Stravinsky in Exile — A New View


The current issue of the New School’s quarterly journal “Social Research” is dedicated to the topic “Exile.” I’m pleased to have contributed something on Igor Stravinsky – suggesting that his Symphony in Three Movements, composed in Los Angeles in response (sort of) to World War II, “complexly monograms its composer’s layer upon layer of identity,” disclosing “a condition of exile equally challenged and resourceful.”

I add: “Had Stravinsky less cause for resilience—had there been no Bolshevik Revolution, no world upheaval—he might have left a musical legacy less intriguingly textured with self-denial and reinvention, less mediated by rationalization, more sustained in the elemental energies powering his initial creative surge [i.e., The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Les noces.]”

You can access the full article here. You can access the full issue (I recommend Jacques Rupnik on “Milan Kundera’s Liberating Exile” in Paris) here. What follows is a sizable chunk of my article (which I wrote as a sequel to my bookThe Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War”) if you’d like an overview:

In the decades after World War I, Stravinsky was considered by many the supreme contemporary composer, transcending nationalism, articulating or adapting to changing aesthetic fashions. But the waning of modernism invites new perspectives on Stravinsky, on the effects of exile. . . .

In his polemics, Stravinsky in exile insisted on the liberating autonomy of the creative act. But the tangled history of the Symphony in Three Movements suggests a composition process that was less than fluent. The [New York] Philharmonic’s “victory symphony” commission . . . proved surprisingly (if secretly) inspirational. . . .

It would not be a stretch to treat Ingolf Dahl’s program note for the Symphony in Three Movements as one in a series of “assisted” Stravinsky writings, alongside the autobiography, the Poetics, and the conversations with [Robert] Craft. The combative, defensive tone is all too familiar. A pregnant example is Dahl’s insistence that it will “one day be universally recognized” that Stravinsky’s Hollywood home, “regarded by some as an ivory tower,” was “close to the core of a world at war.” And yet if the Symphony in Three Movements is partly to be regarded as an engaged response to World War II, its ivory-tower impersonality becomes an incongruously defining trait. The wartime output of others—think of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata (1942), Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon (1942), Arthur Honegger’s Third Symphony (1946)—is enraged, mournful, consoling. Stravinsky’s militancy, however stirring, is merely descriptive.

Shostakovich is the obvious antipode. He directly experienced the horror of the siege of Leningrad. His musical response, in the Seventh Symphony, was exigent, driven, tidal—and fundamentally interior. . . . Shostakovich himself insisted—pace Stravinsky—upon the moral properties of music.

This reading of Shostakovich as a moral beacon was little heard in the West during the ensuing Cold War decades, when Russia again became the enemy. The Cold War cultural mantra emanating from the White House and the State Department—what I have termed the “propaganda of freedom”—was that only “free artists” in “free societies” could produce lasting artistic achievements. Shostakovich, accordingly, was dismissed as a Soviet stooge, a shackled musical anachronism. Stravinsky, concomitantly, became a free-world icon. . . .

In 1954 Shostakovich was afforded a rare opportunity to share his own view of artistic “freedom” with the New York Times. As he was speaking directly to Harrison Salisbury, the Times’s Moscow bureau chief, the words were his—as “passed by Soviet censors.” He said: “The artist in Russia has more ‘freedom’ than the artist in the West.” The reason? He enjoys, Salisbury paraphrased, “what might be described as a ‘principled’ relationship to society and to the party,” versus a “haphazard” relationship to society, as in Western nations. He is accorded “status” and “a defined role.” . . . 

Salisbury was impressed by Shostakovich’s “honesty and sincerity.” It was too much for his editors, who published a “contrasting view” alongside Salisbury’s “Visit with Dmitri Shostakovich.” This was “Music in a Cage” by one Julie Whitney, who proposed as a “very serious question” whether Soviet composers “might not use their talent more successfully if they were out of the ‘gilded’ cage in which Shostakovich declares they are so content.” Doubtless there were many occasions when Shostakovich found “too much attention” being paid to his music. And there were times when it was not “played all over Russia.” Conversely, “too little attention” is plainly something Stravinsky sometimes experienced in the United States. If he had no one telling him what to do, and why, he was susceptible to feeling ignored, unappreciated, misunderstood. In truth, whether or not an “ivory tower,” his fastidiously self-contained Los Angeles study at times conferred “too much freedom”—a freedom not to matter. . . .

Of the prominent Russian artists who wound up in the United States, two who “became Americans” were the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who established Tanglewood as an indispensable laboratory for American music, and the choreographer George Balanchine, who Americanized Russian classical ballet. At the opposite extreme was the pianist and composer Sergey Rachmaninoff, who (notwithstanding an affinity for the jazz genius Art Tatum) remained incorrigibly Russian in his habits and musical predilections. More than Koussevitzky or Balanchine, more than Rachmaninoff, more than was readily apparent, Stravinsky was at all times pulled in multiple directions. Responding to an invitation from the New York Philharmonic—an invitation irresistible yet confounding, even obtuse—he first culled musical pages from a drawer. Then—as he would eventually disclose with tortured caveats—he resorted for inspiration to newsreels of World War II. The resulting “symphony,” not really a symphony, proved both exhilarating and curious, evasive and emphatic, elusive and visceral. It complexly monograms its composer’s layer upon layer of identity. It discloses a condition of exile equally challenged and resourceful.

Had Stravinsky less cause for resilience—had there been no Bolshevik Revolution, no world upheaval—he might have left a musical legacy less intriguingly textured with self-denial and reinvention, less mediated by rationalization, more sustained in the elemental energies powering his initial creative surge.

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