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.