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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter E

Letter E
Exile

Unlike many other Russian exiles of his generation, Stravinsky did not plan to leave Russia permanently. He was working in Paris for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes enterprise when the First World War made return to his homeland next to impossible. He moved to the safety of Switzerland, but his thoughts remained with Russia and most of his music of the time was based on his conceptions of Russian folk music.

Ballet Russes in Les Sylphides By the time the European War ended, Civil War was underway in Russia, again postponing any idea of return for Stravinsky. When the Whites and the various invading armies were defeated, return became possible once more, but highly undesirable for Stravinsky, since his politics placed him decidedly on the counter-Revolutionary side. It was only at this stage that his orientation in life and art changed: he turned away from Russia, becoming increasingly involved in French culture, and was soon hailed as the guiding light of Les Six, a group of radical young French composers. He was granted French citizenship in 1934 but, to his dismay, his candidacy for membership of the prestigious Académie française was rejected.

A series of bereavements - his mother, then his wife and finally one of his daughters - loosened his ties to Europe, and in 1939 he moved to the United States with Vera Sudeikine, who would shortly become his second wife. He remained resident in the U.S. up to his death in 1971.

From the early 1910s, Russians followed the growth of Stravinsky's fame abroad with some bemusement, since none of his work in Russia had pointed to his meteoric rise as composer for the Ballet Russes. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, his music reached his native country as rapidly as could be expected, but Russian opinion was divided on his merits. While many European composers, such as Berg, Bartok and Hindemith, visited revolutionary Russia during the 20s, Stravinsky remained aloof. Once the Stalinist regime established itself, the opportunity was gone: Stravinsky's music was no longer imported to the Soviet Union, and the composer himself was presented as a kind of cultural bogeyman.

It was not until a decade after Stalin's death, in 1962, that Stravinsky finally made his one return visit, at the age of 80. It was a moving homecoming and reconciliation was achieved. The leading Soviet composers all professed their admiration for Stravinsky (at least some of them, like Shostakovich, quite sincerely), while Stravinsky said that he had never stopped thinking in Russian, and that he remained a Russian from his everyday habits to his artistry (even though he had previously denied Russian musical influence at various times). Although the trip was a great public success and the source of much personal pleasure, he chose not to repeat the experience. Even in death, he remains in exile: his grave is to be found in Venice, close to Diaghilev's.
© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

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