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…. Now I would like to have the opportunity to see a number of good pictures so that I can become even more dissatisfied with my own work. Only in such circumstances can I be certain of making progress….

We play the piano a lot. I am not reading much. All the same, I’ve finished [Tolstoy’s] Resurrection and have derived the highest pleasure from this brilliant work of Lev Nikolaevich. The most recent numbers are the most striking. I do not know if they have reached you and whether you are reading them. If so, give me your impressions. Probably the same as mine.

[I have also read] Guyot’s The Problems of Contemporary Aesthetics, which contains some interesting discussions.

Today, we—Dmitri Andreevich and all the young people—are going to Vladimir-Volhynsk to buy props for the theater. The production will probably take place in a week. The plays are [Hartmann’s] Seize Your Chance While You May and [Chekhov’s] The Bear, in both of which I have important roles. I know my parts—how could I not know them?—but cannot predict how successful the performances are going to be.

The first paragraph might have been by Chekhov, to be read by a character in a story or play. But Stravinsky’s self-improving remark about wanting to see good pictures in order to become dissatisfied with his own is so characteristic that he could have uttered it at any time throughout his life. All his life, too, Stravinsky complained that he had been handicapped in his youth by his isolation from an intellectually stimulating environment. In his mind the unique advantage of his early years was the wide traveling he had enjoyed both in Russia—he especially cherished his trips on the Volga—and in Germany and Switzerland. Obviously by anyone else’s standards Stravinsky would be considered unusually privileged, but he did not think so, and even in his seventies would blame his intellectual and artistic shortcomings (!) on his repressive family and its lack of interest in new ideas.

Advertisement

Other letters to his parents, that summer and the next, describe more plays. Two of these communications, from Ustilug in July, 1900, reveal further aspects of Stravinsky’s personality. The first, a meticulous accounting of expenditures on the journey from St. Petersburg, is typical of the kind of bookkeeping he habitually practiced. That his parents demanded it of him seems probable; hence that “stinginess,” even with his music, of which he liked to boast, may have been a family trait. Here is the eighteen-year-old artist’s description of travel in Russia in terms of rubles and kopeks, rather than of inspiring sunsets for future sketching:

With all my care and economy…the journey cost me 26 rubles and 45 kopeks: ticket: 8 rubles and 70 kopeks; baggage: 1 ruble and 30 kopeks; reserved seat and supplement for the fast train from Kazatin: 2 rubles and 70 kopeks; journey by horse: 5 rubles and 70 kopeks (and 20 kopeks for tea); transport of basket from Kovel to Ustilug: 4 rubles and 50 kopeks (and this was by private arrangement: if it had gone by post, the cost would have been 8 rubles)…. Now the minor expenses: porters: 1 ruble and 60 kopeks; refreshments at the station: 1 ruble and 95 kopeks; at Kovel: 30 kopeks between the station and the carriage. The porters were comparatively expensive—50 kopeks to the one who got a seat for me, 50 kopeks to the one in the station at Kovel, and 20 kopeks to each of the other three, at Proskurov, Zhmerinka, and Kazatin…. The cost for the short stretch of 18 versts from Zhuriisk to Kovel was 1 ruble and 50 kopeks. But enough of all this….

The other letter shows Stravinsky’s responsiveness to kindness and his sensitivity about his size, for he was a head shorter than his younger brother, and the reference to the “superior height” of others is to the physical measurement as well as to “de-haut-en-bas“:

Meeting with kindness in another you become doubly attached to that person, drawing closer and understanding him more easily… I see this all the time in the case of Katenka3 and am moved by it. Unfortunately I do not find it in Mila, but, characters being so different, I will not reproach her for that. What I cannot abide is when people look down on me from their superior height, and something of that attitude is in Milochka, in her constant light irony about everything I say…. As for myself, I do not waste any time—I sketch, I read, I play.

In 1901 Stravinsky received his entrance certificate to study law at St. Petersburg University, thus following in his father’s footsteps, the elder Stravinsky having earned a law degree at the University of Kiev. Also in 1901, Stravinsky appeared for the first time on a public platform, as a piano accompanist in a recital. His father died the next year. Some months before, however, and by this time just possibly with intimations that his son might have talent as a composer, Feodor Stravinsky entrusted him to Rimsky-Korsakov, although the young man was not yet ready to become a regular pupil. But he did enter the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, meeting there the composers, the writers, the artists, and the St. Petersburg intelligentsia for whose society he had been longing.

This group was a nucleus of liberalism, and the newcomer became an ardent disciple in this as in everything else—a fact worth mentioning only because later in life he recalled his political inclinations of the time somewhat differently. In a 1905 concert in Rimsky-Korsakov’s honor, in the Komissarzhevsky Theater, Stravinsky participated in an antigovernment demonstration that was quelled by the police and that resulted in a ban on all public musical performances for several months thereafter. Writing to his mother a year later, Stravinsky explains that he and his wife will not go to the Crimea because:

…we couldn’t live quietly where the revolutionary ferment is strongest. Meetings and clashes are everywhere there, and a strike of the ship crews occurs almost daily…. [It is impossible] to live in such a roiling pot unless one is indifferent to the life around one and unless one looks upon the great Russian Revolution with hatred. And, as you know, we are of the opposite persuasion.

One of the letters (March, 1908) in I.F. Stravinsky: Essays and Materials is the equivalent of a Who’s Who entry. It is also, incidentally a verification of the remarkable accuracy of Stravinsky’s memory in his late seventies, for his Conversations contain substantially the same information. The addressee is the composer and critic, G.N. Timofeyev:

I was born in Orianienbaum on June 5, 1882. At the age of nine I began to take piano lessons from A. P. Snyetkova (the daughter of the violinist in the Mariinsky Theater orchestra). At eleven I entered St. Petersburg School No. 27, where I was a poor student, as well as an ill-behaved one. I remained there until the end of the fifth grade, then entered the Gurevich School, where I completed my intermediate education. From there I went to St. Petersburg University, staying for a total of eight semesters.

My parents, hoping to make a pianist of me, did not stint on the cost of teachers but gave me the opportunity to study with the very best ones, such as L. A. Kashperova, from whom I took lessons for two years. I was attracted to composition before that, however, and have always had a lively interest in the musical classics. I did a great deal of sightreading, which helped my development. But the lack of an education in theory became an ever greater obstacle, and though I improvised endlessly and enjoyed it immensely, I was unable to write down what I played. I ascribe this to my lack of theoretical knowledge. You might say that until I began to take lessons in harmony from Akimenko I ripened in ignorance. I soon switched from him to K. V. Kalafati, with whom I studied harmony and strict style [counter-point?].

In my University years I came to know the Rimsky-Korsakov family and after that advanced very rapidly. I composed many comic songs, especially to the words of Koz’ma Prutkov, and in 1903-1904 I wrote a large—four-movement—piano Sonata in F-sharp minor,4 incorporating many suggestions by Rimsky-Korsakov. It was first performed at his home by Richter, the pianist to whom it is dedicated. In 1905 I married, and in the autumn of that year began to take private lessons in instrumentation with Rimsky-Korsakov. (I have never studied in the Conservatory.) In 1905-1906 I composed a Symphony dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1907 I completed the instrumentation of a suite, The Faun and the Shepherdess, and in the summer of the same year composed a song, “Spring,” to words by Gorodetzky. This winter I wrote the Pastorale, a song without words, and now I am finishing the Scherzo Fantastique for orchestra.

In a letter of June, 1912, to V. V. Derzhanovsky, after Stravinsky’s critical perspectives had been formed by The Firebird and Petrushka, he professed to be:

Advertisement

…not at all ashamed of [the Symphony]. It is my first opus. It has a few nice passages, but all the rest crudely follows the Glazunov-Tchaikovsky style, and the instrumentation is official. The piece is interesting not in itself but only as a document to show us once more how not to compose….

Self-criticism is once again revealed as one of Stravinsky’s most prominent qualities.

The Symphony and all of these early works together are no cornucopia, nevertheless, at least for a composer of genius in his mid-twenties. The pre-Firebird creations, on the contrary, trace a surprisingly plodding acquisition of merely academic competence in the idioms of other composers. Stravinsky’s own voice is clearer at times in his words than in his music, as in the use of the pharmaceutical metaphor in this comment from a letter to Rimsky-Korsakov:

The harmony in “Bees” [the first title of the Scherzo Fantastique] will be fierce, like a toothache, but should immediately alternate with agreeable harmony, like cocaine.

At this point it must be said that Stravinsky’s letters to Rimsky-Korsakov and his children are especially revealing from a psychological point of view, the young composer obviously having turned to the Rimsky-Korsakovs as to a substitute family. But more of this presently.

If the foregoing inventory of compositions had been compiled a year and a half later, it would have contained a Chant Funèbre for Rimsky-Korsakov, who died in 1908, four piano Etudes, and Fireworks, the score that had captured the attention of Diaghilev, though precisely when he first heard it has not been established. The work had been performed three times privately before Alexander Siloti’s concert of January 22, 1910—on a program, by the way, that included the Schumann Cello Concerto played by Pablo Casals. Stravinsky was later to write to the composer’s son Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, apropos the conductor that night: “It seems that Siloti intends to specialize in the failure of our compositions”—a comment on conductors that Stravinsky might have made at any period in his life.

From today’s perspective, perhaps the greatest achievements in the music of this century took place in the years just before World War I. A note to the publisher, Jurgenson, April 4, 1913, bears witness to Stravinsky’s musical leadership not only during that time but even before Le Sacre du printemps had been performed:

Esteemed Grigory Petrovich!…a concert is planned for May—probably toward the end, New Style—for which I have been asked to give Zvezdoliki. I am therefore turning to you with the request to hasten the printing of the score as well as to copy the parts. You can check these with the manuscript and we will make the corrections at rehearsals….

This concert is very important. It…will be dedicated to contemporary music, the newest trends of the various nations. From Germany, Schoenberg; From France, Debussy;…from Hungary, Bartók; from Russia, I.

Thus within two years, and on the strength of The Firebird and Petrushka alone, Stravinsky was recognized as one of the foremost composers in Europe. He is the youngest of these four, moreover, and—most important of all to him—the representative Russian.

Surely this explains the ill-concealed envy of Stravinsky’s Petersburg colleagues. When The Firebird Suite was first played there, only a few months after the triumph of the ballet in Paris, no member of the Rimsky-Korsakov ménage wrote to him about the event. Stravinsky had encouraged them to come to the premiere and was bitterly disappointed when they did not. Yet it seems naïve on his part not to have anticipated their reactions to his success. In Berlin, June 30, en route to Russia after The Firebird, he wrote to Nadiejda Rimsky-Korsakov—at 3:43 AM, which indicates how deeply the matter was on his mind:

I greatly regret that you and Andrey did not witness my success. The Firebird was more acclaimed than any other ballet this season…. Write to me in Ustilug. I will be happy to have even a small letter from you.

That the daughter and son of Stravinsky’s former teacher failed to go to Paris is understandable. After all, the pupil had not only absorbed all that the teacher had to give but had far outstripped him. The Firebird, though less essentially new than seemed to be the case in 1910, was as outwardly “iconoclastic” and “modern”—in “Kastchei’s Dance,” for instance—as the music of any contemporary except Schoenberg, whose truly new works had not yet been performed. Thus Stravinsky, in a single stroke, had both exhausted his teacher’s world and given birth to a new one. Yet he still expected to be congratulated by the children of the man he had superseded!

Shortly after the Petersburg performance of The Firebird, Stravinsky wrote to Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, his closest friend, to whom the score was dedicated.

…Momochka said that you would tell me all of the details. I waited and waited until I lost patience. But apart from the newspapers’ indiscriminate name-calling, I know nothing. Siloti also writes nothing, and my soul is much oppressed. No word from anyone! Surely I had a right to expect a letter from you. I have only just received a tiny postcard from Steinberg from which I learned nothing new—only that for some reason or other Siloti wanted to cut the Dance from the Suite and that Steinberg would not let him, for which I am very grateful. But nothing about his or anyone else’s reactions, nothing at all about the effect of my new piece on the archpriests of Russian music. No one writes anything, from which I conclude that my Firebird made on all of you, and on the public, either a very small impression or a negative one….

If I seem to be laboring the incident, it is because this new cache of letters reveals that Stravinsky’s rejection by his substitute family was one of the most painful experiences in his life, one that colors our entire view of the man. His letter to Nadiejda Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the wife of the composer and conductor Maximilian Steinberg, may seem somewhat tactless, but the truth is that Stravinsky was extremely slow to realize that his compatriots would forgive him everything but his success. Even after Le Sacre du printemps, by which time he was a composer of world stature, as well as, to almost the whole younger generation, the most exciting musician alive, this indifference and even hostility in St. Petersburg continued to torment him. As these letters demonstrate, he still desperately longed to share his musical life with the Rimsky-Korsakovs, in the way that a child wants his own family’s approval ahead of all others.

Here are excerpts from two of Stravinsky’s letters to Maximilian Steinberg, written a month and seven weeks, respectively, after the Sacre du printemps premiere:

I am gradually recovering from this hellish disease [of typhus], walking like a fly on two legs. If everything goes according to plan, I will leave for Ustilug on Friday. Nijinsky’s choreography [for Le Sacre du printemps] is incomparable. Everything is as I wanted it, with very few exceptions. But we must wait a long time before the public grows accustomed to our language. Of the value of what we have already accomplished, I am convinced, and this gives me the strength for further work. From the heart, I wish you the same liveliness of the creative spirit, for I love you.

The same liveliness of the creative spirit? But how few people have ever had that! Stravinsky’s “I love you” must have seemed like a bear hug to poor Steinberg.

In the second letter, Stravinsky advises him to:

…play Le Sacre du printemps in spite of everything. I am certain that in time you will begin to feel it, the creation having brought me countless happy hours. I consider you to be a sensitive person. Approach it, then, with a pure heart. Yes, and it isn’t all that difficult.

With his first three ballets Stravinsky became the most glittering star in the brilliant constellation of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—whose glory is now attested by only one unfaded survivor, Stravinsky’s music. The composer was always a sharp and out-spoken critic of his associates—choreographers, dancers, scene designers—but he was also an educated one, schooled in the art of the ballet and endowed with a keen sense of decor. These letters contain his only general appraisal of the Diaghilev renaissance so far published, an on-the-spot report rather than a reminiscence. The following very remarkable document, written on July 21, 1911, and addressed to Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, another son of the composer, replies to criticisms of Diaghilev’s staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko:

…On the whole I am far from agreeing with Diaghilev’s acquiescence in the matter of cuts, just as I do not agree with Napravnik’s. This year Kauts (so I believe his name is written5 ) made an absolutely brilliant cut in the Tatar pogrom scene in Kitezh, and intended to make another one which it seems you were able to prevent. But none of these people [Coates, Napravnik] has suffered the insults that Diaghilev has had to endure, Diaghilev, who, in the end, achieves immeasurably higher and artistically more valuable work than all of the others. I can testify disinterestedly to this, though do not assume thereby that my time with Diaghilev is spent in enamoured yea-saying. On the contrary, no day goes by when I do not criticize, argue, disagree with him.

But that is one thing. An awareness of the significance of the created work is quite another. And here we come to precisely what you have placed in doubt. I refer to the ballet. You say you are not an enemy of the ballet but later on proclaim that it is the “lowest sort” of scenic art…. I shall tell you only that I am at the opposite extreme, that I am interested in and love the ballet more than anything else…. If some Michelangelo were alive today—so I thought, looking at his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel—the only thing that his genius would admit and recognize is choreography, and this is now coming to life again. Undoubtedly Michelangelo would have dismissed everything else that takes place on the stage as a cheap spectacle, for the only form of theater-art that makes its cornerstone the problems of beauty and nothing more, is the ballet—just as the only goal that Michelangelo pursued was the beauty of the perceived.

Not until I had actually worked in choreography did I realize this as well as the necessity and value of what I am doing. I refer not only to my music but to the work in its entirety, for I am the author of the Petrushka libretto, which I wrote with as much love as your father did his operas…. Ballet is lower than opera, you say. But in my view, all art is the same—there are no lower or higher arts but only different kinds of art and unions of arts, one strengthening and complementing the other.

Still, I can understand someone opposing these unions: drama with music (opera), choreography with music (ballet). And what is to be done with such a person? He loves pure art: if music, then music; if movement, then movement. But I cannot understand you, my dear, for you yourself love, or until now used to love, the plastic arts. I understand your father, Nikolai Andreyevich, who admitted that he had no feeling for them. And what can one do in that case? If he does not feel, he does not feel. But, then, why did his creativity pour out in the form of operas and even ballets, in which music is deliberately united with these other arts? I believe that this was due not so much to a lack of love or understanding of the other arts as to a lack of familiarity with them….

On the evidence of these letters, Stravinsky shared his artistic confidences with Alexandre Benois more closely than with anyone else in Diaghilev’s entourage, though he may have been personally more intimate with Bakst, who liked to pose as a rastacouère in dress and manners, but whom Stravinsky enjoyed as a companion. In the years between The Firebird and the War, Benois could be described as the composer’s artistic chaperon; Stravinsky occasionally bowed to the older man’s taste and even accepted some of his judgments, with important consequences in the case of Benois’s negative opinion of Koz’ma Prutkov. (Rereading this in July, 1914, Stravinsky proposed to choose a subject from it that would take precedence over Les Noces, an idea that Benois quashed.) Benois’s decors for Petrushka are the most enduring of any Stravinsky ballet, and his sets and costumes for The Nightingale and Le Baiser de la Fée are among the most successful visual creations for Stravinsky’s stage works. But the extent of Benois’s influence on the composer in his younger years has never been recognized, partly because of the painter’s later disputatiousness about the Petrushka authorship and royalties. The memoirs of both men make short shrift of each other.

The early Stravinsky-Benois correspondence discloses something of the origins of Le Sacre du printemps, in addition to those of The Nightingale, as the beginning of this letter from the composer, dated November 3, 1910, illustrates:

Have Diaghilev and Fokine made up—that is, agreed on terms? This is very important, for if they have, then the “Great Victim”6 will be Diaghilev’s; if not, then Telyakovsky’s,7 which is hardly good news…. If the conference about Petrushka is to take place, I will participate in it, at least by letter.

It is my very strong desire that Petrushka end with the Magician, who, after the Moor has killed Petrushka, would arrive on stage, and, gathering up all three—Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina—leave with an elegant and mincing bow, exactly the way he came out in the first scene. I have composed the Shrovetide Carnival in Scene One before the [Magician’s] trick, as well as the Russian Dance after it. But the trick itself I have not yet begun. I am waiting for it from you, so fulfill your obligation and send it; otherwise it will hold up the composition of the ballet.

I want to tell you of a bright thought that I had. Petrushka being the title, it seems to me that there should be more of Petrushka in the action. His part, in both quantity and quality, is no greater than that of the Moor or the Ballerina. I think we should concentrate to a greater extent on Petrushka. Do you agree?

The “trick” is the Tour de Passe-Passe, which Debussy singled out as one of the most beautiful episodes in the score. Stravinsky thought so as well, and no matter how much cutting he would submit to elsewhere in the piece, he never omitted these pages. Another of the newly-published letters now makes clear that Stravinsky did not approve of any so-called Petrushka Suite, or even of his own concert ending, insisting that the score be played in its entirety.

Stravinsky’s most vivid statement about Petrushka dates from January, 1911, shortly after his return to Beaulieu (near Monte Carlo) from the aforementioned conference in St. Petersburg with Diaghilev, Fokine, Nijinsky, and Benois. The letter is also powerful proof that life, not art, was the source of the composer’s inspiration. The addressee is Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov:

…My last visit to Petersburg did me a lot of good, and the final scene is shaping up excitingly…quick tempos, harmonicas, the major-domos smelling of Russian food—shchi—and sweat, and of their bottle-shaped leather boots. Oh what excitement! What, in comparison, is Monte Carlo, where it is forbidden even to smoke in the Salle de Jeu?… All of these considerations of Gnesin about “reflexes” in Russian music, to the effect that they are present in my composition! All are pure nonsense.

Although domiciled on the shores of Lake Geneva during the War, Stravinsky deeply identified with the struggle of the Russian people, and his isolation from them made him more conscious than ever of his own Russianness. Immersing himself in their folk literature and—contrary to everything that has been said on the subject—in their folk music, he wrote to his mother in Petrograd, in February, 1916, asking her to send phonograph recordings of folk songs and reminding her that he already owned Linevaya’s Great Russian Songs and Folk Harmonizations. The compositions of this period, Renard and Les Noces, as well as the miniatures—songs and choruses—form the very summit of Russian music, except that these masterpieces of a supersophisticated primitive are unique, descending from neither the Tchaikovsky nor the Rimsky-Korsakov side of Stravinsky’s heredity. If any other composer comes to mind it is Moussorgsky, at least in spirit and subject: the tipsy peasant, the prayer of a pilgrim in a snowstorm, the children and animals with whom Stravinsky felt such strong rapport.

The War disrupted Stravinsky’s life and revolutionized his art. By 1914 he had four children to support, and a wife who was to suffer from tuberculosis until her death. In 1917, his income from Russia ceased, and performance fees, Diaghilev’s above all, though greatly diminished because of the War, were the composer’s sole means of sustenance. Not Diaghilev but a Swiss industrialist commissioned Les Noces and Histoire du Soldat, while Renard was written for the titled heiress of Singer Sewing Machines.

The greatly reduced ensembles that these three scores required were the result of a wartime musical energy crisis, as well as of corresponding changes in every dimension of Stravinsky’s musical thinking. Here it will suffice to say that the War years were a period of experimentation for the composer. He flirted with mechanical instruments and with mechanistic devices in rhythm (changing the tempo through the sesquialtera relationship, for example, as at number 81 in Renard); wrote ragtime; imitated popular styles in tiny dances, polkas, a galop, a march; explored the possibilities in music of his native language—shifting the accents, isolating and stretching the syllables, combining verbal and instrumental sounds. These experiments, rather than the Russian songs, point to the musical direction of his later years.

What was Igor Stravinsky “like” just before the War, by which time everything he had composed was successful and his music had begun to be performed all over Europe? To judge from these Russian letters—so different from those to Cocteau and other French friends of the time—he is warmhearted; exuberant and high-spirited; incapable of sustained melancholy; generous and unsparing of himself; choleric (but not rancorous), as one would expect in so passionate a nature; unself-conscious; fanatic in matters concerning the arts (“One must not let one Gauguin, not one Cézanne or any of the other whales out of Russia…. Gospodi…here Milyutin dies, leaving two and a half millions not for Gauguins but for a military hospital”). In sum, this Stravinsky would seem to be almost exactly the opposite of the one who was later celebrated for his hauteur and icy wit. The change, of course, is due to the radical differences in Stravinsky’s music and musical philosophy after 1920. Nevertheless, the sympathetic interest shown in these letters for the music of Strauss and Scriabin is in striking contrast to Stravinsky’s judgments a decade later. In February, 1913, after hearing Elektra twice in London, he writes to Maximilian Steinberg:

I am completely ecstatic. It is [Strauss’s] best composition. Let them talk about the vulgarisms that are always present in [Strauss]—and to which my reply is that the more deeply one goes into German works of art, the more one sees that all of them suffer from that…. Strauss’s Elektra is a marvelous thing!!

In October of the same year, again addressing himself to Steinberg, Stravinsky says:

I traveled here from Russia with Scriabin—his father is the Consul in Lausanne—and, moreover, I visited him in Lausanne as well. We spoke of many interesting things, and he played excerpts for me from his new sonatas. I like them; one must have a look at them in their entirety.

All too soon after this, Stravinsky was writing to Prokofiev:

How terrible is Scriabin’s death! I cannot get over it! Seeking the details of this awful event, I looked in the Russian newspapers, Rech and Petrograd. Instead of what I wanted to know I came upon an ocean of the usual journalistic stupidities, such as Karatygin’s article about odd-numbered overtones—as his “To Scriabin’s Memory” is titled—and other trash. Indeed, I, with all my severe criticism of Scriabin, paid him more respect than Karatygin did with his overtones.

It is less surprising to find Stravinsky writing to Benois concerning Ravel:

I love him very much, not sentimentally but actually…he is one of those artists who gives me great pleasure…. What [Ravel] says, well, one ought never to judge people on that basis.

By the end of 1913, Stravinsky had begun to realize that other people might find his music difficult to understand. Before his mother went to hear Le Sacre du printemps for the first time—in St. Petersburg—he wrote to warn her: “Do not be afraid if they whistle at Le Sacre. That is in the order of things.”

Stravinsky is much less tolerant when the incomprehension is that of a journalist, but even then what annoys the composer most is bad style: “Svetlov praises everything indiscriminately, but the way he writes reminds me of the messy student compositions of second graders.” When Sabaneyev, the critic of the Russian Magazine Music, attacked Debussy during his 1913 Russian tour, Stravinsky complained to the editor, a former acquaintance:

It is impossible not to notice that Sabaneyev’s evaluation of Claude Debussy’s work is openly biased and of an unheard-of one-sidedness. Yet these charming lines appear in Music, that passionate defender of the glorious French musician who has just arrived in Moscow. You seem to think that a complete and multi-faceted evaluation of one artistic phenomenon, Scriabin, guarantees the same kind of evaluation of another phenomenon, Debussy…. Either the same issue of the magazine should have included articles expressing other opinions, or you should have mentioned that the publication of this article was the personal responsibility of its author, Music being in essential disagreement with him. But nothing of the sort was done, and now it is not Sabaneyev who will answer for this scandalous piece but you, Vladimir Vladimirovitch…. Laloy and Calvocoressi, both of whom speak Russian and read Music, will tell Debussy and…what will he think of you?… After all, I explained the whole situation to Debussy when he was preparing to go to Moscow…. Be assured that I am not hiding a stone behind my back.

By the time of Le Sacre du printemps, Stravinsky is aware of one of the most important facts about his nature as a composer: he will never repeat himself. In October, 1913, he tells Benois:

I cannot…compose what they want from me, which would be to repeat myself…. That is the way that people write themselves out.

Stravinsky had understood this even earlier in the case of Michel Fokine. Here the composer writes to his mother, from Monte Carlo, in 1912:

Momochka, Momoussia…. Diaghilev and Nijinsky are mad about my new child, Le Sacre du printemps. The unpleasant part is that it will have to be done by Fokine, whom I consider an exhausted artist, one who traveled his road quickly and who writes himself out with each new work. Sheherazade was the high point of his achievement and, consequently, the beginning of his decline. I have seen all of his ballets since Sheherazade (i.e., Narcissus, Sadko, Spectre de la Rose, Petrushka), and all of them are immeasurably inferior and weaker. Sheherazade was an inspired spectacle…. New forms must be created, and the evil, the greedy, and the gifted8 Fokine has not even dreamed of them. At the beginning of his career he appeared to be extraordinarily progressive. But the more I knew of his work, the more I saw that in essence he was not new at all. There is no salvation in habileté. Genius is needed, not habileté…. But now I’ve written myself out.

As for Stravinsky seen through the eyes of others, it should be obvious to the reader that only Russians could have known him, and that his Swiss friends, Ramuz, Cingria, Ansermet, at least in their earlier associations with the composer, were limited to a partial view. Occasionally a distant and wholly uninvolved observer catches a detail that any acquaintance of Stravinsky would recognize as true, as in Osbert Sitwell’s description of the composer’s mood when acknowledging the applause after the London premiere of The Nightingale:

I was excited to see the great Russian composer, the master of the epoch, walk before the curtain. Slight of frame, pale, about thirty years of age, with an air both worldly and abstracted, and a little angry, he bowed back with solemnity to [an] audience [that little] comprehended the nature of the great musician to whom they were doing honor, or the often eschatological import of his work.

Another contemporary glimpse that also rings true comes to us from Stravinsky’s neighbor on Lac Leman, C. Stanley Wise, but since the composer denied ever having met this gentleman, it will be enough to repeat two of his comments. First, Wise quotes Stravinsky’s reply to a question as to whether he had consulted Nijinsky on the choreography of Le Sacre du printemps: “Surely not. It would be impossible for two persons to compose a work.” Second, Wise noted that “unless one is intelligently interested and inquires about Stravinsky’s work, it is possible to pass hours with him and know nothing of what he is doing.”

If only Russians could know Stravinsky, perhaps this new harvest of his letters should be read in conjunction with a portrait of him by one of his compatriots. The most perceptive of these is from the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, whose awareness of Stravinsky is as shrewd as anything by Saint-Simon. Nijinsky is describing his final encounter with the composer, in March, 1916, just before the dancer left to join Diaghilev’s company in New York. The picture is not flattering, yet Stravinsky can hardly be blamed for refusing the responsibility of keeping Nijinsky’s infant daughter during her father’s absence. And the reader must bear in mind that by this date Stravinsky was alarmed at the symptoms of Nijinsky’s mental instability. Yet Nijinsky did know Stravinsky:

Stravinsky smells things out. He is not my friend, but at the bottom of his heart he loves me…. Diaghilev loves Massine and not me, and that is awkward for Stravinsky. Stravinsky forces his wife to carry out all his caprices…. His wife loves him. I feel that he does not love her as much, but he does love the children. He loves his children strangely and shows his love for them by making them paint…. He is like an emperor, and his children and wife are the servants and soldiers. Stravinsky reminds me of Tsar Paul, but he will not be strangled because he is cleverer than the Tsar was. Diaghilev wanted to strangle him many times, but Stravinsky is too sly. [Diaghilev] cannot exist without Stravinsky, nor Stravinsky without Diaghilev.

After my liberation from Hungary, I went to Morges to see Stravinsky and ask him, being certain that my wish would not be refused, if he and his wife would take my child while I was in America. He had many children and I felt that my Kyra would be safe with them. I asked Stravinsky to take my Kyra, but though his wife almost wept, Stravinsky said that he was very sorry, but that he could not assume responsibility for the child. I thanked him and did not say anything else. Looking at his wife sadly, I felt the same answer. Being a woman, she knew what it means to drag a child from trains to steamer, from place to place, and she was sorry for me. She did not agree with her husband, but because he spoke so quickly and decisively he made her understand that he did not wish to keep my daughter. I told him that I would pay all of Kyra’s expenses, but he did not agree with this either.

Stravinsky saw me off at the station and I gave him my hand very coldly. I did not like him then, and wanted to show him, but he did not feel it because he kissed me. I had a nasty feeling.

The last letter in the collection comes as a surprise, both in subject, Moussorgsky, and in time of writing—1932, after fifteen years of near-silence in Stravinsky’s communications with his native country. The date of the letter is scarcely credible, in fact, not only because Moussorgsky would seem to be so far from Stravinsky’s thoughts by then but also because Stravinsky did not write to anyone in Stalin’s Russia, his own family included.

Moussorgsky is rarely mentioned in connection with Stravinsky, partly because of his public partisanship on behalf of Tchaikovsky, whom the French abominated in about the same measure as they venerated Moussorgsky. Diaghilev needed Stravinsky’s endorsement for The Sleeping Beauty but not for Khovanshchina; thus Stravinsky’s true feelings about Moussorgsky may have been recorded only this once, in the letter excerpted below. It is addressed to the conductor, Napravnik, who had lived next door to Stravinsky throughout his early years, who had conducted the Pathétique Symphony in a concert after Tchaikovsky’s death that the nine-year-old Stravinsky had attended, and who had come from the USSR in 1925 to visit Stravinsky in Nice. Napravnik’s father had conducted the first performance of Boris Godunov. The son was now seeking Stravinsky’s approbation of Napravnik senior’s subsequent performances of the opera in Rimsky-Korsakov’s version rather than in the original, and this Stravinsky was unwilling to give:

I knew [your father’s] severely conservative manner and tastes. They were an insuperable barrier in his attempts to evaluate the innovativeness of his contemporaries, the Group of Five (Pyatyorka), and particularly of the greatest of them, Moussorgsky. Your father’s, as well as Tchaikovsky’s, negative opinion of Moussorgsky is a secret to no one. But from whom could one conceal the fact that the climate of ideas in which Moussorgsky’s powers developed was wholly alien to the attitudes and tastes of the official musical milieu of that time? Even Rimsky-Korsakov, who was thought to be closer to Moussorgsky than the others, actually understood very little about him. But how could Rimsky-Korsakov, from his academic point of view, value the authentic musical discoveries of his friend? In truth, Rimsky-Korsakov could see no more in them than a kind of tongue-tiedness, the result of an inadequate musical education and an incomplete compositional technique…. And I speak of Moussorgsky’s Boris, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s pseudo-Boris….

Moussorgsky’s triumphant letter to your father after the first performance of Boris in 1873—concerning which you write to me—does not in my view change the matter. It is an altogether natural gesture of thanks on the part of Moussorgsky…. But from that to making your father a propagandist of Moussorgsky is quite a leap….

…[Do not] condemn my severe straightforwardness and my inability to fulfill your request….

In April, 1913, just after the completion of Le Sacre du printemps, Stravinsky was deeply absorbed in Moussorgsky’s music, and in that month the composer of Le Sacre orchestrated the concluding chorus of Khovanshchina. In June, Diaghilev produced the opera in Paris, and all three performances were well received in spite of both the supposed ankyloglossia and the real dramaturgical weaknesses. As a practical joke, however, at the premiere Diaghilev substituted the Rimsky-Korsakov version of the concluding chorus for the Stravinsky version, since the Stravinsky had been announced, and the wily impresario, knowing the press would denounce it, wished to catch the reviewers red-handed—which he did.

But to return to Stravinsky’s interest in Moussorgsky, this was at its apogee just before the composition of the second and third acts of The Nightingale. The cortège in Act Three was obviously inspired by the Coronation Scene in Boris, as was Stravinsky’s Emperor of China, at least in vocal style, by the music of Moussorgsky’s usurper of the Russian Crown. This explains our surprise in discovering that Stravinsky still had such strong feelings for Moussorgsky some twenty calendar-years after The Nightingale (but eons beyond it in musical development). The letter seems to prove that no matter how powerfully Stravinsky’s uprooting from Russia affected his work, the enforced separation in no way diminished his Russian identity.

Briefly noting some recent and forth-coming publications about the composer, two picture books9 may be mentioned first. Nancy Goldner illustrates her account of the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival in June, 1972, with photographs, facsimiles of programs, reprints of reviews.10 It is safe to say that those who were in attendance for any part of one of the most exhilarating weeks in the history of the performing arts in America will want to read Miss Goldner’s essays on the preparation of the festival,11 and on the new ballets, as well as her clever construction of a dialogue between Stravinsky and Balanchine drawn from their writings.

The market for Theodore Stravinsky’s family album, on the other hand, can hardly be ready-made, even among collectors of Stravinskyana. The composer himself is not present in thirty-two of its eighty photographs, and some of the ones substituted for him are unsatisfactory, such as the snapshot, at telescopic distance but not taken with telescopic lens, of Theodore’s aunt Ludmilla and her fiancé. If the reader regrets the absence of the composer some of the time, however, the need of an editor is acutely felt during almost all of it, because of the overwhelming profusion of errors and the paucity of the author’s actual memoirs. Perhaps an interlocutor would have helped Theodore to tap his memory bank. The Canadian Broadcasting Company found this to be an effective method in the case of the composer’s widow, whose conversations with those friends of his with whom she could compare memories and impressions of specific incidents and occasions were recently recorded for the use of future scholars.

Many of Theodore Stravinsky’s recollections are hearsay, which of course increases their authenticity. His tale of a journey from Russia to Brittany at the age of three for instance, was obviously repeated to him by his parents. As for those manifold errors, most are harmless matters-of-fact, easily corrected from other sources. Stravinsky did not conduct for “the first time in public…on December 20, 1915, in Geneva,” but on April 16, 1914, in Montreux. Nor did he write a “pianola piece called Madrid,” this title having been given to the Etude for Pianola when the composer transcribed the music for orchestra a dozen years later. The first presentation of Histoire du Soldat, moreover, was not “to remain for years the only performance the work ever had.” Already in 1919 Theodore’s father participated in renditions of the three-instrument version of the Histoire Suite, while in the summer after that a staged performance was given in Weimar, a concert performance in London.

To anticipate general readers’ questions about general books, the first to appear since Stravinsky’s death, and hence the first to cover the completed life and works, is Francis Routh’s new addition to the Master Musicians Series.12 Mr. Routh’s compression and presentation of the long career are admirable, and, against all odds, his study of the music manages to be fresh. Routh’s statement that “Stravinsky’s precise and logical aesthetic was partly a philosophy, the product of his intellect, and partly a discipline, the product of his creativity,” is as solid a thesis as any that has been propounded on the subject.

This Issue

February 21, 1974

  1. 1

    Stravinsky’s future first wife. 

  2. 2

    Stravinsky’s younger and favorite brother. 

  3. 3

    Stravinsky’s first wife. 

  4. 4

    Forty pages of piano score! 

  5. 5

    Actually Albert Coates, the English conductor, then active in St. Petersburg. 

  6. 6

    Stravinsky’s first title for Le Sacre du printemps

  7. 7

    Director of Imperial Theaters. 

  8. 8

    George Balanchine has said that the three adjectives perfectly describe the Fokine he knew. 

  9. 9

    The Stravinsky Festival of the New York City Ballet, written and edited by Nancy Goldner, photographs by Martha Swope, et al. (Eakins Press, New York, 1974), and Catherine & Igor Stravinsky: A Family Album by Theodore Stravinsky (Boosey & Hawkes, London, 1973). 

  10. 10

    The second edition should correct an error in the quotation on page 199. “I am at ease in the difficulties of composition,” Stravinsky said, not “in the difficulties of performance.” 

  11. 11

    The programs were initially drawn up, not as stated on page 229, but between Balanchine and this reviewer, in the garden of a house at 11 East 77 Street, September 4, 1971. 

  12. 12

    Stravinsky by Francis Routh (Dent, London, 1974).