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My Life with Stravinsky

The following remarks are more personal than they might have been had I not made so many “stand-in” conducting appearances for Stravinsky this year and not also begun to go through my mementos, most of which had been stored away in the decade since his death. Looking through these again, I was engulfed by a wave of affection, surprising in view of the estrangement I had felt of late as a result of annotating his 1930s correspondence, in which he sometimes scarcely resembles the man I knew. Seeing the memorabilia, however, I was transported back to the events and emotions of our first years together.

Of course I did not save everything. No one could have been thinking constantly of Stravinsky’s immortality while living with him—sharing three meals a day, spending most evenings together, and traveling all over the planet in automobiles, trains, ships, and airplanes. But in pursuing the contents of these old packing cases, I was more poignantly touched by his mortality than at any time since April 6, 1971. Here were those neatly typed letters—some with drawings: a heart in red ink, a California desertscape in spring—and the calligraphically addressed postcards sent during later separations. (He kept my cards, too, even pasting some of them in a music sketchbook—not for their contents, but as exhibits of engineering skill in cramming 200 words into a three-by-four-inch space!) Here, too, were those sheets of my questions with his answers, later destined for books; on one page that I had asked him to return in a hurry, he wrote: “You cannot complain.”

I was particularly moved to find again the manuscript copies that he made for me of a canon by Mozart and three pieces by Lasso, and gave to me on special occasions, as well as published scores of his own music, always with original dedications: on the first page of Monumentum, for instance, he wrote: “To Bob, who forced me to do it and I did it”—a statement that might have been inscribed on The Flood and the Canticles as well, and that could serve as an apologia pro vita mea. The boxes also contained lists of passages in scores to be rehearsed; scraps of paper with messages, passed across the aisles of airplanes or from adjoining seats in concert halls; and menus, paper napkins, backs of envelopes on which he had jotted down bits of music. What disturbed me enough to make me stop this nostalgic rummaging was the sight of my baggage tags filled out by him in July 1951 before we left California for Venice and the premiere of The Rake’s Progress—these and bottles of pills that he had given me for pre-concert nerves. As I said, my deepest feelings for Stravinsky have returned and have inevitably influenced these observations about him.

Our present view of Stravinsky is almost exactly the opposite of what it was when I met him in 1948. In the 1940s, it often seemed that rather than pursuing an inner-directed course, Stravinsky was allowing himself to be led by circumstances, composing music that diverged widely in subject and form from what was thought to be his proper genus. The man who during the late 1920s and early 1930s had been inspired by the Psalmists, Homer (Perséphone), Sophocles (Oedipus Rex), Virgil (Duo concertant), and Petrarch (Dialogue Between Reason and Joy) was now writing a cabaret vocalise (the 1940 Tango), reharmonizing our sprawling national anthem, fulfilling commissions for the big bands of Paul Whiteman and Woody Herman, providing a polka for pachyderms, and composing music for the cinema (none of it used, but converted into concert pieces, in the Ode, Norwegian Moods, Scherzo à la Russe, Sonata for Two Pianos). Stravinsky was also writing for the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Boston, New York, for Balanchine’s ballet, and for the Church (though not the one to which he belonged). But it is the extravagant variety of these other works that bewildered even his most faithful followers.

Only now do we see how these diverse creations both fit together and integrate with Stravinsky’s earlier and later music. Thus a passage in the 1965 Variations (measure 103) might have come from a sketch for the Ebony Concerto of twenty years earlier, the two-note dirge-rhythm in the Interlude of the Requiem Canticles had already appeared in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, while the “Te Deum” in The Flood (1962) recalls Les Noces, the flute-and-piano figures at the beginning and end of the storm, Petrushka. The Flood, moreover, is best described by the subtitle “to be read, played, and danced” introduced in 1918 for Histoire du soldat. These random examples—they can be multiplied a hundredfold—help to demonstrate that continuing threads as well as new departures, evident in Stravinsky’s music of all periods, are the secret of its unity.

A change came about in the 1950s; Stravinsky was finally conceded to have found a path—or vehicle—when he jumped on the twelve-tone bandwagon. Few people accepted this new music as the real Stravinsky, and even fewer liked it, but by 1956, with the Canticum Sacrum, his use of series was clearly no mere experiment but here to stay. At this point I must emphasize that Stravinsky’s modus vivendi in the first half of the 1950s differed in almost every respect from that of the monumentalized Master of today—though, paradoxically, even if he had died in June 1913 (or any time thereafter), he would have ranked, with Schoenberg, as one of the century’s two great composers. In the early 1950s his music was comparatively rarely performed and only sparsely represented on records, while his new pieces of whatever kind met with open hostility. If the popular audience were aware of him at all, it was as the composer—probably dead—of Firebird. Having been with him through this period of trial, watching him struggle to support his family—which he had to do by conducting, not composing—yet steadily advancing from the Septet (1952) to In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954), the Canticum, and Agon (1957), I believe that this last was the turning point in Stravinsky’s later life and art.

Ironically, Agon‘s success came about through Balanchine’s smash-hit ballet, and not through concert performances of the score. Today, according to publishers’ figures, the piece in either form is one of Stravinsky’s most popular, and no one seems to notice a Webern influence, though this was a principal objection at the first audition. In 1982, we recognize Stravinsky’s characteristic gestures, temperament, and energy on every page of the score. Most of it was written during a period of recovery from a near-fatal stroke, and the first performance took place on the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday. Nevertheless, the music, from beginning to end, especially in its fleetness, is that of a young man. The rhythms (changing meters, syncopations, jazz patterns), sonorities (new but inimitably Stravinskyan), harmonic structure and canonic games, contrasts (of speed, dynamics, and everything else), and the shapes of individual dances and the work as a whole link Agon to Histoire du soldat—to name only one predecessor: I am thinking of the parallel function between the castanet part in “Bransle gai” and the string-bass part in the “Marche du soldat.”

As could be expected, the audience at the concert premiere grasped none of this, while today the piece is regarded as a comfortable classic. With Agon, other composers began to fellow-travel with Stravinsky in his idiosyncratic use of tone rows, for it is true that he did not keep abreast of developments in academic serial theory, simply borrowing what he required in order to write masterpieces.

Stravinsky’s eightieth year was marked by another turning point, the return of the native to Russia, for the first time since 1914. That deep-freeze in which his music had been stored since the early days of Stalin began to thaw. It did not matter that while Stravinsky was being welcomed by Khrushchev in the Kremlin, the fifty-one-volume Soviet Encyclopedia (1958 edition) did not even contain the composer’s name, or make any difference that he was not permitted to play any of his post-Agon music—which by then included Movements and The Flood—since audiences were not prepared for it anyway. But now, in 1982, belatedly recognizing their greatest son in the arts of this century, the Russians are performing not only The Rake’s Progress (in their own language) but also the Requiem Canticles, and are publishing more studies of his music than any other country in the world.

I am often asked what Stravinsky believed to be his place in the history of music, in the sense that Schoenberg viewed himself as the bridge into atonality and saw his twelve-tone row as ensuring the supremacy of German music for another hundred years. In relation to Stravinsky the question is more complex, first because his notion of what constituted music history was so very much larger than Schoenberg’s, extending not only backward to Machant and earlier (music that Schoenberg regarded as of no more than antiquarian interest) but also outward to Oriental and ethnic art. Stravinsky maintained that the motets of Josquin should be heard at least as frequently as Brahms lieder, Monteverdi madrigals rather more often than anything by Dvorák. But Stravinsky’s affinities, technical and aesthetic, are closer to the composers of the Renaissance than to those of the late nineteenth century, although in old age his catholicity expanded to include that period as well: finally, he gave up referring to himself as Wagner’s Antichrist and even learned to appreciate Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Whatever Stravinsky thought of Schoenberg before 1950, after that date the Russian-American regarded the Austro-American not as the embodiment of an antithesis but as a great colleague from whom he could and did learn. (It is important to remember that Stravinsky was always a student, never a teacher, and that, of the great composers, he had the most perpetually acquisitive mind, the keenest antennae.) If Stravinsky is the center of excitement in twentieth-century music, it is not only by virtue of his innovations and all the other qualities of his music including its power of personality, but also because he captured more of the whole contemporary world, American as well as European, than did his counterpart. When I speak of synthesis, therefore, I am not referring to any merger with the school of Schoenberg, but rather to the assimilation of a vast range of elements filling the sound waves of the last seventy-five years from Ukrainian folk music to Broadway variety shows, ragtime to Kabuki. I realize that I have not answered the question, but I cannot, and when I once asked it of Stravinsky himself, he replied, curtly: “That is for history to decide.”

Nevertheless, Stravinsky clearly saw his place in his own time. In Munich, February 1, 1933, he told an interviewer:

Audiences want the familiar, that to which they are accustomed…. People feel confident in putting the great masters of the past against a musician of today, against a “cultural Bolshevik,” as I am called. Perhaps in twenty-five years, my works, which will then have become familiar, will be held up as examples of real music to younger composers.

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