Stravinsky by Picasso

Igor Stravinsky (5 June 1882 – 6 April 1971) was a Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Stravinsky lived a remarkable life, during the most amazing era, among the most fascinating people but we may have never known about it, were it not for the genius of Pablo Picasso.

Stravinsky as drawn by Picasso in Paris on 31 December 1920
Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso (dated 31 December 1920). Published in France in May 1921 in the program for the 14th season of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique in Paris.

Stravinsky despised the Bolsheviks as he was a staunch Monarchist, so the Russian revolution forced him to move to the Ukraine and then Switzerland, however it was the couturière Coco Chanel who invited Stravinsky and his family to reside at her new mansion “Bel Respiro” in the Paris suburb of Garches (until they could find a more suitable residence). Life became illustrious from that day forward, as he became the preeminent composer and conductor of the twentieth century.

During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky had developed professional relationships with key people in the United States: he was already working on his Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and he had agreed to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University during the 1939–40 academic year.

Despite the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, the widowed Stravinsky sailed (alone) for the United States at the end of the month, arriving in New York City and thence to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to fulfill his engagement at Harvard. Vera followed him in January, and they were married in Bedford, Massachusetts, on 9 March 1940.

Essex House in New York, where Stravinsky lived at the end of his life
Essex House in New York, where Stravinsky lived at the end of his life

Stravinsky settled in West Hollywood. He spent more time living in Los Angeles than any other city. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1945. In 1969, Stravinsky moved to the Essex House in New York, where he lived until his death in 1971 at age 88 of heart failure. He was buried at San Michele, close to the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev.

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1987 he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 2004.

Igor Stravinsky photograph by Arnold Newman
Stravinsky photograph by Arnold Newman

Personality of Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky

Stravinsky had adapted to life in France, but moving to America at the age of 57 was a very different prospect. For a while, he maintained a circle of contacts and emigré friends from Russia, but he eventually found that this did not sustain his intellectual and professional life. He was drawn to the growing cultural life of Los Angeles, especially during World War II, when so many writers, musicians, composers and conductors settled in the area: these included Otto Klemperer, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, George Balanchine and Arthur Rubinstein. Bernard Holland claimed Stravinsky was especially fond of British writers, who visited him in Beverly Hills, “like W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas. They shared the composer’s taste for hard spirits – especially Aldous Huxley, with whom Stravinsky spoke in French”. Stravinsky and Huxley had a tradition of Saturday lunches for west coast avant-garde and luminaries.

Stravinsky displayed a taste in literature that was wide and reflected his constant desire for new discoveries. The texts and literary sources for his work began with a period of interest in Russian folklore, which progressed to classical authors and the Latin liturgy and moved on to contemporary France (André Gide, in Persephone) and eventually English literature, including Auden, T. S. Eliot and medieval English verse. He also had an inexhaustible desire to explore and learn about art, which manifested itself in several of his Paris collaborations. Not only was he the principal composer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, but he also collaborated with Picasso (Pulcinella, 1920), Jean Cocteau (Oedipus Rex, 1927), and George Balanchine (Apollon musagète, 1928). His interest in art propelled him to develop a strong relationship with Picasso, whom he met in 1917, announcing that in “a whirlpool of artistic enthusiasm and excitement I at last met Picasso.” From 1917 to 1920, the two engaged in an artistic dialogue in which they exchanged small-scale works of art to each other as a sign of intimacy, which included the famous portrait of Stravinsky by Picasso, and Stravinsky’s “Sketch of Music for the Clarinet”. This exchange was essential to establish how the artists would approach their collaborative space in Pulcinella.

Louise Donahue portrait of Igor Stravinsky
Louise Donahue portrait of Igor Stravinsky
According to Robert Craft, Stravinsky remained a confirmed monarchist throughout his life and loathed the Bolsheviks from the very beginning. In 1930, he remarked, “I don’t believe that anyone venerates Mussolini more than I … I know many exalted personages, and my artist’s mind does not shrink from political and social issues. Well, after having seen so many events and so many more or less representative men, I have an overpowering urge to render homage to your Duce. He is the saviour of Italy and – let us hope – Europe”. Later, after a private audience with Mussolini, he added, “Unless my ears deceive me, the voice of Rome is the voice of Il Duce. I told him that I felt like a fascist myself… In spite of being extremely busy, Mussolini did me the great honour of conversing with me for three-quarters of an hour. We talked about music, art and politics”. When the Nazis placed Stravinsky’s works on the list of “Entartete Musik“, he lodged a formal appeal to establish his Russian genealogy and declared, “I loathe all communism, Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster, and also all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc.” Towards the end of his life, at Craft’s behest, Stravinsky made a return visit to his native country and composed a cantata in Hebrew, traveling to Israel for its performance.

Stravinsky proved adept at playing the part of a ‘man of the world’, acquiring a keen instinct for business matters and appearing relaxed and comfortable in public. His successful career as a pianist and conductor took him to many of the world’s major cities, including Paris, Venice, Berlin, London, Amsterdam and New York and he was known for his polite, courteous and helpful manner. Stravinsky was reputed to have been a philanderer and was rumored to have had affairs with high-profile partners, such as Coco Chanel. He never referred to it himself, but Chanel spoke about the alleged affair at length to her biographer Paul Morand in 1946; the conversation was published thirty years later. The accuracy of Chanel’s claims has been disputed by both Stravinsky’s widow, Vera, and by Craft. Chanel’s fashion house avers there is no evidence that any affair between Chanel and Stravinsky ever occurred. A fictionalization of the supposed affair formed the basis of the novel Coco and Igor (2002) and a film, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009). Despite these alleged liaisons, Stravinsky was considered a family man and devoted to his children.

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