A Fine-Tuned Legacy
By David Schiff
From the Moscow Times - Friday, July 7, 2006
Igor Stravinsky's compositions are marvels of lucidity; his life was a dense, disorderly counterpoint of multiple nationalities and languages, rival households and heirs and the constant, nasty pedal point of economics. Thanks to longevity and a cataclysmic century, Stravinsky's mode of existence was simultaneously pre-modern, modern and postmodern. When he could, he lived the life of a deposed, deracinated nobleman, celebrating the values of the ancien regime from the artificial paradise of a grand hotel. Yet at the same time he was one of the hardest working people in the music business, crisscrossing continents and oceans for a conducting gig here, an odd commission there, always with a sharp eye for the bottom line. After the brilliant arrivals of the three ballets that made him world-famous, his principal capital was his own celebrity, a highly valuable commodity carefully polished and spun over the years to heighten its cachet in changing circumstances. By the 1960s, a Baudrillardian Stravinsky-simulacrum, a walking, talking, opining brand-name, received far more attention than the (apparent) composer of short, sputtering "late pieces" like "Movements for Piano and Orchestra" and the Huxley variations.
Stravinsky's complex and, as is often said, Nabokovian, history will tempt scholars for ages to come. The British critic and musicologist Stephen Walsh has now completed a two-volume life; the first part, "A Creative Spring," covered Stravinsky's musical development, from his birth in 1882 through the composition of "Persephone" in 1934. "The Second Exile" focuses on the composer's late French and American years, ending with his death in 1971. One can only admire the amount of careful research that underlies Walsh's project. Like a good plumber, he connects the many disparate sources of Stravinskiana to his main line and keeps it all moving along. And yet the overall impression is of a stolid diligence glazed over by too much "colorful" writing, beginning with a hokey vignette of the composer as a stranger on a train; you can see the credits rolling over the studied misterioso of the prose.
As a biographer, Walsh gives the impression of having no agenda and just doing his job, which seems to be a slow and steady march through Stravinsky's life, occasionally reminding us of what was going on in the outside world. Stravinsky's own habits seemed to depend on a similar discontinuity between history and his own creative processes, a fruitful illusion which Walsh occasionally questions, but more often affirms; typically, he asserts that the finale of "Symphony in Three Movements," from 1945, "was not an expression of the excitement of the end of the war but the solution to a formal problem: how to unite two movements, one of them violent ... the other delicate and bardic" -- as if these two explanations were inherently incompatible.
Walsh's naïve acquiescence in Stravinsky's core values is less of a problem, however, than his relentless concern with the role that the composer's aide-de-camp Robert Craft played, and continues to play, in his life and legacy. From the opening of "A Creative Spring" to the close of "The Second Exile," Craft is center-stage, disguised as Mephistopheles. Craft would prove a problem for any biographer since he was at once part of Stravinsky's real life and the creator of the simulacrum -- witness and fictionalizer. Because Craft has covered so much of Stravinsky's life in the many volumes of "dialogues" written under both their names, and in the reminiscences and reconsiderations that have appeared since Stravinsky's death, Walsh finds himself in the impossible position of relying on Craft's account of events while casting doubts on Craft's memory, motives and linguistic abilities.
The crescendo of carping and accusation, sometimes in the main text, sometimes in the endnotes, leaves the reader confused and exhausted, especially since some of Craft's anecdotes are passed along at face value, while others are altered without explanation. For instance, Walsh omits one of the most horrifying examples of Stravinsky's tactlessness, when, as Stravinsky/Craft wrote in "Dialogues and a Diary," the composer returned Dmitry Shostakovich's praise for the "Symphony of Psalms" by saying that he shared Shostakovich's admiration for Gustav Mahler but "you should go beyond Mahler. The Viennese troika adored him also, you know, and Schoenberg and Webern conducted his music." Walsh merely reports that the two great composers discussed "Mahler and Puccini, but trivially and without touching on each other's deeper attitudes." He gives no indication of why he might doubt the much more vivid and chilling account of the meeting.
Craft's role in Stravinsky's life will challenge any biographer, but the difficulties that Walsh has with him are compounded by an apparent distance from the American scene. The very title of the new volume, "The Second Exile," betrays a Eurocentric prejudice made evident repeatedly in his stereotyped renditions of the American geographical and cultural landscape. In the United States, Stravinsky was not an exile but an accidental emigre who could just as easily have stayed in France during the war (though probably at the cost of his reputation) or returned to Europe after the war as did Paul Hindemith and Thomas Mann. The Stravinskys may have said that they hated Los Angeles, but for 20 years they hated it less than anywhere else they might have chosen to live.
Until Craft's papers become public, any biographer following Walsh's conventionally yet deceptively all-inclusive approach to Stravinsky's life will be pointless. It would be more productive to pursue subtopics than to try to erect a grand monument on an uncertain foundation. One important subtopic -- not at all peripheral -- would be Stravinsky and money. Whether it was the loss of copyright income on his most popular compositions that led, reasonably, to his ugly obsession with nickels and dimes, or whether this miserliness, which often escalated into accusations of treachery (filled out, when the situation called for it, with the crudest of anti-Semitism) was the flip side of his creative obsession with musical order remains to be seen. More mysterious is the juxtaposition of vulgar materialism and hauteur. Stravinsky needed a large income just to support his extended family, and yet he would rather run himself ragged conducting or appearing as a pianist than write another marketable moneymaker on the earlier models of the "Berceuse" from "The Firebird" or the "Russian Dance" from "Petrushka."
Another crucial subtopic would be Stravinsky's relation to modernism itself. Walsh privileges Stravinsky's most aggressively modernist music like the "Concerto for Two Solo Pianos" and the "Symphony in Three Movements" without explaining why these works were exceptional. In the first 15 years covered in the second volume, Stravinsky devoted himself mainly to transparent, lightweight bagatelles, the most exquisitely wrought divertimenti since Mozart. Walsh tends to ascribe the triviality -- some would say divine triviality -- of these works to opportunism. But this is a lazy prejudice, made worse by snobbery as, for instance, when Walsh describes the great Woody Herman Orchestra, for which Stravinsky composed his "Ebony Concerto," as a purveyor of "jazz cliches." The creation of finely made art for social use rather than as an outlet for romantic egoism was a serious aesthetic position of the interwar period, a position Stravinsky often expressed and which his works realized more successfully than those of such fellow gebrauchsmusikers as Hindemith and Darius Milhaud. Stravinsky's restless musical appetite kept him open to new stimuli, like the sound of the Herman band, and prevented him from formulaic self-repetition.
Rather than pursuing the modernist path that critics expected from the composer of "The Rite of Spring," Stravinsky became an ironic anti-modernist, until, with his neo-gothic mass of 1948, he discovered an even more unmodern (though less ironic) style of religious austerity, which, more than his embrace of Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, would define his late works. But that opens the biggest subtopic of all: Stravinsky and God. Musicologists, start up your computers.
David Schiff is the composer of the opera "Gimpel the Fool" and the author of books about the music of Elliott Carter and George Gershwin.