Magazine article Gramophone

Igor Stravinsky

Magazine article Gramophone

Igor Stravinsky

Article excerpt

Igor Stravinsky

By Jonathan Cross

Reaktion Books, 208pp, PB, 11.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-78023-494-6

'Jonathan Cross creates a literary masterpiece in his quest for the "real" Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky.' So shrills the back-cover blurb of this otherwise sensible, anti-hagiographical 'critical life'. Was the acclamation intended to deflect attention from the absence of an index? You can take in the essentials of this elegant, often resonant study at one or two sittings but its utility as a reference tool is fatally compromised. There are 11 numbered chapters, mainly though not exclusively chronological (Agon is transplanted to an earlier chapter devoted to the creative partnership with Balanchine), 30 illustrations neatly incorporated into the body text, full references and brief 'ographies.

The book nevertheless feels stingier than, say, David Matthews's 182-page Britten in the similarly conceived Life & Times series from Haus Publishing. While Cross acknowledges his starry collegial helpers, including the scholar responsible for the aforementioned encomium, some basic editorial input might have been more helpful. Cross knows his slippery subject very well indeed. A refreshingly candid indictment of Stravinsky the man on page 14 skewers 'the philandering, the avarice, the anti-Semitism, the snobbery, the narcissism, the cruelty, the hypochondria, the vulnerability ...' It's just unfortunate that much the same charge sheet appears on page 168 in the context of an extended discussion of the Cantata: 'add[ing] anti-Semitism to his catalogue of repellent character defects that included meanness, cruelty, spitefulness, arrogance, philandering, lying and money-grubbing.' Stravinsky's nanny is mourned twice, 50 pages apart.

We start with a Preface in which the manufacture of tradition and Stravinsky's personal capacity for reinvention come together in the image of the nested wooden dolls or matijoshki, themselves a largely 20th-century phenomenon. In a Postlude, the author attends Valery Gergiev's centennial Rite of Spring marathon at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, a Marunsky evening given a little more historical significance than it can sustain. A few key works are selected for in-depth discussion. Music examples are eschewed yet odd pockets of inscrutable terminology endure, as when Cross sets out to elucidate the harmony of Les notes by reference to 'anhemitonic' scale forms.

With 20th-century music no longer seen to pivot quite so crucially on the axis of competing modernisms, there is a chance that we will eventually enjoy Stravinsky's music for what it is rather than for what the composer and his propagandists wanted it to represent. …

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