement to him. Yet only a few years later Stravinsky accepted an invitation from the USSR to conduct concerts there that proved to be the most gratifying public occasions of his life—and at the same time revealed how deeply defensive was the former bitterness against his homeland.

The American years also heightened certain contradictions in the composer’s personality. Dickens himself9 could not have created a more parsimonious character than Igor Stravinsky, who, during his second American tour, complained that he had “paid in tips to Pullman porters what amounted to one concert,”10 and who once entered in an expense-account diary a donation of ten cents to a panhandler. Yet Stravinsky was a generous man and the very opposite of miserly, helping to support friends, relatives, former domestics, impoverished artists and writers. Another inconsistency was his attraction to the formalism of religions (as exemplified in his belief in the efficacy of ritual prayer and rejection of the spontaneous, personal kind) versus his extremely rare attendance at any religious service.

The post-World War II years reverse the paradox of the prewar period in France, the most conspicuous events during Stravinsky’s second and third decades in America taking place in Europe. In the 1950s and early 1960s his music as a whole attained a far greater measure of popularity in Europe than in America, while the quality of a performance such as that of Ingmar Bergman’s Rake’s Progress has never been duplicated here. Also reversing the situation of the 1920s and 1930s, more commissions for new works came from Europe than from America, beginning with the Concerto in D (1946), and including the Canticum Sacrum, Threni, Movements, Monumentum, A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer, and the English-language opera which had been planned for an American stage but was finally paid for by the Italian government and first performed in Venice.

When Stravinsky arrived in New York on the S. S. Manhattan, September 30, 1939, it was not with the intention of making his home in America but to fulfill concert and lecture engagements. The first public glimpse of him occurs two and a half weeks later during his inaugural Charles Eliot Norton Lecture at Harvard:

Around 7:30 on Wednesday evening, October 18…ushers in black ties lined the walls…. Then followed a rush of Harvard and Radcliffe esthetes [who, moreover,] looked like Harvard and Radcliffe esthetes. Next came the big names of the Harvard music department…. Then…sleek limousines began to drive up with Beacon Hill dowagers, radiating white hair, evening dresses, diamonds, and dignity…. No sooner had we settled down to Beacon Hill than the New Lecture Hall rustled again. This time it was for Koussevitsky.

Eager, tense, the audience waited for Stravinsky…. He made a sweeping entrance in tails, and then, after a low, courtly, athletic bow…began his Prise de Contacte. Reading a manuscript of beautifully written French,11 he spoke slowly, distinctly, in a quiet Russian accent. He looked up from his paper infrequently, and then jerkily…. Wild applause greeted [him] as he concluded…. [He] bowed…almost to the ground, shook Dr. Forbes warmly by the hand and breezed out, his tails flying behind. [Frederick Jacobi, Modern Music]

The terms of the lectureship required periodic meetings with students. One of these, Robert Stevenson, whom Stravinsky regarded as the most gifted and who later became a professor of music at UCLA, recalled his sessions in a letter to Stravinsky:

In November of 1939 you allowed me to begin taking a series of weekly “advices” with you of an hour each. At first Dr. Kall12 was present, but from the second “advice” onwards we were conversing in French without his attendance. I am writing to you now in English only because I have been assured by Dr. John Vincent that your English has become as fabulous as your French. During that year I came to see you once a week, first at the house of the Forbes, where you were residing on the top floor, then, after you married, at your hotel near the Christian Science Headquarters at Symphony Hall.

  1. 1

    Both remarks should interest brain physiologists. However superior the development of the right hemisphere (artistic ability, the simultaneous—versus the sequential—processing of information, etc.), the left hemisphere (logical thought, the analytical use of language, etc.) must have evolved to an almost equal degree in Stravinsky’s case. Both sides possess the same potential in children, and perhaps the same is true in artistic geniuses as well. In his seventy-fifth year Stravinsky suffered a thrombosis (“ischaemic episode in the basilar artery”) that left him with a permanent right hemiparesis affecting his spatial orientation and other functions controlled by the “right” brain; yet in the months following he composed Agon.

  2. 2

    The Musical Digest, Hollywood, September, 1946.

  3. 3

    While in New York Stravinsky had told an interviewer, “In jazz you have something that is not the result of ostentatious theorizing, that almost sneaked in on us from an out-on-the-corner cabaret…. We don’t like to admit it, but real music has such simple origins…. I have written something in the jazz rhythm. It is not really rag. It is a portrait of rag” (Musical America, January 10, 1925).

  4. 4

    The American reaction to Stravinsky’s ballets is described by Ansermet in a letter from Philadelphia to the composer in Morges, March, 1916.

  5. 5

    The ensemble’s second violinist, Alfred Pochon, kept Stravinsky informed of American interest in his music and sent the bemused press notices that the “Three Pieces” received in every city in which the work was played. The Flonzaleys later commissioned and gave the first performance of the Concertino, in New York, November 3, 1920.

  6. 6

    Otto Kahn was both responsible for the story and one of the initiators of the sustentation fund.

  7. 7

    What seemed somewhat strange to me [in Perséphone] was the syllabic declamation. This shocked my sense of the language, which is not made up of syllables but rather of words provided with certain tonic accents. In the performance, however, I noticed that the music made one forget its syllabic nature, the vocal and orchestral parts bringing into focus a certain bucolic character” (from a letter, Ansermet to Stravinsky, July 25, 1966).

    Two years after Perséphone, when Victoria Ocampo asked Stravinsky to speak to Gide for permission to make a Spanish translation, the composer replied that he had not been on good terms with the “poète” since the Perséphone performances, but that Jean Paulhan had given his assurance that Gide, then in Senegal, would surely not object to the translation being made if he were to receive a token fee. The Spanish version (1936) was done by the young Jorge Luis Borges.

  8. 8

    The idea for this ballet entered my head one evening in a fiacre while I was on my way to visit some friends. I was so delighted that I stopped the driver and invited him to have a drink with me” (Le Jour, Paris, February 3, 1938).

  9. 9

    Stravinsky used to quote Dickens in justification of his own preference for discussions of financial rather than artistic matters with a certain mealy-mouthed type of patron: “Apropos Charles Dickens’s visit to America, the people who had invited him to lecture here were astonished, it seems, about his interest in fees and contracts. ‘Money is not a shocking thing to an artist,’ Dickens insisted” (op. cit. fn. 2).

  10. 10

    The Washington Post, March 24, 1935.

  11. 11

    Apart from a brief message in English, read on a national broadcast from New York in 1935, Stravinsky’s first public dissertation in that language took place in Beverly Hills, August 11, 1940—for a women’s organization. His press conferences were exclusively in English beginning in 1939: “English—pretty pure and extensively articulate—was the only language Stravinsky would talk at all,” Alfred Frankenstein wrote of one of these, in San Francisco, January 6, 1942. As for English style, the same critic remarked of a lecture by Stravinsky at Mills College two years later: “In essence it was another exposition of the principles of definiteness, specificality, clarity, and scientific self-consciousness that run all through Stravinsky’s writings.”

  12. 12

    Alexis (“Woof”) Kall, Stravinsky’s secretary, was a friend of the composer from school days in St. Petersburg, and one of the very few people—Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Walter Nouvel, and Picasso were the only others—whom Stravinsky tutoyer-ed. Cocteau, having forced the issue—to Stravinsky’s great annoyance—was a special case.

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