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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Stravinsky: Missing from His Music

By Norman Lebrecht / October 30, 2002

The more books we read about Igor Stravinsky, 'greatest composer of the 20th century, the less we know.

Those who, like BBC executives, spend their working lives making pointless lists of all-time greats will recognise the unyielding stare of Igor Stravinsky, master of the modern world. Stravinsky is commonly ranked as 'greatest composer of the 20th century'.

David Attenborough, in his new memoir, recalls that, around 1970, he asked the composer and his pal Picasso to devise a logo and jingle for BBC-2, the ultimate designer object. Stravinsky, surfeited with celebrity, never bothered to reply. He needed no further proof of his place in cultural history.

This was the man who three times changed the way that music was composed. The Rite of Spring provoked riots in 1913 with its primeval rhythmicism; his sardonic neo-classicism rekindled a taste for the baroque; and his late 12-note serialism made arid tunelessness almost popular. Style, however, was Stravinsky's mask; his personality was wilfully obscured.

His funeral in 1971 made prime-time news, the coffin bobbing on a gondola through Venice to reside sentimentally beside his mentor, the balletmaster Sergei Diaghilev. In the normal run of things, the death of a great man uncorks revelations from heirs and ex-lovers. We now know all we shall ever need to know, for instance, about Picasso, who died two years later. About Stravinsky, conversely, we know less.

Five volumes of conversations recorded by his assistant, Robert Craft were, for 40 years, assumed to be the composer's oral testament, although acquaintances protested that he never spoke fluent English. Craft admitted that he had fleshed out some epigrammatic remarks, but he insisted on Stravinsky's authorship. Stravinsky himself sent the manuscript to T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber as a 'book of dialogues of mine.'

Now Craft has shifted his position. In his introduction to a newly summarisededition (Faber, £25) Craft concedes that the text was by Stravinsky only 'in the sense of fidelity to the substance of his thoughts. The language, unavoidably, is very largely mine.' So now we know: this was not Stravinsky speaking. He did not want the world to know him and Craft, now 78, has kept up the obfuscatory mask by taking issue with every would-be biographer.

Stephen Walsh, in the first volume of a life in progress (Cape, 1999, and predictably challenged by Craft), examines a trauma in Stravinsky's youth that might explain a great deal. When Igor was 15, his elder brother, Roman, died. The parents were distraught and Stravinsky himself was so shaken that, talking to Craft, he referred only to 'news ... received of the death of my brother'.

An identical tragedy, at the same age, turned Gustav Mahler into the most self-revealing of composers. In Stravinsky, it bred self-withdrawal. When a favourite child dies, its siblings are often beset by guilt and identity confusion, longing to replace the lost one in parental affections or to break free. We know nothing of Stravinsky's feelings. All we know is that some months later he produced his first composition, a Tarantella for piano.

Emotional and creative stimuli ran parallel in Stravinsky's life. The revolution that sealed his exile from Russia resulted in an attack of 'impotence' - his own word, confided to the gossipy pianist, Arthur Rubinstein. A love-affair in Paris with Coco Chanel restored his vitality in 1920; it also instigated his remarkable transition to neo-classicism.

For the next 18 years, he set up home in France with Vera Sudeikina, cultivating a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Yet Stravinsky neither divorced nor abandoned his devout wife, Catherine, and spent extended periods with her in Switzerland until her death in 1939. The double life accentuated his inscrutability. His son, Theodore, an accomplished artist, painted a portrait of the composer-as sphinx, a sallow parent of no visible warmth.

Later, married to Vera and living in American exile, Stravinsky revelled in contradictions. A man who sat behind him at the 50th anniversary Rite of Spring in London in 1963 told me that Stravinsky spent the entire concert abusing its conductor, Pierre Monteux, for whom he publicly spoke nothing but praise. Performances by Craft, who served him for 21 years, were similarly excoriated.

The pair embarked on a complete recording of his works, but the tempi taken by Stravinsky were often drastically at variance with his previous accounts. Even in the pragmatic matter of how his works should sound, Stravinsky did not want us to know his mind.

Of no great composer can it be said that he is so absent in his music. Every major score, from Firebird to Threni is stamped with Stravinsky's unmistakable sound, yet at no time can an audience know what he was feeling, or what sentiments he sought to evoke in them. The concerto for piano and wind instruments, one of his most engaging entertainments, is an emotional void. The Rake's Progress is blankly amoral, an abstention from judgement.

Enigmatic neutrality won Stravinsky popularity in an era when the self-exposure of Mahler and Richard Strauss was deemed excessive. But tastes have changed and, in a 21st century when no act is too private to be read over breakfast, Stravinsky's reticence runs against the tide of popular expectation.

It's too soon to speak of reputational decline, but Stravinsky performances are becoming less frequent. In Russia, where he was iconised after his 1962 home visit, his stock is sharply down. Post Communist interpreters like Valery Gergiev and Mariss Jansons prefer the explicit, erotically charged works of Sergei Prokofiev to the emotional sterility of the great deceptor.

Prokofiev, who returned to Moscow in 1933, died on the same day as Stalin - March 5th 1953 - and resides more in Russian hearts than Stravinsky ever did. Like Stravinsky, Prokofiev expressed himself in three modern styles. His operatic summit, The Fiery Angel, was suppressed for 30 years and underplayed for the next 30. Even at his most atonal, Prokofiev conveys a comprehensible, if complex, emotional agenda.

He may have lacked, as a man, Stravinsky's magnetic charm but his significance as a composer is rising vertically. Over the coming year, as London, Manchester and most other places of musical habitation mark the anniversary of his death, Prokofiev will emerge as much more a man of our own open times than the sinuous, secretive and infuriatingly evasive Stravinsky.

Will the real Igor Stravinsky ever stand up? I have my doubts. It may well be that when a successful biographer finally removes the fixed mask, he will find no human face behind it.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001