Old Igor

By Fox, Christopher | Musical Times, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Old Igor


Fox, Christopher, Musical Times


Old Igor Stravinsky: the second exile, France and America, 1934-1971 Stephen Walsh Jonathan Cape (London, 2006); xvii, Togpp; £30. ISBN 022406078 3.

IT is NOW 55 YEARS since Stravinsky's death and as the years pass the scale of his achievement grows ever greater. In his own lifetime he had of course become an iconic figure within the history of 20th-century music; indeed, if his career had ended in 1913 with the premiere of The rite of spring, his status as one of the founding fathers of musical modernism would have been assured. But it was his apparently boundless capacity for re-invention that marked his life in music as one of the most remarkable that there has ever been. Since 1971 further generations of composers have aged and died but few of Stravinsky's successors have even hinted that they might have the creative potential to re-make themselves as thoroughly as he did, not once, not twice, but at least three times. If I could have one wish for the coming decades it would be that we might again live in a world where older composers feel, as Stravinsky did, that an old composer should still be a surprising composer.

At the end of the first volume of Stephen Walsh's Stravinsky biography, Stravinsky: a creative spring: Russia and France, 1882-2934, Stravinsky was at the height of the second major phase of his creative life. The great cycle of Russian ballet scores from The firebird'to Les noces had established his reputation and the first extraordinary transformation from neo-primitivism into neo-classicism had been accomplished. Compositionally, Walsh's second volume finds Stravinsky between Persephone and the Concerto for two pianos; emotionally it finds him caught in a double life between his mistress, Vera Sudeykina, and his wife and children. For 13 years Stravinsky had shuttled between these two women, from the metropolitan lifestyle he shared with Vera to the old-style Russian domesticity that Katya preserved for him, and Walsh returns again and again to the contradictions of this complicated web of complicity.

There is pain in every detail. 'Not only did Igor make his mistress an allowance, but he expected Katya to hand the money over [...], meeting Vera at the bank and talking to her for a while in the car.' Stravinsky was evidently devoted to both women, with no thought of divorcing Katya (although Vera was also inconveniently married to someone else), but the infidelity of a genius is just as wounding to those betrayed as anyone else's. Katya's presence in this volume is fleeting - recurrent tuberculosis finally carried her off in 1939 - but Walsh's portrait of her touchingly evokes a woman who had 'about her nothing of the muse; she made inspiration possible, but had no thought of creating it.' To modern sensibilities Katya's passive acceptance of the role in which her husband cast her is hard to comprehend, and years of regret seem to inform her last recorded words. Walsh describes how On the ist of March 1939, a Sunday, Igor quietly slipped away to Vera, and Katya was heard to whisper: "Today I should have liked him to understand me as he has always understood me".' She died the following afternoon.

Stravinsky could behave very badly, but then creative artists have never had a monopoly on saintliness. He in turn could also inspire great devotion, in both the private and professional spheres of his life. He married Vera just 53 weeks after Katya's death and their life together was long and happy, fittingly commemorated by the headstones which mark their graves, side by side, on the Venetian island cemetery of San Michele. Walsh also provides a touching description of Stravinsky's meeting with his niece, Xenya, during his tour of Soviet Russia in 1962. Xenya was the daughter of Stravinsky's brother, Yury, and had of course never met her famous Uncle Igor during his long exile from Russia. But

gradually [,..] she found herself being drawn into the family group. [...] They talked about their families [. …

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