The audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was spoiling for a fight. Gathered to hear the much-anticipated Paris premiere of music by Igor Stravinsky, many were determined to stop the performance with a noisy demonstration of their opposition. Shortly after the music began, catcalls and shouts rained down on the performers. The shouts turned into whistles. Someone pounded so loudly with a hammer that the performance broke down completely, and the orchestra had to start again. It’s unlikely that anyone heard much of the controversial music that evening, but scandal-hungry Parisian newspapers still managed to vent their outrage in articles with headlines like “Enough of Stravinsky.”
But the story is not as familiar as it sounds. For the year is 1945–not 1913, when the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with its jaggedly displaced accents and eerily inhuman melodies, famously provoked a riot. And the work in question, far from hailing the shock of the new, was an amiable piece of orchestral fluff titled Four Norwegian Moods. Naturally, the protesters were different too. Instead of a bourgeois subscription audience horrified at a musical and visual spectacle, the 1945 protesters were conservatory students incensed at what they considered the reactionary hegemony of Stravinsky. It had been a long thirty years: Igor Stravinsky, once the enfant terrible of the musical world, was now démodé.
The terrifying apparition of artistic obsolescence hovered like a vulture over the last half of Stravinsky’s life. On at least one occasion it reduced him to creative paralysis and tears. One famous tale has Stravinsky weeping in a car driven through the Mojave Desert in 1952, confessing that he had lost the inspiration to compose. As his wife, Vera, gently soothed him, Stravinsky turned to the other occupant of the car, his inseparable assistant, Robert Craft. Perhaps, he hinted to Craft, a solution might be found in the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Despite having spent the past few decades ignoring Schoenberg’s radical attacks on tonality, Stravinsky admitted that he had recently been deeply impressed by the music of the late Viennese master. (Schoenberg had died the previous year in Los Angeles, though the two composing giants haughtily ignored each other whenever they crossed paths, as they often did at concerts.) “When he said that he wanted to learn more [about Schoenberg],” Craft wrote, “I knew that the crisis was over; so far from being defeated, Stravinsky would emerge a new composer.”
Chronicling the emergence of this “new” Stravinsky has been a challenge for biographers–though not for want of material. In countless books, articles, interviews and films, Stravinsky meticulously recounted his life and creative philosophy. Craft’s own diaries and elegantly composed “conversation books” with Stravinsky remain vivid and essential resources. But the sheer volume of this material is rivaled only by its shameless mendacity. Ten years ago, Richard Taruskin’s monumental Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions hacked through the tangled undergrowth of self-serving deceptions planted by the composer and revealed a completely unrecognizable young Stravinsky–a Russian. Though the glittering surface of this famously cosmopolitan composer’s music seemed to change with every passing cloud, his “morphology, his basic manner of self-expression, and something that goes far deeper than style,” Taruskin wrote, remained unalterably Russian.
But if Stravinsky was wary about revealing the sources of his musical inspiration, he was positively hostile to exposing details of his personal life. Even Craft has admitted that Stravinsky would have wanted nothing to do with a biography. “I often saw him read and burn old correspondence,” Craft has claimed. “Clearly he wished to preserve nothing personal in his so-called archives, and, if the occasion had arisen, he would have made an auto-da-fé of them. So far from condoning any personal biography, if Stravinsky had allowed himself to think about it, he would have specified in his will that none be written.”