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Book Review

Stravinsky: A Creative Spring

Stravinsky: A Creative Spring by Walsh

Russia and France, 1882-1934

Stephen Walsh
Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2002
Paperback. 720 pages.
ISBN-10: 0520227492
ISBN-13: 978-0520227491
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Setting the record straight.

The first volume of a two-volume biography, Stravinsky: A Creative Spring deals with a notoriously difficult subject. Igor Stravinsky, to put it mildly, contradicted and deliberately obscured certain key facts of his life and career. He was one of those people who continually rewrote his life in order to fit it into his current picture of himself. His self-image, like that of most of us, changed with new events and discoveries. However, he also had to fit his life into the notion of himself as a just man, and (again, like most of us) he wasn't so all the time. Walsh has rendered a great service in his patient and scholarly unraveling of Stravinsky statements, dealings, and pronouncements, repeated by others (including Robert Craft), which contradict the historical record.

Stravinsky grew up a not-especially loved child, raised by emotionally distant parents. His father, a successful opera singer well-respected for his acting abilities in particular, buried himself in study and work. His mother devoted herself to his father and in any case preferred Igor's older, handsome brother Nicolai to the runty, long-faced Igor. Like many Russian families of this class, the atmosphere was stifling. Parents' wishes were paramount. Igor's father died suddenly as did his brother Nicolai, leaving his mother temporarily at sea. Her children had to start to earn a living. Yet, so few of the children had any real idea of what to do once they left the nest. Igor had studied piano and developed into an excellent sight-reader. However, he came to composition relatively late. His early, untrained works were nothing special and yet within a couple of years he became a private pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. Still, then, as now, most composers didn't make a living. But Stravinsky was luckier than most. The family held lands from which they derived income. Igor fell in love with his first cousin Katya, a quiet, intelligent girl much impressed with him, and they married, at first moving into the family apartment in St. Petersburg.

Stravinsky's eagerness to please Rimsky and his general niceness especially struck me, since just a few years ahead, his personality changed profoundly, and not for the better. Early on, he seemed to treat Rimsky as a substitute father, and he absorbed all he could, receiving as a result a first-class training and a model of a professional working composer, lessons that served him throughout his career.

His very early works – like the Symphony in Eb, Firebird, Fireworks, and the Scherzo – owe a lot to Rimsky, a debt he sometimes acknowledged. However, his successes alienated him from kuchist (essentially Rimskian) circles in St. Petersburg, especially after Rimsky's death. That Rimsky had entrusted Stravinsky with helping him prepare late scores for their premieres had started jealousies within the circle. Further, Stravinsky's early and fantastic success in ballet lowered him in that circle's estimation. They saw ballet as vulgar – the hangout for nannies, children, and dirty old men and would not admit that Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes had raised ballet into a Gesamstkunstwerk, a collaboration among poets, artists, choreographers, and composers of the highest quality. Also, they resented Stravinsky's Paris acclaim, which soon outstripped that of his own teacher, with the provincial resentment of the French as decadent and frivolous. Even in letters to him, his kuchist friends – particularly Rimsky's son Andrey and son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg – couldn't refrain from sniping at his success. He was especially close to both. His own mother told him not to criticize his "betters," like Scriabin. He had to take such stuff from his mother, but not from the rest. He kept up the friendships as long as he could, before they became simply impossible.

P├ętrouchka and Rite of Spring precipitated his break. The Rimskians charged him with steals (!) of "well-known" Russian sources and of degrading those sources. Stravinsky at that point did use certain ancient Russian tunes but obviously transformed them into a music that had little to do with Rimsky, Mussorgsky, or for that matter Tchaikovsky or Glinka. Meanwhile, Western Europe hailed him as a genius. He had spectacular triumphs and soon found himself in the running with the top Modern composers. Great writers and artists wanted to work with him. Critics wrote long essays for and against his music. Each premiere became a cause for anticipation. From the Teens through the early Thirties, a good deal of Modern music moved in the direction Stravinsky set. Stravinsky became prickly and self-centered, unable to tolerate contradiction of his current whims and enthusiasms.

At this point, he fell passionately in love with Vera de Bosset, at the time the wife of the painter Sergei Sudeikin. Vera soon left Sudeikin. Her affair with Igor lasted from 1921 until Katya's death from cancer in 1939. For much of that time, each woman knew about the other (Stravinsky himself told his wife), leading to Katya's outright distress. Still, Igor refused to give up Vera, even though Vera offered to leave him, and he refused to leave Katya because he needed the stability of the home that she provided.

One might fairly say that the two great outward catastrophes in Stravinsky's early life were the success of the Rite of Spring and the Russian Revolution. The former turned him into a petty despot. The latter denied him the revenues from the family holdings. His mother still lived in the Soviet Union (although he managed finally to get her out), and various family members, notably his in-laws, kept turning up. Essentially, he supported them. Stravinsky became worried about money, especially since much of his music was not in copyright either in the Soviet Union or in the United States. Composing alone didn't bring in the bucks required for maintaining two large households and a mistress, especially in the style he liked. He continually pleaded poverty, but meeting Vera, whom he had sent to get a large loan out of a patron, he greeted her with a large bottle of expensive champagne. He dressed lavishly, if not well. As Walsh points out, most people adjust their lives to their means. Stravinsky adjusted his means to his life. He went on long tours as pianist and conductor, usually with Vera. He played patrons off against one another in search of higher commissions. He was one of the first artists to exploit his celebrity and entered into deals with such firms as Pleyel. Artistic statements were driven not only by aesthetics, but by publicity and business. A great artist, like Wagner, philosophized about art. A manifesto (and Stravinsky and his various ghost writers issued a few of them) was the smoke that indicated the fire of genius, as a baseball card indicates that a player has in some sense "made it."

He was convinced publishers and impresarios were cheating him, and sometimes he was correct. However, he also sold music whose rights he didn't own to several publishers. He cut out collaborators from royalties by prohibiting performances. For example, he refused to allow the full L'Histoire du soldat or the French-language version of Les Noces, simply because it would have meant paying part of the performance fee to his librettist and translator, C. F. Ramuz. He became increasingly incapable of seeing another point of view. He, after all, was the genius. His wishes should always be considered first.

He accused those who vied with him in business matters of excessive greed, and, like many mercenary people, his favorite epithet for his business rivals was "Jew." However, his anti-Semitism was reflexive rather than ingrained, and he enjoyed working with Jewish artists like Klemperer, Walter, and the violinist Samuel Dushkin, who provided major assistance on the Violin Concerto. Indeed, the last became a close friend, a kind of Hausjude. When the Nazis took over Germany, the source of a large part of his income, he found himself on the list of "Jewish" artists, and to protect his performing dates and his royalties from German publishers, he wrote an angry letter protesting that he was neither Jew nor Bolshevik, not that it made much difference to the Third Reich anyway. In fact, some Nazi thugs roughed up both him and a friend under the impression that they were Jews – a nasty turn on "Funny, you don't look Jewish." When the friend protested he wasn't a Jew, the thugs gave him a severe beating. Still, Stravinsky continued to angle for favor from the Nazis. He also snuggled up to Mussolini, a demagogue all too happy to take advantage of the cultural cachet. Sadly, it had little to do with politics or conviction, but to simple self-promotion and greed.

So these are the fairly large warts of our hero. Nevertheless, as an artist, he was supreme – a man of the highest goals, who hated to repeat himself and who time and time again (like Picasso) came up with stunning inventions, basic finds, that nourished Modern music and art world-wide.

Walsh's treatment at its highest point of critical interest brings out the great extent to which Stravinsky worked by instinct. Publically, he liked to compare himself to an inventor or a mathematician, working in the land of pure abstraction. I suppose after a while he even believed it. Walsh shows how much something like Rite of Spring or Les Noces, touted by Stravinsky as "pure construction," actually came from his Russian memories and sensibilities, and in the case of Les Noces, from a profound sense of homesickness, no matter how vehemently he denied missing Russia – that is, the Russia of his youth. To others, he denied the Romantic notion of inspiration, but his working methods show how heavily he depended on it. Perhaps he feared it because he had no idea where it came from and therefore had no control. Yet, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, in many ways his most radical score, inhabits an emotional space both ritualistic and metasemial. The Octuor, a paragon of classical construction, has always affected me in the same way certain works of Mozart do – an awe in the presence of incredible beauty. Walsh makes clear that Stravinsky's "rage for order" aimed to resolve inner spiritual and emotional turmoil.

Undoubtedly one of the foremost Stravinsky scholars in our time, Walsh has produced a major biography of a major artistic figure. He concentrates on the life, rather than on the work, although what he does say about scores penetrates to their heart. I happened to read the entire bio in the wrong order – volume 2 (see my review of The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971) before volume 1. This book is a hefty chunk of reading, but the prose almost flies and the matter fascinates.

Copyright © 2010 by Steve Schwartz.