Stravinsky, the family man

Igor Stravinsky's genius went hand in hand with a colourful family life. Here, in an exclusive extract from a newly published memoir, his son Théodore Strawinsky recalls an eventful childhood
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In spring 1915, Igor and Catherine rented the Villa Rogivue in the Avenue des Pâquis at Morges, a delightful little town near Lausanne, on the banks of Lake Geneva. The figures who had hitherto been to us children nothing but more or less mysterious names pronounced by the grown-ups, or at most shadowy figures glimpsed in hotel corridors, began to become real people. As with all children, our preferences were quickly established.

Diaghilev, for instance, with his reassuringly fat cheeks, soon became Uncle Serge. We used to run to meet him and climb on his lap, knowing that his pockets were always full of sweets for us. Much later my father told me that there was one secret pocket, in which this most superstitious of men kept the amulets from which he would never be parted! Nijinsky, with his fragile body and lost look, did not appeal to us, even though Mama explained that this gentleman was the greatest dancer in the world and that when he jumped you would think he was flying...

Father would be closeted for long hours with those two, and through the door we used to hear thunderous chords interrupted by shouts that were sometimes so loud that they frightened us. "They can't be scolding Papa, are they?" said my sister Mika (Ludmila) anxiously. And great was our astonishment and relief when the three grown-ups reappeared smiling.

Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Massine, Larionov, Goncharova and Prokofiev, with a few other friends, constituted the world of the Ballets Russes. They had become friends in Russia, and now all of them were forced, like my parents, to suffer the common lot of émigrés. Day-to-day worries were always present, but the warm Russian hospitality never flagged.

Although I cannot distinguish them in my mind, I remember with a tender joy our glittering Christmasses and our Russian-style Easters, not to speak of New Year's Day, when Mother and Father dressed up to amuse us. The head of the family appeared as a seedy painter, with a Rembrandt cap, a lavallière tie, an easel on his shoulder, and holding brushes and palette.

In the mornings, at home, everyone went about on tiptoe... Stravinsky was composing. But then suddenly the maid would forget the rules and start singing, if it wasn't the cook whistling! No more was needed to unleash the composer's thunderbolts, and my mother was obliged to use all her tact in order to pacify her husband - and keep her servants! In the afternoons, on the other hand, the atmosphere was more relaxed. My father would generally be orchestrating and my mother spent peaceful hours by his side copying scores or piano arrangements until we got back from school. Then it was time for the Russian lesson. While she was dictating to me or I was reading some passage aloud to her, she would be deftly rolling (I can still see the little instrument she used) my father's favourite cigarettes, made of a tobacco that scented the whole house. He used to smoke them in a long holder made of the beak of an albatross and (as we were told) "very, very valuable". We children always spoke Russian with our parents, French at school and among ourselves, and German with the governesses.

Although our family life had become settled, Stravinsky was always travelling. There was no dearth of occasions, all connected with the activities of the Ballets Russes. A real friendship and mutual admiration existed between him and Diaghilev. Father, however, was under no illusions about the temptations in which the world of the Ballets Russes involved him. In a letter written from Ustilug [Ukraine] dated 14 October 1912, he made this astounding confession to his friend Maurice Delage: "Fame and money are the temptations that gnaw my vitals without my being wholly aware of it." One can also see from this letter that he was under no illusions about the atmosphere of unsavoury intrigue behind the scenes of the illustrious company, or of the snobbery to which it owed much of its support. But life is life; his profound nature and his art had, from the very beginning of his career, made twofold and contradictory claims on him. This extraordinarily vital, extroverted man, who needed direct contact with the musical public, not simply in order to make his music better known, also found in family life the ideal climate for composition. This double psychological need found expression in the constant alternation between a genuine and intimate family life and journeys away from home, first of all for meetings with Diaghilev and his company wherever they might be, and later for concert tours.

On 20 December 1915, Diaghilev organised a gala performance in aid of the International Red Cross in Geneva, the institution's original home. It was a memorable occasion for Stravinsky, who was to conduct for the first time in public. How overjoyed and bursting with pride I felt when my parents told me that they would take me with them! I arrived at the theatre in my Sunday suit and patent-leather shoes and at once began to take in every detail with wide open eyes. I was an imaginative little boy, with a strong visual sense, and I saw it all - the curtain, the stage, the hall itself, the big central chandelier, the scarlet plush and the gilt. When the hall was dark and the stage lit by the footlights, I saw my mother sitting next to me in our stage box looking very pretty in her pale blue dress. And then from the orchestra pit, a great black hole full of little lights, there suddenly rose the dim figure of my father, light and supple, to be greeted with a burst of applause. He reached the conductor's desk in a single bound, bowed to the audience, turned round and quietly proceeded to break his conductor's baton. I held my breath... but he simply found it inconveniently long!

At the interval there were the shining, slippery floors, men in tailcoats, scented women and the Geneva police in their full dress-uniform - two-cornered hat, epaulettes, shoulder-knots, shoulder-belts and white gloves. The glittering chandeliers were reflected a myriad times in the foyer's huge mirrors. And I shall never forget the appearance in our box of the magnificent white lady who had sung the Russian national anthem, "God save the Tsar", on the stage at the beginning of the evening. Felia Litvinne had been one of the glories of the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg and it was she who now turned to me and, pressing me against her ample bosom, whispered in Russian: "You know, little Theodore, before you were born, I sang with your grandfather, big Theodore." I can still smell the strange vanilla-like scent of her make-up. I was slightly intimidated, but then Uncle Serge appeared in front of the curtain, bowing and holding the pretty ballerinas by the hand.

Through [Stravinsky's] workshop window, I one day caught sight of a figure that I did not know - a man with a pale, flat, round, smooth face, with large spectacles, who was talking excitedly with my father. Then they played cards in an arbour at the bottom of the garden; and when the man had been seen off at the village station, Father came back and told us: "He was furious because he kept on losing!" We, on the other hand, were always being told that one must never be angry when one was beaten at a game. The man who lost at cards that afternoon was André Gide.

My father liked to tell how, one night in 1918 when he was working on L'Histoire du soldat [The Soldier's Tale] he dreamed of a handsome Gypsy-woman sitting at the door of her caravan, suckling her child and at the same time playing a tango on the violin. "This is the only time," he used to say, "that I ever managed to remember clearly a musical phrase heard in a dream and to write it down complete. Musical dreams generally disperse into thin air when the dreamer wakes." The Gypsy's theme became the tango in L'Histoire du soldat.

Pablo Picasso, who was already a famous artist, became a household name with the Stravinsky family. He had been a friend of my father's for some years, but it was only when he undertook the sets and costumes for the ballet Pulcinella that a closer bond was established between painter and musician. The confrontation of three such personalities as Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso could not fail to produce sparks enough to illuminate the whole firmament. My mother gave the place of honour on our walls to the famous full-face pencil portrait of the composer, with the dedication: "To Stravinsky from his friend Picasso".

'Catherine & Igor Stravinsky: A Family Chronicle 1906-1940', by Théodore & Denise Strawinsky, is published by Schirmer/Omnibus Press at £29.95 in hardback. Copies can be ordered, with free p&p, from