Happy Man

Paul Driver

  • Stravinsky: The Second Exile – France and America 1934-71 by Stephen Walsh
    Cape, 709 pp, £30.00, July 2006, ISBN 0 224 06078 3
  • Down a Path of Wonder: Memoirs of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Other Cultural Figures by Robert Craft
    Naxos, 560 pp, £19.99, October 2006, ISBN 1 84379 217 6

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.

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