A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934
By Stephen Walsh
Knopf. 696 pp. $35
Reviewed by Patrick J. Smith
The composer Igor Stravinsky looms huge over the 20th century, mostly because of his music in all its variety but also because of the assiduous industry of his amanuensis Robert Craft and his series of books and articles intended to define the composer for the ages. That these works were a calculated later-life corrective has long been known, but the appearance of Richard Taruskin's magisterial two-volume exploration of Stravinsky's roots -- Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions -- combining incisive writing with in-depth musicological study, gave vital perspective to Stravinsky's life and works.
Yet what has heretofore been lacking in the large literature on Stravinsky has been a tho-roughgoing biographical "life" -- all the more necessary since he was an ultra-cosmopolitan artist: widely traveled even before his expatriation from Russia and an integral part of pre- and post-World War I upper-class art society. He was also a canny and fiercely possessive negotiator of his artistic rights in a notoriously hand-to-mouth profession -- not surprising, because in the 1920s he had to provide for a wife, four children, a mistress and a mother. Stravinsky may have died rich, but he fought for a lifetime to achieve that status.
Stephen Walsh, a music critic who is currently reader in Music at Cardiff University, Wales, has provided the first volume of two that effectively close this gap. Densely packed with data, Stravinsky, A Creative Spring traces on an almost week-to-week basis the composer's life, detailing the events, the disputes, the journeys and the homes. Walsh deals only cursorily with the music itself (which has, to be sure, been studied extensively elsewhere), but in his comprehensive examination he does correct Craft and, albeit gingerly, now and then take issue with Taruskin. The story covers the Russian years, the Diaghilev visits to the West, the difficult years of World War I and the busy years of composition and performance that followed it (Stravinsky not only composed but also conducted his music, as well as played the piano in concerts). The beau monde from Chanel to Cocteau, from Lord Berners to Poulenc, is well in evidence, and Walsh takes his story up to the premiere of Stravinsky's collaboration with Andre Gide, "Persephone" in 1934, when the composer had just acquired a large Paris apartment.
The elaboration of all this material is, however, purchased at a price. Walsh's prose is not especially user-friendly, but rather workmanlike, and the overloaded paragraphs can be daunting. The book lacks the zesty immediacy of Taruskin or the fireside conversationality of Craft. The Diaghilev years, for instance, are much more alive in Taruskin. Yet nowhere else is there so much information.
Is this plethora of detail justified? Is Stravinsky still the major presence that he was felt to be halfway though the century? Almost 30 years after his death in 1971, it is clear that Stravinsky's stature has not diminished with time but increased. In the canonic tri-partite division of his oeuvre, the early works (e.g., "The Firebird," "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring") remain even more firmly fixed in the repertory. The middle works, encompassing both the neoclassic ones (e.g., "Apollon musagete") and the pastiches (e.g., "Pulcinella"), which came under the heaviest criticism from the avant garde of the time as either a falling-off of inspiration or as a callow retreat, are now the jewels of his output. With their dry-martini crispness, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments are not only antidotes to romantic music of all types, but stand in their own right as major artistic statements, and the recent critical acceptance of pastiche as a compositional device has served to rehabilitate works that were heretofore liked only by the public. The very impossibility of pigeonholing a work like "The Soldier's Tale" (once catalogued as an opera even though no word of it is sung) attests to the chameleon strength of Stravinsky's genius -- and to its continuing, central relevance to today's society.
But it is the late, serial works that are in some ways the most fascinating, because they provide a vital and viable alternative to the work of the Second Vienna School (Berg, Webern and Schoenberg).
Walsh's volume, then, has an important place in Stravinsky scholarship, and if it will be consulted more than it is read, that should not diminish its value. We await the concluding portion and its elaboration of the tricky American years.
Patrick J. Smith is editor-at-large of Opera News.