Stravinsky Outside Russia

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Stravinsky Outside Russia, performed on Jan 20, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

It has become all too commonplace to negotiate the complex and tangled fabric of artistic life in history by constructing an artificial hierarchy—lists of the “best” or “most famous” personages—as if painting, writing, or composing were Olympic contests, adequately judged by a single objective criterion. In reality, at any given time there are many inspired and imposing figures who, despite their ambitions, jealousies, and rivalries, themselves never worried about any top ten or top fifty rankings. And the nature of art-making resists such blunt instruments of evaluation. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century (if there were indeed to be a contender for the status of the “greatest” 20th-century composer) the honor, as a matter of public perception both in the general public and among professional musicians, would most likely have fallen on Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, who, unlike Paul Dukas or Felix Mendelssohn, seems not to have suffered from modesty, self-doubt, or excessive generosity to others, would have been only too pleased. Perhaps the best way to think of Stravinsky’s standing during his lifetime and for several decades after his death in 1971 is to compare him to the place his contemporary, Pablo Picasso, came to occupy in the visual arts as emblematic of the 20th century.

The reasons for Stravinsky’s prominence and dominance are many. First and foremost are the range and quality of Stravinsky’s output, sustained over a very long and productive life. Second, Stravinsky was a shrewd and effective promoter of his own music and career. Third is the variety of styles and genres in which the composer worked, from the stage to small chamber music works. Fourth—and perhaps most intriguing—are the prominence and influence he managed to achieve in three very disparate and discrete public spheres and contexts. The first was his native pre-revolutionary Russia, into which he was born in 1882. The second was French-speaking Europe, in France and Switzerland, where the composer lived and worked for nearly three decades before World War II. Stravinsky started his career outside of Russia as a Russian working abroad, and then as an exile. But he ended up as an exponent of contemporary “French” music. Stravinsky spent his final three decades (from 1939 on) based in the United States, where he was regarded initially as partially Russian, but equally French as an exile. Ultimately, by the early 1960s, he came to represent American music, at home in the United States and abroad.

Stravinsky’s career began in Russia, where he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and where he formed a deep and lifelong artistic and spiritual attachment to Russian folk traditions, the Orthodox religion, the Russian language, and the Russian cultural heritage in music, the visual arts, and literature. The “Volga Boatmen” arrangement for Chaliapin gives evidence of this. In Paris, where he befriended Claude Debussy, Stravinsky exploited the rage for presumed exoticism of all things Russian, and rose to international fame through the success and notoriety of his ballet scores written for the Ballets Russes.

One single date has come to serve as an historic marker for the explosion of modernism onto the cultural scene—a moment in time that seemed to bring the 19th century to a close and usher in the 20th: the May 29, 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring (which the ASO will be performing next month in our Classics Declassified series). In his years in France, Stravinsky came to dominate the musical and cultural scene, taking his place alongside Valery, Gide, and Cocteau (forgetting Coco Chanel in this context) as a luminary. Through Nadia Boulanger, arguably the most important single teacher of a younger generation of composers, many of them Americans, Stravinsky influenced the course of American concert music. In his American years, Stravinsky’s fame and reputation continued to grow, not as an outsider (the way other émigrés, such as Schoenberg, saw themselves), but as an insider in the American scene. In part through his association with Robert Craft, who would become his chronicler and assistant, in his last years Stravinsky was astonishingly productive, writing in a new way, adapting modernist techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern.

All in all, therefore, one can locate roughly three distinct stylistic periods in Stravinsky’s career. The first was an unmistakable “Russian” phase; Russian influences are obviously audible in the Firebird, for example. This gave way to a form of self-consciously international neo-classicism, not dissimilar from a parallel development in architecture, particularly the work of Le Corbusier. The high point of that period was reached during the late 1920s and early 1930s in Paris. In the years of transition from Russia, great works that mirror the trajectories forwards and backwards in time were written, such as Les Noces (1914/1917) and The Soldier’s Tale (1918). The legacy of neo-classicism formed the basis for the third period (the most audibly modernist period, that of the 1950s and 1960s) when the composer was in the United States, where he wrote among other things, together with W.H. Auden, his operatic masterpiece The Rake’s Progress (1951) and an opera for television, The Flood(1962).

At the same time, just as in the case of Picasso, the shifting stylistic surfaces in each period never masked a consistent distinctive character and quality to Stravinsky’s music. A set of proverbial fingerprints, revealing a unique musical imagination and personality, can be located in all of Stravinsky’s music. Central to Stravinsky’s aesthetic was the belief that in the end music was separate from language, and demanded a formal economy, a structure, and rigorous logic all its own. At the same time, Stravinsky understood his audience and the public. He had an uncanny sense of the theatrical in music and an elegant sense of humor and irony. There was a clarity, transparency, and lightness to his music reflecting a deeply felt aversion to Wagnerian grandiosity and Mahlerian metaphysical pomposity. A lucid rhythmic originality, vitality, and complexity inhabit many of his scores, but the asymmetries and surprises all seem seamless and natural. The discipline of writing for the dance taught the composer that the overarching architecture of a work, its musical flow and narrative, could not be obscure. Stravinsky used musical time with uncanny effectiveness, rarely if ever wearing out his welcome with his audience or his fellow musicians. His command of instrumental and vocal sonorities was equally impressive, as was his capacity to make his material memorable. Stravinsky’s extensive output was startling in its consistency in terms of rigor, invention and quality.

Yet, like Picasso, although Stravinsky’s name and reputation remain in tact, the interest of the public has shifted away from much of his work. The three great ballet scores, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/47) and The Rite of Spring, are cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire. Many later scores are still heard, but far fewer than one might think or wish. This is especially the case with Stravinsky’s later works. Indeed, many of his mid-career and later works survive on the public stage as a result of his friend Balanchine’s choreography, including pieces not intended for the dance, such as the Violin Concerto (1931).

If there is tendency to simplify how we approach the history of music by constructing lists of the “top ten,” there is a parallel allure to the idea that there is some “essential” identity to each composer in terms of his historical roots, so to speak. Bartók becomes quintessentially “Hungarian,” Copland “American,” Debussy and Ravel “French,” and Sibelius “Finnish.” As a result, we turn to Americans for the “best” performances of Copland, Hungarians for Bartók, the French for Debussy and Ravel, and the Finns for Sibelius. This makes marketing easy and lends some hint of authenticity to our experience as listeners, as if there might be some secret spiritual or national bond, framed by blood, language and soil, between a composer and his music, requiring decoding by someone who shares that bond.

Even when this might plausibly apply to a composer (e.g. Musorgsky as Russian or Smetana as Czech), it assumes some fixed generalized category—Russianness and Czechness that seem to transcend historical change. But what do we make of Stravinsky? Despite his evident identity as a Russian émigré after 1917, this reductive assessment violates not only his own views about the nature of music, but the facts of his career and the range and variety of his compositions. Recourse to the notion of exile, in the case of Stravinsky, only complicates the problem. Rachmaninov was also an exile after 1917. For him the experience of being separated from his homeland was traumatic. He sought to insulate himself in an environment marked by nostalgia. He tried to recreate the atmosphere of his native land when he was in America, England, and Switzerland. Prokofiev, who like Stravinsky found himself abroad when the October Revolution happened, and like Stravinsky sought to make a career in America and France, in part because he felt always in Stravinsky’s shadow, returned to Russia in the mid 1930s. But Prokofiev, unlike Stravinsky, had no spiritual ties to the Orthodox Church and was never a virulent anti-Communist.

Stravinsky fit in, in France and America, as a leading and successful participant at the center of musical and cultural life, and never at its margins.

Vladimir Nabokov reinvented himself and became one of the greatest writers in English and one of the most trenchant observers of post-War America. Stravinsky managed to reinvent himself too, not once, but twice: first in France and then in America. Like Nabokov, he used the position of exile to forge a synthesis with his new circumstances and reach in new ways various new publics. The link to the past was never hidden or disavowed (as Kurt Weill attempted). Unlike the Jewish and politically-active anti-Fascists, Stravinsky had not been rejected, betrayed, or expelled by Russia, but by the Communists. And Stravinsky, fortunately for him, unsuccessfully tried to keep his music in circulation in Germany after 1933. Displacement and the necessity to adjust may have been unwelcome but they could still be understood as acts of practicality, not fear or conscience. Exile provided Stravinsky with new remarkable sources of inspiration.

This concert seeks to highlight the consequences of Stravinsky’s life after 1910 and particularly after 1917, when the plausibility of a return to Russia disappeared. Some works foreground aspects of Stravinsky’s lifelong connection to Russia. In others, particularly the later choral works, the “Russian” element, if present, is quite remote. What this concert suggests is that in Stravinsky’s case, we have a composer’s composer, for whom music can function in the world in a manner that resists facile typecasting, and whose character reflects a dialogue with the composer’s immediate environment.

Furthermore, the music on this concert, with the exception of the Symphony of Psalms, appears rather infrequently. It is therefore a reminder of the range and variety of the music of one of the consummate masters of musical composition whose ambitions, craft, and influence were international and whose identity shifted, at different phases in his career, to transfigure distinct milieus and contexts.

Igor Stravinsky, Song of the Volga Boatmen

By Joseph Landers

Written for the concert Stravinsky Outside Russia, performed on Jan 20, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

In 1996, an orchestration of “Song of the Volga Boatmen” was discovered among the holdings of the Mapleson Music Library in Lindenhurst, New York. This arrangement for bass-baritone and full orchestra was found in the form of a set of individual orchestral parts and accompanying piano-vocal score for use by the conductor, on the cover of which was fastened a typewritten notice saying:


Although Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement for orchestral winds of 1917 is well-known to musicians, the Lindenhurst discovery suggests that the composer made a second version of the popular Russian folksong—a remarkable notion given the fact that there is no other existing record of this work. An investigation of the discovery revealed significant evidence that the Lindenhurst “Boatmen” was indeed authentic, probably dating from the mid 1920s. The work is an exciting find, perhaps even establishing a new connection between the composer and the great Russian bass-baritone Feodor Chaliapin—a connection that has previously eluded biographers.

The primary obstacles to authenticating the discovery were the absence of any holographic material (full score, short score, or sketch) and an apparent lack of any reference to the piece in the voluminous documentary record of the composer’s life and works. Without such independent verification, authenticity must be established by the sheer physical evidence provided by the music itself: specific tendencies and strategies in scoring, recurring textures and groupings of instruments, and the idiomatic and idiosyncratic way that the individual instruments are treated. These stylistic fingerprints, so poignant and immediately recognizable in Stravinsky’s work, are evident in nearly every measure of the discovery, confirming that orchestration does indeed belong in the composer’s catalogue.

Why Stravinsky would choose to revisit “Song of the Volga Boatmen” remains a mystery, although an earlier connection to Chaliapin might offer a clue. One of the composer’s earliest commissions came in 1909 when the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev requested orchestrations of two Chopin piano pieces, the Nocturne in A-flat major, Op. 32, and the Grande Valse Brilliante, Op. 18. The composer must have felt well-equipped for the job, as the practical exercise of arranging piano pieces for full orchestra was an important part of the training that he received from Rimsky-Korsakov. It is important to note that this particular training influenced the path of Stravinsky’s creative career, as his orchestrations represent an unbroken thread woven through his entire output. These works show a remarkable consistency in approach, strategy, and resulting sound world—from the earliest Chopin pieces, clear through to his orchestration of four sets of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier done shortly before his death. Stravinsky later showed his two Chopin orchestrations to the Russian conductor Alexander Siloti, who seemed impressed enough to commission two other works, separate settings of “Song of the Flea” by Beethoven and by Mussorgsky. These were intended for a concert given November 28, 1909 on the theme of “Goethe in Music” for which Siloti had booked the biggest name of all the Russian singers, Feodor Chaliapin—which, in light of the current discovery, suggests that the Lindenhurst “Boatmen” might represent a later installment of a collaborative relationship that started in 1909.

Mr. Landers is the head of theory, composition, and history at the University of Montevallo Department of Music. His compositions have been featured on concert series and festivals across the U.S. and abroad, and he has been awarded fellowships by the Fulbright Foundation, the Tanglewood Music Center, the American Music Center, and the MacDowell Colony.

A Migrant Cosmopolitan

By Tamara Levitz

Written for the concert Stravinsky Outside Russia, performed on Jan 20, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

Igor Stravinsky lived for most of his adult life outside of his homeland, Russia. Raised largely by his German nanny, Bertha Essert, in the cosmopolitan theater world of St. Petersburg, where his father performed regularly as a bass opera singer in the Mariinsky Theater, Stravinsky first established roots in France after the premiere of his ballet The Firebird with Diaghilev’s Ballets russes in Paris in spring 1910. Stravinsky became increasingly involved in the French musical scene as he prepared the sensational premieres of his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. In 1914, he moved with his family to Clarens and later Morges on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. When World War I ended and in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, Stravinsky realized he could not return home. He lived in Biarritz, Nice, and Voreppe in South-Eastern France before moving with his family to Paris in 1934. During his years in France, Stravinsky toured extensively as a conductor and soloist of his own music and developed a strong reputation as a cosmopolitan musician. In the early 1930s, he distanced himself dramatically from the Soviet Union, in large part because of the rise of Stalin, whom he abhorred, and in 1934 he became a French citizen. In 1940 he immigrated to the United States, where he remained—at first in Los Angeles and after 1969 in New York—until his death in 1971.

Critics have tended to interpret Stravinsky’s music in relation to his Russian nationality and permanent state of exile from his homeland. More recently, however, Brigid Cohen and others have suggested we shift our perception of modernist composers, including Stravinsky, from being exiles or émigrés to that of being “migrant cosmopolitans”—a term that allows for the possibility that Stravinsky may have constructed his identity in multivalent ways in his adopted homelands, and that his primary identification may not always have been with Russia. Stravinsky adjusted quickly and enthusiastically to new environments and cultures, easily made friends and learned new languages (especially English after 1940), and effortlessly assimilated. He found much sustenance throughout his life in his family, his lover Vera de Bosset Sudeikina, his religion, and his large circle of close friends.

The program of tonight’s concert offers a rare opportunity to hear music that Stravinsky composed at acute moments of displacement in his life; these works reflect extraordinary efforts to assimilate into multiple cultures, and held great personal significance for him. He composed Zvezdolikiy (Le Roi des étoiles) for his new friend Claude Debussy in 1911–12. This experimental cantata for male choir (tenors and basses) and orchestra is an anomaly in Stravinsky’s oeuvre, and reflects his attempt to dialogue between Russia and France by assimilating both Debussy’s compositional gestures and the harmonic language of his contemporary rival in Russia, Alexandra Scriabin, to whom critics later often compared him. Stravinsky chose for this work a widely discussed mystic text indebted to theurgic doctrine by the Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. Although Debussy somewhat sarcastically referred to this work as Plato’s “harmony of the eternal spheres,” Stravinsky felt particularly attached to it. Nevertheless, it premiered first in 1939, and was rarely performed during his lifetime.

Stravinsky composed the one-act Opera Buffa Mavra in 1922—at the very moment when he began to realize he would not return home to Russia. He dedicated the work to Glinka, Pushkin, and Tchaikovsky—three Western-oriented, “universal” Russian artists with whom he strongly identified. In this opera, Stravinsky celebrated Russian traditions from an ironic distance, embracing the self-reflective tone of Pushkin’s short story The Little House in Kolomna, upon which the librettist Boris Kochno based the opera’s libretto. The story appears irreverent: a young girl, Parasha, plots to have her lover, the Hussar, disguise himself as a cook, Mavra, in order to find employment in her mother’s house, but he escapes when the mother discovers him shaving. Critics were shocked by the opera’s illegible affect, and by Stravinsky’s rejection of Russian exoticism, cool evocation of classic Russo-Italian operatic forms, reference to the vocal styles of Glinka, Dargomijsky, and Chaikovsky, and adaptations from the Russian cabaret, Russian folk song, and American popular music. One of the highlights of the opera is the quartet in which the mother, neighbor, Parasha, and Mavra grieve the departed cook, Thekla. Like other numbers in the opera, this lament appears excessive, given the audience has been given no reason to participate in such an exuberant expression of emotion. The melancholia or alienation from affect in evidence here became characteristic of Stravinsky’s style between the wars. Although Stravinsky felt Mavra was his most important work, it was a critical failure. Nevertheless, French composers Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc championed it, and it quickly became an underground model for the French surrealists.

Stravinsky composed the Symphonie de psaumes (“Symphony of Psalms”) for “the glory of God” almost a decade later as a commission from Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1930). This solemn work in three movements offers the most exquisite example of the learned, devotional form of expression Stravinsky develop as a Christian composer after he returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1926 and found in his faith a new home. Inspired in part by the popular French philosopher Jacques Maritain’s Neo-Thomist aesthetics, Stravinsky came to believe that he best served God by perfecting his compositional craft. This attitude is exemplified in the fugue of the second movement, and in the clear-cut forms and contrapuntal brilliance of the entire symphony. Stravinsky understood the Symphonie de psaumes as a form of prayer that recreated what it sounded like to hear psalms sung rather than to sing them directly. This “is not a symphony in which I have set psalms that one sings. Rather, on the contrary, I am symphonizing the singing of psalms,” he wrote his friend André Schaeffner. To this end he chose excerpts from Psalms 38, 39, and 150. Ernest Ansermet understood this deferred singing as a kind of “artificial” religiosity—“the religiosity of others, of an imaginary choir of which the choir that is actually singing is an analogon”—in other words, the religiosity of ghosts.

Babel (1944), the Canticum Sacrum ad Homorem Sancti Marci (1955), and Requiem Canticles (1966) reflect the musical and affective language Stravinsky developed in exchange with his assistant and confidant Robert Craft, who introduced him both to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method and to the music of Anton Webern during his late years in Los Angeles. Stravinsky wrote the Canticum Sacrum in honor of the Church of St. Mark’s in Venice—a city with which he strongly identified and where he conducted the premiere in 1956. The Canticum Sacrum reflects not only his longstanding investment in 17th-century Venetian music (especially by Giovanni Gabrieli), but also his experimentation with the twelve-tone method popular in the United States (the “Surge, aquilo” is his first complete twelve-tone piece). Stravinsky remained devoted to Russian Orthodoxy in his late years; his faith is reflected in the texts he chose to express the three virtues (charity, hope, faith) in the Canticum sacrum and also in the idiosyncratic choice of texts for the Requiem Canticles. Commissioned by Helen Buchanan Seeger’s son in her memory for a concert at Princeton University, the Requiem Canticles represents the culmination of Stravinsky’s lifelong compositional engagement with musical rituals of death. He pasted obituaries into the manuscript score, and, according to some commentators, composed the work in preparation for his own funeral (at which it was performed). A migrant cosmopolitan to the end, Stravinsky was buried neither in Russia, France, nor the U.S., but rather in the San Michele cemetery in Venice.

Ms. Levitz is Professor of Musicology at UCLA. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center and the Humboldt Foundation. She has taught and published on the Weimar Republic, American experimentalism, Cuban modernism, Avant-Garde music after 1945, Stravinsky, John Cage, Kurt Weill, and popular music of the 1960s.