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Jews and Geniuses’: An Exchange

In response to:

Jews and Geniuses from the February 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

If there were factual errors in my sketch of the anti-liberal politics to which many great musicians subscribed between the wars, and of Stravinsky’s anti-Semitism in particular, Robert Craft (who makes a Jew of the French-Italian Benois and thinks collaborators were not traitors) has not detected them [“Jews and Geniuses,” NYR, February 16]. Stravinsky’s 1938 recording of Jeu de Cartes with the Berlin Philharmonic may not have been a “public” performance until the records were issued, but Mr. Craft’s nice distinction is only an obfuscation. Letters Mr. Craft himself has published show the composer eager to perform at Bad-Nauheim in 1938, and negotiating with Willy Strecker of B. Schotts Söhne over another recording for Telefunken as late as July 1939.

As to Mr. Craft’s other purported correction, surely he knows as well as anyone that one did not (and does not) have to know Schoenberg’s music in order to deplore it. Schoenberg was right to recognize himself as a target in Stravinsky’s “anti-modernist” press interviews of the Twenties. One of them, given in New York during Stravinsky’s first American tour in January 1925, appeared in translation in a German newspaper and apparently provoked both Schoenberg’s anti-Stravinskian squib entitled “Der Restaurateur,” and his little canon about “der kleine Modernsky” in Drei Satiren, op. 28. “I don’t want to name names,” Stravinsky hints, “but I could tell you about composers who spend all their time inventing a music of the future.” He goes on to say that such composers “only intend to provoke the bourgeoisie and to achieve what pleases the Bolsheviks.” It was something Stravinsky was telling all the New York reporters that year, in interviews published in Musical America, the Musical Courier, and elsewhere. It amply justifies my contention that for Stravinsky in the Twenties, the word “modernism” had become “a code for that specifically postromantic legacy of revolution and chaos exemplified in politics by the Bolsheviks, and in music by the expressionistic atonal works of Schoenberg.” What may seem a ludicrous linkage today looked logical enough to a White Russian sixty years ago.

Ignorant Nazi notions about Stravinsky and his music have scant bearing on his attitudes toward them or toward Jews. But as long as Mr. Craft has raised the point, it is worth noting that Stravinsky protested his inclusion in the 1938 Düsseldorf exhibition of “Entartete Musik.” He made formal complaint to the German Bureau of Foreign Affairs: “My adversaries even go so far as to make fallacious insinuations…implying that I am a Jew, [ignoring] that my ancestors were members of the Polish nobility.” His campaign to rehabilitate himself with the Nazis was successful. In January 1939 Herr Strecker wrote, “I can happily inform you that your standing in Germany is apparently entirely restored.” Earlier, Stravinsky had been very quick to comply with Strecker’s request that he assist in countering “rumors, particularly that of your being a Jewish Bolshevik.” Stravinsky’s declaration, dated “Holy Saturday, 1933,” volunteered, besides the requisite genealogical data establishing his Aryan and aristocratic status back to his grandparents’ generation, the additional information that “I loathe all communism, Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster, and also all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc.” Next to all of this, of what possible relevance are Stravinsky’s “biblical beliefs” and his promiscuous output of religious music?

As for Yuri Mandelstam, Stravinsky’s unfortunate Jewish son-in-law, it was both tasteless and ill-advised of Mr. Craft to bring him up. Stravinsky and his wife were opposed to their daughter Liudmila’s choice of a husband. They took no joy in the birth of their first grandchild, Kitty. On the contrary, Catherine Stravinsky was concerned only with her little namesake’s appearance. “Very little Jewishness is noticeable,” she wrote to her touring husband of the just-born baby (!), “but what matters most is what the nose will look like later.” The single reference to his son-in-law in Stravinsky’s literary legacy (Themes and Episodes, p. 39) is heartless. When Liudmila’s terminal illness caused her to be confined in a sanitarium in the Haute Savoie, Stravinsky recalled, her husband was “financially unable to stay with her.” The composer seems never to have thought of helping him do so, although he moved from Paris himself to be near his dying daughter.

Mr. Craft wants to dismiss all of this as evidence of nothing more than what every Russian “imbibed with mother’s milk.” Such an argument, at this late date, is inexcusable. It is the individual, especially as well-educated an individual as Stravinsky, who decides whether to believe (or to profess belief) in prejudices. Stravinsky was one of the many who opted for bigotry—along with Glinka, Balakirev, Chaikovsky, Musorgsky and a whole honor roll of musical Russians, to be sure. But as long as one can point to others in the same boat who did not so opt, one must recognize and aver that anti-Semitism is always and everywhere a decision for which the individual bears ultimate responsibility.

In Stravinsky’s case the matter is especially poignant: for the one who did not so opt was little short of a surrogate father to him. Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov happened to come from a pure-bred Russian line more ancient and distinguished than Stravinsky’s by far; and yet despite his arms-cum-gentry background, Stravinsky’s teacher was a lifelong liberal and freethinker, strongly drawn to the Masons (compare Stravinsky, in a 1930 letter to Werner Reinhart: “I had never realized that you were not indifferent to these antichrist, or to the international Jewry to whom the Freemasons are servants”). Rimsky’s liberalism was tested and genuine: for his support of the student strikes of 1905 he was suspended from his post at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and became the focus of a cause célèbre. As for tolerance of Jews, he demonstrated it in a proverbial way: he encouraged his daughter to marry one.

The Jew in question, Maximilian Steinberg (1883–1946), is a key to understanding Stravinsky’s later enthusiastic anti-Semitism. He haled from Vilna (now Vilnius), one of the larger cities in the Jewish pale of settlement, and its main educational center. His father, Osei (Hosea) Steinberg, was a leading Hebraist, the head of the Jewish Teachers’ College in Vilna, and the compiler of a Biblical dictionary that went through many editions, as well as an annotated translation of the Pentateuch.

Maximilian Steinberg was sent to St. Petersburg University in 1901 to pursue what we would now call a pre-med course. At the same time he entered the Conservatory, where he was put in Liadov’s elementary harmony class (all his early training, typically, had been in playing the violin). By the fall of 1903 he was ready for Rimsky-Korsakov’s counterpoint class, and continued with Rimsky into fugue and practical composition. He quickly became the teacher’s pet. Moving on to Glazunov’s orchestration class, Steinberg made another conquest (which earns Glazunov, too, high marks for tolerance). By 1906 he had become one of the select few who were privileged to associate with their Conservatory professors outside the classroom. In this way Steinberg became acquainted with Igor Stravinsky, the Rimsky-Korsakov family mascot, then undergoing his course of pampered private instruction.

Together with Mikhail Gnesin, another Jewish boy from the pale (Stravinsky’s preposterous late recollection of Gnesin as one who dressed in Hasidic garb will bring a choice scene from Annie Hall to mind), Steinberg and Stravinsky formed a recognized troika of Rimsky-Korsakov protégés. But Steinberg quickly became the first among equals. Marks of special favor were plentiful, and, to Stravinsky, humiliating. Steinberg heard the kind of unqualified praise from Rimsky Stravinsky never got to hear; he broke into print earlier; his early works were performed under more prestigious auspices; and on top of everything, he married the idolized teacher’s daughter Nadezhda (Robert Craft has speculated with good reason about a possible romantic link between her and Stravinsky), and inherited Rimsky’s Conservatory position (he would hold it until his death in Stalin’s Leningrad, thirty-eight years later).

After Rimsky’s death, Steinberg’s favored status continued with Glazunov, who held Stravinsky in outright (and, of course, later amply reciprocated) contempt. In the eight months between the loss of his teacher and his discovery by Diaghilev, Stravinsky found himself frozen out of the inner circles of the latterday “New Russian School” while Steinberg continued to prosper. It was a time of major psychological stress, a crisis he never forgot, or forgave.

On the surface, relations between Steinberg and Stravinsky were cordial, even fraternal at this time, and would continue to be so in tutoyer correspondence throughout the years of Stravinsky’s early successes in Paris. But no amount of success could ever assuage the envy a musical scion of the Polish nobility felt toward this upstart Vilna Jew who had displaced him in Rimsky-Korsakov’s esteem and in his ménage. More than half a century after Rimsky’s death—and sixteen years after Steinberg’s own—that envy was still consuming him when Stravinsky wrote of his old rival (in Expositions and Developments) as “one of these ephemeral, prize-winning, front-page types, in whose eyes conceit for ever burns, like an electric light in daytime.” These feelings lay behind Stravinsky’s modernist revolt and his anti-Semitism alike, and linked them.

Finally, Mr. Craft’s contention that Stravinsky’s anti-Semitism disappeared during his American years obliges me to adduce some unpleasant evidence that this was not entirely the case (as it is not the case that Stravinsky ever made a “gift to Israel”: Abraham and Isaac was bought and paid for, just like the Berlin Jeu de Cartes). Two of his late works embody texts containing slurs of a familiar kind. The centerpiece of the Cantata (1952) is a ricercar to a fifteenth-century “Sacred History” entitled “To-morrow shall be my dancing day.” A song of Christ’s crucifixion, it rehearses the old guilt-libel, after Hitler more intolerable than ever: “The Jews on me they made great suit,/And with me made great variance,/Because they lov’d the darkness rather than light….”

The “Narrative” in A Sermon, A Narrative and a Prayer (1961) is that of the stoning of St. Stephen, excerpted from the Book of Acts, including Stephen’s address to the High Priest of the Temple (chapter six, verses 51–52): “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One.”

In an article published in Midstream in 1971, Jacob Drachler, a painter and literary anthologist, described his efforts to lodge an effective protest against the Cantata, efforts that culminated in a letter to Robert Craft posted on April 15, 1971, a week after the composer’s death. The reply, reprinted in the article, came not from Craft but from Lillian Libman, Stravinsky’s personal manager:

[Mr. Craft] says that Mr. Stravinsky, of course, was not thinking about “the holocaust of modern European Jewry” when he set those lines of 15th century verse. In fact, he got quite a jolt from the lines himself when he first heard the piece, and he had changed the text, substituting, I think, “my foes” or “my enemies” (we can’t remember exactly)—but in any case the words were definitely changed, and the music amended, but again we don’t know exactly when.

If and when a new edition of the score comes out, Mr. Craft will see to it personally that the change is made.

Perhaps Mr. Craft can explain why this has not been done in the eighteen years since Miss Libman wrote to Mr. Drachler, and why both of Stravinsky’s recordings of the Cantata (the first made in the year of composition, the second as late as 1965) contain the words originally set. I, for one, find it hard to take seriously Miss Libman’s vague assurances, let alone the matter of the “jolt,” or to see in her letter anything more than an offhand attempt to dispose of a nuisance.

Of course I do not mean that Stravinsky set the texts for the sake of the anti-Semitic slurs. But it is clear that anti-Semitism, for him, was no object. And in view of the fact that it was Robert Craft who actually chose the texts both for the Cantata and for A Sermon, A Narrative and a Prayer, I would venture to suggest that his complicity casts doubt on his sensitivity to the matters on which he has seen fit to comment, and disqualifies him from the role he has chosen for himself as counsel for the defense.

Richard F. Taruskin
Department of Music
University of California, Berkeley

Robert Craft replies:

Richard Taruskin, the meticulous scholar I first met eight years ago and through correspondence came to know and like, has lately turned into a sloppy, thersitical journalist, more judgmental than Dr. Johnson. If I am disqualified to represent the defense (what defense?), his error-strewn screed will soon retire him from the Bench and the role he has chosen for himself. Mr. Taruskin’s distortions of fact often amount to turnarounds. Instead of “negotiating” with Strecker over a Telefunken recording in July 1939, Stravinsky wrote to him with a complaint about Telefunken, whereupon Strecker urged him to send the company a proposal to record, which Stravinsky ignored. Nor do Stravinsky’s “letters” (actually a “P.S.” in one, three sentences in another) concerning Bad-Nauheim show him “eager” to perform there. Instead, Strecker’s letters show him eager to have Stravinsky perform there. When the matter quickly fell through, Stravinsky said that he had been certain from the first that nothing would come of it. As for Jeu de Cartes, the obvious obfuscator is Mr. Taruskin himself, now trying to drop his deuce hand and switch the issue from the nonpublic appearance of Stravinsky as performer to the publication of a recording, never played in public or even broadcast, of one of his works. Before the September 1939 interdiction on his music in any form in Germany, all of Stravinsky’s recordings were available there, thanks, or otherwise, to commerce not blamable on Stravinsky.

International law, post-Nuremberg, distinguishes between collaboration and treason, of course, but Mr. Taruskin’s obliquities are intended to divert, in this instance, from his inability to answer my charge that his speculation “if the composer had not come to America in 1939 he ‘might very well have ended like Pound’ ” shows a shocking ignorance of Stravinsky’s character.

I do not know what is meant by the assertion that I know “as well as anyone that one did not (and does not) have to know Schoenberg’s music in order to deplore it.”

Though Schoenberg would naturally see himself as the target of Stravinsky’s criticisms of composers of a “music of the future,” these were, I think, aimed at Edgard Varèse, whom Stravinsky was studiously avoiding. In any case, Schoenberg’s anti-Stravinsky pieces were composed not in response to the interviews but as the result of some still-unknown provocation, real or imagined, when, months later, the two composers were in Venice at the same time. Werner Reinhart, who was on equally good terms with Stravinsky and Schoenberg (but bigotedly in the case of Schoenberg, as Mr. Taruskin’s quotation exposes), may have been responsible, if inadvertently, since he seems to have gone back and forth between the composers.

Mr. Taruskin’s homiletic biographies of Rimsky-Korsakov and Steinberg are totally irrelevant; Steinberg’s pursuit of “a pre-med course” is far enough from the path, let alone the career of his father. The notion that the composer of Le Sacre du printemps felt deep and lasting envy for the composer of Midas is risible.

Long before the Düsseldorf affair, and more than a half-century before Mr. Taruskin, Janet Flanner’s New Yorker profile of Stravinsky (January 1935) informed the world that the composer was not Jewish but a “Polish aristocrat.” What puzzles me is Mr. Taruskin’s failure, like his uncredited use of my translation of Catherine Stravinsky’s remarks about her infant granddaughter, to acknowledge that I published Stravinsky’s letter in full.

For the record, Stravinsky’s letter is dated “Vendredi Saint” not “Holy Saturday,” but the mistranslation is from my edition of Stravinsky’s correspondence, which does not include Russian, French, and German originals.

Mr. Taruskin knows nothing about Stravinsky’s relationship with Yuri Mandelstam, and we can only guess that the composer opposed the marriage—for the opposite parallel reason that Tevye opposed the marriage of his daughter Chava. We do know for certain that Stravinsky’s wife did not try to stop it: “I felt…the complete goodness of the man to whom we can entrust our [daughter] not simply without fear but with total trust.”

Stravinsky contributed generously to the support of the newlyweds and solely supported Mandelstam’s daughter from the time of her mother’s death (1938) until today (to the pretty tune, lush melody rather, of $400,000 per annum). As late as August 1939, nearly a year after Mandelstam had become a widower, Stravinsky was still offering to send him money. Moreover, Stravinsky admired Mandelstam’s poems, one of them to the extent of carrying the manuscript in his wallet to the end of his life.

Stravinsky did not move from Paris to a sanitarium “to be near his dying daughter,” but, instead, moved her back from there to Paris, where she died a little less than a year later. She had been confined for only three weeks, the altitude having proved harmful.

Despite Mr. Taruskin’s pontifications, nowhere does my article attempt to excuse Stravinsky’s anti-Semitic remarks or absolve him from his individual responsibility for them. I simply tried to explain, and not in a salvatory way, some of the origins of his behavior.

Stravinsky’s “gift to Israel” of Abraham and Isaac cannot be pusillanimously demeaned as matter-of-factly “bought and paid for.” He gave the manuscript, worth a dozen times the commission, to the University of Jerusalem, and in his desire as an antinomian to create precisely this archetypal story, refused far more lucrative commissions. More, he spent nearly as much time studying and trying to write Hebrew (I have preserved one of these efforts) as he did composing the music.

I did not choose the texts for the 1952 Cantata, and did not know that Stravinsky had started the Ricercar until dinnertime February 13, 1952, when he said that he was “tired after composing strict canons all day and would like to go to the movies”—from which he soon fled, and, back home, played the new opus for me, begun five days earlier. Did Auden choose any of the texts? I can only say that he wanted to (letter to me in Venice from him in Ischia, September 20, 1951), and that in New York in late November and December 1951, he may well have drawn Stravinsky’s attention to the “Dancing Day.” After all, he chose it for the anthology that Stravinsky used, and when I changed the offending phrase to “my enemies” (which at least has the right number of syllables and the last one nearly the same sound) for my Los Angeles performance, he was very “cross” with me. “From whatever point of view The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic,” he said, “but we cannot rewrite it.”

Clearly I had no power after Stravinsky’s death to oblige his publisher—in effect a fanatically religious woman who had allied herself with Stravinsky’s children against me—to make the change in a new edition; I was not an executor and had only a minority voice in the control of his estate. To answer Mr. Taruskin’s other questions, and spare him the legwork, Schoenberg’s pupil Erwin Stein, the editor of the original score, refused even to consider the change, and David Oppenheim, who directed the 1952 recording session for Columbia, made the same decision. I was not present at the 1965 session but learned later that the English tenor had refused “to tamper with a classic.” I did help Stravinsky choose the three texts of the 1961 cantata. He said that after composing music for Genesis, Psalms, The Song of Songs, and The Lamentations of Jeremiah, he wanted to set a dramatic scene from the New Testament. Perhaps this mixture is what Mr. Taruskin means by “promiscuous output of religious music.”

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