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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter W

Letter W
Writers

Stravinsky was a voracious reader who loved books and the company of writers. As a boy he devoured adventure stories and claimed as formative influences the psychological novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and translations of literature from Friedrich Schiller through Charles Dickens to Mark Twain. In 1899 he joined the chattering classes of St Petersburg in their reading of Leo Tolstoy's last novel, the redemptive Resurrection, as it appeared in weekly instalments.

But his conventional use of literature for early compositions (song settings of Alexander Pushkin and ballets based on old folktales) soon developed into a fondness for collaborative projects with living writers. Working on what would have been his first stage piece (The Nightingale - its completion was delayed until 1914 due to Diaghilev intervening with ballet commissions) with the amenable and self-effacing author and translator Stepan Mitosov proved a positive start to theatre writing and prepared the ground for the success of The Rite of Spring, co-created with author, artist and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich.

A decade later, casting around for a librettist with whom to craft a weighty ancient tragedy in Latin (Oedipus Rex), Stravinsky approached Jean Cocteau, who had just penned modern stage versions of the Antigone and Orpheus myths. However, Cocteau's nimble style, littered with epigrammatic witticisms, was a world away from Stravinsky's earnest vision of danceless tableaux sung in a dead language. The writer's passion for theatrical trickery surfaced in his stage directions for characters to appear mysteriously, their entrances and exits hidden by curtains and trapdoors, but he subdued his literary style to meet Stravinsky's required formality, resulting in a somewhat static piece described by one contemporary critic as a 'soporific oratorio'.

Having attempted to engage Stravinsky in a Shakespeare project in 1917 without success André Gide proposed an adaptation of his extended poem Perséphone in 1933, to star Ballets Russes dancer Ida Rubinstein. Stravinsky was keen to accept this second chance to create 'a substantial monument' from a Greek myth, especially as he had in the mean time produced a most successful and serene classical ballet with George Balanchine celebrating the chief muse Apollo (1928). But the founder of the Nouvelle Revue Française and controversial author of The Immoralist and its ascetic companion piece Strait is the Gate, had naïve ideas about music, seeing it more as an accompaniment underlining his elegant speeches, like in traditional French mélodrame, than as an integral part of the work. In addition, Gide's attempt to draw parallels with Christian and communist ideology clashed with Stravinsky's purist approach to art as transcending politics, as well as his enthusiasm for Mussolini. Tempers flared, politely and respectfully. Stravinsky worked on, accenting and chopping up words from the libretto to fit his music, but the sensitive Gide abandoned the production, fleeing to Sicily without attending either rehearsals or the première.

There can be no doubt that Stravinsky's move to the USA in 1939 and the enthusiasms of his friend and assistant Robert Craft broadened his literary horizons and profoundly influenced his art. Gradually weaning himself away from the company of Russian émigrés Stravinsky courted the friendship of American and English writers in California. W H Auden, who also emigrated permanently to the USA in 1939, had just finished his Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation on urban loneliness, The Age of Anxiety, when Stravinsky proffered the idea of an opera in English based on William Hogarth's satirical series of etchings The Rake's Progress in 1947. The poet's fluency with historical forms from Icelandic sagas to alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse, and mastery of imitation and parody, perfectly suited Stravinsky's neo-classical interpretation of 18th-century England; and Auden's skill in stylishly combining complex philosophical concepts with topical references imbued the opera with depth and relevance to contemporary life. But where he scored above previous collaborators was in his adaptability and commitment to meeting the composer's requirements: always willing to provide alternative or extra lines of verse on demand he also engaged the writing help of partner Chester Kallman, whose knowledge and love of opera exceeded his own. Auden and Stravinsky delighted in working within strict structural limits, they shared a passion for clarity and held similar views on the nature of beauty and goodness. Stravinsky's summative work is sometimes predictably square and wordy, sounding at times like quasi-Mozartian ballad opera, but it is a triumph of exuberance and is, as Stravinsky described it, 'in the highest sense a collaboration'.

Dylan ThomasSeveral other writers made an impact on Stravinsky during the last thirty years of his life, notably Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas and T S Eliot. Stravinsky's friendship with Huxley was rooted in a fascination with his intellect and erudition. Already resident in California when Stravinsky arrived, the author of Brave New World (1932) proved to be the 'most delectable conversationalist' - and in fluent French at a time when Stravinsky was still grappling with English. Stravinsky dedicated his inventive and compressed orchestral Variations to the memory of Huxley in 1964.

Dylan Thomas was giving readings in New York and trying out his 'play for voices' Under Milk Wood when Stravinsky contacted him in 1953. They discussed collaborating on an opera about a post-atomic earth where a man and woman re-discover the natural world (bearing strong parallels to Stravinsky's last stage work, The Flood). But before Thomas could take up Stravinsky's offer of a month in Hollywood to sketch the libretto he died unexpectedly in New York, of diabetes aggravated by alcoholism. Greatly saddened by the news, Stravinsky eventually produced a commemorative chamber setting of Thomas's poem 'Do not go gentle into this good night' flanked by Gabrieli-like 'dirge canons' for trombones and strings.

American-born Nobel Prize-winning poet T S Eliot proved an elusive catch, even in life. In his role as editor for Faber he pursued an interest in publishing books of Stravinsky's conversations but genteelly eschewed the composer's many suggestions of collaborating on a stage work about Noah during the 1950s. Eventually, when a Cambridge publisher asked him to supply material for a new hymnal Eliot suggested it to Stravinsky. The result was no hymn but a tricky yet haunting unaccompanied setting of lines from Little Gidding, the last part of Eliot's Four Quartets, 'The dove descending breaks the air' (1962). Eliot's death prompted a further piece: the brief Introitus (1965) that sets the Requiem aeternam from the Mass for the Dead and became in effect a study for the 83-year-old Stravinsky's last great work, the Requiem Canticles.

© Madeleine Ladell/BBC

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