Igor Stravinsky toured the US three times from his home in Europe. He went first in 1925 as a performer, playing piano and conducting in major cities. Important commissions were also coming from the States, such as the ballet Jeu de cartes (1936) and his Symphony in C (1938-40). The Concerto in E flat major, “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned for their 30th wedding anniversary by Mr and Mrs Robert Woods Bliss, generous arts patrons whose grand house in Washington DC gave the work its name, and where it was first performed in 1938. The composer was still undergoing a tuberculosis cure in Europe, so the premiere was directed by his friend and fervent advocate, Nadia Boulanger. Stravinsky’s description of it as “a little concerto in the style of Bach’s Brandenburgs” could hardly be more precise. 

In June 1939, Stravinsky’s mother died and was buried in Paris’ Russian cemetery. In neighbouring graves there already lay his daughter Lyudmila (d. November 1938) and his wife Catherine (d. March 1939). This “most tragic period of my life” saw three generations of his family laid to rest within six months. To these personal losses were added financial ones, such as dogged him for much of his career. The prelude to war had meant Stravinsky’s income from Germany, previously his key territory, ended as the Nazis had banned his “degenerate music” from 1933, and from 1939 each country the Germans invaded followed suit. Furthermore, his neoclassical works no longer met with universal admiration from influential critics. So in terms of family life, finances and artistic ambience, his move to the US was a flight, and from more than a war. 

In September 1939 he went to Harvard to take up the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship (fee $10,000). Despite his stated intention to return to Europe, on his departure he gave away his car. His Harvard lectures, given in  French, were published in English as Poetics of Music. Six months after arrival he married Vera Sudeikina, his long term mistress, and they moved to Los Angeles. Once Russian, then a French citizen, Stravinsky became an American in 1945. His sponsor at his US citizenship adoption was a movie star – Edward G Robinson – and Stravinsky eventually acquired every marker of American cultural celebrity status: Harvard Visiting Professorship, Hollywood (well, Disney’s Fantasia ) and Broadway (Scènes de ballet) both using his music, subject of TV documentaries and books of conversations, and – vying for the supreme accolade – dinner with the Kennedys at the White House, and being on the cover of Time magazine.

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Stravinsky on the cover of Time magazine, July 1948
© Public domain

Fame is not always accompanied by riches, and the composer’s outgoings were not trivial. There were relatives back in Europe to help sustain, and the burden, inescapable and  increasing over Stravinsky’s long lifetime, of medical bills. The Stravinskys still liked to live well, and he appreciated good quality, and abundant quantity, in fine claret and whisky. Aldous Huxley was a frequent dinner guest and Mrs Huxley noted, “Vera and myself always the only women, red wine of good quality... then music and books. He works very hard and all those concerts are for the sake of money. They spend every penny and sometimes more, but live easily.” Conducting was the main source of income, around the US and on European tours, mostly conducting his own music – mainly Firebird, which Stravinsky eventually claimed to have conducted more than one thousand times. He never relinquished this activity while he could mount a podium, not least because by the mid-sixties he could command $10,000 for an appearance. And not every conductor gets this sort of introduction from Leonard Bernstein: 

Hollywood should have provided commissions for movie scores, but this never quite worked, and almost all such projects were abandoned. Some ‘film music’ ended up in a rechaufée form, such as the Ode or Four Norwegian Moods or smuggled into larger works as may be the case of the Symphony in Three Movements, providing a home for an abandoned score for the movie The Song of Bernadette. That 1945 work is his most frequently performed from his American period, and the only concert work of the composer influenced by world events, with newsreel of goose-stepping Nazis influencing the third movement. That hardly amounts to a programme, and it is significant that such claims of extra-musical association were made post hoc, and contradicted later. Certainly this splendid symphony, with its rhythmic élan and instrumental verve, needs no such props. If it has any filmic moment it is the notorious added-sixth final chord, such as closed many of the movies the composer enjoyed.

Stravinsky’s wish to connect with American musical culture, and his commercial opportunism, resulted in various short potboilers such as the Tango or Ebony Concerto, for Benny Goodman and Woody Herman respectively, or the Scherzo à la russe for Paul Whiteman’s band. Each is skilfully turned and inimitable, but enhanced income more than reputation. Of these Circus Polka, written at Balanchine’s request for circus elephants, is the pick. The first part’s lumbering metrical dislocations should not have troubled the pachyderms, and though few pieces of music can really make us laugh, that’s what happened the first time I heard the entry of Schubert’s Marche militaire (at 3:46), so inevitable, perfectly timed, and audaciously harmonised. 

In 1947 Stravinsky arranged for Boosey & Hawkes to publish new editions of his compositions and – now a US citizen – secured copyright on them, so they could generate income. This five-year contract guaranteed $10,000 p.a. the first two years, then $12,000 for the remaining three. Such security made it possible to take on a big work, as he could turn down other commissions for a couple of years. He was contemplating a full-scale English opera... and it would take him nearly four years. The Rake’s Progress sets an English libretto from WH Auden and Chester Kallman, and was based on the series of Hogarth paintings of the same title. Young Tom Rakewell inherits an estate and sets out for London to take it over, in the company of his Mephistophelean companion, Nick Shadow, who encourages some experiments in dissipation. Tom’ s sweetheart Anne Trulove has heard nothing, so resolves to follow him to the capital. Her aria “No word from Tom”, complete with Rossinian cabaletta “I go, I go to him”, closes Act 1. Its final top C, an Auden suggestion for which he willingly adapted the text to make the note more singable, typifies their collaboration.

The day in March 1948 that Auden arrived in Washington to deliver the libretto of The Rake’s Progress, there was a young conductor called Robert Craft also waiting to meet Stravinsky. He became the composer’s indispensable companion, musical (and literary) collaborator, surrogate son and artistic influence. In their published conversation volumes and Craft’s subsequent writings he seems not merely to have recorded Stravinsky for us, an invaluable service, but at times to have created him. Craft’s role, and his record of it, remains controversial. This is a risk with any Boswell, but from posterity’s point of view Craft’s key contribution was indicating a way forward from The Rake – after which the distressed composer felt he was written out. There is a prima facie case for saying “No Craft, no late Stravinsky”.

Attending Craft’s rehearsals and performances in LA of Schoenberg’s and Webern’s music in the 1950s, Stravinsky began to work out a method, blending serial techniques with his earlier manner(s). This has enabled musicologists to show both how much this serial music owes to the neoclassical works, and how different Stravinsky’s approach to serialism was. We still hardly hear these late pieces, but works such as Agon, Movements for piano and orchestra, Variations in memoriam Aldous Huxley and Requiem Canticles are fully worthy of earlier masterpieces and deserve more exposure. 

Take the usually overlooked Septet of 1953. Like much late Stravinsky it lasts under fifteen minutes, says much in its short duration, and uses note rows (if not twelve-note rows). Written for the Research Library at Dumbarton Oaks, it opens in much the same vein as its 1938 neoclassical predecessor, and only one composer could have written it, as announced by the clarinet at the outset.

Briefer still at five minutes, are the Variations in memoriam Aldous Huxley. It is one of several in memoriam pieces of his last years, but unlike those for JF Kennedy, or Dylan Thomas, or even TS Eliot, Huxley was someone Stravinsky had long called a close friend. Variations was premiered, under Craft’s direction, in 1965. The music has become completely serial in its organisation, so takes a bit more getting to know, as Stravinsky acknowledged in his own programme note: 

“The density of the twelve-part variations is the main innovation in the work… I do not know how to guide listeners other than to advise them to listen not once but repeatedly… I may say they should not look for the boundary lines of the individual variations but try instead to hear the piece as a whole.” Here is an artist forging a new path, keen to be understood – though destined to be disappointed. Since the premiere, he noted, “the music has been analysed more than it has been performed.”

Stravinsky’s last major work was the Requiem Canticles. This was, in the words of Stravinsky expert Jonathan Cross, both “a work he had written many times before” and “the greatest achievement of his serial years”. The reminiscences of earlier work, especially in the sound of bells, vibraphone and celesta in the Postlude, are familiar yet new, in this most life-affirming of Requiem settings. Stravinsky’s life’s work had come full circle with his last great ritual. Aaron Copland was at first speechless after Craft had conducted the 1966 premiere of Requiem Canticles at Princeton, before asking his companions, “Who at any age has composed music as completely new as that, but at eighty-five?” Had he seen the score he might have noted this impact is often achieved with only a few notes on the page.

Vera knew he was writing this for himself. There followed only a single song, setting Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat. The last years were ones of declining health and a few last performances – the very last in 1967, conducting Pulcinella, seated for the first and only time. The end came fifty years ago in New York, on 6th April 1971. The Soviets felt this “American” composer’s remains should be “brought home”, but diplomatic sensitivities were respected with a final resting place in neither country, as Vera felt he belonged to the world. So Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky lies in Venice, his favourite city and venue of several of his premieres, in the Russian quarter of the island cemetery of San Michele. Vera was interred alongside him in 1982. Diaghilev, who arranged the couple’s first meeting in 1921, lies nearby.

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Gravestone for Igor Stravinsky, in San Michele cemetery in Venice
© Giovanni Dall'Orto, public domain

Many thanks to John Oldland for his corrections