At the end of his two-volume biography, Stephen Walsh writes that Igor Stravinsky’s music is ‘the one unquestioned staple of the modern repertoire, the body of work that, more than any other, stands as an icon of 20th-century musical thought and imagery’. There couldn’t be a richer subject for a musical biographer and Walsh admits to having an obsession with his subject. The stamina of biographers often amazes me, and Walsh certainly doesn’t lack it: he has tracked Stravinsky’s movements in minute detail. He marshals his facts into a narrative that, while unpretentiously chronicle-like, is never flat, and he is a stylish writer and sharp analyst of music. His method is to counterpoint narrative and analysis, and he does this with unobtrusively musical flair. The book is lucidity itself (‘lucidity’ is the significant last word of Stravinsky’s autobiography), and a model of good sense.
Good sense is what the job demanded. There are many obstacles to telling Stravinsky’s story. As Walsh wrote in the introduction to the first volume, published in 2000, ‘the need for a new biography of Stravinsky lies not in any need to illuminate his Freudian relationship with his parents, but in the much more basic need to establish the facts.’ The facts have suffered, he believes, from Stravinsky’s own mystifications (he liked to reinvent himself with every press interview) and those of his friend, the conductor and writer Robert Craft, who has passed off much of his own prose as the composer’s, and whose custodianship of the Stravinsky legacy Walsh regards as dubious. Then there is the mystifying role of Russia, where the Stravinsky archives were so long inaccessible, and whose formative influence he sought early on to minimise. Walsh admits his dependence on Richard Taruskin’s ‘monumental’ Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, whose painstaking researches into Stravinsky’s early life and his relations with the Rimsky-Korsakov circle in St Petersburg give body to Walsh’s Stravinsky: A Creative Spring – Russia and France 1882-1934.
Taruskin’s book goes as far as the opera Mavra, while Walsh’s first volume gets to the beguiling melodrama Persephone and the beginning of work on the Concerto for two pianos. On the way he takes in Stravinsky’s astonishing self-creation with The Firebird ballet, written when he was 27 (there had been little indication of his genius before that), the revolutionary achievement of the subsequent Diaghilev ballets, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring; the vivid transformation of Russian folk materials in the burlesque Renard and the choreographic scenes of Les Noces; the music-theatre breakthrough of The Soldier’s Tale; the invention of neoclassicism in the ballet Pulcinella; the rediscovery of masked drama in the Latin ‘opera-oratorio’ Oedipus Rex; and the reinvention of oratorio in the Symphony of Psalms. If Stravinsky had died at 52, when the volume ends, he would still be the greatest composer of the 20th century.
Much lay ahead, however. Walsh’s second volume begins with an entr’acte in which he imagines Stravinsky in a first-class carriage travelling from Paris to Grenoble, shuttling between the two parts of a divided existence: the time spent with his openly acknowledged mistress, Vera Sudeikina (whom he later married), and family life with his tubercular wife, Catherine, their four children, his mother and their servants in the little town of Voreppe. He is about to move this ‘nest of gentle folk’ (Walsh quoting Turgenev) to Paris, but his life will become unified only after a terrible series of losses – his elder daughter, wife and mother all died within six months in 1938-39 – and a move to America. At what was effectively the mid-point of his life, he undertook his autobiography, a small book published in French as Chroniques de ma vie, whose precise authorship, like that of Stravinsky’s other prose works, has been disputed. Stravinsky’s St Petersburg friend Walter Nouvel seems to have done much of the writing, but Walsh shrewdly observes that the book must have engaged a considerable amount of Stravinsky’s attention because there are no musical compositions from this period.
It was in Chroniques that he made the 20th century’s most celebrated musical remark: ‘For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature etc.’ This anti-romantic insistence on music as objective science is the motif of Stravinsky’s career. Walsh speculates in his first volume that the notion may have come from the views of the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose suggestion that ‘the tedium of living and willing stops at the door of every studio’ is wonderfully apt for Stravinsky, the most detached if domestically tyrannical of craftsmen. As an exile who had lost his native sources of income and was permanently anxious about money (he had numerous family members to support), Stravinsky was at once absolutist about the autonomy of music and absolutely businesslike about it. And it is hard not to see a link between his aestheticist creed – his need for the security of strict rules of ‘versification’ such as those he implanted in the Duo Concertant for violin and piano (he linked them to a book by Charles-Albert Cingria about Petrarch) – and his attraction to right-wing regimes that could make him feel physically secure. He flirted, almost literally, with Mussolini (he gave him an inscribed copy of Chroniques and a gold medal depicting Napoleon and Marie Louise), was pro-Franco, and willing to curry favour with the Nazis if it meant he could go on performing in Germany. It is alarming to read on practically the last page of this book that Craft was trying to limit access to a proposed Stravinsky archive at UCLA in case evidence there of an anti-semitism ‘so shocking that Goebbels might have written some of it’ led to a boycott of Stravinsky’s music.
Such negative, even repellent, aspects of his personality are displayed throughout Walsh’s volumes, and it is much to Walsh’s credit that he never gets in a tizzy about them. For me, Stravinsky’s undesirable attitudes and behaviour point to the anxious egotism of the driven creator, the overriding need not to be deflected from an artistic course. In Chroniques he testily asks: ‘What does it matter’ whether the Eroica was ‘inspired by the figure of Bonaparte the republican or Napoleon the emperor? It is only the music that matters.’ For some the distinction is worth entertaining.
Stravinsky once cut Proust short with the remark ‘I detest Beethoven,’ but Beethoven became important to him in the 1930s, first with the writing of the Concerto for two pianos, and later his Symphony in C, the last work he began in Europe, which was completed in 1940 after he had settled in Hollywood with Vera. The form of the symphony and the key of C both have an archetypal quality; Stravinsky even begins with the three-quaver impetus famous from the start of Beethoven’s Fifth, and the rhythm dominates his piece. He seems to be claiming a place in the mainstream of tradition, but if Stravinsky has a Beethovenian centrality it is not because he is actually like Beethoven. The symphony, like the neo-Bachian Concerto in E flat (‘Dumbarton Oaks’), is, as Walsh observes, ‘an exercise in modelling’, a piece paying ‘ritual homage to the various forms and procedures locked up in the basic image’ of the classical symphony but ‘doing something essentially different’. This work and the amazing Symphony in Three Movements of 1945 have been described as ballet symphonies, and Stravinsky’s symphonic journeys, though they deal inventively in movement, are static rather than dynamic in the Beethoven manner. They no more strive for a symphonic resolution, or conduct a dramatic interrogation of their material, than Petrushka or The Rite of Spring does. They exist, as Stravinsky (by his own admission) did himself, defiantly in the present tense.
Stravinsky’s language had altered since The Rite of Spring, however. Walsh notes that while recapturing ‘the Scythian fury of The Rite of Spring’, the Symphony in Three Movements resembles all Stravinsky’s main works of the 1930s and early 1940s in channelling ‘energy into counterpoint, a kind of writing where the individual parts enjoy a certain autonomy but within what might be called socially defined limits’. This new urbanity contrasts with the ‘reptilian indifference to one another’ (Walsh quotes Peter Hill’s memorable phrase) of the instrumental lines in the introduction to The Rite of Spring. The symphony’s finale, ‘with its dazzling fugal and imitative exchanges, breathes a refinement that civilises the ferocity, without in any way drawing its sting. It is neoclassicism without fancy dress and come of age.’ This aesthetic had been developing in Stravinsky’s music for some twenty years. Soon after the Symphony in Three Movements came the compact, brilliant Ebony Concerto for clarinet and jazz band, in which neoclassicism, though perhaps in fancy dress, affirmed its capacity to stylise the present as well as the past.
Not everyone was impressed. For Adorno, as Walsh reminds us, neoclassicism was just ‘traditional music combed in the wrong direction’. Such borrowed styles, Adorno wrote, ‘pay for their accessibility not by revealing the true nature of form, but by hovering meaninglessly over the surface of aesthetic form’. Expression is tolerated by Stravinsky’s music ‘so long as it is no longer true expression, but merely the death-mask thereof’. ‘The will to style,’ he added, ‘replaces style itself and therewith sabotages it.’ Walsh has a fine riposte to the litany of dialectical complaints with which Adorno makes clear, in his stridently polemical Philosophie der neuen Musik, that Stravinsky is not Schoenberg, hero of compositional authenticity and inventor of the ‘12-note row’ and ‘serial technique’:
Much of what Adorno says about Stravinsky strikes one as true, or at least plausible, and the one (admittedly all-embracing) disaster of the whole critique – apart from its notoriously impenetrable prose – is its unremitting hostility. Stravinsky was no doubt ‘regressive’, ‘anal’, and artistically self-denying. That fear and insecurity lay behind many of his aesthetic (and indeed social) attitudes can hardly be gainsaid. Yet out of this ‘psychosis’ – as Adorno would have called it – he created a body of work that has enriched countless lives and continues to do so more than thirty years after his and Adorno’s deaths. Adorno, of course, knew perfectly well that this would be the case.
Schoenberg wrote to the critic H.H. Stuckenschmidt: ‘It is disgusting … how he treats Stravinsky. I am certainly no admirer of Stravinsky, although I like a piece of his here and there very much – but one should not write like that.’
The relationship between Stravinsky and Schoenberg is frequently touched on by Walsh. The two never met, although they were near neighbours in Hollywood. There was no relationship, except an intellectual one, and on that level the story is of a belated recognition of Schoenberg’s greatness bringing Stravinsky to a creative crisis in early 1952. His neoclassicism had reached an apogee in The Rake’s Progress, premiered in Venice the previous year. The style could not be taken further, and for a time Stravinsky did not know what to do. Craft had providentially entered his life at the beginning of the long process of setting the Auden-Kallman libretto and now Craft, who had some contact with Schoenberg, was preparing the latter’s 12-tone Suite, Op. 29, for the Evenings on the Roof concerts in Los Angeles; Stravinsky was assiduously attending rehearsals. One day he, Vera and Craft were driving through the Mojave Desert when Stravinsky, utterly uncharacteristically, broke down and wept:
He was finished as a composer, he said; the Rake would be his last work. What was more, he felt exposed by Schoenberg’s mastery and incriminated by the years in which he, Stravinsky, had written serialism off as some kind of fin de siècle number-mysticism or chemical experimentation.
Craft suggested that Stravinsky should orchestrate his early string quartet Concertino as a way of coping with the block, and he promptly did so. But the difficult assimilation of Schoenberg’s example was underway. Stravinsky had already insinuated a kind of note-row into the Ricercar II centrepiece (‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’) of the Cantata based on medieval English lyrics, a work that was slowly evolving at this time, and whose quality of ‘ritual monotony’ and use of canonic structure predict many of the masterpieces of his Schoenberg and Webern-inspired later years. His 1953 Septet answers Schoenberg’s Suite: it is scored for a comparable seven instruments (piano, string trio, clarinet, horn, bassoon) and Stravinsky actually prints in the score the tone-rows he is assigning to each player in the (electrifying) gigue finale, obviously modelled on Schoenberg’s. But, as Walsh says, there is no audible stylistic overlap: ‘The glowering E-flattish atonality of the Suite is laughed off by Stravinsky’s unabashed key of A minor-major. The music bursts out like water from a broken main.’
Stravinsky’s use of serialism became increasingly rigorous, but even at its strictest, as in the choral-orchestral Threni of 1958 (another Venice premiere), he never sounds like Schoenberg. The influence of Webern is more detectable, but Walsh accurately points out that Stravinsky’s Webernism has ‘an energy and physicality lacking in the model’. ‘Ritual monotony’ does not preclude Stravinskyan bite. The choral-orchestral Canticum Sacrum, written for performance in St Mark’s, Venice, is as remarkable for its incisiveness and strange new colours (the otherworldly organ writing, for example) as for its austerity and spareness. Stravinsky’s serialism is anti-drab. In Agon, which Walsh calls a ‘masterpiece of stylistic time-travelling’, serialism is introduced only gradually. First the music goes back to the world of 17th-century French dancing, but then, as often in a Stravinsky work, we suddenly realise we have been transported to a very different place. No sooner have we accepted this harsh immersion in a modern idiom than the brass fanfares from the beginning magically slip back and restore tonality. The work’s conjunction of early music and the 12-tone method, as well as its extraordinary freshness, had an enormous influence on composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.
All these late works – right up to Stravinsky’s final masterpiece, Requiem Canticles (1966), which has the wintry radiance of late poems by Wallace Stevens – owe their existence to a significant extent to the presence of Craft, as Walsh repeatedly makes clear. His role as intellectual catalyst, encourager and amanuensis was as indispensable as it is exceptional in musical history. It was through Craft that Stravinsky was initiated into the 12-tone and post-Webern freemasonry, and thus became again an urgently contemporary and controversial composer, whose influence is far from spent. But after his portrayal in this biography, Craft regards Walsh as an enemy. Walsh has revealed numerous errors in Craft’s presentation of the huge body of documentary material over which he has had control – mistranslations, omissions, confusions, fabrications – and portrays him as increasingly manipulative and self-serving, a nerve-wracked, quick-tempered, brilliant workaholic, infused with musical and literary passion, but altogether full of machinations.
This isn’t a new way of looking at Craft, whose role as an ever more dominant gatekeeper was criticised by old friends of the composer and by many others too. When he began publishing books that purported to be conversations with Stravinsky but whose relentlessly sophisticated prose was manifestly his own, many readers felt suspicious. While the earlier volumes give the flavour of Stravinsky’s mind and opinions (his actual mode of speech as revealed by archive recordings is in comic contrast with Craft’s Socratic figure), the fifth, Themes and Episodes, ‘probably’, Walsh writes, ‘contains nothing written by Stravinsky himself, and possibly not much that he ever actually said’. I used to think it didn’t matter if Craft were essentially the author of the conversation books: it was marvellous prose whoever wrote it. Now I’m not so sure, and when I learn from Walsh that Craft wrote Stravinsky’s copious letters of complaint to editors, was responsible for his many interviews in the New York Times and other papers, sometimes wrote Vera’s letters too, and would recycle pseudonymous material under his own name in books of essays, I wonder whether we are witnessing a rare form of graphomania, a ghost-writing so compulsive he has even haunted himself. As if the conversation books were not controversial enough, Craft subjected them to a thorough recension a few years ago, and now a lot of Stravinsky’s most memorable sayings have been unsaid.
Walsh, too, clearly admires the conversation books, and constantly pays tribute to Craft’s literary accomplishment. I don’t think he means to demonise Craft, tempted though biographers must be to find a fall guy (Humphrey Carpenter’s Britten biography found Peter Pears). But much of the original matter in Walsh’s new volume was supplied by the composer’s immediate family (particularly his grandson, John Stravinsky), who agreed to co-operate with Walsh only after reading his first volume. There was so much bad feeling between Stravinsky’s children, on the one hand, and Craft and Vera, on the other – Walsh minutely examines the stand-offs, the hurts, the financial shenanigans and complex litigation (doubtless still going on) – that to use such material at all was to risk an accusation of bias. I think Walsh remains pretty even-handed, but there is an anti-Craft undertone to the writing, and this is probably the first account of Stravinsky’s later life in which Vera is portrayed as less than saintly.
Craft’s own response to the first volume came in the Musical Quarterly and may have had something to do with the removal of quotations from the conversation books in the 2002 paperback edition because of what Walsh calls ‘a misunderstanding over permissions’. Craft has updated the review (to include the second volume) in his new collection of essays, Down a Path of Wonder, a work of great fascination even if a good deal of it has appeared in book form before. Craft’s piece is bitterly combative and armed with killing evidence of factual and other shortcomings, although these prove venial enough. Some of his objections puzzle me. He quotes as outlandish Walsh’s remark about Stravinsky having been so intrigued by the serial manipulations in Ernst Krenek’s preface to his Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae that ‘he drew connecting lines and arrows on Krenek’s chart, as if plotting cavalry movements at Austerlitz.’ Yet this is one of the similes that stood out for me when reading the book. ‘Austerlitz’ also conjures up the metro station in Paris, and Paris was where Stravinsky’s own setting of Jeremiah’s lamentations, Threni, had its disastrous French premiere – a scandal of choral under-rehearsal for which blame fell on Pierre Boulez.
Craft is convinced that Walsh has cribbed his own Stravinsky writings: more than 25,000 words by his calculation, though that must include the deleted quotations from the conversation books. He berates Walsh for putting too much matter into the notes, and it is true that a labour of page-turning is involved in reading Walsh’s thick volumes. Craft also rebukes Walsh for not making clear the homosexuality of Stravinsky’s younger brother Gury, to whom he was close, and whose early death left him feeling he had ‘an unrepayable debt’. Craft makes the persuasive point that ‘Stravinsky’s protectiveness toward his androgynous friends – Cocteau, Eugene Berman, Poulenc, Henze, Boulez, Copland, Carlos Chávez, Charles-Albert Cingria, Lord Berners, Auden, Isherwood, Spender, Edward James, Kopeikine (Balanchine’s pianist) e tutti quanti – surely reflects his relationship with his brother.’ But the claim that Walsh avoided ‘accurately informed people who knew Stravinsky well, such as Elliott Carter’ is odd when Carter is among the interviewees said to have reported back to Craft that Walsh was only interested in ‘gathering gossip possibly demeaning to’ Craft. And he figures in Walsh’s most delicious anecdote: ‘One day in New York’ Igor and Vera ‘dined at the Côte Basque with Elliott and Helen Carter. A man came up to their table, discreetly asked the composer for his autograph, then quietly returned to his own table. Stravinsky had not recognised him, though they had met before. It was Frank Sinatra.’
No Stravinsky biographer could find favour with Craft. Himself the most eligible candidate – given his unprecedented access – and, for the same reason, the least, he is condemned to permanent exasperation with the very idea of a definitive Life. He has consistently skirted such a project, and Down a Path of Wonder is the latest of his compelling documentations. These often have an immediacy not possible for a more detached author. There is nothing in Walsh that brings Stravinsky to life for me with the quickness of this passage from an interview Craft gave in 2000 to Radio Frankfurt:
A man of superabundant energy, Stravinsky did most of his secretarial work himself. He actually enjoyed typing … In late evenings, when both of us were working at the same time, he composing in his studio, I struggling with words in the adjoining library room, he would ask, retiring early and passing through my room, if I had anything he could type for me. In fact he typed all of our so-called ‘conversation books’, deleting what he did not like, and amplifying what he did.
A biographer could, of course, quote this, ‘stealing’ Craft’s words, but the effect would not be the same. Craft’s authority as a portrayer of Stravinsky is unique. The new collection begins, however, with eight essays on Schoenberg. At its launch at the Ritz, Craft rather crushingly declared that he had preferred Schoenberg’s music to Stravinsky’s all along but had to suppress the fact. He also said that Stravinsky was fundamentally a happy composer, a ‘divertimento composer’, and there is plenty to support this in Walsh’s account. Balanchine found working with Stravinsky on the ballet Orpheus a pleasure ‘because he’s a happy man’. Closeted in his studio with the muted piano on which he meticulously tested every chord, the stave-drawing device, or ‘Stravigor’, he invented himself, and his pencils and erasers, he could ignore political and personal upheavals, and live in a world of pure sonic combination. One does not look for intensities of the Beethoven adagio type in this music, though one finds a plangent sweetness – in the inner movements of the Violin Concerto, or diffused throughout the ballet Apollo – that is a Stravinskyan equivalent. But no one creates sound mixtures of a more delectable sourness. From the cicada-like scrapings of the guero in The Rite of Spring to the weirdly high double-basses and twangy mandolin in Agon, or the 12 solo violins in the orchestral Aldous Huxley Variations, which (as Stravinsky suggested) are like ‘the sprinkling of very fine broken glass’, one is astonished by his command of extraordinary new sound.
What one notices above all in his work is its joyous self-certitude. (In Craft’s essay ‘Conversations with Stravinsky’, from his Present Perspectives collection, the composer is asked: ‘How do you know when a work is finished?’ The reply: ‘Because I finished it.’) The rare word ‘concinnity’ seems right to describe the way everything fits together, not just as it must do in order to be music at all, but in the sense of a sheer pleasure in fitting. Stravinsky was never bored by Czerny piano exercises when he prepared to play in public, but, as he records in Chroniques, derived ‘keen musical pleasure’ from these abstract fittings-together. In the same memoir he says how much he relished the challenge of making his works fit the newly invented pianola. Of course, parts ‘fit’ even when, as in The Rite of Spring’s introduction, they show ‘reptilian indifference’ to one another. It is surprising and touching to hear an echo of that sinuous woodwind writing 46 years later in the first of the Movements for piano and orchestra.
For all their vast variety, Stravinsky’s works share a pattern of inventiveness. They are all composed with a Stravinsky accent and emerge from a belief in strict rules, abstract order, aesthetic bliss. But, as Walsh writes in his last sentence, this music supposedly expressing nothing, and which ‘always seemed studiously, impenetrably deaf to the world around it, has turned out to be the most exact echo and the best response to those terrifying years that brought it into being’.
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