Focusing on Stravinsky’s place in the culture of the twentieth century, Joseph situates the composer among the giants of his age. He discusses Stravinsky’s first American commission, his complicated relationship with his son, his professional relationships with celebrities ranging from T. S. Eliot to Orson Welles, his flirtations with Hollywood and television, and his love-hate attitude toward the critics and the media. In a close look at Stravinsky’s efforts to mold a public image, Joseph explores the complex dance between the composer and his artistic collaborator, Robert Craft, who orchestrated controversial efforts to protect Stravinsky and edit materials about him, both during the composer’s lifetime and after his death.
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Read an Excerpt
Truths and Illusions:
Rethinking What We Know
Of all living composers, none has provoked so many studies, commentaries and discussions as Igor Stravinsky.... The eminent place occupied in contemporary art by the composer might partly explain this flowering of criticism. But he is not the only one up on the heights, and yet, nearly always, Stravinsky is the center of our discussions of music. Despite all previous explanations, we realize as time goes on that the problem continues to present itself under new aspects. There is, therefore, a Stravinsky "enigma."
Boris de Schloezer, Modern Music, 1932
It is little wonder that more has been written about Igor Stravinskythan any other composer of the twentieth century. His "psychic geography,"as Leonard Bernstein once described it, was an enormously complex landscape.He relished confounding society's paradigm of what a classical composerought to be. He wanted, perhaps even needed, to be seen as the "other."And like so many cultural icons, it was his nonconformity that best capturedthe essence of his widely recognized, and some would even say peculiar, image.One often didn't know where the composer stood on an issue, or whenand for what reasons he was apt to change his mindsometimes quite suddenlyand apparently without cause. Anticipating Stravinsky's next move wasalways a futile chase. He was an agglomeration of inconsistencies, an enigma,as Schloezer observedor so it initially seems. Ultimately, it wasall part of acarefully cultivated image. This is not to suggest that the composer's actionswere disingenuous or contrived: promoting any kind of anomaly seemed perfectlynatural to Stravinsky. He simply wore his eccentricity as a badge for allto see. It helped to define his center.
It is not onlyperhaps not even primarilythe remarkable achievementof his music that elevates Stravinsky to a level of recognition few classicalcomposers attain; rather, it is the bundle of perceptions that has grown uparound him. At times this imago has swelled to almost mythical proportions,making him easily one of the most identifiable figures in all of music history.Perhaps that is what Aaron Copland meant when he remarked, "It is just becausethe secret cannot be extracted that the fascination of Stravinsky's personalitycontinues to hold us." Or as Nadia Boulanger, who knew the composerwell, observed: "Stravinsky's personality is so peremptory that when hepicks up something, you don't see the object so much as the hand holding it."
How Stravinsky projected his "hand" is not such a mystery. He worked atit constantly. He was more than willing to indulge in self-promotion. He eagerlyseized whatever new technological marvel was available (perforated rollsfor the pianola, commercially released recordings, films, television, air travelenabling transcontinental junkets from concert to concert), and he possesseda rare facility for toggling smoothly between the worlds of high and pop culturein a way that no composer before him could. His name is found not onlyin every standard music history text but often as the correct "question" on television'sJeopardy. His face is on stamps issued by the post office, and he eventurns up in Clint Eastwood's movie Bird (1988), a biography of jazz legendCharlie Parker (wherein Parker asks to study with Stravinsky, as did others,including George Gershwin and Cole Porter).
Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch's controversial inventory of the five thousandconcepts, dates, names, and expressions that "every American needs toknow," is a highly restrictive document: one had to be quite distinguished tojoin the fraternity of Hirsch's scroll. Copland didn't make the list, nor did otherimportant twentieth-century composers, including Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy,Dimitri Shostakovich, and Charles Ives; certainly not Arnold Schoenberg,despite his vastly important compositional achievements. Stravinsky'slongtime collaborator George Balanchine is missing, as are Martha Graham,Agnes de Mille, Josephine Baker, and Isadora Duncan. And where are suchlegendary American jazz musicians as Parker, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday,and Art Tatum? Yet Stravinsky is there, sandwiched between the StrategicArms Limitation Treaty and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Even morebizarre, Time conducted a poll in 1999 to choose the one hundred most influentialpeople of the twentieth century. In the category of Artists and Entertainers("twenty pioneers of human expression who enlightened and enlivenedus"), Stravinsky joins a list that includes Picasso, Le Corbusier, T. S.Eliot, and Charlie Chaplin as well as Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Oprah Winfrey,and Bart Simpson.
Would such barometers, slick as they are, have impressed Stravinsky?Without question. The composer made it his business to collect and perusevarious encyclopedias and "Who's Who" registers. Herbert Spencer Robinson'sDictionary of Biography (1966), for example, was carefully combed bythe composer. Stravinsky listed on the inside back cover the names of peoplethat in his estimation should have been includedBoulez, Stockhausen, EugeneBerman, Paul Horgan, Gerald Heard, while disputing the inclusion ofothers ("Schtitz!?" he exclaims). Perhaps even more telling, he would alwayscheck to be sure he was included. If not, he would sulk in the margin, "Whyam I not mentioned?"
Stravinsky wanted to be sure that others recognized him. His memory waselephantine when it came to remembering people who offered what he interpretedas invective, even those he publicly praised but privately berated. In thefront of his copy of Minna Lederman's 1947 Stravinsky in the Theatre (givento him by the author "in remembrance of a most pleasurable undertaking"),Stravinsky pasted a review of the book by Virgil Thomson in the New York Herald-Tribuneof 29 February 1948. The "symposium is frankly a plug for thegreat White Russian," wrote Thomson, "rather than a discussion of his worksin disinterested terms. The opposition is nowhere represented." And eventhough Thomson's analysis was quite rightthe book is strictly a collectionof highly flattering essaysStravinsky didn't want any opposition. It was hewho always declared himself on the opposite side of issues, relishing his antipodalrole. Thomson's commentary annoyed the composer, not because itwas inaccurate, but probably because it hit a little too close to the truth.
People generally prefer their artists walled off from the world, reclusivelyengaged in a tortuous struggle with their souls while praying for some type ofdivine intervention. The stereotype is comfortable, for it conveniently relegatescreative minds to a mysterious place where we needn't go, let alone compete.Such parochialism implies that artistic endeavors are immune to a hostof cultural influences that constantly shape the human condition. But artiststoo, maybe even especially, are the carriers of cultural historyand none moreso than Stravinsky, who relied so deeply on indigenous models to guide himand his music throughout his life. The romantic archetype of the monasticcomposer working in seclusion was as foreign to Stravinsky as one could imagine.Stravinsky had to survive by his own wits. After all, if he was to make a livingwithout having to resort to teaching like most composers, he would haveto be visibleor, more crassly put, marketablebeyond the small circle ofclassical music enthusiasts.
Charles Dickens's admonition that "People should not be shocked byartists wanting to make money" was a favorite Stravinskyan line. While Dickensmade a living through his writing, his fame enabled him to prosper all themore through lucrative speaking engagements in America. But Stravinsky'swillingness to step beyond what the public wanted to believe was the cloisteredlife of any truly serious classical composer easily outdistanced that of Dickens.There was a distinctly Barnum-like side to the composer, a mercantile réclamethat walked hand in hand with his creative spirit. Certainly Stravinsky was notthe first classical composer to market his own works, but the extent to whichhe did smacks of a populism more often associated with a completely differentmusical world. Stravinsky's materialistic consciousness is difficult to separatefrom his compositional achievements, so pervasive and aggressive were his attemptsto keep his music before the public by carefully sculpting his own image.Of the voluminous archival documents surviving, an astonishingly largeproportion deals exclusively with business matters, especially self-promotion.Much of it reflects mere squabbling, hucksterism, and pure gamesmanship.Nonetheless, it bespeaks who he was, even if musicians prefer to dismiss thisaspect of his nature and focus only on his compositions. Stravinsky needed tobe public, to be accepted, even to be popular. And he was.
More than any other composer of art music in this century, Stravinsky wasable to make the leap from a rarefied intellectual world to the status of pophero, an icon, in much the same way Albert Einstein did. The composer waswidely respected by a public that understood his music about as much as theyunderstood Einstein's special theory of relativity. Howard Gardner, in CreatingMinds, suggests that Einstein's broad notoriety arose not so much fromwhat he did but how he presented what he did. "Even when quite old," Gardnerwrites, Einstein "never lost the carefree manner of the child, who wouldnot permit society's conventions or the elders' frowns to dictate his behavior."And like the ill-tempered child who will do whatever is necessary to be heard,Stravinsky simply had to win every fight, probably accounting in part for hisneed to carp over the smallest matters. Like Einstein, there was an impish sideto Stravinsky, even into his eighties. His friend the writer Stephen Spenderdescribed a meeting in 1962 as the octogenarian composer prepared to leavefor Africa. "He was excited," recalled Spender, "and showed me Alan Moorhead'sbooks, especially a photo of a rhino. 'I want to see that animal,' he said.'It's like this ...' suddenly he was on all fours, his stick with hook turned uplike a horn, his eyes glazeda rhinoceros."
Stravinsky was remarkably childlike in other ways as well: at one momentcarefree and innocent, at another overwhelmed by the tragedy of existence.He worried about how he fit into the grand scheme of things. In fact, it wasthis Cartesian need to understand his place in the grandly designed hierarchythat explains many of the composer's actions, especially his need to be famousand, more to the point, to be admired. In his introduction to Leo Tolstoy's AnnaKarenina, Malcolm Cowley speaks of the author's insecurity, beginning withthe loss of his mother when he was two and shaping his life thereafter: "Thisneed for loveand also for admirationgave him a lover's clairvoyance, andhe was never indifferent to people: everyone was charged for him with positiveor negative electricity. I think this continual watchfulness helps to explainhis fictional talent.... It gave a feeling of centrality to his work, a sense of itsexisting close to the seats of power." Certainly there was no indifference inStravinsky's life, no middle ground. He felt strongly about everything. He resistedthose who disagreed with him, and he continually sought reassuranceof his own position. Like his contemporary Sigmund Freud, Stravinsky embracedhis fame vengefully, as a highly visible means of winning some measureof retribution against those who had failed to recognize his abilities, especiallyduring his formative years.
The composer commented on every biography and magazine article writtenabout him, sometimes ranting over the most trifling errors. An article byWinthrop Sargeant, for example, in a March 1953 issue of Life was markedextensively ("alas, it proved a very poor article with many mistakes in it,"Stravinsky wrote on the envelope in which it was sent to him), even though itwas essentially a harmless piece. The most superficial articles, including onein the May 1947 issue of Junior Bazaar, did not go unnoticed, as the many mistakesStravinsky circled in his copy disclose. Throughout his library, the marginsof journals and books spill over with his bristling: "This is entirely wrong,""All lies," "What an idiot," "I never said that," "Who cares," "How can this personbe so dense?"
Those who risked writing biographies of Stravinsky suffered his specialwrath, as he would studiously read and comment on most every issue an authormight raise. The marginalia in his copy of Frank Onnen's 1948 monograph,retained in the Sacher Stiftung, is typical of the composer's runningcommentary: "Why to write such useless books? Yes, useless and full of mistakesand wrong information." He meticulously corrected spellings, transliterations,and dates in red and blue pencil. When Onnen mentioned Stravinsky's"Serenade in A Major," the composer answered, "Never!just in A." Anyinstance of sentimentalizing a work meets with protest as well. Of the EbonyConcerto, written for Woody Herman in 1945, Onnen said, "It is a deeply movingpiece over which lies the sadness and the melancholy of the blues, the oldlaments of a race that was from generation to generation oppressed and downtrodden."In response, the composer underlined the passage in red and addedone of his favorite markings, "!?!"
Yet nowhere is Stravinsky's outcry huffier than in a firestorm of criticismaimed at Eric Walter White, for many years considered the composer's mostreliable and comprehensive biographer. When a friend of Stravinsky's praisedWhite in 1947 as an "ardent admirer" and his work as generally complimentary,the composer retorted:
I am in possession of Eric Walter White's book. Sorry not to share your reaction to your description of this musicography [sic] as "a most ardent Stravinskyite." Not his previous book, Stravinsky's Sacrifice to Apollo, nor his present work on me do advocate his understanding of my entire creative output. I wonder reading his two books on me, why write at all when exhibit such consistent restraint and an absolute absence of genuine enthusiasm, nothing to say of his utter lack of discrimination of facts.... Side by side with correct information he uses excerpts from writings of rather biased and dubious sources, such as Mme. B. Nijinska's legends and S. Lifar's impudent revelations of late Diaghilev's jealousies. A "most ardent" admirer would undoubtedly find other means to express his appreciationBeware!
The "present work" to which the composer referred was Stravinsky: A CriticalSurvey, a monograph that especially irked him. He retained a copy of thebook (now held by the Sacher Stiftung), fuming in the margins over virtuallyevery point White raised. The biographer criticized the Duo Concertant (forpiano and violin), remarking, "Indeed the quality of much of the music is belowpar." Stravinsky responded by writing, as he so often did, a question markin the margin. When White described the "Jig" as "boring," the composerwrote "?Why?" And when White claimed that "in all these works [Stravinsky'sviolin and piano pieces, Samuel] Dushkin collaborated with Stravinsky inwriting the violin part," Stravinsky circled the statement and added in the margin,"absolutely wrong"though as the sketches in the Stiftung clearly reveal,Dushkin played a far greater role in assisting him than history has claimed, orStravinsky was ever willing to admit.
Sensitive to Stravinsky's notoriously short fuse, especially when it came toanyone audacious enough to claim to understand him, White made every effortto present a fair and accurate biographical account. Often he asked thecomposer for suggestions, sending him prepublication typescripts and invitinghim to offer revisions, especially in the process of writing his importantand still often used (though obviously dated) 1966 biography. White patientlyendured Stravinsky's sententious harangues in return? The composer's exchangeswith White are characteristic of his inclination to vent his frustrations,though often his condemnations were deflected to others and notshared with White directly. In an article in the summer 1948 issue of Tempo,"Stravinsky as a Writer," White concluded that the composer disliked Beethoven,citing as evidence a statement by C.-F. Ramuz, author of the text forL'Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale), that "Stravinsky was violently anti-Beethovenduring the First World War." Stravinsky sent his reaction to RobertCrafta harbinger of his trust in the young man he had met only a few monthsearlier (although they had corresponded since 1944). The missive lists a stringof refutations pointing to both White's faulty views about Ramuz as well as hismisinterpretations of Stravinsky's position on Beethoven.
Nor did it matter whether his unsuspecting foil was a reputable biographeror an unknown college student. In a letter of 16 November 1953, a youngwoman from Emory University, speaking for several students studying theopera The Rake's Progress, confessed that she was "mystified over the receptionyour work received with so many of the New York critics," and asked forthe composer's reaction to the "hostile attitudes" of such detractors. The studentcertainly didn't need to ask twice (probably didn't need to ask once), andthe composer immediately answered:
I never understand what exactly are the critics complaining about when criticizing my music. Is there not in my music craft or art enough (for only these things should be the object of serious criticism), or do the critics merely not recognize them for lack of competence? The critics, if sincere, are usually disappointed at not finding in my music what they are looking for. Some time they deplore it, more frequently they attack me and almost always they become resentful. But where is the guarantee that their judgment, or opinion, is a professional one. And, after all, are they so important in the history of musical creation. P.S.A quotation from Verdi's letters: "fortunate is the artist whom the press hates."
Stravinsky's ubiquity earned him the label "the world's greatest living composer,"and it was an appellation he did nothing to dispel. Not only Picassobut also American cartoonists caricatured him, finding him recognizableenough among the general public to ring a bell whenever "long-haired" contemporarycomposers were being lampooned. Stravinsky relished the notoriety,as the newspaper cartoons saved in his archives demonstrate. He was amedia star, and he played the role splendidly in radio and magazine interviews,before television cameras, and wherever a crowd would gather. He needed thespotlight.
Broadway offered such glittering exposure as to be irresistible. When BillyRose invited the composer to contribute some ballet music to a show, Stravinskyaccepted, even though some thought his decision ill advised. His privatepapers disclose that he turned down several commissions, including one fora cello concerto (although the composer never especially liked the instrumentanyway), so he could do Rose's show at the Ziegfeld Theater. The chance tomix, even indirectly, with the likes of Bert Lahr, Teddy Wilson, and BennyGoodman"show business"was appealing. It gave him an instantaneousAmerican celebrity status.
Sometimes he threatened to steal the spotlightor at least baited othersinto thinking that he might. A 1918 letter from Ramuz to René Auberjonoisconfirms that Stravinsky seriously entertained the idea of participating himselfin the premiere of the original stage production of L'Histoire du soldat, asone of the actors. "Stravinsky told me last night his intention to dance the lastscene," wrote an excited Ramuz. "This would be perfect; encourage him." Thisdance was the closing one, the rhythmically intricate "Marche triomphale dudiable," and Ramuz cajoled Stravinsky to do it, although ultimately the composerdeclined. Often through his words and actions he would teasingly throwout such tantalizing prospects, though as he neared commitment to his overlyzealous suggestions he rethought the potential consequences. Whether it wasdancing the part of the devil, agreeing to interviews, implying he would accepta compositional commission or consider writing an article or a book, a discretebehavioral pattern emerges. Those who were involved in such exchangesseemed destined to ride a wave of anticipation and frustration. Seldom didStravinsky flatly promise to do something and then renege, but there is a sensethat he rather enjoyed seeing others scurry for his attention. Such conduct,consciously or otherwise, provided a no-lose situation for the composer. Heremained in total control.
Excerpted from Stravinsky Inside Out by Charles M. Joseph. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.