Igor Stravinsky's Music Will Long Outlast the Chatter it Begat

by John Garratt

15 January 2016

True to form for Critical Lives, Jonathan Cross packs a rich life into a lean yet bountiful biography in Igor Stravinsky.
cover art

Igor Stravinsky

Jonathan Cross

US: Dec 2015

The Critical Lives series of biographies specializes in giving concise life stories of celebrated figures. This isn’t to say that the books are meager or offer some sort of Reader’s Digest condensed version of history. If the entry to the series for composer Igor Stravinsky is to be considered an indicative one, their concise nature comes from the fact that they are physically small (paperback, eight inches by five inches, just over 200 pages), come packed with information (plentiful references, bibliography, and discography with relatively few photographs), and feature a narrative that whisks you from one era to another in no time.

Childhood, a stage in life that tends to be dwelled upon ad nauseam in certain biographies and way too many memoirs, makes up a small percentage of Jonathan Cross’s lucidly-written Igor Stravinsky. It seems that in a matter of pages, the reader is carried from inconsequential stories of an awkward pre-teenage Stravinsky to a young man stuffed to the gills with confidence as the celebrated ballet, The Firebird, faces its premiere performance. It doesn’t boil down to mere pages, it just seems that way.

Two angles are apparent at the outset of Cross’s biography of what the back cover refers to as “the twentieth century’s most feted composer.” The first is that Stravinsky had a bit of a jumbled sense of national identity. While he was born in Russia, he considered himself to be more at home in Paris. He came to this conclusion after spending some time in Switzerland. In between his time within two countries where neither one was his homeland, his thoughts would wander back to the homeland that he supposedly never had because, politically and metaphysically speaking, it never was.

Stravinsky envisioned a parallel universe where Russia/the Soviet Union was never in a state of upheaval and people could hum Lithuanian folk melodies to their heart’s content without fears of any great purge. The composer drew bits of inspiration from Russian folklore while simultaneously denying it, as if he considered himself to be above such practices.

This conveniently brings us to the second angle of the work, which is the polite debunking of Stravinsky’s autobiography, An Autobiography (W. W Norton, 1998). Cross points out, several times, that not only was Stravinsky’s autobiography ghostwritten, but many aspects of the composer’s life were whitewashed with a healthy dose of hindsight. It’s hard to make the case that Stravinsky was maliciously dishonest with his own story, since the fluffed bits of his life are little white lies he told to make himself look just better than he otherwise would appear. For example, in Stravinsky’s autobiography, the composer states that he could never understand the folk fascinations of his contemporary, Béla Bartók.

Meanwhile, anyone who has taken at least two semesters worth of music history can tell you that The Rite of Spring is bulging with folk influences, a fact that Cross doesn’t exactly go to great pains to emphasize. Through these perspectives, Igor Stravinsky offers up a portrait of a rogue artist frequently at odds with himself. He took his apprenticeship under Rimsky-Korsakov seriously, but was quickly caught up in being the chic toast of Paris and the new face of neoclassicism. He tried to be a devoted father but carried on in extramarital affairs. Avoiding the composition of sacred works early in life, he took a strange turn for the spiritual when collaborating with Jean Cocteau on Oedipus Rex. Considering himself to be Parisian, he missed Russia without ever really being fond of it in the first place.

Cross is equally capable of depicting Stravinsky as a very aloof person, despite all of his internal struggles. American composer Aaron Copland alerted us to this fact way back in 1939 with the publication of his book, What to Listen for in Music: “Did not Stravinsky himself proclaim that his music was an ‘object,’ a ‘thing,’ with a life of its own, and no other meaning than its own purely musical existence?” (page 9). Cross excavates this nice little grenade from Stravinsky’s autobiography, dropping it on page 114 of his own work: “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all…”—this coming from a man who was an eyewitness to the riot caused by the premiere of The Rite of Spring.

Still, even in the throes of hobnobbing with scenesters and artists alike underneath Europe’s post Art Deco, Stravinsky was a guarded figure. His brief fling with fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, a story that doesn’t feel thoroughly substantiated, is balanced by the composer struggling to remain pragmatic about his family life, given that his wife, Catherine, was in such poor health. Less charitably, his affair with dancer and artist Vera de Bosset prompted him to basically tell his wife that she better get used to him being in love with another woman.

In terms of Stravinsky’s private life, Cross seems careful to avoid labeling the composer as sinner nor saint. The one time the book’s tone turns the slightest bit defensive is when Cross addresses the recently raised questions of Stravinsky’s sexual orientation. In Cross’s eyes, “evidence” that Stravinsky was gay, purported by Stravinsky acquaintance and writer/conductor Robert Craft, is not only non-existent but was dragged into the light over 40 years after the composer’s passing. He shoots down Craft’s claims with great ease, attributing it to some ill-advised attention-seeking.

No Stravinsky biography is complete without mentioning the premiere performance of The Rite of Spring in Paris, long considered a turning-point for 20th century classical music. Due to the book’s swift narrative, the story of the night of the Rite of Spring debut performance kind of sneaks up on you. With only scattered eyewitness accounts to fill in the gaps, the near-riot of the audience has been explained many times. Most recently, I heard writer Jonah Lehrer on a Radiolab episode justify the audience uproar by way of brain chemistry. Though this fits with Lehrer’s tendency to water-down the hard science of our natural world to make it palatable and accessible, Cross peels back the cover of an even simpler story.

According to a handful of promoters, that night’s discord was orchestrated by none other than the event’s co-organizer himself, Sergei Diaghilev. Handing out tickets to local university students in their early 20s, Diaghilev knew that their presence that night would guarantee a locking of antlers between the snotty young art-lovers and the Paris elite. He got his wish. According to one colleague, Diaghilev even stated that the premiere went off exactly the way he wanted it to.

As for Stravinsky himself, that very ballet went on to capture all of the paradoxes he embodied: a composer who tapped into the ancient in order to usher in the shockingly new; a Paris citizen both affectionate and seemingly indifferent to his homeland and; a seemingly aloof individual who personally and professionally liked to play with fire.

Igor Stravinsky may not reinvent the wheel concerning biographies, but the combination of Cross’s comprehensive research, succinct writing, and a realistic view of his all-too-human subject are all, to say the least, highly admirable. Even when Cross is giving the reader a brief window into the music world’s somber mood just after Stravinsky’s passing, a time when we’re all prone to gild the lily, the narrative doesn’t wander anywhere near idolatry. Cross points out that Stravinsky was quick to dismiss his one-time creative partner Vaslav Nijinsky as “not musical”, but granted an unprecedented amount of musical trust to choreographer George Balanchine, a man 22 years his junior.

In his autobiography, Stravinsky could recall harbingers of doom leading up to World War I. Cross calls bull on this, saying that only hindsight could move anyone to write such things. Cross realizes that these are just details. “Stravinsky remains,” he boldly writes in summation, indicating that the man’s music will long outlast the chatter it begat. To put an even finer point on it, Cross includes a “Select Discography and Videography” just four pages from the very back. The music remains, he seems to be saying. Even though there’s an impressively dense book describing the life and times behind it, the music remains.

Igor Stravinsky


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