Classical Music: In his own image

Richard Taruskin's new studies of Igor Stravinsky scrutinise a man adept at moulding his autobiography to suit his circumstances. By Bayan Northcott
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The Independent Culture
Is there, can there possibly be, anything more to write about Igor Stravinsky? The build-up of literature was formidable enough even during his lifetime: ranging from the pioneering Russian source-study A Book About Stravinsky by Boris Asaviev (1929) to the pious theorising of The Message of Igor Stravinsky by his son Theodore (1948), from such work-in-progress symposia as Stravinsky in the Theatre, edited by Minna Lederman (1951) to the monumental catalogue raisonee Stravinsky: the Composer and his Works by Eric Walter White (1966), long overdue for revised reprinting.

But these are a smattering compared with the avalanche of publications since his death in 1971. Here, of course, his latterday amanuensis Robert Craft has led the field with two editions of his diary Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, a huge compilation in collaboration with the composer's widow entitled Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents followed by three further, exhaustively captioned scrapbooks, three volumes of Stravinsky: Selected Correspondence and a vastly informative collection of Craft's own articles titled Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life. But there have also been highly contrasting approaches to the life and works by, among others, Stephen Walsh, Paul Griffiths and the quirky Dutch team of Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schonberger, several symposia based on Stravinsky conferences, two entire volumes, by Allen Forte and Pieter van den Toorn respectively, devoted to the harmonic structure of The Rite of Spring alone...

And this is to say nothing of Stravinsky's own books - though the word "own" ought emphatically to be qualified by what the Americans call scare- quotes. For, just as he often elaborated his own musical ideas under the guise of borrowed styles, so Stravinsky evidently preferred to project his books, manifestos, even interviews through the mediation of ghost writers. His first major text, Chronicles de ma Vie (1935/6), later translated as An Autobiography, was drafted for him by Diaghilev's old side-kick Walter Nouvel, while the six lectures comprising Poetics of Music, delivered at Harvard in 1939, were worked up from his notes by Roland-Manuel. As for the later series of five (in the US, six) so-called "conversation books", from Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (1959) to Themes and Conclusions (1972), although Stravinsky claimed they were more "like" him than the earlier books, it is evident that at least some of the wording and, increasingly, the substance were Craft's.

And since Stravinsky was notoriously articulate in several languages besides Russian, the question has to be why? Was the distancing effect of an intermediary a psychological device, whether conscious or not, permitting Stravinsky to tell a different tale next time round? Even before his death, scholars had begun to realise his accounts of the past were highly selective and sometimes contradictory. Since then, so many anomalies, even deceptions have emerged it is clear that, far from setting the record straight, his primary purpose was always to condition his readers into accepting whatever he happened to be composing at the time. Hence his increasingly dismissive accounts of his early Russian background once it became clear in the early 1920s that the Communist revolution had permanently deprived him of patrimony, and that he was somehow going to have to remake himself as a Western composer. The problem for scholars was that much of the actual documentation of those early years remained inaccessible until Soviet bureaucracy began to crumble a decade ago. So it is that Professor Richard Taruskin of the University of California in Berkeley, an inveterate Russianist and one of America's most passionate musicologists, has emerged as the right man at the right time.

The result is Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through 'Mavra', a teeming and monumental synthesis of cultural history and detailed musical analysis, in which even Stravinsky's earliest scores are submitted to pages of scrutiny as to sources and shortcomings. The picture of the young composer that emerges is very different from Stravinsky's own memories, a vulnerable, derivative late-starter whom few in the St Petersburg musical establishment of the 1900s seem to have thought more than moderately gifted. Indeed, Taruskin has discovered that, far from being Diaghilev's second choice, after Liadov, to compose The Firebird, Stravinsky was more or less the great impresario's last resort. Taruskin is also concerned to redeem from Stravinsky's later diminutions the vital roles the designers Alexandre Benois and Nikolai Roerich played not only in the conceptions of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring but in his general artistic evolution. But perhaps the finest achievement of the first volume is Taruskin's detailed re-evaluation of the achievement of Rimsky-Korsakov: no longer the Russian pioneer but a cut-and-dried academician by the time Stravinsky went to him for lessons, yet master of a remarkably worked-out system of centric harmony that was set to remain a (characteristically unacknowledged) key to his pupil's entire output.

Indeed, it is the central proposition of Taruskin's second volume that, by combining this most schematic development of the Russian art-music tradition with genuine, ethnographically researched folk material, during what he must have hoped was the only temporary exile of the First World War years, Stravinsky succeeded in composing the most intensely, purely Russian music ever - exemplified in lovingly detailed analyses of the texts and scores of such masterpieces as Renard and Les Noces. Only with his little opera buffa Mavra, composed in 1923 and self-consciously ascribed to the tradition of those most Europeanised Russian greats, Glinka, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, did Stravinsky attempt to face up to permanent exile, though, as Taruskin argues in his epilogue, he remained capable of fresh rapprochements with the Russian ideal up to the Requiem Canticles of 1966.

Yet one senses in this final section that Taruskin regards Stravinsky's later career as not only problematic in itself, but central to a wider malaise. In fact, one knows as much from Taruskin's other new book, the engagingly contentious Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, and from his rather less engaging recent inaugural BBC Proms Lecture delivered last month. Once Stravinsky became deracine not just in fact but in imagination, the argument goes, he reverted to a particularly elitist art-for-art's- sake formalism, originally inculcated by Diaghilev's early associates: denying that music of its essence was capable of expressing anything at all and insisting that his own works should be executed, never interpreted. The result was not only a minimising of the human context, from which Taruskin asserts that classical music in general is now suffering, but the imposing of a particular performance style - for Taruskin argues that what has passed for "authenticity" over the past 25 years is a modern, in fact specifically Stravinskian, manner.

A powerful case, but an entirely fair one? It could be countered that, after a century of Germanic "inwardness" in music, one of Stravinsky's greatest achievements was to remind listeners of its outward, physical properties in the muscular dynamism of his dance music. Again, the hieratic ritual of his sacred music could be said, after a long Romantic hiatus, to have recovered an ancient and true sense of the numinous - not so much impersonal, Stravinsky would argue, as super-personal. And neither of these tendencies would seem to square exactly with the imputation of aesthetic formalism. Yet, whatever one's reservations about Taruskin's conclusions, the vast quantities of new material he has marshalled and the manifold insights he has drawn from it all seem certain, permanently, to affect our view of that singular, but by now indispensable composer, Igor Stravinsky.

n Richard Taruskin's 'Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through "Mavra" ' is published by OUP (in two vols, 1758pp, pounds 80) as is 'Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance' (382pp, pounds 13.99 paperback)