Stravinsky’s Russian Letters

I. F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials

compiled by L.S. D'yachkova, edited by B.M. Yarustovsky
Moscow: Soviet Composer

F. Stravinsky: Essays, Letters, Memoirs

compiled and annotated by L. Kutateladze, edited by A. Gozenpud
Leningrad: Muzyka

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky; drawing by David Levine

Of these two recent books from the USSR, one, I. F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials, includes some sixty of Stravinsky’s letters from the early Diaghilev period that appreciably expand our view of the composer’s personality. They do not revise or correct it, the Stravinsky we know being recognizable in every line, but these more than 23,000 words enlighten the student on the formation of Stravinsky’s artistic philosophy, explain some of his traits of character, and help to complete a picture of the composer at the time of his first great achievements. Both volumes contain much material in addition to Stravinsky’s letters, but little of general interest—which, one supposes, is only minimally concerned with the composer’s family before his appearance in it and barely if at all with the eulogies of Shostakovitch, Khatchaturian, and other state-owned composers. Of the twelve essays in I. F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials, perhaps only the last, A. Shnitke’s “Paradox as the Line of Stravinsky’s Musical Logic,” is worth translating.

Let us turn directly to the letters, then, and first of all to those published in the biography of the composer’s father. Stravinsky always described his youth as obsessed by music, saying that the outstanding events of his early years were his private musical discoveries and the concerts and operas that he attended. But the female cousins with whom he spent each summer from the age of fourteen in the Volhynian village of Ustilug may not have been aware of this, let alone of his musical gifts. Certainly his piano playing was not sufficiently precocious to warrant his parents’ aspirations for a virtuoso’s career, nor did his early compositions bear any substantial evidence of originality. In short, and no matter what his cousins and others might have thought of him, at twenty he seems to have been something of a dilettante—an unusual criticism to make of an up-and-coming artist of the same age today, perhaps, but not in Stravinsky’s St. Petersburg, where Prokofiev and Glazunov, for example, were established composers when still in their teens.

Stravinsky’s early letters, what we have of them, refer less frequently to his piano practice than to his painting and to the theater, acting in amateur theatricals being one of his greatest pleasures. Here are excerpts from letters to his parents written from Ustilug in his seventeenth year:

…this is the schedule for our day:—After morning tea, all three of us, Katia,1 Olga Dmitrievna, and I, look for a suitable spot where we can sketch. Gury2 and Vera Dmitrievna learn their parts [for the play] on the tennis court. Sofia Dmitrievna and Olga Ivanovna hull raspberries, which grow here in great abundance. Then we have breakfast. After that, if it doesn’t rain, the three of us again set out to sketch, but, until yesterday, it has drizzled since our arrival….

I have made a sketch of a sunset….…

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