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Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882 - 1934 by Stephen A. Walsh, © 1999. "A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf" New York, ISBN 0-679-41484-3. "Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.". Hard cover, 537 pages, appendix, notes, index, work list to 1935, bibliography, 16 pages b/w photographs. USD35.00. Also published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, Ltd., London. [Currently out of print at the publishers but is available in paperback from Amazon.]


(Stravinsky: The Second Exile, France and America, 1934 - 1971, ISBN 0-373-40752-9, the second volume in this set, was published in 2006. This book is reviewed at www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Oct06/Stravinsky_exile.htm)

Having read the second book in this series first, and therefore now knowing how things turned out it is fascinating in a particular way to read the first book to see things beginning in a clear understanding of how they worked themselves out. Actually, most musical readers are in somewhat the same position I am as many musical readers with an interest in this area will have read the Robert Craft conversation books and will believe they understand a lot about late Stravinsky. In his second book, Walsh makes some important correctives to the ideas in the Craft books so, if it is not necessarily better to read the second book first, it’s not really the worst idea. So rather than reviewing the second book on the basis of remembering the first, I am here reviewing the first while remembering the second.

Walsh begins by affirming his great debt—and ours—to Robert Craft as Stravinsky’s archivist and personal assistant, a necessary and tactful gesture because, over the course of the two volumes, Walsh will examine much of what Craft has published and offer in many cases differing interpretations. The reason for most of this is simply that Stravinsky was uninterested in history, most especially his own, and fabricated generously. Stravinsky wanted there never to be a biography of him written, but Walsh forthrightly disregards the composer’s wish and asserts our right to know the facts.

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born 17 June [NS], 1882, at about noon, in Oranienbaum, Russia, a summer resort a day’s journey to the west of St. Petersburg. In case you’re interested (I am) that works out to Virgo rising, Sun conjunct the asteroid Vesta in Gemini at the midheaven, Jupiter in Gemini in the Ninth House, Mars in Leo, Moon conjunct Mercury (retrograde) in Cancer in the 10th house, Uranus in Virgo in the Twelfth house in opposition to the asteroid Ceres/Persephone in Pisces at the Descendant. Of course, as we astrologers are well aware, at almost the same instant a baby was born in India and another was born in China, and these three people all led very different lives. And, as we astrologers will see over the progress of this two volume set, all of these influences manifested themselves fully in Stravinsky’s life.

His father Fyodor was a famous opera singer at the time, and Igor was named after the Prince Igor of Borodin’s opera. The family was quite well off and could afford to and did travel considerably. The elder Stravinsky acquired a huge library of philosophical books as well as opera scores; he died miserably after a long, painful struggle with bone cancer when Igor was 22. Stravinsky’s meeting with Rimsky-Korsakov was almost accidental — he befriended the distinguished composer’s son at school. Curiously, Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Stravinsky’s mother Anna that the Conservatory was not the place for Igor, and Rimsky-Korsakov gave him private lessons. Prokofiev, of course, DID go to the Conservatory, at about this same time, receiving personal guidance from Taneyev, but there no record that the two music students in the same city ever met there. Stravinsky was nine years older than Prokofiev, but began studying later in life, so there was actually only a few years difference in their beginning their careers.

Young Igor was shy, obedient, unassuming. He remembered his childhood as monotonously unhappy and oppressive. His father had been a violent-tempered tyrant. Igor was destined not for music but for the civil service and he and his mother argued constantly so that he took any excuse to be out of the house, almost living with the Rimsky-Korsakov family. There is little doubt why it was Igor’s talented older brother Roman who had been his parents’ pet; the photographs show that the resemblance between father and son was striking. Roman’s death at an early age, two years before the death of his father was a shattering blow, enough to unhinge any wife and mother. The anniversary of Roman’s death was each year the occasion for fresh mourning and a requiem service in Church. His widowed mother was obsessed about the health of her children and demanded that all communications begin with a full recital of symptoms or their absence.

Igor’s drive for freedom took urgency when his long friendship with his first cousin Yekaterina (Katya) blossomed into love. He was 24 before he had the nerve finally to marry her, and then only when the year of mourning for his father had run its course. Their honeymoon was in Finland and by the time they returned and the newlyweds had moved into the Stravinsky apartment, mother had conceded defeat and was polite if not docile. Photographs after this time show the previously retiring Igor Stravinsky, now a husband and master of his mother’s house, looking intensely, at times insolently, directly into the camera and enjoying strutting in modish clothes.

Rimsky-Korsakov was impressed with Stravinsky’s early attempts at composition, one of which was a brief cantata in honor of Rimsky-Korsakov’s birthday, and encouraged him to finish the piano sonata he was working on. When the sonata was complete, Rimsky-Korsakov was extremely pleased with it and right away committed himself to giving Stravinsky private lessons. These consisted at first of work on the orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh. Rimsky-Korsakov would ask Stravinsky to orchestrate a section, go over what he had done, then point out how he, Rimsky-Korsakov, would have done it. He also assigned Stravinsky to write a symphony, directing him to study the Glazunov Eighth Symphony and the Taneyev Fourth Symphony, both recently published. When Stravinsky’s Symphony in Eb ("Opus 1") was complete in sketch, then master and pupil worked over the score and Stravinsky revised extensively. Listening today to Glazunov and Taneyev, one sees almost no point of contact with the Stravinsky style, although the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov remains vivid to the last of his works.

Rimsky-Korsakov was gruff, stingy with praise. He never before or after took a personal pupil. His own children were not musical, and perhaps he felt that in Stravinsky he had found a son and successor. In Rimsky-Korsakov Stravinsky found a stern but approachable father who would encourage and help him in his music. Rimsky-Korsakov also found a copyist and helpmate during the composition of his final musical works. Perhaps naturally the Rimsky-Korsakov children were jealous and after the death of their father contrived to quarrel with Stravinsky and eventually break off all friendly communication. The situation is hauntingly like the Stravinsky-Craft relationship which was to cause such bitter rivalry between Robert Craft and the Stravinsky children, again only after the death of the composer.

Stravinsky was apparently completely faithful to his wife Katya until her mother moved into the house, followed not long after by his own mother moving in as well, this conflation of the families made necessary by the Russian revolution which left many completely without means. Katya’s tuberculosis which was dormant in youth had been activated by her first pregnancy, and the strain of her steadily declining health plus the responsibilities of caring for four children left her exhausted and presumably unable or at least uninterested in fulfilling her wifely duties. In a short span Stravinsky had a crush on a showgirl, for whom he wrote a piece of music, then a brazen affair with Coco Chanel, which she terminated in a publicly humiliating manner. Vera deBosset Sudeykina was married at the time she and Stravinsky began their affair, which they kept completely a secret for some time. Eventually everyone found out and after much storming during which Sudeykin threatened to kill everyone, he finally left for the U.S. and the lovers were free to meet openly. Over the next decade they both are rumored to have had affairs, but in 1940 they were married and after that lived a model of fidelity.

When Charles Ives found out that his colleague Henry Cowell was gay, Ives reacted in shock and rage and refused ever to speak to Cowell again. Some have wondered if, since Stravinsky greatly admired Tchaikovsky and Musorgsky, had many homosexual friends and collaborators throughout his European and American careers, conducted business with them, and quarreled publicly with them, did he have homosexual affairs? Walsh (as well as Craft) presents not the slightest hint of any such thing. Another suggestion comes from the fact that Vera’s husband Sudeykin was bisexual, and she may have found that attractive in him as well as in Stravinsky, but that is hardly a base for reasonable speculation. If such a thing occurred it would most likely have been when Stravinsky first arrived in Paris, but it left not the slightest evidence. In contrast, the Hamburg gay community today tells stories of the young Brahms, and this may have been one reason Brahms could never get a musical job in Hamburg and spent his later life in ultimately tolerant and forgiving Vienna - which Stravinsky despised.

If I were to find a fault in these books it is that Walsh does enjoy showing off his vocabulary and his knowledge of Russian. Keep your OED and your Larousse at hand. Brush up on your Russian nicknames. Stravinsky’s surviving brothers were named Yury and Gury, but "Gima" and "Gimochka" refer to Igor. "Seryozha" is Diaghilev. A project as huge as this is a learning experience for everyone; Walsh is a better writer at the end of volume two than he was the beginning of volume one.

There are those who say that after Sacre du Printemps Stravinsky stopped writing music or might as well have. The second book describing the gestation of the later masterpieces takes their eminence for granted. This first book describes Stravinsky’s activities, interests and feelings about music immediately before and after the Sacre, and records contemporary critical reactions. Sacre represents Stravinsky’s furthest excursion into the use of large orchestras, his legacy from Rimsky-Korsakov. When people complained that he should continue to write like that, he reacted angrily, saying that these people wanted him to go backwards, when he wanted to move forwards. He was forever wanting to explore new combinations of sounds, new forms both dramatic and absolute, for the stage and the concert hall. His early works had often been written to order, on detailed commission. His later works more likely followed his own lead. There is a famous story where he dreamed the Sacre, and later in his life he dreamed other works as well.

Stravinsky had luxurious tastes from his upper middle class upbringing in Tsarist Russia, but the Russian Revolution, WWI and WWII, and the 1929 crash created huge financial stresses, especially for a man with a large extended family and a mistress to support. He wrote his piano concerto and learned to play it because he needed the money, and he gradually learned to be a good conductor because he needed the fees from conducting his own music. Once one accepts that he worked unceasingly at composing, continually inspired, always exploring and moving into new vistas, then his work taken as a whole is seen to be more even in quality, more consistent in style, and the middle and late works can be better appreciated. He deliberately avoided allowing his personal emotions to enter into his work, and some of his most reserved works were written at times of emotional stress and crisis. The one exception to this is that when he became involved in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the thirties he for the first time set religious texts, a trend which increased in his later years.

For my own taste, after lots of listening and reading these books, I rank Stravinsky’s works as follows:

The great masterpieces, the works which, had he written only one of them, would rank him among the greatest of composers:

Sacre du Printemps (1913)

Symphony of Psalms (1930)

Threni (1958)

Firebird (1910)

Petrushka (1911)

Masterpieces:

In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954)

Symphony in Three Movements (1945)

Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924)

Apollo (1928)

Agon (1957)

L’Histoire du Soldat (1918)

Violin Concerto (1931)

Good music, the works which will probably remain in repertoire, which, had he written only these, would rank him as a composer of note:

Œdipus Rex (1927)

The Rake’s Progress (1951)

Pulcinella/Suite Italienne (1920)

Octet for Winds (1923)

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920/1948)

The Nightingale/Song of the Nightingale (1914)

Renard (1916)

Symphony in C (1940)

Concerto in D (1946)

The Fairy’s Kiss/Divertimento (1928)

Vom Himmel Hoch Variations (1956)

Les Noces (1922)

Fireworks (1909)

Scherzo for Orchestra (1908)

Pastorale (1907)

Some works are difficult to evaluate, good in part but uneven in quality. These are controversial:

Persephone (1934)

Canticum Sacrum (1955)

Requiem Canticles (1966)

Sermon, Narrative and Prayer (1961)

Symphony in Eb (1908)

"Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto (1938)

Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959)

Some of his music is simply not very interesting, however one might admire the skill involved. These are the works which will probably not survive, which will become footnotes. One such work is his chamber opera Mavra, pronounced a failure at its premier and hardly played since. Babel, written for a film, The Flood, written for television, and Abraham and Isaac, his first setting of the Hebrew language, may be others. These works are generally only performed and recorded in "complete" surveys of his music.

This is a lot of music, a lot of amazingly fine music in varied styles. It is noteworthy compared in originality, variety and extent to the lifetime output of, say, Sibelius, or Vaughan Williams, two other composers who lived approximately as long at about the same time. Although I once shook hands with Milhaud and with Erich Leinsdorf, argued in a hallway with Lukas Foss, chatted with Paul Chihara at a party at Alden Ashforth’s, gave Randy Rhodes a horoscope reading, literally bumped into Iain Hamilton in a theater lobby, most important to me was watching and hearing Stravinsky conduct at the podium from my seat in the balcony in Royce Hall. That is the closest to greatness I’ve personally ever been.

Paul Shoemaker

 



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