Stravinsky (4) The American Years



Stravinsky had arrived in America in late 1939 and had married Vera de Bosset in March 1940. Having fulfilled his engagement at Harvard the couple moved to Beverly Hills and bought a house in Hollywood where they were to live for many years. He would soon build up quickly a new circle of friends. There was plenty of artistic and intellectual activity around particularly ex-pat Brits such as Aldous Huxley and W H Auden with whom he would later collaborate. After the war he would also get to know Dylan Thomas for what was to be a short period. On arrival he was half way through his Symphony in C which was first performed in Chicago. His first American composition was Tango inspired by a trip to Mexico as was “El Salon Mexico” written at much the same time by Aaron Copland, my preferred option. In 1942 Stravinsky would fall foul of American law without even knowing it. He wrote an arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You may well ask what was wrong with that. There just happened to be a federal law forbidding interference with the national anthem and Stravinsky got arrested during the performance. Who knows, if he could have done to the Star Spangled Banner what he could do to Pergolesi and Tchaikovsky, with a few carefully placed wrong notes, it might well have warranted the electric chair. Stravinsky was receiving a number of commissions and in 1942 he produced Danses Concertantes for Balanchine followed by Scenes de Ballet in 1944 and then film music from Hollywood. He certainly had no money troubles and found himself in rude health. Happily remarried he was still in good form and prone to a seven year itch….. but which occurred somewhat more frequently.


Towards the end of the war Stravinsky began writing for jazz and swing bands, composing his Scherzo à la Russe for jazz ensemble in 1944 followed by his Ebony concerto, written for Woody Herman, a clarinettist swing band leader. Frankly I prefer Woody’s own “At the Woodchoppers Ball”. Copland adapted better in writing his clarinet concerto, in his case for Benny Goodman who actually recorded the Ebony concerto with Stravinsky. One does not get the feeling that Stravinsky got the real soul of American music as Dvorak had done fifty years earlier.


1945 saw the end of the war and the return to form of Stravinsky in his neo-classical mould with his symphony in three movements. It is a very listenable work but Stravinsky described it as a war symphony after having watched newsreel films. It does not have the feel of a war symphony like Shostakovitch’s Leningrad symphony or his harrowing eighth but then you didn’t get harrow in Hollywood.


With the end of the war Stravinsky obtained American nationality. The first thing he did was to start revising a number of his works, Firebird, Petrouchka, Symphony of Wind Instruments, The Fairy’s Kiss, Apollo, Persephone, Oedipus Rex, Symphony of Psalms, Pulcinella and others. Sometimes it was just a touching up job, sometimes the addition of a further instrument here or there. He might be said to have been looking for his last word but he was also looking more for royalties which he had not been receiving before. Obtaining American citizenship gave him this particular source of income and who can blame him for that?


This summary cannot deal with each item of Stravinsky’s output but simply to follow his career where he was still pursuing his neo-classicism at this stage . 1947 saw a new ballet, Orpheus, based on Monteverdi who of course wrote his own superb version, the moving opera, Orfeo. Here Stravinsky has returned to the static style which permeated his output when he based it on the culture of Ancient Greece.


Shortly afterwards Stravinsky visited an exhibition in Chicago of to view “The Rakes Progress”, the eight engravings of Hogarth. The series formed in Stravinsky’s mind a subject for an opera but he himself was not sufficiently skilled in English to write a poetic libretto and on the recommendation of, Aldous Huxley, he engaged W H Auden and his partner, Chester Kallman to write it. Auden came out west and the two hit it off despite Auden, according to the Stravinsky’s maid, not using the towel and soap left out for him. He and Kallman, soon would refer to Igor and Vera as the Stravs. The well known story concerns the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, who deserts Anne Trulove for the delights of London in the company of Nick Shadow, who, in the Auden version, turns out to be the Devil. Shades here also of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. It was first performed at La Fenice in Venice in September 1951, with Stravinsky himself conducting. It was his first visit to Europe in twelve years. Many consider The Rake’s Progress as the summit of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period and the pinnacle of Auden’s work as a librettist.


It was in 1948 that Stravinsky met the 25 year old conductor Robert Craft who became his pupil, his promoter, his biographer, his mentor and adviser, his conductor, his propagandist and his minder as well as legal executor, a relationship which lasted the rest of Stravinsky’s life and beyond. Just as Stravinsky was influenced at the outset of his career by Diaghilev, so he was influenced for the final years by Craft. What differed were the types of influences. Diaghilev was a promoter and adviser but with him Stravinsky remained his own man. One could not say that he did not remain his own man with Craft but one is left with the impression that Stravinsky had weakened and the influence more pernicious. Little is known about Craft but he seems to be a cross between a leech and a vulture. He developed his speciality in early music, particularly Monteverdi, perhaps having been involved in some way with Orpheus. He then turned his attention to the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, particularly the last named and became an apostle to St Arnold, St Alban and St Anton, the three A’s. He turned Stravinsky’s attentions to the music of Webern and one cannot doubt that Stravinsky would not have followed that course had it not provoked his interest. He was interested and began experimenting. It was a change of direction, perhaps one much needed. He clearly had a problem as to which way to go forward particularly after thirty years of writing in neo-classical vogue and no longer wishing to excavate old composers and include them in his own recipes. Many composers face the dilemma of advancing years, Beethoven by developing a mature sound which in his late quartets would baffle generations; Brahms by retreating into premature old age; Sibelius, not wishing to repeat himself, by retreating into silence for thirty years.


I do not propose to list all the Stravinsky output which followed. My own lack of sympathy would be unfair to him and to you. It is not simply the serial technique which he sought to adopt as this was by no means any longer novel. Stravinsky had ceased being in the vanguard but following in the steps of others, the leaders of whom were all by then dead. There are still Stravinskyan sounds and the occasional reminder of the voice we had known previously but there seems to me to be a sense of the static we had seen produced in his previous stylistic incarnation. In 1953 he would meet Dylan Thomas and was impressed by him and his exuberance, not to mention his capacity to consume quantities of alcohol. Together they planned to team up to write an opera which was not to be. Thomas died that year and Stravinsky wrote his “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas”. It seems to me they would have been a mismatch. To the extent that Dylan’s poetry is particularly more musical Igor’s music is particularly less poetic. Perhaps someone more immersed in late Stravinsky can better illustrate its qualities than I. Matthew has referred to Stravinsky writing the wrong notes – but the right wrong notes. I prefer to liken his late music to what Eric Morcambe said to André Previn. “They are the right notes – but in the wrong order”. In Memoriam is a dirge with the setting of the poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night” written by Thomas as his memorial to his own father. Stravinsky framed it within a prologue and postlude scored for four trombones and a string quartet. It does not for me possess the musicality of the poetry of Dylan Thomas such as in Fern Hill or the humour of Under Milk Wood. No evidence of any Organ Morgan, Dai Bread, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Butcher Beynon or Lily Smalls. Dan Jones who wrote the music for the original radio production of Under Milk Wood also wrote an “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas”, his symphony no 4, a more memorable and moving tribute given its first performance at a prom I went to in 1954.


Earlier in 1952, Stravinsky had written for the city of Venice the Canticum Sacrum Ad Honorum Santi Marci Nominis, a commission form the International Society of Contemporary Music to be performed at Saint Marco. It is partially serial. Two years later he wrote Threni, a fully serial work to be performed in Venice to which he had become strongly attached.


Better known from this period is his ballet, Agon, which he started writing in his diatonic style and during which he switched to twelve tone style. It was written for the ballet company of Balanchine. Although musically not neo-classical, it is based on French seventeenth century dance forms including sarabande, galliard and bransles. Here Stravinsky demonstrates his adoption of twelve tone music by writing for everything centred on twelve; bars in alternate seven and five meters, dancers in three groups of four and anything which can add up to twelve. Had he written it at nineteen to the dozen he would have doubtless marked it at nineteen to the bar.


Following Agon, Stravinsky undertook a world tour over two years covering five continents and conducting wherever he went. This would have been taxing for any younger man than him. For someone at nearly 80 years of age it is hard to imagine where his energy came from. All of this was against the background that between 1957, aged 75 and 1967 aged 85, he had embarked on recording his complete oeuvres, nowadays spread over 22 CD’s, conducting almost the lot, with Robert Craft the only permitted stand-in for the few the old man could not manage. Robert Craft had become more rather than less the official voice of Stravinsky with critics referring to his writings and recorded performances as the authorised version and the gospel truth. However there remain those of us who learned a much more full blooded Stravinsky from the famous FFRR 78 rpm recordings and the early LP’s by Ansermet and no usurper to the throne will replace him.


In 1962 Stravinsky was a guest of President and Mrs Kennedy at a dinner given in his honour at the White House. Sadly he would little more than a year later be writing “Elegy for JFK” to a poem written by W H Auden. Before that however came a surprise invitation for his 80th birthday. It was from the USSR to come and conduct his music there. Until then he had been persona non exista in the USSR and he himself hated anything to do with them. He did not want to go but did so on the advice of Robert Craft. It was his first visit to his native land in 48 years. He would have hated the very name of Leningrad at which airport he arrived. He was nevertheless t earfully overcome by his return and was greeted in the Kremlin by Nikita Kruschev. He went on over three weeks to make public appearances and give performances and was feted wherever he went.


After his return home he wrote his “Abraham and Isaac” to a Hebrew text from Genesis which was first performed in Israel in 1965. This leads me to make an observation concerning works by Stravinsky with titles either identical to or very similar to those of Benjamin Britten. One gets the feeling that Stravinsky began to feel overtaken by Britten and had a sneaking regard for him. It is certainly very odd that after Britten had written Noye’s Flood Stravinsky too wrote The Flood; odd too that Britten had written five canticles, a term not to my knowledge used by any other composer except subsequently by Stravinsky; strange too that one of Britten’s canticles was called “Abraham and Isaac” based on a Chester miracle play and here now was Stravinsky writing his “Abraham and Isaac”, regrettably in my view not matching up in any way to that of Britten which the latter considered highly enough to reproduce in his own War Requiem.


Stravinsky’s last major work was entitled Requiem Canticles and written in 1966 on a commission from Princeton University. His last public concert was in November 1967 in Toronto where he conducted Pulcinella. His health was beginning to fail and after 28 years living on the West coast he and Vera moved to New York. In 1971 he travelled to Evian to visit his family by his first marriage.


Igor Stravinsky died in New York in 1971 just short of his 89th birthday . His choice, set out in his will, as to where he wanted to be buried was Venice, the city he loved.

He had chosen the position of his grave in San Michele just across the path from that of his old colleague, friend and compatriot in exile, Sergei Diaghilev. The two were together again after a long absence perhaps plotting on what earthquakes and riots they could inflict on others wherever they had gone.


Stravinsky had a long career incredibly linking him from Rimsky-Korsakov to Anton Webern. He was the most individual of composers who rarely could be mistaken for another. Equally incredible were his stylistic changes so different from each other whilst he remained always recognizably the same Stravinsky. It has been said that Stravinsky did not write from the heart but, let’s be honest, nor do most composers. Composing is hard work as Beethoven knew only too well and sounding from the heart is a gift to those composers who have had to contrive to achieve that result. In Stravinsky’s case the lack of apparent heart gives rise to a sense of artificiality. Yet, there is heart but also the words needed to describe him are “shock” and “brilliance”. If I have failed to show understanding for his last period the fault is mine, not that of Stravinsky. Just like many who could not immediately comprehend the late Beethoven quartets in their time, I remain to come to terms with the late Stravinsky in mine. We have done that before with that old war horse, the Rite of Spring, written unbelievably now a hundred years ago. Those late works of his will surely have their day to come.