Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky; drawing by David Levine

[1919] A true creator should not lose his time discoursing about the tendencies and consequences of his art….1 [1926] And I do not want to be a critic. I am in the world to create my own way….2

[1937] We do not know about the future. The future does not exist; it is something that will exist. One supposes it will exist. What will exist? The music that has always existed will always exist. If you ask me about the music of the future, I cannot say because this is music that does not yet exist….3 [1929] As for the past, I prefer to refrain from pronouncing on that, since it no longer exists. And I try to abstain from speaking of the present, not being certain of the justice of my judgments, since I am in them myself.4

[1926] What is “modern”? Who is modern? No doubt everyone now living and working considers himself modern. Of course, there are some who live with yesterday’s wigs on their heads. Yet they are exceptions. Most of us try to give, or to contribute, something fresh and new, man always being under the influence of growth…. In France one speaks of a “Compositeur de la musique,” which seems quite enough. In my passport, I have purposely put “inventor and composer of music” as my occupation. Thus a composer is not only an architect but also an inventor, and he should not build houses in which he cannot live. I fear that many such houses are being built today. After all, anybody can compose, and if one is even slightly talented, the absence of the “inventor” may be overlooked.5

[1948] The workmanship was much better in Bach’s time than it is now. One had first to be a craftsman. Now we have only “talent.” We do not have the absorption in detail, the burying of oneself [in craftsmanship] to be resurrected a great musician.6

[1936] There are different ways of loving and of “appreciating” music. One of them…I would call selfish love, that which asks music for general emotions such as joy, sorrow, the subjects of dreams…. But why not love music for itself? Why not love it as one loves a painting—for the good qualities of the painting, the design, the composition? Why not give music a value in itself, independent of sentiments and images?…Music does not need an adjuvant…. Nothing is more difficult to talk about than music, and the moment one leaves the ground of its technique, one plunges into a wave where one founders [“on plonge dans le vague et on divague“]. Robert Schumann, than whom few can have thought more deeply on the subject, concluded by declaring that in music nothing can be “proven.”7

[1926] That which is unnatural in form can be mystifying, which is the reason why one stands with some respect before those skyscrapers whose entrances are on the roof and whose tops are on the street. But such structures cannot have lasting value. The machine-man is possible, of course, but only where there is no soul. Besides, he would be interesting only for a very short time.8

[1936]…Style is not a framework into which the…work is inserted, but the work itself. Form is not a means to an end…but creation itself…. Human work is conceivable only in form…. The Russian word stroi, loosely translated as “agreement” [expresses what I mean]; we need a working “agreement” between ourselves and the surrounding chaos…. When I compose, a great number of musical combinations occur to me. I have to choose and to select. But what standards should I use? Simply that only one form pleases me and the others do not….9

[1937] It is harder to be a composer than anything else in the world today, first because of the many noises which one must hear and guard against. The streets, the neighbors, the radios—even when the radio is turned off, the vibrations that I know are going on everywhere, waiting to be released in…malevolent sounds from that little box, have the power to disturb. But it has always been difficult to be a composer. A doctor confirmed for me that inside one’s ears are the instruments for balancing the whole body. One tiny muscle there is drawn tightly all the time with the effort to receive and transmit the sensations made by the music I am hearing in my mind, together with the impressions or interruptions from the outside, and this affects the whole nervous system. Sometimes I have staggered when I got up to walk about after a long period of concentration on composition.10

[1953] When music is not so noisy we feel better, our nerves are better, our nostrils feel better. At home I compose on an…upright piano, muted, covered with felt; then I hear everything. I can enjoy….11

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[1939]…even when I do not feel like work, I sit down to it just the same. I cannot wait for inspiration, and inspiration at best is a force brought into action by effort…. Understanding is given only to those who make the active effort, and listening is not enough.12

[1926] When I start a work, an idea from inside has taken me, and, when starting, I may see the end or the middle but not the beginning. That has always to be found, has to be developed in the spirit of the composition, that discovery of the correct entrance to a piece.13

[1946] I wish people would let me have the privilege of being a little bit unconscious. It is so nice sometimes to go blind, just with the feeling for the right thing.14

[1928] The idea of the Concerto was not spontaneous…which is to say that at the beginning of the composition I did not see that it would take the form of a Concerto for piano and orchestra. Only gradually, while already composing, did I understand that the musical material could be used to most advantage in the piano, whose neat, clear sonority and polyphonic resources suited the dryness and neatness which I was seeking in the structure of the music I had composed…. I never said that my Concerto was written in the style of the seventeenth century. I did say that, while composing it, I encountered some of the same problems as the musicians of the seventeenth century, and also Bach. What are these problems? They are purely technical and refer to the form: how to build with the musical material that comes from my brain—themes, melodies, rhythms—everything that has power in a spirit dedicated to musical creation…. Beethoven had other problems, and you can readily see that those of my Concerto have nothing in common with his, just as Philippe de Champaigne had nothing in common with Delacroix.15

[1925] I was born under Das Wohl-temperiertes Clavier, and I write in the well-tempered scale. I have heard some of these experiments, Alois Haba and the rest. It seems to be like ordinary music just a little false—Es klingt falsch—all they succeed in writing is quarter-tone Brahms.16 [1930] I hear only in half-tones. Quarter-tones sound to me like portamentos, or glissandos between [half-tones]….17 [1937] Once when I was calling on Hindemith in Berlin he invited me to inspect a quarter-tone piano. It was an instrument that had been specially constructed in Berlin. It looked like any other piano, but with two keyboards—two floors…. Each half-tone had its division into halves; the first division on the upper floor, the other on the lower. After a few minutes I had no difficulty in thinking in quarter-tones, since it’s the same thing: turn everything into quarter-tones and you have the identical thing.

As soon as you had got accustomed to the quarter-tones and comprehended what they are capable of, you found it was a construction that had always existed in your head…. Through quarter-tones we are richer in the number of notes. But being richer in notes we are not richer in any other respect. We are enriched only unilaterally…. It is true that the Orientals have the small intervals…but we are not Orientals. Our music stems from the Greeks, and it is not easy to make over an educational system that has lasted for thousands of years. We would have to be made over ourselves…. The Oriental is attached to the symbol, the religious idea; he is concerned with the symbol of thought. To the Oriental, each melody must have a significance before he can accept it. So long as the melody presents the symbol, though in their procedure it presents nothing harmonically, the Oriental approves of it….18

[1926]…Atonality, polytonality, those do not concern me, and in fact I think that polytonality is nonsense; I have not been able to find anyone who could perpetuate this principle…. But nothing should be done according to theory.19

[1930] The sixth, mi-sol-do, is not at all the “inversion” of the fifth, do-mi-sol, but an entirely new chord with its own character and expressive construction: a third becomes a fourth…. Beethoven and the other old masters understood the character of the sixth perfectly clearly, of course, but the great art of a Palestrina in changing chords by suppressing and doubling notes has fallen into decline…. Composition was governed by merciless laws then, nevertheless they cultivated a taste that enabled people to distinguish good from bad. 20

[1930] Instrumentation? One instrumentates first and orchestrates afterward, arriving at mixtures of colors…. But what interests me is this: to place the music in the instruments. Each instrument must receive the music for which it has the best voice….21 [1925] But I don’t care if you count out tone color altogether and simply give me a piano. Cannot everything be said on the piano that needs to be?22

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[1950]…I had to go through an extensive overhauling of whole sections of [the] piano reduction [of The Rake’s Progress]. My idea in doing this has been not only to give the piano reduction a better pianistic [style] but also and mainly to bring it acoustically closer to my original orchestra score…. Don’t waste your time in putting in instrumental indications as they only make the score harder to read. Besides, with my music, one cannot have the right idea by reading a vocal score where the instrumentation is given only piecemeal….23

[1928] Every revolution presupposes a doctrine. I had none when I was composing Le Sacre du printemps. I simply wanted to speak my own language, which might seem new, and, at first, incomprehensible, since it was contrary to certain rules, customs, and especially certain clichés. For me this new language was perfectly natural, but to others it seemed revolutionary….24

[1921]…in my stage works…I have always endeavored to find an architectural basis of connection. I produce music itself. Whenever music itself is not the aim, music suffers…. I have never made applied music of any kind. Even in the early days in The Firebird I was concerned with a purely musical construction.25

[1937, letters to Ernest Ansermet] Jeu de Cartes, played in concert, no more warrants cuts than does Apollo…. Although related to the dance, the form of the music is strictly symphonic, [nor is] there any descriptive element illustrating scenic action that might hinder the sense of the symphonic development…. What particularly surprises me is that you are attempting to convince me to make these cuts…. The absurd cut which you suggest completely spoils my little March. You are not chez vous, mon cher…[and] I never said to you, “well, you have my score and you may do whatever parts of it that please you.”… Either you play Jeu de Cartes as it is, or you do not play it at all.26

[1917, letter to Léon Bakst] Since I am definitely not in a position to take a direct part in your production of Anthony and Cleopatra [in Gide’s translation], my role will naturally amount to composing a certain quantity of musical numbers. Therefore, I must talk seriously with you or with Gide, for I really want to find out how you intend to present Shakespeare. If, as I suspect, you are going to stage him in the spirit of the sumptuous settings of Saint Sébastien or Helen Spartanskaya, then I definitely cannot imagine a link between the music I would be interested in composing and such a treatment of Shakespeare. I do not feel capable of composing “mood” music, like Debussy’s Saint Sébastien, no matter how good in itself. Therein lies the most important question.27

[1928] [You say that] “Petrushka inaugurated a new era and made us forget the suavities of Impressionism.” Well, that is for music history not for me to decide. But why should we forget what was good in Impressionism? It is enough to forget the bad. If I did not continue in that direction, this was because it was contrary to my nature, and because it seemed to me that what Impressionism had to say had already been said….28 [1928] So far as the story is concerned, Petrushka—whether pianist, musician, or poet—becomes involved in the most banal plot. But the focus of the action is the Charlatan, the realistic spirit who reveals that Petrushka is full of sawdust. The Charlatan does not hear the melodies in Petrushka’s heart, or see the pictures in his soul, but instead makes commerce out of him. This is sometimes called symbolism. But let us call it truth, since the poet never dies.29

[1948] Practical restrictions I have always welcomed, psychological restrictions, no! People say to me, “Create atmosphere.” Comment? Create atmosphere. How can one? I am ashamed. I blush. I am absolutely incompetent to create atmosphere, I say to them. You must create atmosphere from what I write. I cannot artificate.30

[1924] The reason that I cannot grant permission to Picasso to construct a “représentation plastique” on my Octuor is that as a symphonic piece the work is already presented to the auditor in a plastic form.31

[1935] I feel myself to be far from the aesthetic of Fokine…. One evolves, and I have the luck to have very little memory, which is what enables me to begin each new step of my life forgetting the past. We were saturated with Classicism at the time [of Fokine’s first ballets], and today it has returned with a new and doubly powerful fervor…. I consider Petipa to be the greatest artist of all, the founder of a choreographic canon without rival…. When Diaghilev asked me about the “argument” of my Apollo, I answered that none exists, and that this is the key to the mystery of Terpsichore…. What are the connections that unite and that separate music and dance? In my opinion the one does not serve the other. There must be a harmonious accord, a synthesis of ideas. Let us speak, on the contrary, of the struggle between music and choreography….32

[1928] As to the question of the title of my new ballet, I stick firmly to “Apollon Musagète” and I deduce that the conversation which you have had about this was with Diaghilev…; but it is absurd to say that the words “Apollon” and “Musagète” constitute a pleonasm, “Apollon” being a name and “Musagète” a function. “Musagète” means conducteur of the Muses, not constructeur; the Muses, after all, are not houses…. What really displeases Diaghilev is that America will give the premiere and he wants to find something wrong with the title, which he would like to change for his premiere in Paris. I am certain that this is true, knowing Diaghilev very well. 33

[Francis Poulenc: One day I came to see Stravinsky while he was composing Apollo (1927). He had discovered the poet Boileau, which seems somewhat odd.34 But Stravinsky thought that Boileau was a marvelous poet. “Do you like Boileau?” I asked. He said:] “What is wonderful is that I have found in the Art poétique exactly the couplet that I needed to fill an exergue under the title for a variation of one of my muses.”35

[1920] The music [of Pulcinella] will be by Monsieur Stravinsky-Pergolesi.36 [1935] The ballet is an original composition that completely transforms the elements borrowed from Pergolesi. Pulcinella is not a harmonization or orchestration—which terms constitute the usual meaning of “arrangement”—but a true composition in its own right, the borrowed material having been developed in an original way.37

[1930] I discovered a new Tchaikovsky, one whom I defend against the success of his Fifth Symphony…. Just as a good portrait contains as much of the artist—if he is not a mere copyist—as of his model, so my Tchaikovsky portrait contains Stravinsky….38 [1922] [Tchaikovsky] is reproached for “vulgarity.” But it seems to me that to be “vulgar” is not to be in one’s proper place, and surely Tchaikovsky’s art, devoid as it is of all pretentiousness, cannot be accused of this fault…. The “pathos” in his music is a part of his nature, not the pretension of an artistic ideal….39 [1928] This evening or tomorrow you should receive the copy of the two-hand piano score of the first tableau of Tchaikovsky’s posthumous La Vierge des Glaciers.40 [1928] The program of the Monte Carlo winter season is posted everywhere around here, and on it is emblazoned “Le Baiser de la fée by Yegor Stravinsky, music to a tale by Andersen.” First of all, my name is well enough known not to call me “Yegor.” Furthermore, I alone am the author of the libretto, not Andersen, of whom not even a hint has remained….41

[1934]…historical and ethnographic exactitude are not of great importance. What does matter is precisely the naïve and dangerous wish (velléité) to imitate what was created instinctively by the genius of a people.42 [1949] The Greek myths have always attracted me…they feed the creative imagination…. But I visualized the character of this music [Orpheus] as a long, sustained, slow chant, composed independently of any folkloristic elements…. Even if I knew ancient Greek music, this would be of no use to me. The…painters of the Renaissance rendered the stories of ancient Greece or of the Bible in the European landscapes and costumes of their own time….43

[1938] Movements of all sorts may be introduced into the dance, but on condition that the canons of the dance and its immutable laws are respected….44 [1954] I proposed to George Balanchine…that he give me carte blanche to do a new ballet [Agon] for them. I told him that he had done so well in adjusting dances to symphonies that I would like to write a special symphony with the dance in mind. It is to be a dancing symphony….45

[1953] [Though difficult to record], the voice is perfect on the telephone. Now I will tell you a funny story. In St. Peterburg, when I was twenty-two, I was a private pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. The telephone was new then, and he had the telephone the same time that we had the telephone. I called him every day and he called me. One day I called and said, “Nikolai Andreyevich, can I come to see you tomorrow at three?” “Of course,” he said, “That’s all right. But you smell of wine.” So we laughed together. A great invention, this telephone, so new, so perfect, that when you listen you can smell wine.46

[1960] [When] I am asked “Who is the best conductor?”…I answer “myself,” without blushing. I don’t like performances made without my personal touch.47 [1935] It is fifteen years that I have tried to perform my music as often as possible myself…. A composer can be “interpreted” by another conductor, but his music can be “realized” faithfully only by himself.48

[1930] The gift of precision and the rhythmic sense that the French people possess in the highest degree should not be neglected and for this reason I want you49 to inherit the right tempo from me.50

[1927] I received a letter from Stokowski in which he says that…he wishes to study the Sacre and, if I am willing, to record it. Unless this recording has already been made I am very eager to stop him, not being at all confident of his tempi. You understand that, unlike a concert performance, a recording is definitive….51

[1933] Dear Seriozha [Prokofiev]: I send this clipping, which appeared recently in the Paris newspapers. I suppose that your interpretation of your joke in the album of the Warsaw woman had another character than the one given to it by these unknown-to-me slanderers in the newspapers. Surely it cannot have been your intention to laugh at me as a pianist—for, after all, I play only my own compositions—or even as a conductor. My hand, drawn in the album,52 both plays and conducts, and not so shamefully, I think, that people make stupid and nasty fun of me. No doubt many people object to my activity as a performer, but it is the only way to avoid the grimaces of other interpreters of my music. Devotedly and with love, Igor Stravinsky. 53

[1938] I went to see [Ravel] before the body was placed in the coffin. He lay on a table that was draped in black, a white turban around his head (which had been shaved for the trepanation of the cranium), dressed in a black suit, and wearing white gloves. His arms seemed as long as his body. The wrinkles were black in his very pale face, but this had an expression of great majesty. I went to the interment—a lugubrious experience, these civil burials where everything is banned except protocol….54

[1936] I happen to be a believer; but I do not think that this has anything to do with music. I have been endowed with musical gifts and I know that I must make the best possible use of them. But that is the limit, so far as I see it, of the relationship between metaphysics and art…. Music is not an instrument of divine knowledge….55

[1925] Please do not think that I do not admire [Chopin]…. [But] I have higher honor and admiration for the great Liszt whose immense talent in composition is often underrated.56 [1939] Liszt is a more interesting composer than Wagner…. [I have] great feeling for Brahms…. You always sense the overpowering wisdom of this great artist even in his least inspired works…..57 [1929] What the public likes in Brahms is the sentiment. What I like has another, architectonic basis.58

[1931] What shall I do? One part of the press says that I should continue to shock. Another part says that now I am making the right music since I have started to compose like Verdi. They are actually unable to hear that I am doing something different altogether!59 [1935] Verdi! Verdi! the great, the mighty Verdi. How many beautiful things there are in his early works as well as in the final ones. I admire him unconditionally, a truly great composer! I prefer Verdi to all other music of the nineteenth century.60

[1960] Russia is a very conservative and old country for music. It was new just before the Soviets.61 [1935] The style of Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mzensk is extremely disturbing, and the score is a work of lamentable provincialism in which the music simply serves as illustration. But it was acclaimed [in New York] by a bewitched public…. In Paris two years ago his First Symphony made a far better impression on me than this opera has done.62

[1930] The influence of Prokofiev [on Markevitch’s Rebus] is discernible and should already have been shed…. Since the technique is strong enough, the explanation for the failure of the piece should not be looked for in that direction…. The young composer is not a Wunderkind but an Altklug.63

[1961] I went to a concert here [Los Angeles] of Soviet music…with utterly hopeless pieces by Tikhon Krennikov and Kara Karaev…. Never have I heard such rubbish…and of course I could not leave…. I am obliged to smile but would like to vomit….64 The U.S.S.R. is a nightmare, a madhouse. Stockhausen goes there with pianists, and Nadia Boulanger—why the hell does she have to go there?—and a festival of my music takes place, while Yudina,65 who is really devoted to my music, cannot even cross the border.66

[1960] I have read Dr. Zhivago in Russian and am saddened and disappointed by the book. It is awfully old and reminds me of Peredvishniky.67 How strange to have written such a book after the event of James Joyce.68

[1952] I had time before leaving New York to fix with Auden the main lines of an opera [Delia] in one act…. Auden is “blue-printing” the libretto, and he will complete it with Kallman when the latter (whose collaboration is very valuable) will be back. The theme is…a celebration of Wisdom in a manner comparable to Ben Jonson’s Masques. Nevertheless, we will not stick to any set style musically or otherwise. The opera will require about 6 characters; a small chorus, a chamber ensemble of about 18; several tableaux.69

[1956] Ernest Ansermet:…Stravinsky tried to persuade me to interest myself in serial music, notably in the works of Webern: “They are pearls,” he told me. “But, my dear Igor, I am writing a book which shows that this music is contrary to the laws of hearing…. Sounds are organized in their simultaneity as well as successively. Suppose that the author of a play…assigned each syllable of a phrase to a different actor and directed all of the actors to speak them at the same time, would you understand the phrase?” “Certainly not,” he said, “but…it would be an effect.”…”Agreed,” I said, “but in music the effects must have a clear significance.” Stravinsky…answered me, in a bass voice: “You know that I pay attention to harmony; in the horizontal, one arranges the ‘file’ as one wants, but the vertical assemblages are something else. They must justify themselves before God!”70

[1964] I wanted the Hebrew [of Abraham and Isaac] to be sung in a different manner than in the religious tradition, which is fixed. I did the same thing in Russian. My Noces is not sung like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, after all…. The baryton has a double role, that of a narrator, who tells the story, and that of a singer, who comments…. The language led me to employ appoggiaturas, as in Arab chant, for example in the repetition of the vowel a-a-a-a…. As for the serialism, that is perfectly natural; it is the other way which is exhausted. I cannot do otherwise…. Schoenberg understood this.71

[1960] [The public sees continuity in my later music] like people recognize my face even though it is older.72

[1935]…I have never forgotten my youth, and I do not regret it. I have not yet reached the age where, all too often, people live only in the past; I still look ahead with joy. Let us suppose that a miracle occurred and made me twenty years younger—something that I am very far from desiring. Would I then be a living anachronism, looking older than I am in reality? Do you see how ridiculous are those wrinkled revolutionaries who did not progress but continued to repeat themselves over and over and to fight blindly for ideas long since dead? I detest artificial youth and plastic aesthetic surgery, internal as well as external…. It is revolting to see older people flattering the young, when this flattery is dictated only by the fear of being regarded as backward. Do the old ever consider what a cruel disappointment they are preparing for the young when, egotistically, they fail to guide them but, instead, flatter them today and drop them tomorrow? Goethe said: “The greatest art in life is to endure.” Finally, why…give a pejorative sense to “Le Sacre d’Automne“? The season of the harvest is beautiful, the season of Pomona is full of riches, a blessed season, certainly worthy of a Sacre.73

Copyright © 1977, Trapezoid, Inc.

Letters:

This Issue

March 17, 1977