Stephen Walsh’s new biography of Igor Stravinsky – volume one of two – is, in a word, spectacular. In the 20th century, long past the age of court composers or predictable patronage, every piece has its very specific and fortuitous history, leading variously to birth and premiere – and nowhere will one find more fascinating musical histories than those of the works of Stravinsky. And nowhere will they take place in a more colorful, bizarre and talented milieu.
Walsh’s excellent introduction details the immense challenges of this undertaking, which involved much sorting out of truth and fiction in the large body of existing biographical and autobiographical work. For Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was not only one of the greatest composers of the 20th century – arguably, of any century – but also one of the most highly-documented. In particular, Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s longtime intimate and musical assistant, produced many volumes of photographs, letters, journals and biography.
Though Walsh respects these contributions and acknowledges that Craft is without a doubt in a unique “position of authority as arbiter of what did and did not wash” regarding the composer, he regrets that, partly as a result of that very intimacy, Craft “did not show…a talent for factual or even textual accuracy.” Among Walsh’s impressive efforts to achieve accuracy was that of learning Russian in order to retranslate original materials – letters, journals, telegrams – into versions that are truer to the originals.
This exploration of the first 52 years of Stravinsky’s life begins with his extended family, as multi-faceted as a Russian novel, in their prerevolutionary life in dachas and cities. Stravinsky’s rather late-blooming musical studies led to closeness with the Rimsky-Korsakov family and a host of Russian composers and artists, including Glazunov, Max Steinberg and Benois (with whom he would later collaborate). But although Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky’s mentor and his sons, Volodya and Andrey, numbered among young Igor’s closest friends – Firebird would be dedicated to Andrey – aesthetic conflicts and slightings led to a sense of betrayal and alienation so great that Stravinsky refused to return to Russia for decades, despite many invitations and performances.
Stravinsky’s first trip to Paris was in 1910 for the Firebird premiere. For many years from this point, his increasingly cosmopolitan life would be closely tied to such Ballet Russes associates as Sergei Diaghilev, dancers and choreographers Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava, Leonid Massine, Michel Fokine and, eventually, George Balanchine; the writer Jean Cocteau; composers Debussy, Poulenc, Satie and Georges Auric; conductors Ernst Ansermet and Pierre Monteux; artists such as Picasso, Leon Bakst and Matisse; patrons Coco Chanel, Misia Edwards and the princesse Edmond de Polignac (heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune). Paris and its environs would, in fact, become his home.
Within a host of major cities – Paris, London, Brussels, Geneva, Berlin – as well as smaller cities and country retreats, various collaborators fall in and out of favor. Publishers, managers and agents scurry about in at least five countries, as well as admired or resented composers such as Prokofiev and Schoenberg, his first wife, Katya, his children, mother, cousins and in-laws (a handful of whom he supported, however grudgingly) and Vera, his great love, before whom a few lovers had come and gone. Stravinsky’s life is a cat’s cradle of interactions and encounters in four languages and that crucial fifth: music.
But Walsh is up to the task. For when not detailing a rail journey, a historical or political context, a philosopher’s or poet’s aesthetic, or negotiating his way through a thorny outbreak of “revisionism” in some segment of Stravinsky’s life, Walsh is speaking intelligently and descriptively about the music itself. He also chronicles critical response – and there was much of it, what with premieres in several countries for each of the many pieces.
Like Picasso, Stravinsky underwent immense stylistic shifts over the years, and critics of new works were in the habit of declaring that he had finally lost his judgement. One such case was the opera Mavra (1922), based on a Pushkin tale. After a disappointingly bad performance (painful to Stravinsky who, while composing it, had written to Diaghilev that the opera was turning into “the best thing I’ve done”) Mavra received a series of bad reviews. Jean Cocteau leapt to the composer’s defense, writing: “It would be simple to say to oneself…’He must be right. It would be wise to follow him!’ No. Everybody thinks, ‘He is mistaken and I – clever fellow – am the only person who knows it.’ ”
Though the early chapters are a bit tough to follow – with the large family tree, the ricocheting between dachas and cities – they yield interesting portraits, particularly of Stravinsky’s father, a harsh person and famous opera singer, and Katya in her young years. The further the volume progresses, onward to the Ballet Russe collaborations and the great early masterpieces (Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Firebird and Le rossignol), the more compelling and inspired it becomes. Even down to its final 110 pages of notes, in which some of the most interesting minutiae appear, this vast volume is as intriguing as a mystery novel.
Stravinsky was a difficult man who could readily turn against his friends and colleagues. There is much unpleasantness to reveal, but Walsh is graceful in the telling and does not wallow in gossip or sensation – nor does he need to, with stories that are so fascinating in and of themselves. Despite his success as a composer, it was only by commanding high fees as performer and conductor of his own works that he was able to shoulder his financial burdens. This required that he tour for many months out of each year, and produce the music to tour with – solo piano works and concerti, duo pieces for his collaborations with the violinist Samuel Dushkin.
The constant travels and absences made possible his double life with two women. Katya’s fragile health kept her mostly at home, wherever that happened to be at the time, with the children and Stravinsky’s mother, who had arrived from Russia in 1922. For the most part, it was vibrant, charming Vera with whom he traveled and socialized, after they fell in love in 1921. For a time, a reasonable distance separated the two women – Vera was in Paris, Katya in Nice – but in 1934 Stravinsky moved his family, mother and all, to Paris as well.
As this volume ends Stravinsky seems unable to grasp the changing situation in Germany, a country on which he depended heavily for his concert bookings. Fearful of being mistaken as a Jew, he has penned a pro-Nazi genealogy; not long before, he had visited Mussolini to pay deep respect. And this man of many contradictions and paradoxes has become a French citizen, officially, at last.
Volume two awaits.