Perspectives David Attenborough on Stravinsky's Last Stand

Article excerpt

In 1965, Igor Stravinsky, 83 years old, was due to come to London to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of some of his works. The farewell tour of one of the greatest composers of the century was clearly an event of real importance and, as controller of BBC2, determined that viewers should be there to share the occasion. I was disappointed to discover that the promoters were strongly opposed to the idea. Television technology would upset the Maestro, they said. The negotiations were lengthy, but eventually we came to an agreement and when the time came I went to my seat in the Festival Hall feeling like the Duke de' Medici attending one of his masques incognito.

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The first half of the concert was not to be televised. It was a performance of Stravinsky's most recent work--Eight Instrumental Miniatures--and was going to be conducted by the composer's amanuensis, Robert Craft. Stravinsky himself was saving his energies for The Firebird Suite in the second, televised half.

The lights dimmed. Craft, a tall, elegant and grave figure, entered to appropriate applause and silence fell. The Instrumental Miniatures proved to be a work of extreme austerity. A few isolated notes from the piccolo; a tap on a triangle; a dissonant chord from three fiddle players. Those of us in the audience concentrated hard to follow the line of musical thought. Suddenly, a stentorian bass voice from backstage bellowed, "Turn 'em on, Fred"--and the entire auditorium was flooded with light blazing from banks of huge lamps that had been specially installed for the television relay. Craft continued to conduct in the dazzling brightness as though nothing had happened. The audience whispered to one another and shifted uneasily in their seats. I broke out in a cascade of sweat and wished I could hide under mine. After a few seconds, and equally suddenly, the lights turned off-only to turn on again. …