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Words & Music

In response to:

Igor Stravinsky: Obiter Dicta from the March 17, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

There are three French mistakes in “Igor Stravinsky: Obiter Dicta” (NYR, March 17). Two of these are Stravinsky’s own. In France one does not speak of a “Compositeur de la musique” (see third entry) but of a “Compositeur de musique.” The phrase “Le Sacre d’Automne” (see final entry), if meant, as it surely is, as a poetic counterbalance to “Le Sacre du Printemps” should be “Le Sacre de l’Automne.” (The fifth entry contains the other mistake, this one by the editor who translates “le vague” as “a wave,” although vague in the masculine means emptiness, a vacant space.)

I point out these errors not to be erudite, but from an endlessly engrossing concern with how famous polyglots, especially musical polyglots, sparkle or err in foreign tongues. When, for instance, and why, might an educated Russian choose to insert a French mot juste into a German interview, an American conversation, an Italian rehearsal? If the texts being prepared by Robert Craft for the announced Photographs and Documents are drawn, as his footnotes indicate, from sources in six languages, would not the original contexts prove invaluable?

Since many of the composer’s musical pronouncements are ambiguous here in their English versions, one speculates on their first utterance. How, for example, and in what language, did Stravinsky state to the Czech Lidové Noviny: “…but the great art of a Palestrina of changing chords by suppressing and doubling notes has fallen into decline…”? Craft knows better than anyone that the art of Palestrina has nothing to do with chords, much less with suppressing (does he really mean withholding?) and doubling (surely he means spacing) notes, although this practice could happily obtain to Stravinsky’s own “art.”

Much of my own education depends upon Robert Craft’s accuracy, and upon his stickling for accuracy in others. Could he then ease his continuing need to downgrade Poulenc? It is senseless and gratuitous to contend (footnote p. 30) that “What Poulenc seems to mean is that an enthusiasm for Racine would be understandable, but hardly one for Boileau,” when there has been no demonstrable slighting of Boileau, and no mention at all of Racine.

Ned Rorem

New York City

Robert Craft replies:

Mr. Rorem’s explanation of the two “Sacres” is as unnecessary and embarrassing (“poetic counterbalance,” yet) as his superfluous reference to “erudition” concerning three slips—happily none of them an obstacle to comprehension—involving the French words for “the.” And no sooner does Mr. Rorem protest his modesty than he encourages doubts about this, for unless he is multilingual himself, how can he tell when “musical polyglots”—does he mean polyglot musicians?—“sparkle or err in foreign tongues”? And shouldn’t it be “sparkle” and “err,” since, as Stravinsky demonstrated, the two are by no means mutually exclusive? Even if Mr. Rorem could convince one of his “endlessly engrossing concern,” surely the subject is of too little consequence to merit the expenditure of time and newsprint.

Mr. Rorem reads as carelessly as he writes. Nowhere does “Stravinsky: Obiter Dicta” say that its editor was the translator; nor was he. Neither do the footnotes indicate that “the texts being prepared [for a book] are drawn…from sources in six languages.” The texts for the book, unlike those for the NYR anthology, were drawn from more than twenty, Stravinsky having been interviewed in Tokyo and Helsinki, Rio de Janeiro and Bucharest, as well as in all of the other cities on his numerous concert tours.

Would not the original contexts prove invaluable?” Mr. Rorem asks, but without saying what he means by these “contexts.” An account of the backgrounds of the more than fifty occasions that provoked Stravinsky’s remarks? But that would have required a book. The inclusion of the original language of the publication? But that is not always the language that Stravinsky used, and, in addition, too few of us read Russian. The printing of the full texts of the interviews, letters, and other writings? But that eventually, inevitably, is an undertaking for a university press and, besides, the full texts deal largely with unrelated subjects.

Instead of providing examples to try to support his assertion that “many of the composer’s musical pronouncements are ambiguous here in their English versions,” Mr. Rorem displays his own evidently limited musical knowledge. He can still learn, however, by consulting a book on sixteenth-century harmony, if not by looking at the music itself, that chords do in fact occur in Palestrina. To presume that when Stravinsky said “doubling notes”—giving the tonic or third of a triad to more than one voice—he really meant “spacing” them is to risk seeming dense, as well as impertinent. That Stravinsky meant “suppressing,” not “with-holding,” is no less clear and could be misunderstood only by someone with a lack of imagination.

If I had had a “need to downgrade Poulenc,” would I have missed the opportunity to review the Metropolitan Opera’s production of the Carmélites, a work with which I lived one summer at the Santa Fe Opera without being able to develop any lasting interest in the music? Also, if I have unwittingly downgraded Poulenc in the past, certainly this has done him no harm. (An indisputably greater composer whom I have championed, Schoenberg, has never had any of his operas performed at the Met.) But is it “slighting Boileau” or “downgrading Poulenc” to interpret the latter’s reaction to Stravinsky’s enthusiasm for the poet as I did? Here is Poulenc himself: “Tout à coup [Stravinsky] a pensé que Boileau était un merveilleux poète. Il m’a dit: ‘Est-ce que vous aimez Boileau?’ J’ai dit: ‘Oui…enfin, sans frenésie…. Pas comme Racine‘ ” (Moi et mes amis, p. 194).

Finally, the only question of any importance raised by this “query” cannot be answered: what were the original languages of Stravinsky’s statements? Many of his English, French, and German letters were first written in Russian, and undoubtedly many other such drafts were destroyed. He corresponded with Russian friends in English and with German ones in French, but inconsistently. Nor do most of the articles in English dating from the 1930s and 1940s specify whether his conversations with reporters were conducted in that language, or in Russian, German, or French. The interviewer for the Börsencourrier, Heinrich Strobel, nearly always spoke French with Stravinsky, hence the original language of this Berlin newspaper article may have been French. (A headline in a Chicago newspaper, in March 1937, reads: “STRAVINSKY, IN GERMAN, SAYS HE’S FRENCH.”) The composer spoke three languages with Czech musicians in Prague in 1930, according to the newspaper essay in Czech, “An Hour With Stravinsky,” and he regarded the French transcript of this that he received from his friend Vaclav Talich, the conductor, as an accurate report of what had been said.

The “le” before “vague” appears to be Stravinsky’s own typographical error: he is contrasting the solid ground of musical professionalism with the sea of musical journalism. But I should have added a note to this effect, and also said that he may have intended something like “rambling in the void” rather than “floundering in a wave” (though in his metaphorical sense the two are not significantly different).

Three options are available to editors of Stravinsky’s own French: to use the so-called silent correction; to signal the need for alteration via the “[sic]”; or to publish the texts as he wrote them. Since one of the newspapers chose to overlook his grammatical peccadillo (“de la musique“), and since the “[sic]” would have had to be inserted in many more places than three, the best course seemed to be to follow the composer’s own instructions to Faber and Faber when publishing some of his letters to Cocteau: that they be printed as written.

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