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An exception to most rules

23 August 2006

6:35 PM

23 August 2006

6:35 PM

Stravinsky: The Second Exile; France and America, 1934-1971 Stephen Walsh

Cape, pp.736, 30

Waiting for the second volume of a good biography is a painful process. I feel very sorry for anyone who read Brian McGuinness’s excellent Young Ludwig (part one of the life of Wittgenstein) when it was published in 1988. The philosopher’s exciting story broke off in 1921 and fans have been left dangling ever since in an 18-year state of suspended expectation of a sequel. As far as I know Dr McGuinness is alive and kicking and still regarded as the world’s greatest expert on Wittgenstein, but too much time has passed and slowly we must adjust our sights to the sordid possibility that there may never be a second volume. Perhaps that is marginally better than what happened in the case of Martin Stannard who, in the six years between the publication of his two volumes of Evelyn Waugh, developed a mysterious hatred for his subject that became so pathological that by the end of his second tome (No Abiding City, 1992), the voice of Waugh was scarcely audible above the grating clamour of Stannard’s private insecurities.  

Stravinsky: The Second Exile is the volume two I have been most looking forward to since extolling Stephen Walsh’s first (Igor Stravinsky: A Creative Spring) in these pages seven long years ago. At last we have it and it exceeds even my loftiest expectations. Most lives suffer from ‘tailing off’ in volume two. Here the subject is usually seen to be famous and settled, his insecurities, as well as the bright creative fires of his youth, are dimmed and in their place many mundane concerns of family, work and reputation to which all mortals are prone play only too prominent a role. But Stravinsky remains, to most rules, an exception. His creative fires burned bright until perhaps the last ten years of his long life, but this was not the way he saw it. As early as 1952 at the very height of his powers he broke down in tears among the yuccas of a Californian desert bemoaning the loss of his muse.  


Nor does Stravinsky’s family life appear to follow the ordinary or conventional pattern. At the beginning of The Second Exile we find him, a recently adopted citizen of France, living with his family in Paris. But there is a mistress in the background and the deaths in quick succession of his daughter, his wife, and his mother (all within five years of the opening scene) lead, along with other forces, to his removal to the USA and to a second marriage.  

Perhaps the single most fascinating aspect of this book is the intense triangular relationship that Professor Walsh delicately exposes in America between Stravinsky, his second wife, Vera, and the conductor and musicologist, Robert Craft. Craft is still alive, in his eighties and most of what is known about him and indeed about Stravinsky has flowed in one way or another from his pen. By my count Craft has written or edited no fewer than ten volumes about, or related to, his connection with Stravinsky whom he first met in 1948. Walsh is generous about the important role that the younger man played in Stravinsky’s life but less so about the legacy of literature on the subject that he has left behind ‘much of which,’ he argues, ‘is riddled with bias, error, supposition and falsehood’. From his earliest attempts to get the composer’s attention by conducting (dully it seems) Stravinsky’s minor works at fringe concerts, Robert Craft succeeded, bit by bit, in insinuating himself into the Stravinsky household to such a degree that he ended up being treated by the Stravinskys as a surrogate son, loafing hand-in-hand with Mrs Stravinsky on the sofa and, eventually, assuming complete command of the composer’s affairs, ordaining whom he should meet, where he should go, which commissions to accept. It is not clear to what degree the composer in his inebriate old age resented either the younger man’s controlling influence or his sentimental bond with Mrs Stravinsky, but both, unsurprisingly, were detested by Stravinsky’s children, who believed that they were kept from seeing their father in his last years by the wicked machinations of Craft and their stepmother. They also believed that they were being deprived by these two of their just inheritance. Naturally, the whole thing ended up in the courts after Stravinsky’s death.

Walsh’s assiduous combing of the New York civil court records, his discovery of a secret fortune hidden from the tax man in a Swiss bank account and his moving and balanced description of Stravinsky’s role as a father to his five children, are just a few of the many spectacular aspects of this book that combine to make it such a phenomenal achievement. He writes beautifully (it is rare for books about classical music to be so gracefully phrased), and both volumes are painstakingly researched, astute in their judgments, accurate, witty and sensitive in their treatment of all the persons concerned. Most arresting is Walsh’s careful unfolding of the character and spirit of the man himself. Stravinsky emerges as a quixotic, sometimes ruthless, often amusing and always charming character. In his last years he was befuddled, inactive, used and a little sad — a sort of King Lear — but I do not believe that any reader could trawl the combined 1,200 pages of this work without being convinced, by the end, not only of Stravinsky’s greatness as a composer but equally of his greatness as a man.


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