“We hope the stupidity in this country will not kill you.”
(Jane Heap, writing to Stravinsky for The Little Review on the day of his arrival in America, January 6, 1925.)
Helmut Dantine: “Who was that man with whom you came to the airport? His face looks so familiar.”
Nicolas Nabokov: “Stravinsky.”
Helmut Dantine: “That’s what I thought. But what is he doing in Hollywood?”
(Nicolas Nabokov, Old Friends and New Music.)
The events of almost every day of Stravinsky’s thirty-two years in America can be reconstructed from diaries, letters, and other documents. Yet the sum of the parts is less than the whole, a casual remark by the man himself often casting more light than pages of biographers’ details. Thus the composer’s observation that “it is impossible for the brain to follow the ear and the eye at the same time” reveals the totality with which music absorbed his brain, while the exactness of the analogy, “Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody’s piano-playing in my living-room has on the book I am reading,” suggests an extraordinary power to visualize.1 Obviously dicta such as these2 are worth more than any amount of commentary on the composer’s “listening habits” and “visual imagination.”
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s France played a diminishing role in Stravinsky’s life, the United States an increasingly important one. Returning to Paris from his first American tour, in 1925, Stravinsky was interviewed by Joyce’s friend, Eugene Jolas:
M. Igor Stravinsky, famous Russian composer and iconoclast of rhythm [sic], arrived in Paris from the S.S. Aquitania last night, after being lionized in New York, Chicago, and other cities of the North American continent during a triumphant stay of more than three months. “I expect your country to bring us the new things in music,” Stravinsky told The Tribune at the Gare St. Lazare. “Your skyscrapers impressed me as leading to new visions in art. What work! What energy there is in your immense country!”…American jazz gave him a real thrill, he admitted, although he said he had heard much of it before going to America. “The music of the future will have to take it into account, no matter what the tendency of the composer.” 3 [The Tribune, Paris, March 21, 1925]
Stravinsky’s widespread fame in America dated from the visit of the Diaghilev company in 1916,4 but the music had been played in concert before then, and the “Three Pieces for String Quartet” received its world premiere in Chicago, November 8, 1915, by the Flonzaleys.5 In 1919, a New York newspaper reported that the composer was living in a Swiss garret on the verge of starvation.6 Two rescue operations were organized, and on June 2 Stravinsky received 1,913 francs, 40 centimes, “from his admirers in Boston [via] the American Consular Service in Geneva and Ignace Jan Paderewski”—who must have wondered what his neighbor had done to provoke such philanthropy.
On June 10, an additional 10,450 francs arrived from still more “American admirers and friends,” an amazingly generous and altruistic gift from a public that had never seen the composer and had been shocked and irritated by what little music of his that it had heard. But the dire-need rumor lived on, and as late as December 20 the New York Evening Post, reviewing the world premiere (in Aeolian Hall) of the original version of Pribaoutki, added that the composer was even then “lying ill and hungry in Switzerland.” At this point a large new envelope marked “Affaires Américaines” appeared in Stravinsky’s files.
The 1925 tour was a great success, both artistically and financially. One consequence was that throughout the remaining years of Stravinsky’s residence in France the majority of commissions for new works—the Serenade, Apollo, Symphony of Psalms, Violin Concerto, Jeu de Cartes, Concerto in E Flat, Symphony in C—came from the United States. Naturally his thoughts turned increasingly toward America, though a still more compelling reason for his eventual settlement in Los Angeles was the discovery, during a concert tour in 1937, that his lung disease had been arrested in the then-beneficial California climate and air.
In the meantime, Perséphoné, Stravinsky’s largest-scale composition in the 1930s, had had a lukewarm reception in Paris—which the composer attributed to the work’s idiosyncratic French diction7—while Jeu de Cartes, the last of his ballets to have been conceived8 and completed in Europe, was staged in Germany but not in France. Stravinsky reacted in an interview in Le Journal de Paris, October 13, 1938:
Stravinsky: From January to May  I conducted the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra—splendid groups. Then I went to Toronto and Montreal, and from there to San Francisco and Hollywood. I also conducted the premiere of my new ballet Jeu de Cartes at the Metropolitan in New York.
René Simon: And are you saving nothing for Paris?
I.S.: Paris, a city I adore, does not give me the opportunity to exercise either my art [composing] or my profession [conducting]. Here no one seems to realize that I am not only an occasional conductor….
R.S.: And…the composer?
I.S.: Frankly, he is not much happier…. I do not have a single work in the French repertory.
R.S.: The symphony orchestras play your music.
I.S.: Yes, The Firebird, Fireworks. But the theaters ignore me.
R.S.: Wasn’t your marvelous Symphony of Psalms presented at the Exposition?
I.S.: Yes. But it was only by accident that I conducted it, my admirable friend Pierre Monteux being indisposed…. It is rather curious, you will agree, that having at present fourteen scores—operas and ballets—performed throughout the world, not a single one is now in France.
A different Stravinsky must be distinguished at every stage in the American years but especially between the first and last decades. The composer-conductor of the 1940s, still struggling to earn a living from his “art” as well as his “profession,” is remote from the world figure of the 1960s, just as the Stravinsky who used to visit the National Parks in a secondhand Dodge, eating in drugstores and sleeping in fleabag motels, is far removed from the elderly VIP who was whisked from airports to hotels in police-escorted limousines. So, too, the Stravinsky who was the personification of joie de vivre is understandably different from the man who, after the age of sixty-nine, lived under the constant threat of paralysis from a blood disease. And, finally, the Stravinsky who became the central figure in a retinue of nurses contrasts sadly with the younger man who did everything for himself and permitted absolutely no intrusion on his privacy.
With age, too, Stravinsky’s ambivalences became more pronounced. The proudest Russian in Hollywood during World War II, rejoicing in the victories of the Red Army and actively participating in Russian War Relief, immediately after the peace, the composer was offended by the mere mention of the USSR. Protesting the Waldorf Conference and refusing to add his name to a composers’ telegram welcoming Shostakovich to the United States, Stravinsky was still so anti-Soviet at the time of Sputnik that he fiercely berated the hapless headwaiter (in a Baden-Baden hotel) who first broke the news of this Russian achievement to him. Yet only a few years later Stravinsky accepted an invitation from the USSR to conduct concerts there that proved to be the most gratifying public occasions of his life—and at the same time revealed how deeply defensive was the former bitterness against his homeland.
The American years also heightened certain contradictions in the composer’s personality. Dickens himself9 could not have created a more parsimonious character than Igor Stravinsky, who, during his second American tour, complained that he had “paid in tips to Pullman porters what amounted to one concert,”10 and who once entered in an expense-account diary a donation of ten cents to a panhandler. Yet Stravinsky was a generous man and the very opposite of miserly, helping to support friends, relatives, former domestics, impoverished artists and writers. Another inconsistency was his attraction to the formalism of religions (as exemplified in his belief in the efficacy of ritual prayer and rejection of the spontaneous, personal kind) versus his extremely rare attendance at any religious service.
The post-World War II years reverse the paradox of the prewar period in France, the most conspicuous events during Stravinsky’s second and third decades in America taking place in Europe. In the 1950s and early 1960s his music as a whole attained a far greater measure of popularity in Europe than in America, while the quality of a performance such as that of Ingmar Bergman’s Rake’s Progress has never been duplicated here. Also reversing the situation of the 1920s and 1930s, more commissions for new works came from Europe than from America, beginning with the Concerto in D (1946), and including the Canticum Sacrum, Threni, Movements, Monumentum, A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer, and the English-language opera which had been planned for an American stage but was finally paid for by the Italian government and first performed in Venice.
When Stravinsky arrived in New York on the S. S. Manhattan, September 30, 1939, it was not with the intention of making his home in America but to fulfill concert and lecture engagements. The first public glimpse of him occurs two and a half weeks later during his inaugural Charles Eliot Norton Lecture at Harvard:
Around 7:30 on Wednesday evening, October 18…ushers in black ties lined the walls…. Then followed a rush of Harvard and Radcliffe esthetes [who, moreover,] looked like Harvard and Radcliffe esthetes. Next came the big names of the Harvard music department…. Then…sleek limousines began to drive up with Beacon Hill dowagers, radiating white hair, evening dresses, diamonds, and dignity…. No sooner had we settled down to Beacon Hill than the New Lecture Hall rustled again. This time it was for Koussevitsky.
Eager, tense, the audience waited for Stravinsky…. He made a sweeping entrance in tails, and then, after a low, courtly, athletic bow…began his Prise de Contacte. Reading a manuscript of beautifully written French,11 he spoke slowly, distinctly, in a quiet Russian accent. He looked up from his paper infrequently, and then jerkily…. Wild applause greeted [him] as he concluded…. [He] bowed…almost to the ground, shook Dr. Forbes warmly by the hand and breezed out, his tails flying behind. [Frederick Jacobi, Modern Music]
The terms of the lectureship required periodic meetings with students. One of these, Robert Stevenson, whom Stravinsky regarded as the most gifted and who later became a professor of music at UCLA, recalled his sessions in a letter to Stravinsky:
In November of 1939 you allowed me to begin taking a series of weekly “advices” with you of an hour each. At first Dr. Kall12 was present, but from the second “advice” onwards we were conversing in French without his attendance. I am writing to you now in English only because I have been assured by Dr. John Vincent that your English has become as fabulous as your French. During that year I came to see you once a week, first at the house of the Forbes, where you were residing on the top floor, then, after you married, at your hotel near the Christian Science Headquarters at Symphony Hall.
Boston was a stronghold of Stravinsky’s music in 1940 and continued to be one throughout Koussevitsky’s reign as conductor of the Boston Symphony. The orchestra not only played more Stravinsky than any other in America but regularly invited him to conduct it. Apart from that, his reputation as the leading composer of the age was unchallenged there, this being due in considerable measure to Nadia Boulanger, whose advocacy took even stronger hold in French provincial Massachusetts than in Paris.
Stravinsky’s Harvard lectures are too well known to warrant discussion here, but one aspect of them that may be worth remarking is the composer’s wariness not only of the music of the future13 but also of that of his contemporaries. Only Hindemith was even implicitly endorsed,14 and though the lecturer conceded that Schoenberg “knows what he is doing,” from all indications it was Stravinsky who did not know what Schoenberg was doing, at least at the time.15 The lecturer suggested that a younger composer on whom some hopes might be pinned was Henri Sauguet,16 though the audience must have felt that one or two Americans were as worthy of notice.
It should be said, too, that opinions such as this were more widely circulated than the themes of the lectures, for Stravinsky’s disciples had made him an arbiter elegantiarum. If, for example, he were to extoll the virtues of Mendelssohn over those of Schubert, then, shortly thereafter, so would the least auspicious Harvard, Radcliffe, or Longy School undergraduate. Nor did it matter if the opinions seemed somewhat perverse. Thus if Haydn’s symphonies, quartets, piano trios, and masses had any special significance for Stravinsky,17 he said nothing about it in the lectures, which is remarkable if only because he spoke with such enthusiasm about the music of Charles Gounod.
In December, 1939, Stravinsky went to California to conduct concerts and to see what the Disney Studios had done with Le Sacre du printemps. The composer’s anger at the alteration of the sequence of movements in this score blinded him to other aspects of the film,18 yet this experience may have spared him even worse ones, for it bred a distrust of producers, whose lucrative offers he continued to reject for the same reason, the unwillingness to relinquish control over the manner in which his music would be used.19 He returned to Cambridge, perhaps having learned more from his fury at the treatment received in Hollywood than from the enlightenment of his semester’s teaching at Harvard—if it is true that “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”
On May 15 Stravinsky and his wife20 sailed from New York on the S. S. Seminole for Galveston, which they had apparently expected to resemble Cannes or Biarritz, at least in seaboard climate. On disembarking (May 21) they promptly fled. Nine years later The Houston Post elicited further information from the composer on the Galveston episode, and published it under the title “Heretofore Unknown Visit to Houston”:
The Russian-born master and his wife set out from New York on a honeymoon trip to the Grand Canyon. The first stage of the journey was made by boat, which landed the couple in Galveston. They didn’t like it. They hurried directly to Houston, took a look at the city—and gave up.
“It was a terrible trip in every way,” Stravinsky said. “The boat was bad—very bad—and so was the ocean that year—and then at the end there was Galveston. We wanted to rest—but not there. We took the first train to Houston. We got off and looked around—and then got back on and went home. That honeymoon—it was a French débâcle.”
In July, 1940, the newlyweds applied for visas and went to Mexico to establish quota qualifications. Reentering the United States as Russian nonpreference quota immigrants, they immediately filed declarations of intent to become American citizens.21 A concert tour in the autumn and winter took them to Chicago for the premiere of the Symphony in C, and to New York for Balustrade, Balanchine’s ballet based on Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Returning to Hollywood they purchased a home at 1260 North Wetherly Drive and moved there April 6, 1941, thirty years to the day before the composer’s death.
Stravinsky was fifty-eight when he began a new life in California, yet he was to change continually and more profoundly there than ever before, both as a composer and as a man. The metamorphosis of the man was largely due to his remarriage, but the informality and the radically different “life style” of Southern California were contributing factors. From his very first months in Los Angeles, the composer was more accessible to new ideas and influences than he had been in his final years in Europe, just as he was more approachable as a person—a fact to which the photographs of him in sandals and shorts, or Navy pea jacket, would seem to attest (compared to his 1920s portraits, bemonocled and at least looking remarkably autocratic).
The extent of the change in Stravinsky in the years before my advent (1948) is difficult for me to assess. I was quite unaware of the degree of Russianness of the household that I had entered, partly because the Stravinskys’ courtesy and hospitality were such that they spoke English with one another in front of me and tried to adapt themselves to my American ways. The Stravinskys’ closest California friends—Balanchine, Eugene Berman, the Adolph Bolms, and the Vladimir Sokoloffs—were Russians, and so were the doctors, cooks, gardeners, dressmakers. The remainder of the composer’s circle was also comprised almost entirely of refugees—the Artur Rubinsteins, Szigetis, Castelnuovo-Tedescos, Montemezzis, and others less well known—with whom the Stravinskys spoke either French or German. Therefore, except for the peculiar case of a Mr. Ernest Anderson, to be discussed below, I was Stravinsky’s only monolingual, native-born American. All of this made me unable to gauge the changes in him for which I was responsible.
In the earlier California years, jazz was the new music to which Stravinsky was most susceptible,22 though, arguably, his most successful use of it was in Agon (1957). This is evident in most of his compositions between 1940 and 1947, the Symphony in Three Movements—some of which (cf. 191) might have been introduced practically unnoticed between stretches of bossa nova at the Copacabana—no less than the concerto custom-made for Woody Herman. Stravinsky’s early-1940s music is remarkable, too, for its grasp of other features of prevalent styles and moods. But as Eliot said of Baudelaire, “The man who has the sense of his age is exposed to its follies as well as sensitive to its inventions.” Stravinsky did not always escape the banalities of the genres in which he trafficked, as in those parts of Scènes de Ballet that openly emulate Broadway.
It might also be said of some of Stravinsky’s music of this period that the rhythmic element is obtrusive and lacking in subtlety, the standard of judgment being his own use of the same devices to such perfect effect in earlier music. Yet in every case the inventiveness outweighs the weaknesses. In sonority, for example, he continues to be new in every piece—in the use of saxophones in the Scherzo à la Russe, in the canon for bassoons in the Symphony in Three Movements, in the guitar-like harp accompaniment to Orpheus’s Aria—as he was all his life.23
But the character of Stravinsky’s music as a whole is radically different in the early California period from that of the last years in Europe. Compared to the Concerto in E Flat (1938) and the first two movements of the Symphony in C (1938-1939), which are distinguished by the domination of the classical models as well as by the insistence on diatonicism and the basic tonality, the new “American” music is “freer” and more “experimental.” The first movements of the Symphony are among the peaks of refinement in Stravinsky’s art, but they are also a cul-de-sac. Contrast them with the two “American” movements of the same piece, and with the first and last movements of the 1945 symphony in which, whatever else, the sheer physical energy of the music seems so much more abundant, and the ideas—such as the trombone, piano, and harp fugue—so much bolder.
From the first, America provided Stravinsky with the most diverse opportunities to display his versatility in fulfilling commissions. Thus the Circus Polka (1942), with its march rhythms, pop tunes, tuba-and-piccolo-featuring instrumentation, and spectacular acrobatic leap into the Marche Militaire, fairly smells of sawdust and the Big Top.24 But the trapeze artistry, musical and otherwise, in connection with some of the scores that followed this ballet for elephants is almost as breathtaking. The middle movement of the Ode, for instance, had originally been intended as film music for a hunting scene. Then when Koussevitsky commissioned a work in memory of his wife, Stravinsky placed the hunting music between a eulogy (also already composed) and an epitaph, adroitly re-characterizing this liveliest of his “three songs for the deceased” as “a concert champêtre, suggesting an outdoor ‘musical’, an idea cherished by Natalie Koussevitsky and brilliantly materialized in Tanglewood by her husband.”25
Stravinsky’s other compositions of the time include a piece for the Paul Whiteman band26 that had originally been conceived as an a cappella sacred chorus; a symphony, one section of which had been diverted from a piano concerto and another from an episode in a film; a four-hand piano sonata, part of which had been reduced from an orchestral opus intended for a film; a ballet for a Broadway variety show; two movements of a Mass; a Biblical cantata commissioned by a Hollywood composer who was buying his way into better musical company and whose contract required that Stravinsky’s score be played and recorded together with one of his; and an Elegy for unaccompanied viola, the composition of which demonstrates that Stravinsky could produce music of deep feeling “to order,” for he scarcely knew the deceased, was not particularly “moved” by his death, and in fact composed the work only at the insistence of Nadia Boulanger and of the player who was to perform it.
Undoubtedly the idea of composing music for films attracted Stravinsky beyond the financial motive, despite his protestations to the contrary. An incurable movie addict, he had been flirting with film projects from as early as 1919, in which year he wrote to Blaise Cendrars that “Don Quixote has nothing to do with my conception of the cinematographic spectacle” and reminding his correspondent of “our conversations on the matter.”27 Three months before, Stravinsky had sent an article to Ansermet, “Musique et Cinématographe” (Journal de Genève, July 19), with the comment: “This music critic compromises everything that he touches. Just imagine what music would become if it were to ‘express’ the film! This Monsieur has never understood the charm of music played or unrolled parallel to a film. Always this preoccupation with ‘expression,’ even in the cinema. Great God what assholes!”
But the very vehemence of Stravinsky’s condemnation of film music betrays a frustrated interest. More enduringly, it provoked him to a formulation of his artistic philosophy:
I realize that music is an indispensable adjunct to the sound film, It has to bridge holes, to fill the emptiness of the screen, and to supply the loudspeakers with sounds. The film could not get along without it, just as I myself could not get along without having the empty spaces of my living-room walls covered with wallpaper…. But music is too high an art to be absorbed by the subconscious mind….
Music expresses nothing of a realistic character…. If a movement in a ballet should happen to be a visualization of the words “I Love You,” then this reference to the [actual] world would play the same role in the dance (and in my music) that a guitar would play in a Picasso still life: something of the real world is caught as pretext or clothing for the inherent abstraction [italics added]. Dancers have nothing to narrate and neither has my music. Even in older ballets like Giselle, descriptiveness has been removed—by virtue of its naïvéte, its unpretentious traditionalism, and its simplicity—to a level of objectivity and pure art-play….
It is the individual that matters, never the mass…. When Disney used Le Sacre du printemps for Fantasia, he told me: “Think of the numbers of people who will now be able to hear your music.” Well, the numbers of people who consume music is of interest to somebody like Mr. Hurok, but it is of no interest to me. The mass adds nothing to art. It cannot raise the level, and the artist who aims consciously at mass-appeal can do so only by lowering his own level. The soul of each individual who listens to my music is important to me, not the mass feeling of a group. Music cannot be helped by means of an increase of the quantity of listeners, be this increase effected by the films or any other medium. It can be helped only through an increase in the quality of listening, the quality of the individual soul….28
Whether or not Stravinsky’s preoccupation with film music was motivated by the desire for money, this was apparently the sole object of his acceptance, in March, 1941, of a private pupil, the only one in his lifetime. He did not enjoy teaching, yet during the next two years gave approximately 215 lessons to a certain Ernest Anderson, “a composer (who is far from young but who is trying to improve the style of his composition by watching me rewrite his symphony from top to bottom).”29 Since Stravinsky apparently did recompose almost every note of his pupil’s score, explaining, wherever possible, the reasons for the changes, it is regrettable both that Anderson’s symphony has disappeared—for Stravinsky’s work on it was contemporary with the first movement of his own symphony from which Anderson’s might have received some residue—and that the pupil failed to leave an account of his experience, any portion of the Anderson tapes being worth a dozen of those “personal memoirs” in which Stravinsky the composer hardly exists.
The Anderson story becomes less mysterious with the discovery of its relevance to the Stravinsky budget. On January 2, 1942, the name appears in Mrs. Stravinsky’s diary opposite the comment: “Igor very worried about our financial situation.” And in Stravinsky’s own diary the lessons are scheduled five and six together after the arrival of large household bills—arousing a suspicion that the pupil’s accelerated ascent of Parnassus may not have been the teacher’s main objective. But Stravinsky’s financial worries were justified. Concert engagements were scarce, his music not being in the highest demand in the first place, and, in the second, requiring extra, and expensive, rehearsal time. Conducting the New York Philharmonic in January, 1940, Stravinsky was obliged to prepare two programs, one of his own music for the Carnegie Hall audience, another, of Tchaikovsky’s, for the Sunday broadcast.
Apart from work, the data of Stravinsky’s life in the 1940s can be compiled from Mrs. Stravinsky’s diaries,30 from letters,31 and from the description of visitors. From the diaries we learn that on April 25, 1942, he was notified of a requirement to register for defense work—though his contribution to the war effort, apart from benefit concerts, was limited to keeping a flock of chickens (“I like their rhythmic clucking,” he told a reporter) and cultivating a Victory Garden: on May 16, 1943, the Stravinskys dined on borscht made from beets that the composer had planted and tended himself. One tantalizing entry in Mrs. Stravinsky’s diary is that of August 1, 1943. After receiving an invitation to dinner at Werfel’s, she wrote: “Igor asks if Schoenberg has also been invited”—but failed to indicate whether this meant that her husband did or did not want to see him. On the 26th of the same month the diary records that the composer attended a lunch at Warner Brothers, this time not to discuss a proposition to compose film music but to be interviewed by the casting department to play the role of himself in a film about Gershwin.32
The diaries record that on March 6, 1944, Stravinsky first heard an Evenings-on-the-Roof concert. This Los Angeles chamber music society, together with its offspring, the Monday Evening Concerts, introduced him to music from Machaut to Schoenberg that he would not otherwise have known, besides which the group gave the first performances of nearly twenty of Stravinsky’s own smaller-scale pieces, originals as well as arrangements. Finally, the diaries are a scrapbook of press cuttings compiled from concert tours, some directly quoting the composer, others merely describing him and the vicissitudes of his travels. Thus a business-minded Dallas newspaper informed its readers that
while transferring from one station to another the Stravinskys lost a bag containing music and clothes. This will be an opportunity for Dallas merchants, since most of Mrs. Stravinsky’s clothes, as well as the conductor’s dress suit, will have to be replaced immediately.
In New York for the premiere (1946) of his Symphony in Three Movements, the composer was pictured by the Times
…. sitting in his room at the Sherry Netherlands…and speaking of his work with careful and exact choice of phrase. His English was thoroughly reliable but occasionally he reverted to French for the mot juste…. He felt that music in Russia had gone backward…. What about Prokofiev? He replied that he found Prokofiev less interesting than he used to be…. As a man who has always been interested in jazz and its contribution to music [sic], Stravinsky says that what he has heard lately is of little interest….
Even after a quarter of a century, The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky’s final work of the 1940s, is still misunderstood and neglected. This may be attributed to two obstacles, the opera’s undeniable dramatic flaws33 and its musical idiom, the audience never being quite certain of the composer’s intentions, or even whether or not he is pulling its leg. Stravinsky is a “modern” composer, after all, yet what is modern about these diatonic melodies, consonant harmonies, harpsichord chord recitatives? This difficulty for audiences will disappear, however, and future opera-lovers will surely be able to hear the music untroubled by the composer’s indifference to the “modern” opera he did not write because he believed that the form had completed its evolution at some point in the past. As for the dramatic weaknesses, they can be decisively diminished by a talented director; Ingmar Bergman made most of them practically invisible.
The length of the opera, three times that of any other work by Stravinsky, was a burden on his mind throughout its composition. The thought that he might not be able to complete it gave him ulcers, in fact, and he actually considered shelving it temporarily in order to compose a short work for which he had been offered a handsome fee. That almost all of Stravinsky’s more than a hundred compositions are short, and that his life work includes few incomplete ones, or even unused sketches, says much about the character of the man. It follows that two of the attractions of The Rake, and these the ones that kept him to the task of completing it, were the structure, which had been established before he began to compose, and the completeness of each number in itself.
Stravinsky began each of these “numbers” in accordance with a strict procedure, first adding scansion marks (as well as, sometimes, the musical meter),34 then memorizing the lines by repeating them aloud while pacing up and down. Finally, he timed the piece according to a tempo which he had decided would be most suitable for the words. This last is puzzling, for he could hardly know the duration of a passage of unwritten music; yet the musical speed does appear to have been predetermined from these recitations of the words. Stravinsky worked in the same way, incidentally, in February, 1946, while studying Robinson Jeffers’s Medea for a possible contribution of a prelude and an entr’acte, clocking to the second—“0:52,” “3:45,” “1:05″—not only these purely instrumental sections but also the play’s speeches in which music could be involved.
Stravinsky’s practice of writing rhythmic values above the syllables and only later notating intervallic or melodic ideas is not true of his vocal music generally (nor always true of The Rake). The same method is used in some of the Russian-language pieces, but beginning with In Memoriam: Dylan Thomas, rhythm was the secondary consideration, pitch the primary one. Once or twice in The Rake Stravinsky confused French and English quantities, allotting only one note for “uncle,” for example, but the correction of this kind of error embarrassed him, and only through Mrs. Stravinsky’s diplomacy could he be induced to add a rhythmic stem for the second syllable. Later, when singers asked him whether the noteless syllable should be sung or spoken he stubbornly refused to reply—though the missing note was obviously meant to be the same as the preceding one.
Stravinsky’s feelings for The Rake were intensely personal. He identified the love of Tom and Anne in their last scene with that of himself and his wife, and the duet, “In a foolish dream, in a gloomy labyrinth,” as well as the arioso, “My heart breaks”—music deep with the anticipation of death—were written for her first, and only after that for “the world.” Having played the score at the piano with him, I clearly recall the occasion when Stravinsky revealed the music to her. As was customary at these readings, he took the bass parts himself, so that he could also sing them, though from time to time he would strain, in a painful half-falsetto, to indicate some of the tenor music as well. Our performance was as loud as his muted piano permitted, for he was trying to hear the harmonic relationships with distinctness, but since the tempi were determined by the amount of time it took to find the notes, and since he would repeat a chord without warning but explode with irritation when our four hands were not precisely together, the results bore little relation to the way the music was intended to sound.
The Rake’s Progress was an end, in the sense that Stravinsky’s music in the fifteen years after the opera does not extend from it. To conclude, then, with the composer’s own words, recorded a decade later, and on the other side of the world (Australia and New Zealand), but wholly characteristic of him in the 1940s as well:
Stravinsky, who spoke with the mental agility and energy of a much younger man, said that he did not compose music for any particular group of people. “I feel I need to speak, and, surely, I speak to someone who needs it.” Asked why he had never set to music a poem by his friend T.S. Eliot,35 Stravinsky replied: “I have thought about it. But his words…do not need music: I can find notes for Shakespeare because he wrote the words for singing.36 Eliot’s are for speaking.”…On his own early works, Stravinsky stated that “My attitude to them is just to leave them alone; I am moving, they are probably not moving.”…Stravinsky moves in a world that takes no account of geography. His compositions are unaffected by the accident of where he may be living at the time. “I compose under the influence of ideas, and climate cannot change my ideas or my technique.”
Someone mentioned that as recently as 1952 people at a melbourne concert had walked out on The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky replied: “Only nine years ago?…But fifty years ago was the time to walk out on it, not nine years ago.”
“When I die, I leave you my music…. It is music that followed rules that were not written, but I hope I have added something new to what was existing.”
(This is the third of four essays on Stravinsky.)
August 8, 1974
Both remarks should interest brain physiologists. However superior the development of the right hemisphere (artistic ability, the simultaneous—versus the sequential—processing of information, etc.), the left hemisphere (logical thought, the analytical use of language, etc.) must have evolved to an almost equal degree in Stravinsky’s case. Both sides possess the same potential in children, and perhaps the same is true in artistic geniuses as well. In his seventy-fifth year Stravinsky suffered a thrombosis (“ischaemic episode in the basilar artery”) that left him with a permanent right hemiparesis affecting his spatial orientation and other functions controlled by the “right” brain; yet in the months following he composed Agon. ↩
The Musical Digest, Hollywood, September, 1946. ↩
While in New York Stravinsky had told an interviewer, “In jazz you have something that is not the result of ostentatious theorizing, that almost sneaked in on us from an out-on-the-corner cabaret . We don’t like to admit it, but real music has such simple origins . I have written something in the jazz rhythm. It is not really rag. It is a portrait of rag” (Musical America, January 10, 1925). ↩
The American reaction to Stravinsky’s ballets is described by Ansermet in a letter from Philadelphia to the composer in Morges, March, 1916. ↩
The ensemble’s second violinist, Alfred Pochon, kept Stravinsky informed of American interest in his music and sent the bemused press notices that the “Three Pieces” received in every city in which the work was played. The Flonzaleys later commissioned and gave the first performance of the Concertino, in New York, November 3, 1920. ↩
Otto Kahn was both responsible for the story and one of the initiators of the sustentation fund. ↩
“What seemed somewhat strange to me [in Perséphone] was the syllabic declamation. This shocked my sense of the language, which is not made up of syllables but rather of words provided with certain tonic accents. In the performance, however, I noticed that the music made one forget its syllabic nature, the vocal and orchestral parts bringing into focus a certain bucolic character” (from a letter, Ansermet to Stravinsky, July 25, 1966). ↩
“The idea for this ballet entered my head one evening in a fiacre while I was on my way to visit some friends. I was so delighted that I stopped the driver and invited him to have a drink with me” (Le Jour, Paris, February 3, 1938). ↩
Stravinsky used to quote Dickens in justification of his own preference for discussions of financial rather than artistic matters with a certain mealy-mouthed type of patron: “Apropos Charles Dickens’s visit to America, the people who had invited him to lecture here were astonished, it seems, about his interest in fees and contracts. ‘Money is not a shocking thing to an artist,’ Dickens insisted” (op. cit. fn. 2). ↩
The Washington Post, March 24, 1935. ↩
Apart from a brief message in English, read on a national broadcast from New York in 1935, Stravinsky’s first public dissertation in that language took place in Beverly Hills, August 11, 1940—for a women’s organization. His press conferences were exclusively in English beginning in 1939: “English—pretty pure and extensively articulate—was the only language Stravinsky would talk at all,” Alfred Frankenstein wrote of one of these, in San Francisco, January 6, 1942. As for English style, the same critic remarked of a lecture by Stravinsky at Mills College two years later: “In essence it was another exposition of the principles of definiteness, specificality, clarity, and scientific self-consciousness that run all through Stravinsky’s writings.” ↩
Alexis (“Woof”) Kall, Stravinsky’s secretary, was a friend of the composer from school days in St. Petersburg, and one of the very few people—Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Walter Nouvel, and Picasso were the only others—whom Stravinsky tutoyer-ed. Cocteau, having forced the issue—to Stravinsky’s great annoyance—was a special case. ↩
“The futurists no longer interest me, nor the passists, and I never eat leftovers. I live in the present. St. Augustine wrote a masterpiece about [the importance of doing just] that” (Paris Soir, March 4, 1938). ↩
This was for political reasons; Stravinsky never liked Hindemith’s music, and the devastating description of Das Marienleben (in a letter of September 9, 1923, a report on the general situation in Germany where “Kubismus still goes arm in arm with the Impressionismus of Schoenberg”) applied, for Stravinsky, to all of the younger composer’s works. ↩
Schoenberg’s Septet, which Stravinsky heard in Venice, September 9, 1937, greatly interested him, but his statement in La Noche, Barcelona, March 12, 1936, accurately conveys his view of Schoenberg until 1948: ↩
Stravinsky first heard music by Sauguet in 1924, and after that frequently mentioned him as an outstanding French composer. In Prague, February 23, 1930, for example, Stravinsky made a point of recommending Sauguet, in an interview otherwise remarkable for the following allusion to the Schoenberg school: “Mahler has had many descendants.” ↩
Haydn, in fact, was the composer whom Stravinsky most revered at the time. “My new symphony is severe in form, like Haydn, yet not so good as Haydn,” Stravinsky told the New York Post (April 13, 1940); and, shortly before the premiere of the Four Norwegian Moods, the composer informed an AP reporter that the new work had been written “after studying Norwegian folklore . I used a style similar to that employed by Joseph Haydn in his treatment of folk material.” The Montreal Gazette (March 3, 1945) noted that “after drawing a comparison between Haydn and Mozart in favor of Haydn, Stravinsky hastily added: ‘I would not for a single moment criticize a measure of Mozart’s music. That is something beyond my capacity . [But] Haydn was the great inventor. He possessed in the highest degree two indispensable constituents, invention and method.’ “ ↩
He saw Fantasia a second time at the Disney Studios, October 12, 1940, and on this occasion Mrs. Stravinsky’s diary records that her husband was “appalled.” Nevertheless, on October 28, the composer sold an option to Disney for Renard, Fireworks, and The Firebird, no doubt realizing that the music would never be used. In Boston, a few months later, “Disney’s New England representative” wrote to Stravinsky requesting an interview “on your impressions of Mr. Disney’s handling of The Rite of Spring, or, if you do not care to go so far, just talk for a short while about your visit to Mr. Disney’s studio.” ↩
In January, 1944, the composer told a Boston newspaperman that it was impossible to compose film music “if you want to be responsible for your own work”—a remark that also explains Stravinsky’s opposition to the trend of the 1960s involving improvisation by the performer. ↩
The former Mme Serge Sudeikine, a new view of whom is given in John Malmstad’s biography of Kuzmin (the poet having been a close friend of Mme Sudeikine and her husband in St. Petersburg, 1915-1917). ↩
On the application, in answer to the question concerning his occupation, Stravinsky wrote, “I am striving to be a creative artist .” ↩
In December, 1940, the New York World-Telegram reported that Stravinsky was frequenting the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where he especially relished the solo licks (“when the players go by themselves”). ↩
Writing to Stravinsky on July 18, 1919, Ansermet portrays Diaghilev, at table, holding forth on the novelty of the instrumentation of Les Noces: “With an audience hanging on his every word, Diaghilev says, with an air fin: ‘Our avant-garde painters continue to paint on canvases, as other painters do, nor do they feel compelled to demolish the theater in order to achieve something new. Mais ce brave Stravinsky, under the pretext of simplifying my task, does not employ the orchestra that we already have but asks for four musicians, one of whom can only be found in Honolulu, another in Budapest, and the other two God knows where.’ “ ↩
In interviews at the time, however, Stravinsky said that he had not intended “a contribution to the American scene” but had had ToulouseLautrec in mind. ↩
The first quotation is from a draft of a letter to Koussevitsky, April 9, 1943, the second from a letter, September 27, 1943, to the Boston Symphony program annotator. But the true story of the Ode is manifestly different from Stravinsky’s published reminiscences of it, nor can these be understood in turn without some knowledge of the background between the composer and the conductor, as well as of Stravinsky’s contempt for conductors generally. “Careerists and intriguers” is his definition of them, in a letter to Ansermet, June, 1932, and even Monteux, never criticized by Stravinsky in print, becomes, in the composer’s correspondence, a “mesquin et vaniteux individu.” ↩
Whiteman offered a commission to Stravinsky in 1925, which the composer was tempted to accept partly because at that time Whiteman had a cimbalomist. ↩
Letter of October 13, 1919. ↩
Op. cit. footnote 2. ↩
Letter to Samuel Dushkin, December 29, 1941. ↩
These are mere agenda in later years, but at the beginning they record some of Stravinsky’s remarks: thus, returning from a rehearsal in Pittsburgh, January 25, 1940: “I cleaned the orchestra like with toothbrushes.” ↩
The bulk of Stravinsky’s own correspondence is concerned with business matters. The largest exchange of personal letters in the decade is with this writer, beginning in February, 1944. ↩
Stravinsky repeatedly denied the truth of the encounter with Gershwin that Warner Brothers hoped to recreate on film. (Cf. Stravinsky’s reply, July 17, 1959, to an inquiry concerning Boris Morros’s supposed role in the affair.) Yet witnesses to the incident—Richard Hammond, for one—have testified that it did indeed occur, in the Paris apartment of the violinist Paul Kochansky. (Gershwin is said to have asked Stravinsky for lessons in composition, and been answered with a question about income. When Gershwin named a sum in six figures, Stravinsky is reported to have said: “In that case it is I who should take lessons from you.”) But better stories than this one about Stravinsky and money occur regularly in his letters. Writing to Alexander Benois about the division of royalties from Petrushka, for example, Stravinsky argues that “the author of the music usually receives three fourths, the author of the libretto one fourth, but since you and I are splitting the authorship in half, then each of us will get a half of this quarter” (November 21, 1911). ↩
Stravinsky’s lawyer in 1948, Aaron Sapiro, urged him not to compose the opera on the grounds that it would make him an accessory to “the homosexual joke of Baba the Turk.” But Stravinsky had understood Baba from the beginning, as well as the libretto’s other problems, which he defended against every criticism including that of the highest. Thus T.S. Eliot: “I am even doubtful whether distinction as a poet is any qualification for a librettist. To be quite frank I was not happy with Wystan Auden’s libretto for The Rake’s Progress. Apart from incidental criticisms, my chief objection was that I thought he had combined unsuccessfully two quite different themes, the first that of Hogarth and the second that of the traditional contract with the devil” (letter to Stravinsky, March 19, 1959). ↩
He claimed a musical prerogative in all contradictions between the musical meter and the verbal stress, saying that he had done the same in his Russian vocal works. (Cf. V. Derjanovsky’s letter from Moscow, September 24, 1913: “In the Japanese Lyrics why doesn’t the musical meter correspond to the meter of the texts? If it’s your secret, tell it to me.”) But Latin, Stravinsky’s preferred language for music, after Russian, is not always accommodative to this treatment. The conductor Bernardino Molinari (who earned the highest marks Stravinsky ever gave to anyone in the profession) appears to have been the first to point out to the composer (April, 1937) that “the word kekidi is evidently a voice of the verb caedere (to kill) and not of the verb cadere (to fall). According to Latin grammar, the accent is on the second syllable and not on the first (kekídi and not kékidi). Since the accentuation kekídi is not in accord with the musical rhythm, I propose the following modification .” ↩
The Dove Descending was composed a month after this interview. ↩
This refers to the songs in the plays. Stravinsky had set Full Fadom Five and When daisies pied. ↩