After Stravinsky moved from Switzerland to France, in June, 1920, his music was influenced to an unprecedented extent by the circumstances of his life. On February 19, 1921, he met the woman who was to be his companion for fifty years, and for whom he sacrificed his family. Then in 1923 he embarked on a career as conductor and pianist, with a radical effect on his work. For the first time, too, his new music met with resistance (partly because of the increasing popularity of the old), one result of which was that he began to formulate a philosophy of his art, something he had not needed before.

Finally, the creative eruption that started with The Firebird, and that had seemed to come entirely from within the composer—the exploration of himself and of the rhythmic, harmonic, and other possibilities discovered in his first ballets—had run its course. Pulcinella, which followed this extraordinary efflux, was the first of Stravinsky’s creations that did not originate in his own imagination. His acceptance of the commission may imply an awareness that he could no longer subsist exclusively on his inner resources.

At the end of the War Stravinsky had decided to abandon his comparatively secluded existence in Switzerland and to live in Rome. But when his friends there were unable to find an apartment for him, 1 he stored his possessions2 in Paris and spent the summer in Brittany, where he composed the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. That Rome rather than Paris had been his first choice of residence, however, must be recognized as essential to an understanding of Stravinsky’s entire future. It helps to explain not only the frequency of his sojourns in Italy, and the disproportionately large number of concerts that he gave there (even with orchestras of the second rank), but it also helps to excuse his blindness to the country politically in the 1930s.3

In September, 1920, Stravinsky and his family, still in Brittany, were rescued by Gabrielle Chanel who placed her home in the Paris suburb of Garches at his disposal. Then in the spring of 1921, Stravinsky found a studio for himself in Paris and moved his family to Biarritz, an arrangement entailing long periods of separation from his wife and children. The reason for this action should now be stated, Stravinsky having at first pretended that he had settled his family in Biarritz because of its healthy climate and superior educational facilities. The true reason, however, was Vera Sudeikine (née De Bosset), his constant companion from that time, who, as the central figure in his personal life, can hardly continue to be ignored. From this point until the death of his first wife (1939) and his marriage to Madame Sudeikine (1940), Stravinsky’s existence was a divided one.

Guilt feelings were one of the many consequences of this marital dualism, and so was the new religiousness which appeared in Stravinsky’s music as well as in his life. As frequently happens in such cases, his wife became very devout, and so did Stravinsky, at least when he was with his family, for one of the composer’s most striking characteristics was his ability to keep the out-of-sight out-of-mind, the role of the Church in his life in Paris being comparatively perfunctory.

In 1926 he composed a Pater Noster and then began Oedipus Rex, a large-scale work imbued with religious feeling, not only in spirit and language (Church Latin) but also in the substance of the music. Its emotional depth far exceeds that of anything Stravinsky had written, and the music is expressive in entirely new ways for him. The part of Oedipus himself might have been inspired by ecclesiastical chant and such of its devices as the pneuma, whose power of feeling had been remarked as early as the fourth century by both Jerome and Augustine. The style of some of the chorus music evokes the Church, too, and, with other words, might have been part of a liturgical composition. Stravinsky’s religious feelings attained their fullest expression three years after Oedipus, in the Symphony of Psalms, but of course neither the Psalms nor the later religious pieces can be explained simply as products of the composer’s divided life. The dichotomy was no more than a catalyst, and undoubtedly the religious part of Stravinsky’s nature would eventually have emerged, perhaps in the year of the three deaths in his family.

The practical side of Stravinsky’s new modus vivendi is easier to measure. It required him to spend so much time in transit from Paris to Biarritz—and, later, from Paris to Nice and Grenoble, when the family moved twice again—that the world is probably poorer by another concerto or symphony. In addition to his concert touring, this commuting kept him in almost perpetual perambulation until 1935, by which time his wife’s and elder daughter’s tuberculosis had worsened, and the family had to be installed in Paris. The daughter, Mika, died in November, 1938, her mother three months later, after which Stravinsky, who had had the disease himself in 1937, and feared a recurrence, entered a sanatorium for six months. Until emigrating to California in 1940, the composer was taking ten centigrams of quinine daily against lung infection—the cause of his death thirty-four years later, proof indeed of an astonishingly strong constitution, given the state of his health in 1937.


But I am ahead of the story. Here is a glimpse of Stravinsky at the beginning of it, at the revival of Le Sacre du printemps, London, June 27, 1921:

Stravinsky was our…lion. He has been the greatest success since Picasso…. Stravinsky, Lucifer of the season, brightest in the firmament, took the call many times, small and correctly neat in pincenez…. The music was certainly too new and strange to please very many people…and it is to be regretted that only three performances were given…. [T. S. Eliot, in The Dial, September, 1921.]

A year later both Cocteau and Mayakovsky kept notes on their visits to the composer in his studio. This was, of all places, in Chopin’s former rue Rochechouart residence, which had been converted by Pleyel to a pianola factory—of all things blasphemous to the memory of the least mechanical of the poets of the keyboard! Incidentally, the composer served as translator for the two writers on an occasion described by Cocteau:

At a recent interview between Mayakovsky and myself, Stravinsky was our interpreter. The conversation went badly. It was a question not only of moving from one language to another, but from one world to another…. Mayakovsky’s face told me nothing…the real spectacle was our interpreter; he was like a smuggler, darting by himself, from idiom to idiom, passing on only what he wanted to pass on.4

Mayakovsky’s impressions of Stravinsky in his extraordinary habitat are dated November 18, 1922:

The soul-rending wail of pianolas being tested floated up even through the closed doors…. The composer’s tiny upstairs room was crowded with grand pianos and pianolas. Here [Stravinsky] creates his symphonies; he can hand his work directly in to the factory, trying the musical proof on the pianola.5 He speaks rapturously of the pianola, and of composing for eight, for sixteen, even for twenty-two hands!6

Stravinsky’s infatuation with the pianola is one of the inexplicable eccentricities of his career. The money that the transcriptions earned could account for his profligate expenditures of time and labor,7 but nothing explains his enthusiasm for this dodo.8 As late as June, 1927, by which date the future of the phonograph vis-à-vis that of the mechanical piano had been assured, he made a personal appearance at a “Gala de la Musique Mécanique” to advertise his pianola version of The Firebird Suite. Needless to say, whatever the technical interest in these arrangements, all of them together are not worth the briefest original composition.

Two further descriptions of Stravinsky in his pianola-factory pad may be of interest (the second published years after it was written):

…At Pleyel, one sees the animal in his carapace. Pianos, drums, metronomes, cimbaloms, desks, flat trunks, wide trunks…rings, spats, silk handkerchiefs, leather straps, neckties, tiepins, wrist watches, collars, binoculars, spectacles, monocles, small gold chains, breloques, fetishes…. [Cocteau, Op. cit.]

[The composer lives] in an instrument factory whose repair shop is a constant source of interest and pleasure for him. He has only one room, and an alcove containing a single piece of Henri II furniture…. Piles of plates are spread on the small table where he eats, and pyjamas of all colors are hanging on the wall. The room contains a sofa-bed covered with rough cloth, and a small piano at which Stravinsky, always with his pelisse on his back, dreams and works, smoking long cigarettes one after the other to the very end. On the walls are the percussion instruments of the orchestra: bass drum, side drum, triangle, xylophone, Chinese bells, chimes…. Stravinsky appeared suddenly, under an extraordinary armature of clothing, a small, wiry man with a strong nose, thick lips, and the features of an ancient Chinese bronze. [Gringoire, Paris, October 27, 1937.]

One change in Stravinsky’s life after 1920 with an immediate effect on his music was his new career as a performing artist. This grew out of financial necessity but became an artistic one also. The royalties from his music were insufficient to support a family now increased by a swarm of relatives, refugees from Russia, whose dilemma Stravinsky attempted to solve by subsidizing a restaurant which they had opened in Biarritz, an enterprise that proved about as profitable as Balzac’s Sardinian silver mines. Since even the largest commissions for new works could not compare to the fees that concert artists received in return for very small investments of time, Stravinsky realized that the podium offered him, as well as others, the most practical means of enlarging his income. Thus, with precious little experience, and at the advanced age of forty-one, he began to accept engagements as a conductor and pianist, and soon had more of them than many of those on the circuit who were not composers.


Stravinsky’s conducting technique was by no means highly developed, and in fact he had tried his hands at it only a few times before his official debut leading the premiere of the Octuor (1923). But audiences came to see the composer as much as they did to hear the performer, and within two years he was guest-conducting, or playing the piano, from Copenhagen to Venice, Warsaw to Chicago. The first and most important effect of this on his composition was in terms of time subtracted from it, whereas the chief artistic compensation was simply that he could provide model performances—a major consideration for Stravinsky, nevertheless, since he tended to blame the public’s inability to appreciate his new music on the way it was played. It has also been alleged that he acquired a first-hand knowledge of the orchestra and of the technique of orchestral performance from his conducting experience. But did he need this? Has anyone ever known more about both than the composer of Le Sacre du printemps, who had never conducted anything? Chiefly, however, and apart from the bearings on his composition, conducting accounted for the largest share of Stravinsky’s income for the rest of his life.

Unlike his conducting, Stravinsky’s piano playing determined the medium and shaped the content of about a third of the music that he composed between 1923 and 1935. The Sonata, Piano Concerto, Serenade, Capriccio, Two-Piano Concerto were all designed as vehicles for his own use, and even, at first, reserved exclusively for himself. So was the Duo Concertant written for his concert tours with Samuel Dushkin, and the several excerpts from ballets arranged for violin and piano;9 these, like the pianola transcriptions, are technically interesting though not worth even the shortest original composition.

What matters is the extent to which the composer tailored his piano music to his own specifications as a performer. His keyboard style in any music was marked by a staccato-sforzando touch, a secco tone, an avoidance of the pedal, all of these in the interests of that clarity of articulation which is reflected in his own compositions for the instrument. It follows that his abilities and limitations as a pianist are also imprinted on his piano music, for although he was not obliged to solve all of the conducting problems of his orchestral scores—conductors can and do leave orchestras to their own devices—he had to play his Sonata, his Serenade, and his concertos.10

Does this personal requirement restrict the music’s content and technical range? In most types of keyboard virtuosity Stravinsky cannot be compared with, for example, Rachmaninoff, though their respective performing skills correspond to the different kinds of music that each composed. Yet Stravinsky, if not his compatriot, might have written still more innovatively for the instrument if he had had someone besides himself in mind playing it, as in the case of his arrangement of the “Three Movements from Petrushka” for Artur Rubinstein. Perhaps the most richly exploratory use of the piano in this century is that in Pierrot lunaire, whose composer was unable to play even its simplest passages himself.

Undoubtedly this overstates the case. The author of the Capriccio exploits to perfection his own characteristics as a performer. Nor could he have been guided exclusively by his own performing technique in composing the Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, a demanding piece to play by any standards. But the influence of the pianist on the composer is evident in the Concerto for Piano and “orchestre d’harmonie,” and so, too, is the effect of that wretched pianola’s, at least in the first movement, which is as mechanical as any music Stravinsky or anyone else ever produced.

Perhaps some of the patchwork impression of the Larghissimo may be attributed to an attempt to counteract the metronomic rigidity of the first movement. But tempo itself is a problem here; Stravinsky had not written music of this kind and speed before, and he seems less than certain of the way to do it—as the lumbering, foursquare tutti, one of his rare technical miscalculations, demonstrates. Furthermore, neither the “Russian” tune at the beginning of the movement nor the “popular;” all too advertently “contrasting,” second tune is in the composer’s natural voice; and these melodies, together with the stereotyped accompaniment figurations and the perfect cadences, are ill-assorted stylistic components. Stravinsky was in trouble, failing for the first time in his twenty years as a composer to concinnate his materials and to make alien ones his own.

Obviously no one could have predicted the form of Stravinsky’s emergence from this bleak terrain, and whatever else, therefore, Oedipus Rex must have come as a huge surprise, its sheer size and emotional force being utterly unlike anything that the forty-five-year-old composer had done before.11 Nor could Stravinsky himself have foreseen the evolutionary path from Pulcinella to Oedipus Rex, and on from there to the new aesthetic of Apollo. His instinct for seeing the new in the old was apparent already in Pulcinella,12 as well as his uniquely inverted relationship with the past—for he embodies Borges’s paradox about the artist creating his precursors, actually making us believe that Pergolesi borrowed from him. With the Sonata and the Octuor, his future pointed to an increasing dependence on the Uses of the Past.13

But the variety of Stravinsky’s music of this period is bewildering. Moreover, he seems to be trying to convince himself that he is no longer Russian. Neither was he French, of course, being in fact strangely isolated from the French music for which he had provided so many models. Deprived of his cultural base, he was trying to piece together a new one from whatever came to hand: ragtime, Russo-Italian opéra bouffe, classical sonata, theme-and-variations, jazz fugue, Verdi aria.14 In January and February, 1921, Stravinsky composed eight piano pieces15 of such extreme simplicity that it seems as if he were trying to rediscover both his own roots and the elements of composition.16 At one point he even began to question former principles of instrumentation, declaring that “sounds struck and sounds bowed do not go together.”

As the first original work to appear after Pulcinella, the Concertino for string quartet would have been of exceptional interest for that reason alone. Where, in what direction, would Stravinsky go? The musical substance of the quartet develops logically from Histoire du Soldat (and on successive pages of the same sketchbook). But the new work is predictive as well as retrospective. It contains formal elements that anticipate the “fabric-of-motives” of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments,17 a score that also looks back but not forward—apart from its concluding Chorale, which is the prototype of the “apotheosis” of the secular pieces and of the “consecratio” of the sacred ones.

Yet the novel motivic architectural principle was not developed in the Octuor, that other perfect work of the Pulcinella-to-Oedipus interregnum. And the Octuor and the Symphonies are the termini post and ante quem of Stravinsky’s Great Divide, the Octuor marking the beginning not only of his neoclassic aesthetic but of his preoccupation with aesthetics. The full score of the Symphonies having been completed November 30, 1920, and the Fugato in the Octuor February 1, 1921, the index point of this epochal change in musical philosophy can be narrowed to December, 1920.

With Mavra and the Octuor, each new Stravinsky opus was introduced by a newspaper article, interview, radio talk, or public lecture. Not all of these apologia were written by Stravinsky, but all were initiated by him and kept on one of his short leashes. This is the case, for example, with Arthur Lourié’s “Apropos de l’Apollon d’Igor Strawinsky” (Musique, December 12, 1927). Even before the score was half completed, this article interpreted Stravinsky’s new musical philosophy in the light of Thomist ideas on the correlation of aesthetics and ethics18 that Lourie/aa, a disciple of Jacques Maritain, had been inculcating in Stravinsky since the beginning of their acquaintance.

But the influence of Arthur Lourie/aa on Stravinsky’s thinking from the mid-1920s through the 1930s requires an essay in itself. Moreover, Lourié would have been remarkable even if he had never known Stravinsky. In Petrograd, shortly before the Revolution, Lourié knew Olga Sudeikine,19 first wife of Vera de Bosset’s second husband, as well as Vera Sudeikine herself. In 1917, when the Sudeikines moved to Yalta,20 Lourié remained in Petrograd, where Lunacharsky appointed him Commissar of Music. Meanwhile, in faraway Brittany, Stravinsky wrote to this new commissar, whom he did not know, asking him to help Anna Stravinsky, his mother, obtain a visa to leave Russia for France.21 Lourié intervened, but permission to emigrate was withheld for two more years, by which time he himself had gone to Paris, where he was introduced to Stravinsky by Vera Sudeikine. The composer enjoyed his company, was interested in his ideas, and respected his musical opinions, and before long Lourié became Stravinsky’s musical assistant, being entrusted with such tasks as the piano reduction of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

Lourié’s qualities and his role in Stravinsky’s intellectual life are revealed in a remarkable letter22 from the younger man, in Paris, to Stravinsky, in Nice, dated December 16, 1927, the day after Schoenberg had conducted his Septet-Suite in the French capital:

Igor Feodorovitch, I mourn the death of Sologub,23 the purest and wisest of men…. Two events have occurred in the musical life here, Schoenberg and Theremin. Everybody plays Schoenberg—orchestras, chamber groups, even the salons—and we have also had causeries, connaissances, convictions. I went to his concert yesterday at the Salle Pleyel. The atmosphere was exciting, but my impression of the music was extremely bad. He seems to want to shock and to overwhelm. A big reception was given for him and his wife….

The second event was Theremin,24 which really was a sensation. Theremin is an engineer and a very gifted technician whom I knew in Russia long ago (and who is now en route from Berlin to London and America). He has invented something fantastic, music without an orchestra or instrumentation: electric music. He improvises on an electric instrument. Sound comes from space, electromagnetically. He gestures before the instrument like a conductor, which looks like witchcraft, but after a few minutes you begin to understand and become interested. If the “Theremin” is developed, it can be used in the cinema and radio. I was bored, à la longue, but I must say that this sensation has a future. I will tell you more when you come to Paris.

Now I must add a disagreeable note. Sabaneyev25 wrote an attack on Oedipus Rex and somehow got Chester26 to print it. Sabaneyev and Chester are both scoundrels; the one good thing is that nobody reads the Chesterian. It would be helpful if you could write to Edwin Evans, who, perhaps, can print my article about Oedipus. Or, if not, I might be able to find another magazine in London. Sorry to bother you with this.

No doubt an artist is always mistaken in trying to explain in words what the public does not feel or cannot follow in his work. Stravinsky was aware of that, of course; his main objective in his writing—and in this he shows both his legal training and philosopher’s mind—was to make distinctions. But at times he also felt that it was important to inform his audiences of the existence of laws of art and of the imagination with which artists alone are conversant; and to serve notice that to criticize a functioning artist (e.g., himself) was useless. Criticism, it goes without saying, was neither enlightened nor disarmed.

The composer’s pre-curtain briefing on his Concerto for Two Pianos is typical of his etymological obsessions, especially in asking his audiences to think of familiar musical terminology in obsolete senses, and of his propensity to enumerate what not to expect, including extra-musical “programs.” Edifying as are his remarks concerning classifications, they must have seemed remote indeed to listeners struggling for a foothold in the music itself:

Etymologically the word “concerto” refers to a musical work of a certain size, in several parts, affecting the architectural structure of the sonata form or the symphony. In the concerto grosso, for example, one or more instruments plays a role “in concert” (concertant), an expression deriving from the Italian “concertare,” which means concourir, to compete or participate in a contest. Hence a “concerto” presupposes a rivalry among a number of instruments in concert, or between a single instrument and an ensemble in opposition.

But “concerto” has now come to mean a work for a solo instrument, without opposition, and in which the orchestral role is usually reduced to that of an accompaniment….

My four concertos adhere to the older formula: I have opposed several instruments to the primary one, or to groups of instruments also playing concertant.

Just as the harmonic order is the natural form of the accompaniment [of a concerto for solo instrument without opposition], so a contrapuntal order is required in the “concours concertant” concerto. I have applied the latter principle in my new work, in which two pianos of equal importance assume a concertant role in relation to one another…. It is this formula that enables me to call the work a concerto.

The word Notturno, the title of my second movement, is not used in the sense in which Field and Chopin characterize those dreamy, formless fragments that they call Nocturnes. My meaning is closer to that of the Nachtmusik or Cassation, so popular with eighteenth-century composers. But in my piece, the separate sections with which compositions of this sort are generally comprised have been condensed into a single movement….27

Stravinsky’s autobiography, published in the same year as this discourse, attempts to summarize his artistic stance in the mid-1930s. But the one statement from this book that still clings to his name—“music is powerless to express anything at all”—is simply another form of the Kantian hypothesis that to be truly beautiful a thing should signify nothing but itself. Thus Stravinsky was declaring his belief in the absolute autonomy of music. Even Lourié’s friend Maritain failed to understand this. Writing to the composer on July 28, 1935, the eminent philosopher proposed another line of pursuit than the one that, in any case, the composer had denied:

From my point of view it would be necessary to confirm the existence of something entirely different from the expression of feelings. I refer to “creative emotion” or “creative intuition”; by means of this, the artist, without being aware of it, speaks to himself in his work as God does in the act of creation. I have written several pages on this subject in my Funèbres de la Poésie (pages 192-199), and I would be happy to know what you think….

Stravinsky did not commit his thoughts to paper but undoubtedly he was shocked by Maritain’s analogy. Few contemporaries have known with the first-hand certainty of Igor Stravinsky that a “creative emotion” does exist. As for God, in fact while listening to the Symphony of Psalms one feels that Stravinsky may even have had some first-hand knowledge of Him, too.

This Issue

May 2, 1974