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My Life with Stravinsky

A week later, when a reporter in Milan addressed him as “the recognized leader of modern music,” he responded, “Perhaps, but there are good and bad modern musicians. I am Stravinsky and that is enough.” Although some would attribute this remark to conceit. I would not, believing it to be the honest statement of a man with rare self-knowledge. Stravinsky knew the value of what he was doing and was simply asserting that his music would endure. The retort was also a way of refusing the crown and scepter of a school or movement. To these characteristic rejoinders, one should be added from the rehearsal record in CBS’s thirty-one-disc Stravinsky album, where he can be heard correcting a musician, then saying, “Excuse me, please, but I like my music.”

Looking backward from the 1980s, we can also see that Stravinsky’s music interacts more organically with architecture, choreography, painting, and poetry (in three languages) than does any other composer’s. This is a subject for another essay, and little more can be said here than that he was at the hub of the arts, both bestowing and receiving inspiration thereby. It is well known that the five domes of St. Mark’s suggested the five-movement form of the Canticum Sacrum. But Palladian principles, such as surrounding a central axis with rooms of sequentially different sizes, also influenced Stravinsky, who was familiar with many of the great architect’s villas, as well as with the Venetian churches. (The Canticum even has a portico.) Besides the Canticum, with its “Trinity of Virtues” as the centerpiece, Agon has an axial movement (the Pas de deux), as does Requiem Canticles (Interlude). Fewer listener-viewers are aware that the orthogonal style of Sacre and the falcated one of Apollo determined the choreographic postures that Nijinsky and Balanchine created for these works. It should also be mentioned that at least one painter has testified that his Cubism owed more to Les Noces than to Picasso.

Poetry and its relation to Stravinsky’s music is a still larger subject and, because both are formed with sounds, more closely connected. Some musicians—the composer Leon Kirchner is one—have even detected an intuited comprehension of Chomsky’s deep-language structures in Stravinsky’s use of words in parts of The Rake’s Progress; but however that may be, Stravinsky did borrow technical concepts from verse patterns and poetic forms. The first examples to come to mind are of Pushkin and Boileau in Apollo, of Gide’s Alexandrines that the music of Perséphone sometimes duplicates, and of Auden’s haiku. Moreover, the changing meters, unequal time intervals, and shifting accents in Stravinsky’s music are devices comparable to the rhythmic innovations of the poets of the time, Americans as well as Russians, though no modern writer, including Pound, understood Stravinsky’s techniques to the degree that he had understood theirs. Still another parallel could be mentioned between Stravinsky’s pilferings from the past and Eliot’s chrestomathy in The Waste Land.

What are some of the principal reasons for Stravinsky’s preeminence? First, he continued to grow, as minor artists do not. The Requiem Canticles, written at the end of a sixty-five-year evolution, is a no less astonishing epiphany from a man of eighty-four than that of Firebird by one of twenty-seven. The Requiem combines a new Stravinsky—in, for one example, the melodic intensity of the music for four solo flutes—with such of his older though mutated devices as the verse and response in the “Lacrymosa,” the ostinato with concertante upper parts in the Prelude, and the apotheosis of bells in the Postlude. When the Requiem was first given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Harris Goldsmith remarked that Stravinsky chose the minatory rather than the consolatory portions of the text.1 In fact, I chose them, not Stravinsky, as the libretto, containing his marks and mine, reveals; but this does not change the observation, since I was guided by the conviction that he was becoming more defiant and less mellow with age—as well as by the realization that the octogenarian was naturally somewhat short-winded.

Another reason why Stravinsky is one of the dominating artists of his century is that he introduced a new medium as Haydn did in his century and Wagner in his. True, Stravinsky composed, in Mozartian variety, operas, oratorios, cantatas, melodramas, symphonies, concertos, overtures, sonatas, incidental music, divertimentos, songs, string quartet pieces. Yet his epochal creations were originally ballets, or choreodramas, as he called them. It cannot be coincidental that he is also music’s greatest revolutionary in rhythm, in which dimension, but not only, he irrevocably altered our lives.

Finally, Stravinsky was a great artist because he knew that depth of allusion can be attained only by using the past, and that creation depends as much on the old as on the new.

To turn to the forward view from 1982, what should be placed on the Stravinsky agenda for future generations of music lovers? First, his published music is in an unspeakable condition. The example that comes to mind is the 1919 Firebird, with its more than three hundred errors; but this is not atypical, since every Stravinsky score has quantities of them. To some extent the Russian Revolution is to be blamed, having deprived the composer of copyright protection in much of the world and exposed his music to legalized piracy. Despite his American citizenship and the new US-USSR copyright agreement, the abuse continues; in their original versions, all of his pre-1931 compositions are permanently in the public domain in this country. Even so, a “complete works” must be begun, the variorum edition his publishers promised him (in November 1968, in Paris). A small body of compositions, including Stravinsky’s arrangements of his own and other people’s music, has never been published at all, while some pieces that were in print have long been unavailable, which explains the absence of an accurate catalogue, let alone a corrigenda.

The first step in correcting this situation would be a search for markings, traceable to him, in the scores of vocalists, instrumentalists, and such conductors as Monteux and Ansermet, Malko and Rosbaud, Desormière and Dorati, Goossens, Collaer, Molinari, and others whose names are less well known but whose libraries should be examined for the possible information. For example, Stravinsky rewrote some of the harpsichord part in The Rake’s Progress for piano, in Santa Fe in July 1957. The pianist understandably kept the manuscript, which, for that reason, surely still exists and can be found. Detective scholars should embark on an all-out search.

Stravinsky’s recordings are both a help and a hindrance to the improvement of performances of his music. Norman del Mar’s book Orchestral Variations demonstrates how the composer’s recordings of Apollo, the Etudes for Orchestra, and Danses concertantes not only correct, but also supplement the published scores. What Mr. del Mar overlooks are the obstacles that arise when Stravinsky’s recordings of the same work contradict each other. For a time, Stravinsky believed that he could establish performance traditions through his recordings. But he did not tell us which tempo we are to follow for the final section of the Symphony of Psalms, whether that of the recording he made closest to the time of composition, the twice-as-fast version released in March 1949, the still different tempo of the suppressed recording, made in Los Angeles in June 1962, or of that of the one taped in Toronto in the spring of 1963, after he had had the most experience conducting the piece (mutatis mutandis concerning the advancement of technological influence and the dangerously enlarged co-conductor role of the recording supervisor).

The aforementioned CBS album credits me as the conductor of ten or so pieces under the composer’s supervision, though in some cases the supervising was remote indeed. Naturally I tried to carry out what I believed Stravinsky wanted, but who knows how differently his performances might have been if he had broken ground with them and done all of the conducting himself (i.e., if I had not rehearsed them and inevitably suggested tempos and other questions of interpretation)? The facts are that when Stravinsky wanted to record, in the early 1950s, CBS would not support his project, and in the 1960s, when the money was offered him, he no longer believed in the recording process.

The next item on the Stravinsky agenda should be the completion of the oral history. When London Weekend Television began its Stravinsky documentary,2 only three survivors with pre-World War I connections could be located and, since then, one has died. Some seventy interviews were taped with people who had known the composer in various degrees of intimacy; but seventy is far below the actual number of those who might have contributed, and this quotient excludes some valuable witnesses, a Dominican Sister living in Wisconsin, for instance, and a violist living in California, both in their nineties, both compos mentis, and both directly involved with Stravinsky premieres. To judge from the London videotapes, this now-popular method for producing history should be reclassified as a branch of autobiography instead, since the participants really only recount incidents in their own lives that may have little bearing on Stravinsky’s.

What struck me is that certain apocryphal stories revealed more significant truths about his character than some of the readily verifiable material. Thus Kyra Nijinsky, daughter of the dancer and an incontinent reminiscer, first saw Stravinsky when she was two, and only once or twice after that in later life. This does not prevent her from describing an encounter with him in Venice in September 1937, walking between his actual wife Catherine, and his common-law wife Vera, both of whom he introduced as if such public threesomes were the foundation of respectability. But in truth Catherine was in a tuberculosis sanitarium at the time, and though she and Vera were friends and did take walks together, it is highly doubtful that Stravinsky ever promenaded with both women at once.

Nonetheless, the anecdote is not without value, since it describes behavior that anyone who knew Stravinsky would agree to be characteristic of him and of his logical, as opposed to psychological, mind. The concocted story was based on well-known true ones. In 1920, at the beginning of his affair with Chanel, he immediately told his wife, because, as he said, she was the person most concerned. A few months later, he again fell in love, this time with Vera Sudeikina. He again told his wife, and for the same indisputably logical reason. Soon after, he brought the two women together, insisting that since they were the people he most cared for, they really had to know each other.3 The logic is still consistent, yet something seems to be wrong!

The last item on my Stravinsky agenda concerns publications, musicological, analytical, and—most difficult of all—biographical. Such technical work as Richard Taruskin’s study of folk music sources, and Allen Forte’s of the chord structure in Sacre, sets new and high standards. But a comprehensive biography is still far from being a possibility, for the reason that the crucial information about Stravinsky’s formative years through the period of the Firebird is lacking. Perhaps the diary of Stravinsky’s father, which covers Igor’s life until age twenty in great detail, will provide the essential clues. But until now, only a few Russian musicologists have had access to this volume, and none of these employs an approach to the biographical material about the infant and the young child that is even remotely psychoanalytical.

This, I submit, is central for a man who was extremely anal, exhibitionistic, narcissistic, hypochondriacal, compulsive, and deeply superstitious. He was also quarrelsome and vindictive, which is stated not as moral judgment but merely as description of behavior. The probable cause of all this goes back to the cradle, and the deprivation of the mother. But we do not have the evidence: no observation of the infant Igor has so far surfaced, or, if so, been made available in the West. The combative relationship existing between the young boy and his parents extended throughout his life to others in authority, most prominently music teachers and orchestra conductors. He repeatedly said that he wrote Le Sacre du printemps in order to send everyone in his Russian past, tsar, family, instructors, to hell—in other words, everyone who failed to recognize his genius. The Sacre, after all, is music’s masterpiece of iconoclasm.

Finally, who is qualified to write Stravinsky’s biography? To the suggestion that I might be, let me answer with an analogy to the obstacles encountered by Flaubert’s niece in describing the initial inaptitude of the future author of Madame Bovary in his attempt to master the alphabet and consequent backwardness in learning to read. First, her main source was Flaubert himself, and, second, she had to find an objective and unobtrusive way of presenting herself. My difficulty is of the same order, since I play a very large part in the narrative from which, to achieve perspective, I must detach myself. I was too close to Stravinsky to do this, and I do not yet understand the real relationship between us, personal, professional, psychological, cultural, not to mention the irrational, such as “karma”—or, for that matter, Hamlet’s “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends.”

Why Stravinsky in my life, and why me in his? The question paralyzes me now more than it did while he was alive. After all, we came from the ends of the earth, had entirely different backgrounds, and were forty-two years apart in age—though this last was a factor only very near the end, for generation gaps did not exist with Stravinsky. (The poet Eugenio Montale, describing the dress rehearsal for Threni in Venice, September 24, 1958, wrote: “The frequent interruptions showed that the good preparatory work done by the young Craft in pulling it all together was thrown to the winds by the still younger Stravinsky, always unsure….”4 ) But in many ways we were also alike. A biochemist at MIT, the late Max Reinkel, one-time physician to us both and a man of uncommon insight, noted that our nervous systems and temperaments were virtually the same. We were similarly ironic, hypercritical, perfectionist (in our unequal ways), intransigent, and our eupeptic-dyspeptic cycles usually coincided. Moreover, our tastes in people, as well as in music, art, literature, and cuisine, were amazingly compatible.

Stravinsky’s personality was over-whelming and dominating, of course, and I had to seek refuge from it in order to preserve my identity. Yet my personality—whose features, as I see them, were my certainty about musical values and my crippling Libran indecisiveness and procrastination in most other things—must actively have contributed to the relationship. It goes without saying that Stravinsky shared the first of these qualities but not the second (did anyone ever act so positively and immediately?), which probably promoted our friendship. As it flourished, Stravinsky discovered that I was more independent than he had initially supposed, and markedly unlike his children and the numerous acolytes schooled by Nadia Boulanger. Yet I think that, after an initial shock, he welcomed this difference in me. No one before seems ever to have contradicted him, or questioned a patently foolish statement (of which he was as capable as anyone else). No doubt my bad manners were to blame when I talked back, as much as the feeling that disagreements should not always be swallowed. But we did adjust to each other.

What was the magnet that brought us together? Our letters immediately before and after we met reveal conscious and unconscious motives on both sides that helped to establish the basis of the twenty-three-year symbiosis. But Stravinsky’s correspondence also exposes a prescience concerning me, at least to my hindsight, that goes far deeper. Was I looking for vicarious or reflected glory? I don’t think so, and certainly I succeeded in avoiding it in the formative period to which I am referring, that of the private, even hermetic three years during which Stravinsky composed the Rake and began the Cantata, years interrupted by only rare forays for conducting engagements. The only observer present then, when we stayed home together, and crossed the continent together five times by automobile, and took innumerable other trips exploring the Western states, was Mrs. Stravinsky, and she alone understood our relationship. From the first, she believed that I, or someone like me, was essential to her husband if he were to remain in the midstream of new music. She sensed—as she had done in the early 1920s, when she introduced Arthur Lourié to Stravinsky—that he needed a musical confidant and sounding board, which is not to say that my role was comparable to that of Lourié, who had a family life of his own and was near to Stravinsky in age and cultural background. In any case, and as their correspondence shows, Lourié was never as close to Stravinsky as I was from the beginning.

When I met Stravinsky, in the spring of 1948, his fortunes were at low ebb. Most of his music was not in print, he was not recording, and concert organizations wanted him to conduct only Firebird and Petrushka. More important, he was becoming increasingly isolated from the developments that extended from Arnold Schoenberg and had attracted the young. Stravinsky was aware of this, despite the acclaim for Orpheus, his latest composition, and he wanted to understand this other, unfamiliar music, but did not know how to go about it. Perhaps the time has come for me to say, as I have not done before, that I provided the path and that I do not believe Stravinsky would ever have taken the direction that he did without me. The music that he would otherwise have written is difficult to imagine.

The 1948 meeting occurred at a propitious time and place—a crossroads—in other ways as well. Until then, the Stravinskys had lived largely in a world of non-English-speaking refugees, most of whom were returning to Europe. On the very day that we met, Stravinsky received the English libretto of his next work, thus automatically making me useful to him. Interactions began to take place, and, inevitably, he was Americanized through this exposure—to the extent that this transmogrification can be said to have taken place. Finally, though it is scarcely believable today, Stravinsky in 1948 lacked performing champions of his music, and was himself its only specialist conductor. He saw me, at first and increasingly in later years, as an interpreter of his works.

I dread to contemplate the prurient hypotheses and tendentious projections of music historians concerning the nature of the glue that held us together. What I can say with certainty is that my friendship with Igor Stravinsky endured because of continuing exchange; because of an ever-increasing mutual dependency; and, above all, because of an affection, which, though not always visible to others, was abiding and profound.

  1. 1

    Performing Arts Magazine, March 1970.

  2. 2

    Stravinsky, directed by Tony Palmer, to be shown in the United States next year.

  3. 3

    Even so, stravinsky went extremely far in his demands on Catherine, as is evident in a letter from her to him, December 29, 1934:

    I gave Vera 6300F yesterday, as you asked me to do. I asked her to come to the bank and we sat in the car for a little while and talked. In a day or so, we will set a time for me to come and visit her.

  4. 4

    Prime alla Scala(Mondadori, Milan, 1980).

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