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Stravinsky’s Russian Letters

I. F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials

compiled by L.S. D’yachkova, edited by B.M. Yarustovsky
Moscow: Soviet Composer

F. Stravinsky: Essays, Letters, Memoirs

compiled and annotated by L. Kutateladze, edited by A. Gozenpud
Leningrad: Muzyka

Of these two recent books from the USSR, one, I. F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials, includes some sixty of Stravinsky’s letters from the early Diaghilev period that appreciably expand our view of the composer’s personality. They do not revise or correct it, the Stravinsky we know being recognizable in every line, but these more than 23,000 words enlighten the student on the formation of Stravinsky’s artistic philosophy, explain some of his traits of character, and help to complete a picture of the composer at the time of his first great achievements. Both volumes contain much material in addition to Stravinsky’s letters, but little of general interest—which, one supposes, is only minimally concerned with the composer’s family before his appearance in it and barely if at all with the eulogies of Shostakovitch, Khatchaturian, and other state-owned composers. Of the twelve essays in I. F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials, perhaps only the last, A. Shnitke’s “Paradox as the Line of Stravinsky’s Musical Logic,” is worth translating.

Let us turn directly to the letters, then, and first of all to those published in the biography of the composer’s father. Stravinsky always described his youth as obsessed by music, saying that the outstanding events of his early years were his private musical discoveries and the concerts and operas that he attended. But the female cousins with whom he spent each summer from the age of fourteen in the Volhynian village of Ustilug may not have been aware of this, let alone of his musical gifts. Certainly his piano playing was not sufficiently precocious to warrant his parents’ aspirations for a virtuoso’s career, nor did his early compositions bear any substantial evidence of originality. In short, and no matter what his cousins and others might have thought of him, at twenty he seems to have been something of a dilettante—an unusual criticism to make of an up-and-coming artist of the same age today, perhaps, but not in Stravinsky’s St. Petersburg, where Prokofiev and Glazunov, for example, were established composers when still in their teens.

Stravinsky’s early letters, what we have of them, refer less frequently to his piano practice than to his painting and to the theater, acting in amateur theatricals being one of his greatest pleasures. Here are excerpts from letters to his parents written from Ustilug in his seventeenth year:

…this is the schedule for our day:—After morning tea, all three of us, Katia,1 Olga Dmitrievna, and I, look for a suitable spot where we can sketch. Gury2 and Vera Dmitrievna learn their parts [for the play] on the tennis court. Sofia Dmitrievna and Olga Ivanovna hull raspberries, which grow here in great abundance. Then we have breakfast. After that, if it doesn’t rain, the three of us again set out to sketch, but, until yesterday, it has drizzled since our arrival….

I have made a sketch of a sunset…. Now I would like to have the opportunity to see a number of good pictures so that I can become even more dissatisfied with my own work. Only in such circumstances can I be certain of making progress….

We play the piano a lot. I am not reading much. All the same, I’ve finished [Tolstoy’s] Resurrection and have derived the highest pleasure from this brilliant work of Lev Nikolaevich. The most recent numbers are the most striking. I do not know if they have reached you and whether you are reading them. If so, give me your impressions. Probably the same as mine.

[I have also read] Guyot’s The Problems of Contemporary Aesthetics, which contains some interesting discussions.

Today, we—Dmitri Andreevich and all the young people—are going to Vladimir-Volhynsk to buy props for the theater. The production will probably take place in a week. The plays are [Hartmann’s] Seize Your Chance While You May and [Chekhov’s] The Bear, in both of which I have important roles. I know my parts—how could I not know them?—but cannot predict how successful the performances are going to be.

The first paragraph might have been by Chekhov, to be read by a character in a story or play. But Stravinsky’s self-improving remark about wanting to see good pictures in order to become dissatisfied with his own is so characteristic that he could have uttered it at any time throughout his life. All his life, too, Stravinsky complained that he had been handicapped in his youth by his isolation from an intellectually stimulating environment. In his mind the unique advantage of his early years was the wide traveling he had enjoyed both in Russia—he especially cherished his trips on the Volga—and in Germany and Switzerland. Obviously by anyone else’s standards Stravinsky would be considered unusually privileged, but he did not think so, and even in his seventies would blame his intellectual and artistic shortcomings (!) on his repressive family and its lack of interest in new ideas.

Other letters to his parents, that summer and the next, describe more plays. Two of these communications, from Ustilug in July, 1900, reveal further aspects of Stravinsky’s personality. The first, a meticulous accounting of expenditures on the journey from St. Petersburg, is typical of the kind of bookkeeping he habitually practiced. That his parents demanded it of him seems probable; hence that “stinginess,” even with his music, of which he liked to boast, may have been a family trait. Here is the eighteen-year-old artist’s description of travel in Russia in terms of rubles and kopeks, rather than of inspiring sunsets for future sketching:

With all my care and economy…the journey cost me 26 rubles and 45 kopeks: ticket: 8 rubles and 70 kopeks; baggage: 1 ruble and 30 kopeks; reserved seat and supplement for the fast train from Kazatin: 2 rubles and 70 kopeks; journey by horse: 5 rubles and 70 kopeks (and 20 kopeks for tea); transport of basket from Kovel to Ustilug: 4 rubles and 50 kopeks (and this was by private arrangement: if it had gone by post, the cost would have been 8 rubles)…. Now the minor expenses: porters: 1 ruble and 60 kopeks; refreshments at the station: 1 ruble and 95 kopeks; at Kovel: 30 kopeks between the station and the carriage. The porters were comparatively expensive—50 kopeks to the one who got a seat for me, 50 kopeks to the one in the station at Kovel, and 20 kopeks to each of the other three, at Proskurov, Zhmerinka, and Kazatin…. The cost for the short stretch of 18 versts from Zhuriisk to Kovel was 1 ruble and 50 kopeks. But enough of all this….

The other letter shows Stravinsky’s responsiveness to kindness and his sensitivity about his size, for he was a head shorter than his younger brother, and the reference to the “superior height” of others is to the physical measurement as well as to “de-haut-en-bas“:

Meeting with kindness in another you become doubly attached to that person, drawing closer and understanding him more easily… I see this all the time in the case of Katenka3 and am moved by it. Unfortunately I do not find it in Mila, but, characters being so different, I will not reproach her for that. What I cannot abide is when people look down on me from their superior height, and something of that attitude is in Milochka, in her constant light irony about everything I say…. As for myself, I do not waste any time—I sketch, I read, I play.

In 1901 Stravinsky received his entrance certificate to study law at St. Petersburg University, thus following in his father’s footsteps, the elder Stravinsky having earned a law degree at the University of Kiev. Also in 1901, Stravinsky appeared for the first time on a public platform, as a piano accompanist in a recital. His father died the next year. Some months before, however, and by this time just possibly with intimations that his son might have talent as a composer, Feodor Stravinsky entrusted him to Rimsky-Korsakov, although the young man was not yet ready to become a regular pupil. But he did enter the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, meeting there the composers, the writers, the artists, and the St. Petersburg intelligentsia for whose society he had been longing.

This group was a nucleus of liberalism, and the newcomer became an ardent disciple in this as in everything else—a fact worth mentioning only because later in life he recalled his political inclinations of the time somewhat differently. In a 1905 concert in Rimsky-Korsakov’s honor, in the Komissarzhevsky Theater, Stravinsky participated in an antigovernment demonstration that was quelled by the police and that resulted in a ban on all public musical performances for several months thereafter. Writing to his mother a year later, Stravinsky explains that he and his wife will not go to the Crimea because:

…we couldn’t live quietly where the revolutionary ferment is strongest. Meetings and clashes are everywhere there, and a strike of the ship crews occurs almost daily…. [It is impossible] to live in such a roiling pot unless one is indifferent to the life around one and unless one looks upon the great Russian Revolution with hatred. And, as you know, we are of the opposite persuasion.

One of the letters (March, 1908) in I.F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials is the equivalent of a Who’s Who entry. It is also, incidentally a verification of the remarkable accuracy of Stravinsky’s memory in his late seventies, for his Conversations contain substantially the same information. The addressee is the composer and critic, G.N. Timofeyev:

I was born in Orianienbaum on June 5, 1882. At the age of nine I began to take piano lessons from A. P. Snyetkova (the daughter of the violinist in the Mariinsky Theater orchestra). At eleven I entered St. Petersburg School No. 27, where I was a poor student, as well as an ill-behaved one. I remained there until the end of the fifth grade, then entered the Gurevich School, where I completed my intermediate education. From there I went to St. Petersburg University, staying for a total of eight semesters.

My parents, hoping to make a pianist of me, did not stint on the cost of teachers but gave me the opportunity to study with the very best ones, such as L. A. Kashperova, from whom I took lessons for two years. I was attracted to composition before that, however, and have always had a lively interest in the musical classics. I did a great deal of sightreading, which helped my development. But the lack of an education in theory became an ever greater obstacle, and though I improvised endlessly and enjoyed it immensely, I was unable to write down what I played. I ascribe this to my lack of theoretical knowledge. You might say that until I began to take lessons in harmony from Akimenko I ripened in ignorance. I soon switched from him to K. V. Kalafati, with whom I studied harmony and strict style [counter-point?].

In my University years I came to know the Rimsky-Korsakov family and after that advanced very rapidly. I composed many comic songs, especially to the words of Koz’ma Prutkov, and in 1903-1904 I wrote a large—four-movement—piano Sonata in F-sharp minor,4 incorporating many suggestions by Rimsky-Korsakov. It was first performed at his home by Richter, the pianist to whom it is dedicated. In 1905 I married, and in the autumn of that year began to take private lessons in instrumentation with Rimsky-Korsakov. (I have never studied in the Conservatory.) In 1905-1906 I composed a Symphony dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1907 I completed the instrumentation of a suite, The Faun and the Shepherdess, and in the summer of the same year composed a song, “Spring,” to words by Gorodetzky. This winter I wrote the Pastorale, a song without words, and now I am finishing the Scherzo Fantastique for orchestra.

  1. 1

    Stravinsky’s future first wife.

  2. 2

    Stravinsky’s younger and favorite brother.

  3. 3

    Stravinsky’s first wife.

  4. 4

    Forty pages of piano score!

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