by Jonathan Cross
Published October 2015
Critical Lives series ISBN 978-78023-494-6 Reaktion Books
Jonathan Cross, an Oxford musicologist and expert in the analysis of modern and contemporary music, has already given us two books and other articles on Stravinsky aimed at a specialist audience. Fear not - here he offers a short biography aimed at a general audience, and it is a very successful one. The series to which it belongs is called ‘Critical Lives’ and critique is exactly what we have here – not only of the music but of the man and his cultural milieu in Russia, Switzerland, France and America. The treatment is broadly chronological, but not always strictly so. Though this involves the author in occasional repetition, (Stravinsky’s beloved nanny dies twice, on page 20 and on page 70), it gives each chapter a strong focus on a key place, period and group of compositions. It is strengthened by some supportive picture research, so that when we read about Isadora Duncan, Bakst’s famous drawing is there on the facing page.
The range of cultural reference is very impressive; cities, buildings, paintings, books, religion, and fashion - even Coco Chanel’s ‘little black dress’ struts in as a corollary of the stripping away of ornament and excess found in Stravinsky’s neo-classical works. Why not, given the importance the composer gave to sartorial matters (“tonight I shall wear a sincere tie”), and his alleged affair with Coco. The sense of place is often palpable, from the early years in the apartment on the Kryukov Canal in St. Petersburg, through to the last days in New York and the obsequies in Venice. This is more than the mere picturesque evocation of a life and times, for we often learn just how these cultural elements relate to Stravinsky’s musical development, and how he responded to such stimuli. There is a strong sense here that when Stravinsky shut the door on his sophisticated world and sat down to compose, his world was still with him. A different life and times, and the notes would have been different too.
You can’t be a cultural icon without contributing to culture (well, not until recently), and the music has pride of place throughout. All the major works are given their due. This is quite an achievement in a relatively short space, for there are over a hundred works and very few are negligible. You can’t write just about the biggest pieces, for only a handful of them are over half-an hour long, and a great many are highly concentrated. So how do you choose? Cross wisely focuses on the main themes and turning points, such as the Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, Oedipus Rex and the Cantata representing respectively modernism, neo-classicism (and Art Deco), classical Greece and the serial turn. He does some justice though to many other works, such as the relentlessly exuberant Les Noces and the wonderful Symphonies of Wind Instruments – rarely can a short work have wielded such influence as the latter, as Cross has shown in an earlier book on the composer. I almost forgive him for giving much precious space to the biggest work of all, the opera The Rake’s Progress, where it seems to me the invention burns at a lower temperature than the Stravinskian norm, at least until the very affecting third act. There are no musical examples and only the occasional use of technical terminology, such is when describing the harmony of Les Noces as a “blend of anhemitonic, diatonic, and octatonic scale forms” (I had to look up the first of those). The musical descriptions are mostly quite accessible to general readers, as well as thought-provoking for those who know this oeuvre well. Above all he writes about these pieces in a way that makes you want to listen to them again, surely one of the touchstones of good writing about music.
The author is clearly at home in the vast Stravinsky literature, but wears that learning lightly. The seminal work of Richard Taruskin on Stravinsky's relationship to the musical and folkloric traditions of his native land is drawn upon, as is that of Tamara Levitz on the neo-classical phase, especially Persephone. Cross is not content merely to summarise the latest thinking, but has personal insights to add. In particular he sees virtually the whole of the composer’s work, whatever mask he adopts, as a lament for his dislocation from his homeland, an abiding regret for his perennial defining status as émigré. In this light every use of bell sounds, chants, folk references, elegiac codas, and ritual forms takes on a different perspective. Perhaps that elegiac feeling was also an inheritance from Mother Russia common to all his class, in exile or not. His stylistic antipode Rachmaninov liked to use bells sounds and chants, and wrote all that music dripping with nostalgia for a lost paradise while still safe in Russia with no hint of the turmoil to come. Frolova-Walker has recently shown how the ‘quintessentially Russian musical tradition’ was itself in part a self-conscious fabrication by nationalist figures.
Stravinsky the man gets much less sympathy here than Stravinsky the composer, as Cross is much less forgiving than the composer’s shamefully neglected first wife seems to have been. The charge sheet on page 14 is forbidding: “the philandering, the avarice, the anti-Semitism, the snobbery, the narcissism, the cruelty, the hypochondria, the vulnerability”. All this has been substantiated since the composer died, and the list might well have included his poor record as parent, friend and musical colleague. At least the last gave rise to some characteristic waspish wit. On hearing Boulez’s Flute Sonatina Stravinsky remarked “let’s hope he doesn’t write a Sonata”. We know this sort of thing because Stravinsky’s surrogate son and musical amanuensis,
the late Robert Craft was there to record it, and our debt to Craft is immense. That relationship and its literary legacy is itself now part of the heritage that Cross investigates. He dismisses the recent sensationalist claims by Craft that Stravinsky had an ‘ambisexual phase’ and had affairs with Delage and Ravel, for the simple reasons that this is unlikely to have remained unknown until now given the celebrity of these men, and no evidence or source is cited at all.
The format of the Critical Lives series seems to have forced some unavoidable - or unthinking - decisions on the publisher, the worst of which is the absence of an index. Admittedly the book is designed to be read through and reflected upon rather than used for reference, but the stimulus of much of it is such that I found myself scribbling my own crude index inside the back cover so I could relocate valuable pages on such matters as the relationship between neo-classicism and modernism. There is a list of references and a selected reading list (fairly full and up-to-date), but the discography and videography, though containing several essential recordings is a bit too short, given the wealth of material. In particular the absence of the DVD of the Mariinsky’s 2008 resurrections of the original Ballets Russes choreography of Fokine in TheFirebird and Nijinsky in The Rite of Spring is a pity. Given the place these creations have in the book, many a reader would like to have been pointed towards this newly re-opened window onto the dawn of modernism, and the birth of a sensational career.
Given the series format, this is not quite a full life-and-works type survey for the general reader, to which you would have to turn back twenty years to Paul Griffiths (1992) in the familiar format of the Master Musicians series with its useful appendices, or Michael Oliver in Phaidon’s 20th Century Composers series (1995), which has extensive illustrations (and is easier to obtain now than Griffiths). Oliver has a work-list and index, but the discography and further reading have inevitably dated. Neither though has quite the authority provided by the recent research (including his own) that Jonathan Cross can draw upon.
For myself, on a bookshelf groaning with books on this supreme master, many involving Robert Craft in various roles, I now most often turn to two publications. They are Stephen Walsh’s two volumes of biography, and Eric Walter White’s venerable Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works, for when I need to know some arcane facts like the metronome marks of each of the Scènes de Ballet or the exact sources of the Vulgate texts for Threni. However, as a compelling survey of the life and compositional career in relation to the changing cultural contexts, Jonathan Cross’s brilliantly written book is now an essential acquisition. The debates will continue and new perspectives emerge, for we long to know where this extraordinary art sprang from. This book, especially in its reflections on dislocation and the emotional distancing of certain stylistic elements, will play a valuable part in that debate. The music itself endures, indestructible and indispensable.