Books

"Stravinsky and His World"

spacer Edited by Tamara Levitz
Princeton University Press; 384 pp. $35

Books Stravinsky World lg 414

Igor Stravinsky famously claimed that "music is ... powerless to express anything at all." But in "Stravinsky in Exile," the opening piece in this essay collection, Jonathan Cross argues that key works of the composer's years in Europe and the U.S. can in fact be heard as cogent expressions of the sadness of exile. Cross isolates a lamenting figure in the ballet Orpheus and shows its derivation from a sorrowful aria in Bach's St. John Passion. Even the "Apotheosis" of Apollo, Stravinsky's dry-eyed neoclassical ballet blanc, takes on "a regretful character … as if something has been lost." He sees in the distancing elements of the composer's eclectic manner — his method of speaking through "Russian puppets, ancient Greek masks, Bach-ian counterpoint, or Mozartian elegance" — a "metaphor for his situation as an émigré, speaking of alienation and apartness."

This brilliant essay shows musicology at its best. By close analysis, Cross is able to redefine the works at hand and help us to hear them with new ears. Not all of this collection, though — published in tandem with the 2013 Bard Music Festival — is on this level. Some of the contributions fall victim to the arid analysis and gratuitous left-wing polemic of so much contemporary academic writing. The content of Gretchen Horlacher's "The Futility of Exhortation: Pleading in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Orpheus" is pretty much summed up by its title; the elaborate charts that Horlacher assembles in support of her argument seem like successive statements of the obvious. In "Igor the Angeleno: The Mexican Connection," Tamara Levitz, the collection's editor, uses politically charged rhetoric to describe Stravinsky's visits to Mexico in 1940 and 1941, arguing that his programming of the suite from Le Baiser de la Fée reflects "the transformation of his music from aesthetic object of Modernist contemplation to cosmopolitan souvenir." I have to admit she lost me there.

Leon Botstein, the paterfamiliasof the Bard Festival, is on surer ground in an essay comparing Stravinsky to Vladimir Nabokov. The great Russian expatriates hardly knew each other; in fact, they may have taken pains not to cross paths. Moreover, Nabokov declared himself "impervious to music." Nonetheless, Botstein convincingly finds in his writing a "method ... not dissimilar from musical composition as practiced by Stravinsky." Nabokov's novels' "fragmentation of time," Botstein argues, is akin to Stravinsky's "collage"-like approach to musical form.

Stravinsky and His World also presents a number of primary materials, somewhat randomly collected, but almost all of interest. These include some early assessments of the one-act opera Mavra (rarely heard, but performed at Bard last summer), which provide a sense of how thoroughly Stravinsky intrigued and unnerved his contemporaries. A compilation of interviews from Spain and Latin America gives us glimpses of the composer's familiar wit, although it's hard to see how the articles show us, as Leonora Saavedra argues, "the public face that [he] wanted to offer to the Spanish-speaking world": the "Stravinsky" here is essentially the same ironic, imperious fellow we already know.  

The most compelling documents here are a series of letters concerning the composer's historic 1962 return to Russia — fifty years after he had last set foot there. The correspondence between the composer, his confidantPyotr Suvchinsky and the Soviet pianist Maria Yudina shows him playing a coy will-he-or-won't-he game. His keen intelligence is on display here, but so is his vanity and extraordinary self-centeredness. In his eagerness to assert his superiority over Shostakovich, whose dominance of the Russian musical scene clearly appalled him, he is as self-serving as any prima donna who ever sought to outmaneuver a rival. Even worse is his cavalier treatment of Yudina, who labored to arrange the visit and to assemble, out of her own pocket, an accompanying museum exhibit.  

Here and elsewhere we truly get a close-in look at the composer. Lovers of his music will find a number of similarly rewarding passages in Stravinsky and His World. But they should proceed carefully. spacer

FRED COHN

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Current Issue: May 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 11