June 14, 2006


Stravinsky & Co. (Terry Teachout, June 2006, Commentary)

Fortunately, some of the obstacles to writing about Stravinsky were removed in 1986 by the long-awaited opening to scholars of his private papers and manuscripts, followed a decade later by the publication of Richard Taruskin’s Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, an exhaustively detailed study of Stravinsky’s profound and lifelong indebtedness to his Russian heritage. Then, in 1999, Stephen Walsh, a British musicologist, brought out A Creative Spring: 1882-1934, the first installment of a two-volume biography by a writer who, working independently from Craft, has sought to provide a factually reliable account of the composer’s life. Not surprisingly, Craft, who once went so far as to claim that he was the only person competent to write a life of Stravinsky (though he never did so), dismissed Walsh’s first volume as a “bungled” effort. Most other reviewers, myself included, disagreed.

Now Walsh has brought out the second and final volume of Stravinsky, subtitled The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971.2 Presumably Robert Craft will have something to say about The Second Exile in due course; he figures prominently in its pages, where his writings on Stravinsky and his family are bluntly described by Walsh as “riddled with bias, error, supposition, and falsehood.”

I also expect that Stravinsky scholars will spend much of the coming year wrangling over The Second Exile, and some will no doubt find that its author, like all biographers, has made his share of minor errors (though I myself have found none). Be that as it may, The Second Exile, like its predecessor, is an inspiring piece of work, at once comprehensive and beguilingly well written. After two careful readings, I feel safe in ranking it—alongside David Cairns’s Berlioz, Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life, and Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle—as one of the finest biographies of a classical composer to be published in the modern age of musical scholarship.

One of the things that makes The Second Exile so readable is that Walsh has struck a near-ideal balance between life and work, integrating succinct yet acute descriptions of Stravinsky’s major compositions in-to a smoothly flowing narrative. Like A Creative Spring, it is meant to be accessible to the general reader. (Indeed, in what seems to me the book’s only real shortcoming, Walsh has gone so far as to omit notated musical examples altogether.) Yet there is nothing superficial about Walsh’s approach to Stravinsky’s music. Not only has he thought deeply about it, but he has succeeded in relating it meaningfully to the circumstances of its creation, one of the hardest tasks with which the biographer of a great artist must grapple.

A case in point is Walsh’s discussion of the Symphony in C (1938-40), the masterpiece of the later phase of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, premiered by the Chicago Symphony after he pulled up stakes for the second time in his life and emigrated from France to the U.S.:

Conducting symphony concerts all over provincial America, Stravinsky had become conscious of the intensely conservative world he was invading, and what an incongruous figure he cut in it. . . . What sort of work might he himself contribute to such a culture? The obvious answer was a symphony: a symphony in C, of course—like Beethoven’s first and Mozart’s last, the purest, most archetypical, most classical, above all least frightening kind of orchestral concert work.

This is but one instance of Walsh’s admirable ability to place Stravinsky and his music in a broader cultural context without diminishing the autonomous significance of the music itself. We are left in no doubt that the Symphony in C is an important work, but at the same time we are given an illuminating glimpse of the way in which the world in and through which Stravinsky moved helped to shape that work.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 14, 2006 7:51 AM

His 7th symphony is a very powerful work! (My vinyl records are packed away so I'm not sure if this is correctly numbered).

Posted by: Dave W at June 14, 2006 8:07 AM