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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.

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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