When I begin to be over conscious of my lungs I go to sea…for the pure air…quitting the good city of old Manhatto….
The isle is full of noises.
NYR: The Times said you had chosen to live in New York, Mr. Stravinsky.
I.S.: Chosen? Well, yes; I can see what you mean: rather than the Galapagos. In fact I am here because I can manage to be looked after medically, though if I weren’t here I might not have to be quite so often. Still, one adapts, perhaps even to environmental poisons: the argument of mithridatism which the ecological bores may be overlooking.
NYR: The Times also said that you were selling your manuscripts and papers.
I.S.: Hoping to. Without concerts and recordings my income has dwindled; and while the popular part of my catalogue is free in the United States (which did not sign the Berne Convention), the unpopular, to judge by the present rate of progress, should be able to “fund” my pharmacy bills by about my hundred and second birthday. Yet the apparent assumption behind the new tax laws is that composers are likely to be richer sources of revenue than all those still-untapped oilmen. The latest decrees not only forbid gifts of manuscripts to libraries and universities in exchange for tax deductions, but require the giver to pay a tax himself; and thus are one’s assets turned into one’s liabilities. In my case the only recourse is to sell, if I can, though the commissions and the tax “bite” (crapulous, needless to say) would leave only a fraction of the sum the newspapers report. But all may not be lost. I have been offered as much to appear on a TV talk show—or was it “What’s My Line?”—as I have earned from my entire life work as a composer.
NYR: But the Times said you had bought an apartment.
I.S.: For economy, so the argument runs. Besides, I need more room for books—like those book club subscribers who discover that it is impossible to unjoin, and who escape biblio-suffocation only by moving. My father had the largest private library in St. Petersburg, incidentally, or so I learn from the latest issue of Sovietskaya Muzyka, which also reproduces an early painting of mine, and some drawings, views of Königstein, Höchst (famous for its faïence), and other Nineties resorts. But a new Soviet book, The Formation of Igor Stravinsky, by one Smirnov (sic), promises to remind me of a lot more about my early life.
NYR: Why did you move from Central Park South?
I.S.: I needed a change of statuary. (The new apartment is not far from that alfresco hall of fame, the Mall.) Consider Fifty-Ninth Street, beginning at the Fifth Avenue corner. But first, who is that mounted warrior led by the palm-bearing female angel? The pharisaism of the combination is up-to-date, to be sure, but the style and means of transportation are more like Civil War One. Could it be Whitman on foot, then, and Gertrude Stein the man on the horse? I suspect that the answer is known only to those who have actually consulted the lettering on the pedestal: the peace-bringer is General (“scorched-earth”) Sherman.
But does anyone ever look at these statues? Do they satisfy any requirements?—apart from dogs’, whose tokens of preference to the broader abutments of the surrounding streets may be a source of toxacana canis but are also homage, of a sort, to human scale.
The fountain across the street is even more of a riddle, owing in part to hydraulic failure (neither trickle nor gurgle within living memory—mine, at any rate). But who is the nymph in the center of that imaginary spray? Modesty? (One crucial garment is not entirely shed.) Diana? (The place is abundantly favored by the hounds.) The ornaments are no less of an enigma, being at the same time vaguely astrological—a winged Aries—and manifestly pelagic—mollusks, turtles, and, well, that unknown bathing beauty. But like every other block in the neighborhood, this one is being torn up. “The Rehabilitation of Pulitzer Plaza” says a sign, compounding the mystery. Rehabilitation? Why not just return it to that Thirty-Fourth Street Bargain Basement?
The southern shore of the Park mainland, on the other hand, is unambiguously consecrated to Good Neighbors, Cuba above all. Except that the monument to the Maine, at the Columbus Circle side, must be a leading contender for the “City’s Most Under-whelming Sight.” The sunken ship, represented by a three-pronged prow of the gondola class, is decked with mourners; at least that is what I think they are, though they could be hanging their heads in artistic shame; or simply be cowering from the pigeon plaster, the soot, and the besmirchings by other, more polychromatic pollutants. No wonder the statue of the great, if misinspired, mariner responsible for it all, now marooned in the whirlpool of traffic named for him, faces in the other direction.
NYR: And Bolivar Plaza?
I.S.: Even to call it an indentation is stretching a point. In fact the allotted real estate is so stingy that the three equestrian counter-Conquistadores are practically invisible to anyone on the same side of the street. Though another factor is that the plinths are unscalably high—this for some of the same reasons that the more shallow-rooted trees in the Park have now been chained to the ground. But, then, the plinths are probably the most valuable parts of the statues. For in the guerrilla warfare of the near future, when the one of José Martí is in the direct line of fire from the trenches in the Park, his Martian followers (or whoever) can at least shelter behind that marmoreal foundation.
But how preposterous these Latin American cavalrymen are, especially to drivers debouching past them and into the Park! Not that the subjects of portrait sculpture matter, of course (though they are somehow expected to excuse its worst examples); and not, certainly, that any of this is sculpture, which would be asking too much since, unlike Bartolomeo Colleoni, we do not live in a horse age, or an age of portraiture, or even, as it may be, in an age of art. Justification, if anyone requires it, is surely best sought in something closer to our own line. Extinctions of species, for example. Now in that context the statues could someday acquire a certain zoological interest; or even mythological, for horses, hereabouts, are very likely destined to become as rare as unicorns.
Speaking of statues, I saw a robot recently, the first real one—i.e., non-human (I have seen political candidates programmed by opinion polls)—in my experience. The electronic mannequin was flagging cars from one lane to another on the George Washington Bridge. And it was dressed in luminous cap and jacket, partly because the success of the task depended on the verisimilitude of the disguise (no system of arrows or other signs having the same authority), partly because of the thickness of the “canopy of air,” for Hamlet’s words now sound ominously fatidic. Nor was the imitation man immediately recognizable as such. The giveaway was its cruel tirelessness, and no doubt future models, benefiting from more “cyborg” and “exosomatic evolution,” will “build in” a degree of dilatoriness. Still, its facelessness, close up, shocked me. And, again, shouldn’t have. After all, we adjusted very quickly to “Walk,” “Don’t Walk.”
NYR: But to return to those horses. A few are still left, you know—the hansoms, the fuzz, perhaps an equitation academy.
I.S.: True. But I see them myself only on weekends when the Park is closed to automobiles and might be a movie set for a scenario of ca. 1900. So far, that is, as bicycling, jogging, skiing, skating, and hansom riding are concerned. The clothing is something else. In fact the only sartorial sign of the times with any claim to universality is—I hope not significantly—the boot. I have also seen Quakerish male hats, of the same period as the black female bonnets of the hansoms; ruched, gypsylike skirts; pelerines and perhaps even crinolines; and these together with the latest from Bloomingdale’s St. Tropez department, as well as examples of buyers-in at every fluctuation of the hemline stockmarkets, with their daily averages of sales above, at, and below the knees. But, being New York, the bicycles tend to jam, the joggers to jostle, the hansoms to form funeral-like trains, the skiers to lack schussing space, and the skaters—more loudly sibilant than in Wordsworth
…all shod with steel
we hissed along the polished ice in games…
—to bunch together, runner to runner.
NYR: Yet even the partial closing of the Park to automobiles is a victory in the struggle to wrest something from total mechanization.
I.S.: Will it stop the construction of skyblocks on Fifth Avenue—the demise of Best and Company having exposed the question of upper air-space ownership? And will it compensate for the new missile-silo and filing cabinet architecture on the Avenue of the Americas, which is rather, it seems to me, a victory for think-tank thought? In fact these in- and anti-human buildings affront the needs of real, vs. blueprint, people, who are banished even from the vicinity of them at night, as if by curfew. It is hard not to sympathize with the Weathermen.
As for mechanization, in my neighborhood, even the graffiti have become mobile. Heretofore confined to the hoardings around building excavation sites, and to cloacal language and subject matter, it now travels on the bumpers of automobiles and says what it pleases. And the texts frequently recall the scandalmongering of the eighteenth-century broadsheet and underground pamphlet (except that in one of the most popular examples of the new sticker literature that I have seen—“Buy a Ted Kennedy Scuba Suit”—it might be more accurate to say underwater).
NYR: Statuary apart, in what way does your new neighborhood differ most strikingly from the old one?
I.S.: The social stratification by Avenue is more marked than it was directly below the Park, at least on Fifty-Ninth Street. But the radical segregation, not merely by area but from street to street, has to me always been one of the phenomena of this symmetrically reticulated city. For in spite of the perpetual movement and commotion (no siestas and hardly any night), the pedestrian populations of each East or West block remain distinctly different breeds. Which may be saying no more than that people can be computerized in terms of the kind and price of the merchandise they consume, whether it be from the pubs and antique shops of Third Avenue, or from the ponces and pushers, the muggers and stick-up men on Avenue Eight. Now of course the lines are not really so rigid as I am making them sound; but to whatever extent they are infiltrated, the numbers are not large enough to blur the character.
NYR: How do you feel about the new atavistic life styles?
I.S.: I have no inkling of what they are about. But the other day I saw one of those toga-and-sandal salvationist types, and was struck by the transformation from a generation ago. At that time he would have carried a pilgrim’s distaff or a placard (“The End is Nigh”), and been distributing tracts for or against fluoridated water or Seventh Day Adventism. But his successor on a corner the other day was grimly messageless, and he stood as stiff and remote as a cigar store Indian. Moreover, instead of a distaff he was brandishing a very businesslike spear.
NYR: Have you heard any concerts this winter?
I.S.: Only in my own living room and only of escapist music. Not that I no longer want to keep my hand, or ear, in, or no longer need live music. For one thing, most new products tend to be “visually oriented,” coming under the rubric of spectator sports. And not only the new. Conducting has become ever more spectacular as audiences have become less and less auricular. The poor chef is obliged nowadays even in Haydn to gesticulate like an Armenian rug salesman, and jump at each tutti as if he were auditioning for Moiseyev. Mr. Bernstein used to be an impressive jumper, incidentally, even, like Vodka, leaving you a little breathless. I have never seen him jump in Les Noces and regretted missing his performance last fall. Besides, I wanted to express my sympathy for the bruises he incurred in the affair of the beaux ténébreux—a return visit, for Mr. Bernstein was as thoughtful and attentive to me as any of my musician friends during my illnesses last year and the year before.
NYR: And your living room concerts?
I.S.: I have been listening to the new recording of Pelléas. But the performance is disappointing and will no doubt increase the demand for the old Ansermet album. A non-French-speaking cast imposes too great a handicap, Pelléas being the unique opera in which diction is a decisive element. The diction, here at least, affects not only color but pitch and rhythm. And while the performance is stylistically questionable in other ways—it overaccents and overarticulates (the dotted notes in the Interlude between the first two scenes of act 2 are too short and too bouncy); substitutes forte for pianissimo (cf., the winds at 35, act 2); etc.—the singers are the main problem. Only the brat Yniold is wholly free of a pitch-blurring vibrato, and his performance—that puling “petit père,” and whining “oh, oh,”—is unbearable in other ways.
Besides that, the accents and mispronunciations—Mélisande’s “un” and “une” are indistinguishably masculine; Golaud’s “vous” rhymes too perfectly with the word used to represent the vocalizing of cows in children’s books; etc., etc.—attract too much attention to the words. And what words! How could Debussy, the friend of Mallarmé, stomach Maeterlinck, let alone underline some of his most irritating mannerisms? Those expletives and short phrases, for instance—“oui, oui,” “loin, loin,” “tous, tous,” “où est-il, où est-il,” “la vérité, la vérité,” “ne me touchez pas, ne me touchez pas“—which everyone reiterates as if it were a nervous tic common to the region and the time. Debussy makes the tic all the worse by separating the words with evenly measured rests. Thus “Oh” [rest, rest], “Oh” must occur a dozen times even before Mélisande drops her ring—and with it her second “Oh,” a loss that bothers the by-now conditioned listener more than that of the heroine’s jewelry.
Of the two inexactnesses of the singers, in rhythm and intonation, the former is the more surprising. Not that exactness is all; but suppleness comes after, not before, fidelity to the written rhythmic values, and each of Debussy’s distinctions does its bit. Yet the singers do not always observe them. For example, more often than not the duration of the upbeat, or first note of a phrase, is doubled. Thus, choosing at random, Pelléas’s “mais il y a longtemps” (beginning of scene 2, act 3) is set to five sixteenths but sung to an eighth and four sixteenths, nor is the emendation desirable. The singers’ rhythms are slack not only in isolation, however, and so far as their own parts are concerned, but also in conjunction, or lack of conjunction, with the orchestra. This is no great matter in a récit very simply punctuated by chords, but when the rhythms are intricate, as in Geneviève’s music (cf., act 1, scene 3, measure four) the result is a long way from any kind of clarté.
But enough. What beautiful things the score contains! I limit my judgment to the music, though, no longer being able to “see” the work as an opera. (Unnoticed when the opera was new, but very striking nowadays, is the efficiency of the postal system in medieval Allemonde—cf., scene 2—especially since this Kingdom encompasses an ensorcelling forest in which everyone gets lost.) My impression of the musical whole is of a decline in effectiveness after the “Hair” scene, when the quiet gloom of the earlier acts is dissipated by Golaud’s melodramatics. Moreover, certain moments in the later scenes seem to me less than perfectly calculated—the musically perfunctory fourth act curtain, for one—but, then, the idiom itself, like a drug, wears off with time. Is it a too confining one for an opera of this length? For though it ranges from Wagner—without, however, anything like Wagner’s range—all the way down to Petroushka (the bassoons and clarinets in seconds in the Interlude to the second scene of act 2), the later scenes are musically claustrophobic. Simplicity and restraint turn into limitation and constraint, beautiful monotony into just plain monotony. In fact, the opera is too long by the fifth act, though the death (puerperal fever? le cafard?) is one of its most beautiful events.
Virgil Thomson has remarked that I “scared the daylights out of Claude Debussy.” Sorry about that. Recently I came across an eyewitness account that I had not seen before of another of Debussy’s reactions to me, or rather to a work of mine. Shortly after I first heard Pelléas—sitting with the composer, which I must be one of the last people, still more or less about, to have done—Debussy was listening to my Sacre du printemps. The dramatist, Lenormand, was watching him, and apparently with more attention than he was giving to the music. “Debussy’s face was distressed,” Lenormand writes.
It showed a grief impossible either to master or to hide: that of the creator before whom opens a world wholly different from his own: the sadness of being left behind, the suffering of the artist in the presence of new forms which reveal his place and his limits.
Debussy, one must remember, did not know that Le Sacre was already in a sense the pinnacle, the one piece in which I am still generally thought to have “got it all together.” And apart from that, Le Sacre should not have been all that new to Debussy, who surely must have heard his own share of it. Yet the groundswell in it was new, and to Debussy, no doubt premonitory. But I think Lenormand’s reading of the great composer’s face was right; for those reactions are part of the reason why he is, in all senses, the century’s first musician.
February 11, 1971