Stravinsky In and About America

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Ralph
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Stravinsky In and About America

Post by Ralph » Thu Nov 09, 2006 2:23 pm

Times Online November 08, 2006

Stravinsky's serial rites
Hugh Wood

Stephen Walsh
STRAVINSKY
The second exile
3?pp. Jonathan Cape. £30.
0 224 06078 3

Cocteau (of all people) once declared that the artist should live in the shadows. Not so Stravinsky, who spent more than sixty of his eighty-nine years under full public gaze. Various images of him persist to this day: the cool young dandy who was one of the stars of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; the enfant terrible who wrote The Rite of Spring; after the First World War, a severe neo-classicist, recalling the order of the past by writing wrong-note Bach; finally the seventy-year-old discovering Webern and setting out on new paths, leaving his admirers amazed for one last time.


Even during his lifetime an enormous literature grew up about him, and it must have multiplied tenfold since. Now, permanent records of everything he wrote and said, in notes and words, have been safely gathered into archive collections. But the legends and the anecdotes still circulate: everybody knows stories about Stravinsky. Personal testimony through acquaintance, or, in a few diminishing cases, long-lasting intimacy, still survives. Oddly, this embarras de richesses is a burden as well as a help to the biographer. Freshly gathered evidence has to be evaluated with extra care: followers and disciples remember things differently. Only the passage of time can wrap the true and the false in a blanket of oblivion.


Stephen Walsh has met the challenge of writing a biography under these circumstances quite magnificently. He has brought two decades of work on the composer to a triumphant conclusion, and stands revealed as the ideal, definitive biographer for our generation and the next. His first volume ended with the premiere of Perséphone and Stravinsky’s espousal of French citizenship after fourteen years in the country. At the beginning of this second and final volume, the composer, now fifty-two, is writing his memoirs. But it is far too early for valedictions, as the troubled years which lie ahead will prove.

Already America is beckoning, in the shape of concert tours (duos with the violinist Samuel Dushkin and conducting engagements, sometimes in philistine middle America) and new commissions (the American ballet world and that of the musical theatre, and Mildred Bliss who lived at Dumbarton Oaks). His already divided life (Vera Sudeykina in Paris; Katya and the children earlier in the south of France, now also in Paris) was soon to reach a tragic climacteric. Within a couple of years, and against the background of looming war in Europe, his sister-in-law, elder daughter, his wife Katya and his aged mother all died, two of them from the tuberculosis which already haunted his family, and which nearly claimed Stravinsky himself.


Thus the second exile of Walsh’s title begins: on the outbreak of war Stravinsky left for the United States, where he married Vera Sudeykina. When France fell, they moved further west to California, where they were to live with ever-decreasing enthusiasm (especially on Vera’s part) for nearly thirty years. The completion of The Rake’s Progress marked the end of one era in his music. The arrival of Robert Craft in his household a year or two before had already marked the beginning of a new one.


The writing of the late masterworks was interspersed with much travel. Some of it was in order to pick up the threads of European musical life, broken during the war. In Paris Stravinsky experienced the nasty surprise of hostility from the young, in Germany some valuable new musical experiences. Some later travel was a not always successful mixture of professional conducting engagements with recreational tourism in far-off exotic places. But the visit which linked the present most significantly with the past was that to Russia in 1962. Much time in his last years was spent in recording studios, with Craft taking an increasingly important role both as conductor and editor. Gradually the doctors and their pills had to take over. Amid daily reminders of death, the cracks in the rickety structure of his extended family became evident, and there was the acrimonious business of wills and lawyers and lawsuits. Walsh’s last two chapters are deeply distressing to read, all the more so for the restraint of his narration, telling of Stravinsky’s last failing days and the sombre aftermath of the years after his death.


The story is told with great clarity, ease, grace and wit: the lightly ironic tone of some passages could have been caught from Stravinsky himself. One might be reading one of the great nineteenth-century novelists. Walsh presents a huge cast of characters round the main figure, deploying them with great skill: not many biographers have the gift of bringing even the minor figures they are writing about so vividly alive for us. And he has the ability and the will to empathize as well as to judge, and to extend an over-arching Tolstoyan sympathy to all the personages of the drama.


Walsh in no way sets out to present a revisionist portrait of Stravinsky himself, or any type of exposé; the warts of this physiognomy remain the same size. But he does use two epithets not always associated with Stravinsky: that he was insecure; that he was vulnerable. And he goes on to show how these two characteristics affected the composer’s personality in the interconnected fields of money, politics and religion.

Stravinsky’s first exile – from Russia – determined the rest of his life. The Bolsheviks had robbed him of his property and his livelihood: in the 1920s, he was simply one of many White Russians sheltering in Paris. He was already a working musician, and his standard of living depended on what he could earn. The apparent and periodic glitter of his lifestyle perhaps obscures the essentially precarious state of an artist who had no outside resources, and was without a permanent patron or patroness (unlike, say, James Joyce). The expenditures during the 30s were oppressive –not only the two households (Vera was only partially self-sufficient) but also a crowd of in-laws (the mainly ne’er-do-well Belyankins, whom he continued to support in devious ways during the war). And there were bills to be settled for the TB clinic at Sancellemoz.

When he fled to America, the whole business of finding jobs and searching for commissions had to be started again from scratch. The forays into the world of showbusiness and the pot-boilers that resulted should not surprise us. By this time the demand for very high commissioning fees had become a habit. Perhaps the customary facetiousness of jokes about Stravinsky’s tight-fistedness needs to be modified a little. Only when deals involving a third party do damage to them does Stravinsky’s hard-nosed approach become culpable. But also his bargaining became a good, polite way of saying: I don’t want to write this piece – go away. Otherwise, who could blame him for anticipating by a few years the value that posterity would place on some of his best pieces?

Stravinsky’s politics are, perhaps, more of a problem. About his undeniable anti-Semitism one can say only that such attitudes were commonplace in the Russian society from which he came and in the French world that he entered. On the other hand, Stravinsky seemed to have a weakness for The Strong Man –Walsh adroitly points out that his behaviour towards Mussolini was to be faintly echoed twenty-five years later when he met Khrushchev and commented on him to Craft. And it remained true that nothing was allowed to stand in the way of business. He tried to hang on in the German market for rather too long. As late as January 1939, Willy Strecker of Schotts Mainz could write: “your position in Germany is apparently completely re-established. You will be played and nobody will raise any objections.” Walsh comments: “It is hardly surprising that Stravinsky himself continued to dwell in cloud-cuckoo-land”.

Once again, insecurity lies at the heart of it, and is the reason why Stravinsky was drawn to dreams of order – which happened to resemble his aesthetic position too. The bien pensants who feel inclined to give a little gasp of anguish over all this wickedness might well reflect that many English people, including intellectuals, felt the same way about Mussolini – Bernard Shaw, for instance.
Stravinsky ended up as an all-American citizen. Walsh comments sharply:

“Having watched the destruction of ordered society in Europe by precisely those right-wing forces he had believed destined to protect it, he now candidly sided with the political “strength” of his adopted home and became, practically overnight, a new-deal democrat . . . . “As far as I am concerned”, the composer would now say, “they can have their generalissimos and Führers. Leave me Mr. Truman and I’m quite satisfied”.
In fact, like all sensible composers, what Stravinsky really wanted was a quiet life.”


His religion came from similarly deep sources in his childhood and background. Its consideration brings about a most sympathetic and understanding portrait of Katya, begun in the first volume and completed here. It demonstrates the strength of her piety, and the essentially Russian Orthodox atmosphere which she created in her house. Stravinsky may have treated her, according to bourgeois standards, quite abominably. But he also remained bound to her by their shared faith, and continued to seek the tranquillity of her household where he could work: he suffered terrible grief at her death. Against the background of continued religious observance (Craft once broke in inadvertently to find him praying in front of his icon), the late religious work, beginning with the 1948 Mass, falls more naturally into place.


Biographers of composers are always faced with the question of how to integrate life and works. The problem is particularly acute with a composer like Stravinsky, not only because (in Walsh’s words) “. . . an attribute . . . has run through Stravinsky’s work like a vein of crystal: the quality of detachment from daily life and current affairs”, but also because in his case the separation of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates” was taken to extreme lengths (one thinks of the biographical background of illness and death behind the Symphony in C). It was after all exactly that anti-Romantic, anti-subjective aesthetic stance which through Stravinsky most widely affected the course of music in general during the first half of the last century.

Walsh has already (1998) written an excellent book on Stravinsky’s music, with examples galore, a certain amount of technical discussion and a minimum of biographical material. It is illuminating to compare Stravinsky: The Second Exile with The Music of Stravinsky, not only to watch the development of Walsh’s views on some of the pieces, but also to learn from the comparison that there is more than one way to write about music. In the new book, the descriptions of and comments on individual works are integrated with great skill into the biographical narrative; hardly any work passes scrutiny without the benefit of a memorable phrase and insight.

For many of us unregenerate modernists, the changes which came over Stravinsky’s work in 1952–3 remain a critical moment in the history of twentieth-century work. Stravinsky and Schoenberg had been regarded since c1925 as the two great antipodes of contemporary music, a position maintained until Schoenberg’s death in 1951. Suddenly the opposition melted. Walsh gives Robert Craft full credit for introducing him to (of all pieces!) Schoenberg’s Suite Op 29, for guiding him through the elements of row formation and use, and for giving him the revelation of Webern – then unknown, unperformed and completely unappreciated. He has wise words about the wrong approach: “Every music student has experienced that moment of despair of first hearing Schoenberg ‘explained’ in these terms” and goes on to say:


“What Craft achieved with Stravinsky was simply what any sensible music teacher would at once see as necessary: he transmitted his own enthusiasm for the actual music, and only then, when pressed, showed how this particular music came out of this particular set of procedures, exactly as one might do in analysing a Josquin motet or a Bach fugue.”


But Walsh shows that Stravinsky’s “conversion” to serialism had deeper roots. It should be recognized that a predilection for formal contrapuntal procedures is the most compelling pre-condition for interest in serialism. Stravinsky’s music over the previous twenty years was not short of fugal passages (Symphony of Psalms, second movement; Dumbarton Oaks, first movement and the finale of the Symphony in C). Latterly he had met the young Manfred Bukofzer, then concerned with medieval music, who sent him an essay on the isorhythmic motet. He then soaked himself in older music, worked through Isaac at the piano with Craft, played the Forty-Eight. Craft then conveyed his own enthusiasm to someone who was well prepared to receive it.


There was to be a moment of Agony in the Garden, or rather the Mojave Desert, when Stravinsky declared himself finished as a composer, broke down and wept – the vulnerable and insecure side of him for once breaking surface. But this was shortly followed by plans for the Cantata – a sort of resurrection of the spirit: “the Easter vigil had for him, that year, a special significance”. The extraordinary artistic rejuvenation that followed proved that “old men ought to be explorers”. Among the last works, Agon shines brightest in its vitality, its invention and its vivid instrumental sense.

Some years ago, the present writer was travelling on a south London suburban train and overheard a conversation about music between two schoolboys. Eventually, summing up, one of them said, with the solemn conclusiveness of fifteen or sixteen years: “When you come down to it, man, there’s only two people who matter – Beethoven and Stravinsky”. Stephen Walsh’s book makes you feel he was right.

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Hugh Wood's recent works include a violin concerto for Alexandra Wood.
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"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

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karlhenning
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Post by karlhenning » Thu Nov 09, 2006 2:48 pm

I finished volume II some little while ago; and on its strength, I'm now working on volume I. Walsh has done splendidly here.

Cheers,
~Karl
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
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paulb
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Re: Stravinsky In and About America

Post by paulb » Thu Nov 09, 2006 3:14 pm

Ralph wrote:
Some years ago, the present writer was travelling on a south London suburban train and overheard a conversation about music between two schoolboys. Eventually, summing up, one of them said, with the solemn conclusiveness of fifteen or sixteen years: “When you come down to it, man, there’s only two people who matter – Beethoven and Stravinsky”. Stephen Walsh’s book makes you feel he was right.

------------------------------------------------------

Hugh Wood's recent works include a violin concerto for Alexandra Wood.

Ahh notice
"2 SCHOOL -BOYS"
case closed.
btw like both composers music, I find the article , uninteresting.. Maybe too wordy , just plain dry facts, with no enlightening conclusions.
Psalm 118:22 The Stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord's doing , it is marvelous in our sight.

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Post by karlhenning » Thu Nov 09, 2006 3:57 pm

Goodness knows from your posts, Paul, you don't like to have too much truck with facts 8)

Cheers,
~Karl
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
http://members.tripod.com/~Karl_P_Henning/
http://henningmusick.blogspot.com/
Published by Lux Nova Press
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Joe Barron
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Post by Joe Barron » Thu Nov 09, 2006 4:23 pm

Karl, did you really like vol. 2? I am almost through vol. 1 now and am finding it something of a chore. It's like an underwritten Russian novel— lots of long names, but very few real personalities. Katya, the most sympathetic character in the whole story, seems to vanish halfway through, and what I'm left with is a lot of performance dates and reviews. The only times I feel really engaged are in a few passages that deal with the composer's aesthetics — particularly the fomral implications of the Rite of Spring and the idea of extinguishing individualism that began with the Octet — and those take up about fie pages. Beyond that, I get little sense of the man himself.

Magnificent is not a word I'd use to describe it so far. So, I ask you, is vol. 2 really worth getting, and if so, what did you like about it?

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Post by karlhenning » Thu Nov 09, 2006 4:49 pm

Joe, I found vol II an unparalleled rich source of biographical info on Stravinsky's life in the US. Before reading Walsh, the books I've absorbed about Stravinsky were kind of a "life in the works" affair, a chronology of the works, and an anecdote tagged on here or there (and vol II clarifies a number of the juicy anecdotes . . . and the clarifications are no less juicy) and of course the 'authorized chatter about the life'. So I'm afraid that those very raw facts which Paul would find irrelevant, are exactly what I found valuable in vol II. Before, ironically, I had a better notion (only slightly) of the St Petersburg and early Paris days . . . though, in fact, as I read vol I, I see how poor a snapshot I had even of those.

Cheers,
~Karl
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
http://members.tripod.com/~Karl_P_Henning/
http://henningmusick.blogspot.com/
Published by Lux Nova Press
http://www.luxnova.com/

Joe Barron
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Post by Joe Barron » Sat Nov 11, 2006 12:00 pm

And speaking of Walsh ---

Karl, do you remember when I was writing about the Minnesota Carter festival last March? Of course you do. I reported that Paul Griffiths said that Carter sang with the Harvard Glee Club in the US premiere of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and you pointed out it must have been the world premiere, since the work was written for the BSO.

Well, it turns out Mr. Griffiths was right after all. According to Walsh's Creative Spring, p. 497, the actual first performance took place in Brussels under Monteux six days before the Boston premiere, because of a scheduling delay and, in my opinion, the composer's rather faithless way of dealing with American commissions.

Opus132
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Post by Opus132 » Sat Nov 11, 2006 12:25 pm

I deplore plain facts as well, but i'm planning of reading this in the near future anyway.

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Post by karlhenning » Sat Nov 11, 2006 6:32 pm

As an artist, obviously I believe there is much more to life than plain facts.

Plain facts have their place in life, though, and there are cases in which there is absolutely no substitute for plain facts :-)

Cheers,
~Karl
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
http://members.tripod.com/~Karl_P_Henning/
http://henningmusick.blogspot.com/
Published by Lux Nova Press
http://www.luxnova.com/

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