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Catherine and Igor Stravinsky

Catherine Nossenko Stravinsky, first wife of the composer, is not mentioned by name in the three references to her in his Autobiography (1935), and her roles in his life remain virtually unknown. Any full study of Stravinsky must include the story of both of his marriages, but while Vera Stravinsky’s place has been at least partly established, no publication does the same for Catherine. Although the deficiency will not be rectified by the excerpts from Catherine’s letters to her husband presented here, they should help to give some sense of her personality as well as to contribute to an expanded and intimate view of his character.

More than once, Stravinsky testified to the unhappiness of his childhood and youth. Of the four sons, he was apparently the least favored, at any rate by his mother, and he hated school, where he was constantly taunted because of his short stature. One exception to this antagonistic treatment was the kindness, affection, and encouragement shown to him by Catherine Nossenko, his year-and-a-half-older cousin, who may have perceived the genius, not yet visible to most others. Like Igor, she had a talent for painting and calligraphy, making copies of some of his earlier manuscripts that are all but indistinguishable from the originals and that still pose problems of attribution. Before showing his newly composed music to anyone else, Stravinsky played it for Catherine,1 as he did in later years for Vera.

Catherine must have been aware of Igor’s explosive and tyrannical qualities, and of the will that could crush any obstacle.2 But she seems to have understood him, and during the summers of their late adolescence, these first cousins—their mothers were sisters—were as close as siblings, the more so, no doubt, because the “brother” had only brothers, the “sister” only another sister. Stravinsky’s letters to his parents in July 1901 show that he enjoyed Catherine’s artistic companionship and was grateful for her goodness and generosity. In retrospect, that she and Igor should marry (1906) seems almost inevitable. The match within the family3 was practical and successful, until The Firebird (1910) took him into a new, lionizing world, and tuberculosis (1914) made her a chronic invalid.

Fifteen years after the marriage, Stravinsky met and became infatuated with Vera de Bosset Sudeikina. He told Catherine that he could not live without this other woman, expecting his wife not only to accept the triangular relationship, but also to join him in admiring and befriending Mme Sudeikina. Since Catherine had always subordinated her wishes to her husband’s, he correctly anticipated that she would do the same in this new situation. It may, of course, be said that she had no alternative, her illness precluding a full participation in his life, and divorce between two people so closely united being unthinkable. But these obvious explanations are less important than those of her absolute devotion to Stravinsky and to what she saw as his divine creative gift.

The new relationship does not seem to have diminished Catherine’s adoration for her husband. Her letters suggest instead that she, who coddled him, saw Mme Sudeikina as a partner in his protection. Many of Catherine’s letters begin with expressions of anxiety about the effect that the bad news of her illness may have on him:

All I did was think of you and how my letter must have upset you…. [October 30, 1937] I would so like to write something comforting, but I only grieve you with all that I say. [January 8, 1938]

She shielded Stravinsky in other matters as well, one of the themes of her correspondence being that he should spare his energies for composing, and therefore travel less and ignore comments about himself in the press:

So you plan to go to America again next winter…. When will you ever have time to rest and to compose?4 [March 11, 1935]

Mika5 wrote that Schloezer6 has written another unpleasant article about your [Autobiography].7 But it is not worth getting excited about this, since it is plain that he’s always going to write unpleasant things. It’s impossible to get away from this. There will always be such people. But, then, there are others. [February 3, 1936]

Stravinsky had arranged for Vera and Catherine to meet, in Nice in February 1925, while he was far away in America. “If there has to be another woman, I am glad that it is you,” Catherine told Vera on that occasion. Improbable as it may seem, the two did become fond of each other. Most of Catherine’s letters to Igor in the 1930s mention Vera (or “Vierochka”):

I was at Vera’s recently. We sat and talked and then she drove to the Beliankins’.8 On Christmas, her birthday, I congratulated her over the telephone, and sent some azaleas to her. [Paris, January 8, 1935]

I wrote to Vera before I left [for the tuberculosis sanitarium at Sancellemoz in Haute-Savoie], and she answered with a very nice letter….[March 21, 1935]

How did you like Bologna, after driving out of Venice?… I kiss Vera warmly and wish her a lot of pleasure from this trip…. [Sancellemoz, May 21, 1935]

But when Catherine expresses gratitude to her husband for his considerateness toward Vera during his absence in South America for concerts, the reader can scarcely believe that the intention is not ironic:

How good that you have decided to make it possible for Vera to move to another apartment. Does she already have something in mind?… Apparently, otherwise you would not have decided so quickly…. This is very good for Vera in many ways, first, for her health, and second, for her spirits, since a change of apartments somehow always brightens one’s mood. As she will be doing this while you’re gone, the process of settling in will keep her busy and make the time of your absence seem shorter…. [Sancellemoz, February 22, 1936]

This will remind some readers of Graham Greene’s story Mortmain, in which a newly married man is bombarded by his former mistress with such messages as “All I really wanted to say was: Be happy both of you.”

As might be expected, Stravinsky wrote more frequently to Vera than to Catherine:

This morning…I talked with Vera on the phone and she already had a letter from you. She said that you had described the storm9 …. [January 11, 1935]

Vera received a letter from you today but I still haven’t gotten one. She received one before I did the other time, too…now I wait impatiently for my letter…. [January 18, 1935]

Stravinsky was in the United States in February 1937 when Catherine’s sister suffered a brain hemorrhage, and her husband Grisha, instead of informing Catherine first, telephoned to Vera, asking her to get a doctor. Catherine wrote to Igor,

Dear Vera…helps the family in everything. Because of my lack of health I cannot be useful to them….[February 3]

On February 9, the day before Milochka’s death, Catherine wrote, “Vera is there all the time,” and, on February 19, “Vera is still making arrangements for the family.”

Some of Catherine’s references to Vera contain the most revealing statements so far published about Stravinsky’s relationship with his mother, who did not know of his life with Vera:

Mama already noticed Vera in church and that means she still remembers her. She’s already talked to me about her and she could begin to ask questions…. [January 18, 1935]

I called Vera twice and would love to see her…but it is always difficult for me because of Mama, since it would have to be after dinner…. Vera and I have arranged to meet between 11 and 12 o’clock somewhere in a cafe…. [January 10, 1937]

For more than sixteen years, the composer lived in dread of his mother’s discovery of the liaison, and, though the secret was kept, her suspicions were aroused—once, apparently, when a photograph album with pictures of Vera on the same page with family groups had not been spirited away in time. Such friends as Samuel Dushkin and Baron Osten-Saken, who knew Catherine, Vera, Igor, and his mother, have affirmed that he was intimidated by “Mousechka,” as she signed her letters to him, and that the two were constantly quarreling. Catherine writes:

I’m afraid that an argument and conflict may arise between you and Mama…. It’s better to give in to Mama. [August 3, 1935]

…You usually spend Sundays with Vera, but I do not think that you should leave Mama alone today, her birthday. [August 11, 1935]

In other words, it is quite possible that Stravinsky did leave his mother alone, and the story that he refused to attend her funeral (she died on June 7, 1939) until Vera persuaded him to go, was well known to intimates. That “Mama” was indeed dour is substantiated by Catherine:

I begged the children to be a little more affectionate to Mama and indulgent of the hard side of her character, which always gets her into arguments, and because of which she concludes that the children do not love her…. In my absence,10 it is very difficult for her.

Catherine’s own mother had suffered from tuberculosis, and in January 1914, following the birth of her younger daughter, Catherine had to be treated for the disease. Her elder daughter died of tuberculosis in November 1938, and Stravinsky himself had it in an active form in 1937, 1939—when he spent six months at Sancellemoz—and from July to December 1969. Catherine’s pulmonary illnesses were almost continual in the 1920s and early 1930s,11 and tuberculosis was diagnosed in May, 1925, when she returned in an ambulance from a disastrous attempt to accompany her husband to Rome. In 1935, her doctor sent her to Sancellemoz, where she had first stayed two years before.

All of Catherine’s letters from February 1935 to the end of her life (March 2, 1939) contain detailed medical reports, including almost hourly tabulations of her temperature and crachats, as well as descriptions of treatments (“Lipschitz gave me some foul stuff extracted from the liver of an unborn horse,” “the eucalyptus injections have had to be stopped”).

But Catherine’s loneliness may have been as hard to bear as her physical suffering. She begins a letter on her twenty-ninth wedding anniversary:

At the very time I am writing this, you and I were going to the Finland station…. It feels like a very, very long time ago, much longer than all of those years…. [January 24, 1935]12

And here are passages from other letters from Sancellemoz:

What is most difficult for me is that you will return home and I won’t be there…. Perhaps you could come and see me, if even just for a bit…. How wonderful it was when you were with me in Leysin and composed The Nightingale…. [March 17, 1935]

…I saw some gorgeous hyacinths, and I began wanting to have some in my room. But there’s no pleasure in buying them for oneself. And then I said to myself that if you were to write to me and say that I should buy some flowers, then I’d feel that this would be your present, and I would buy them happily….[February 22, 1936]

Occasionally the letters describe macabre events in the sanitarium, but so matter-of-factly that the effect verges on black humor:

It turns out that while you were still at Sancellemoz, some poor young woman died, which I had already begun to suspect since we could not hear her anymore….[October 6, 1937]

Small wonder that in California, in the 1940s, free of ill and dependent in-laws, and of the daily threat of morbid and depressing family letters, Stravinsky seemed radically different to friends who had known him in Europe during the previous decade.

Whether or not in reaction to Catherine’s letters, Stravinsky seems to have kept her informed about his own most minor ailments, including a spell of high-altitude dizziness. “What a shame that you had to be at such heights in Colorado,” she wrote, March 17, 1935, and, four months later: “You are feeling very nervous…. But you are always more nervous when you compose….” Another letter begins, “What’s this? Have you caught cold again?” (October 4, 1935). Once she acknowledges that “You are feeling poor in general and you had a headache for two days” (July 27, 1936), but, fatally ill herself, she says that

with me it’s all “des ennuis” and “des petites misères,” nothing serious, thank God. As for the unpleasant peculiarities from which you are constantly suffering, and which are distressing—better this than something serious….

The most puzzling feature of the correspondence is Catherine’s lack of money. Because of temperamental differences and long-time habits, however, the frugality of her existence in a provincial sanitarium should not be contrasted with the comfort of her husband’s life while on concert tours or in the family’s rue du Faubourg St. Honoré apartment. She realized this disparity, and that, for example, his sartorial tastes—in May 1932, Stravinsky’s bill from his tailor was 3000 francs—must have been changing:

I would like to knit a scarf for you before your departure for South America, but if you don’t like it…I won’t be offended…. [February 8, 1936]

Yet when she wrote that “Now with my sickness, we have overloads on the budget” (March 21, 1935), it was also true that his earnings from concerts, recordings, royalties, and commissions were substantial. In 1936, furthermore, he seems to have had a surplus. In a letter dated March 6, Catherine says, “Svetik [their son] just wrote to me that you had extra money in Italy and that you bought silver.”

No doubt Catherine had a desire to arouse feelings of guilt, but this comes into the open in her letters only once, when she reports a conversation with a doctor, in dialogue form and in French, as if she were afraid to use Russian: “I told him, ‘Je suis une personne sacrifiée‘ ” (October 9, 1937). Yet many of her statements make the reader wonder about Stravinsky’s control of the family purse strings:

Tell Mama that I am without money and can’t even buy stamps…. [August 1, 1935]

In the light of your departure, what about the next bill?… Who will send money to me for the trip? [March 21, 1936]…I will return the money to you that I don’t spend, but it is better not to be caught short. [September 10, 1936]…I’m afraid I won’t be able to manage with just the 15 francs that remain. [October 26, 1937]

But the most astonishing remarks of all are Catherine’s pleas on behalf of Stravinsky’s mother, then in her eighties:

I understand [Mama’s] fear of not being able to manage with the sum you gave her. I also understand you, but I think you are burdening her…. It seems to me that you’ve cut down a great deal on the money for expenses. [June 26, 1935]…The poor thing barely manages, borrowing from [the housekeeper], giving it back to her, and borrowing again. [July 6, 1935]

Mama is dreadfully worried about her hair, which is completely falling out. If she needs to get a wig, since she can’t stay bald, perhaps you would pay for it and then she could pay back 100 or 200 francs a month from the household money. That’s been worrying her a great deal. [May 16, 1935]

Catherine was intensely religious, perhaps more so as her illness progressed.

You say that you look forward to a normal life, but you won’t find one, and we will bear this cross [TB] that God has sent us and we will not stop praising Him and thanking Him for everything. …In your heart you know that what is important for you is how you stand before God. Temptations and trials are good for the soul…. [March 17, 1935]

In letter after letter she says that she is happier in church than anywhere else. When describing the consecration of a church in Paris, she expresses some of the homesickness of exile:

The walls are painted in light ochre with a pinkish tint, like the old buildings in St. Petersburg. There is something very Russian and ancient in the form and the color. There were about 500 people and [one’s] heart rejoiced as the Mnogiya lieta13 was sung for a long time.…. Our names were mentioned among the donors. [March 1937]

She quotes from the Dobrotolyubiye,14 an essential book for anyone interested in Stravinsky’s theological beliefs—in the Docetic Resurrection, for example. Catherine drew a Greek cross at the head of each of her letters to Igor, and ended each one with blessings—“May the prayers of St. Nikolai Chudotvorets keep you safe,” “May God’s holy servants [ugodniki] protect you”—sometimes adding, “I will light the icon lamps now and go to bed.” She invokes a saint for every occasion and difficulty, beseeching St. Expedite when her brother-in-law, who was in charge of Russian cuisine at the Café de la Paix, urgently needed money, and praying for “la sainte indifférence, about which St. François de Sales talks so much” (May 28, 1935). She is constantly reminding her husband of forthcoming observances of the Orthodox church—

Do not forget to kneel to the holy plashchanitsa15 and leave a candle…. [April 13, 1937] Do not forget that Mama’s name day [patron saint’s day] is the 22nd…[September 18, 1937]—

and tries to comfort him with the thought that prayers are constantly being said for him on his concert tours:

On the holy Mount Athos, the humble elder, The Hieromonach Gabriel, prays for you as you travel…. [February 11, 1935]

To his wife’s deep disappointment, Stravinsky neglected the formal requirements of his religion.16 Once she complained, “You have for so long been leading a vain life, with your work, business, and people, completely without the church” (March 27, 1935).

Catherine’s kindness is apparent throughout her letters. For only one example, her sons and younger daughter, her niece, Ira, and cousin, Vera Dimitrievna, opposed Mika’s marriage to the émigré writer, Yuri Mandelstam.17 But when he first visited Catherine in Sancellemoz, she wrote to Stravinsky:

Despite all that the children were telling me, I immediately felt in him not just the niceness, but also the complete goodness, of the man, to whom we can entrust our Mikusha without fear, but rather with total trust. The impression that I got from my eyes is confirmed through meeting him. He is obviously intelligent and kind, and loves Mika with a genuine love. [May 21, 1935]

Catherine’s patience was tried almost beyond endurance but, in these letters at least, she seems never to have lost it,18 or her courage and hope, and, outwardly anyway,19 she continued to believe in an improvement in her condition, even in a cure.20 So far from despair, her letters radiate joy in the gift of life, even in a life of pain, and gratitude for any alleviation. Some of this feeling might be attributed to the euphoria said to characterize certain stages of tuberculosis, but surely the larger part of it is in the transcendence of adversity, and in that she can be described as saintly.

  1. 1

    I am so happy when I think about your present composition [Jeu de Cartes]. I liked what you played for me immensely” (January 17, 1936).

  2. 2

    On his return from America in 1935, Igor received a letter from Catherine, in which she says that her sister, Lyudmila Beliankin, and Irina Terapiano, sister of Stravinsky’s sister-in-law, “have written to me that you are somehow completely changed—even-tempered, calm, and kind.” The sister attributed the transformation to an improved liver condition, Terapiano, who was typing the composer’s Autobiography, to “a spiritual cause.”

  3. 3

    Since parallel cousin marriage was forbidden in Russia, the Stravinsky-Nossenko ceremony was performed in secret.

  4. 4

    That Stravinsky’s concert tours did affect his composing, both in quantity and form, is shown by his letter to E.A. Oeberg, September 23, 1925, saying that three parts of the Serenade are finished and that “in all probability there will be six parts.” Yet two weeks later he had written the fourth movement, which was destined to be the final one, arguably because of interruptions for concerts.

  5. 5

    Lyudmila (“Mika,” “Mikusha”) Stravinsky Mandelstam, the composer’s elder daughter (1908-1938).

  6. 6

    Boris de Schloezer, brother of Alexander Scriabin’s second wife, was the author of Stravinsky (Paris, 1929; English version by Ezra Pound, The Dial, 1929). Schloezer’s estheticizing irritated Stravinsky, who once wrote to Nicolas Nabokov: “What rubbish the Russian intelligentsia [Schloezer] represents” (December 15, 1949).

  7. 7

    Stravinsky’s Autobiography was ghost-written by Walter (“Valenka,” “Valechka”) Nouvel, described by Catherine as her husband’s “faithful co-worker” (August 6, 1935), and “a member of our family” (January 31, 1936). Another of her letters (March 11, 1935) reveals that Stravinsky had planned to give Nouvel one-third of the money from the Autobiography, a sum later reduced to one-fourth. Stravinsky made notes for the book in Russian which Nouvel then “wrote up” and translated into French. Nouvel also ghosted Stravinsky’s essay on Diaghilev. “Valechka is writing ‘your’ memoirs of Diaghilev,” Catherine wrote, “and he has already finished about one-fourth; at first the work went well, but now he’s afraid that it doesn’t contain enough anecdotes to please the American public” (March 4, 1937).

  8. 8

    Catherine’s sister, Lyudmila, her husband, Grigory (“Grisha”) Beliankin, who was a retired naval officer, and their two children, Ira (“Irusha”) and Gania. Ira, who had a famous face as the model for Elizabeth Arden beauty advertisements, was also a star performer in Diaghilev’s production of the Nabokov-Tchelichev Ode.

  9. 9

    Stravinsky had written from New York after a rough crossing on the S.S. Rex.

  10. 10

    Stravinsky’s mother, wife, and children had lived together in Biarritz (from December 1922), Nice (from September 1924), and Voreppe (from September 1932). But after the move to Paris (October 15, 1933), Catherine spent most of her time at Sancellemoz, which her mother-in-law could not visit because of the altitude.

  11. 11

    In a letter to Gavril Grigorievich Païchadze, July 25, 1927, Stravinsky refers to the “unexpected illness of my wife,” a surprising choice of adjective, since, from her letters, it seems that illness could never have been unexpected in Catherine’s case.

  12. 12

    Catherine was born on January 25, but, as she wrote to Igor, January 11, 1935: “Since the day of our wedding, I always associate my birthday with the 24th.” She also celebrated the day of her engagement, August 15 (O.S.)—the Feast of the Assumption—1905.

  13. 13

    The meaning is roughly equivalent to l’chaim.

  14. 14

    The Russian version of the Philokalia, the writings of the early Fathers, complied on Mount Athos by Macarius of Corinth and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and published in Venice in 1782. The book was translated into Slavonic in the eighteenth century, and, in the 1870s, published in a five-volume Russian translation. A three-volume edition appeared in Moscow in 1905, and, in 1951, Faber & Faber published a selection in English, Writings from the Philokalia. In one of Catherine’s most interesting letters, August 13, 1936, she discusses the Dobrotolyubiye in conjunction with a book by Ramuz: “I’m reading the Ramuz, and I agree with the notes you have made in the margins…. He does not find the main answer and discusses everything according to some kind of semi-religious plan. How sorry I am for him and how I want him to be enlightened…. Why does he like these stylistic diversions so much; I don’t like them…. I am reading the Dobrotolyubiye every day and comparing how these people with great souls and faith, who lived only in God and for God, talked and measured, and thought about life. How simple and clear everything was to them….”

  15. 15

    Good Friday shroud. An effigy of St. Plashchanitsa was carried from the church on Good Friday. “Here in Paris they bring her out later than in Nice,” Catherine wrote to Igor, April 26, 1935.

  16. 16

    That religion was never far from Stravinsky’s thoughts, nonetheless, is shown in the following passage from a letter to Païchadze, after seven years of silence: “Aged? Of course you have aged. We all have aged in these seven years…. But, speaking for myself, it is difficult to say whether I have aged or not, since I do not think much about it: I do not have time. I live from year to year, as everyone does, in the emotional aftermath of events. But I am unlike everyone else because of the pressure I have been under from composing: a lot has been created and a lot performed in my concert tours during these years. I work independently of Reality for, after all, music goes on independently of it as well. People say, of course: ‘…He is against the expression of feelings in music and has made it so dry that it has no more spirit.’ When you encounter such judgments, it is impossible not to remember the distinction that the Apostle Paul drew between emotional and spiritual, a distinction that people continue to ignore after 2000 years…” (April 11, 1946).

  17. 17

    Catherine’s letters contain many glimpses of “traditional” Russian anti-Semitism, though she herself did not share it. She wrote to Igor that her cousin, Dr. Vera Dimitrievna Nossenko, refused to visit Mika because “she is going to marry a Jew. You see what Vera Dimitrievna’s attitudes will be for the future…. It is really even funny…. I feel sorry for her that her ways of thinking with respect to Jews are what they are” (August 11, 1935). (Ironically, Yuri Mandelstam’s daughter was to be reared, from infancy, by Dr. Nossenko.) Since Ira, the bride’s cousin and a professional couturier, had the same prejudices, Mika ordered her wedding dress from someone else. Mandelstam ghosted Stravinsky’s essay on Pushkin: “Yuri has just written your article about Pushkin, and tomorrow is coming here to dictate it to Ira who will type it on your machine as you asked” (Catherine’s letter of January 3, 1937).

  18. 18

    Patience and more patience, that is what is essential…. I think that this is all that God wants from us” (October 6, 1937). “The doctor told me: ‘You will always have bronchitis, but you have a good nature, and will bear it.’ ” (October 28, 1937).

  19. 19

    Once Catherine did refer to another woman at Sancellemoz, “who, poor thing, considers herself a lifetime patient, like me” (September 8, 1937).

  20. 20

    Catherine’s death was hastened by that of her elder daughter. In Paris, February 1, 1939, Stravinsky wrote to Willy Strecker: “My wife is not at all well. Since our terrible unhappiness, her lungs have become much weaker, and the lesion is larger. She never leaves her bed and is further debilitated by a cough that tires her in the extreme. In three weeks she has not been able to recover from an exhausting grippe. We were to have gone to Pau, where the air is supposed to calm the nerves and soothe the irritation in the bronchial tubes, but in her state it is impossible to move. What can I do? I wait, I hope, and I am full of anguish…. A huge discouragement strikes me every hour, every day. I wait, I wait, I wait.”

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