Stravinsky: As I See Myself

Gramophone Tue 10th February 2015

Stravinsky on his life as a composer (Gramophone, August 1934)

Igor Stravinsky

Reprinted below is just one of the thousands of interviews that you can enjoy in the Gramophone Archive – Stravinsky speaks to Norman Cameron about his life as a composer (Gramophone, August 1934):

 

You ask me under what influences I began to compose 25 years ago? The great living masters of Russia, Germany and France – Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss and Debussy – were my earliest inspiration – that and the influence of my father, who was a great bass singer. A superb artist, his fame might have equalled Chaliapin's had he cared to travel outside Russia, but nothing would persuade him to leave his own country. Thus I was brought up in an atmosphere of musical achievement, and inherited a natural capacity for transmitting my feelings into music and a keen interest in the study of technique.

I studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov himself, and from the earliest days he insisted upon the importance of systematic work.

'Never wait for inspiration,' he would say, 'but compose regularly every morning whether you want to or not. If you can achieve nothing one day, never be discouraged: you may rest assured that another day ideas will flow.' And always I have found this system of regular work to be the best.

Nowadays, when I spend much time also in playing my own compositions in public, my life is divided into two parts. When I am at home, I compose every morning and live a quiet and ordered existence; when I travel and play and meet people, that distracts me, so I do not compose at all.

Do I play the music of others besides my own? Well, I feel that to gain true satisfaction from his work, an artist should specialise, so I prefer to play and to study the works of contemporary and classical composers whose music is near in spirit to my own.

People so often say to me: 'We like your Petrushka and Firebird so much better than your later works. Why did you not continue to compose on those lines?' But apart from the fact that when I ask what they mean by 'those lines' none has ever an answer to give, you must remember that I wrote Petruska and The Firebird 22 years ago. I was a young man then, but like everyone else I am afraid I cannot help having grown older, and being older, I find new musical problems to solve and new ways of expressing the solutions. Do not forget that these people who now enjoy Petrushka and The Firebird and evenThe Rite of Spring (though the critics still swear at this work!), because they are used to them and have learned to accept them by constant hearing, were not present at the premieres of these works when they were unfamiliar and caused even more discussion and controversy than my later works do today.

Critics continually say of me 'Stravinsky – he does not develop gradually but in jerks – he jumps.' The poor fellows do not realise that in nature itself there is no 'gradual' development in their sense; one needs only to watch a plant growing under a microscope! Yet because one day I compose The Firebird another day Apollon musagète, another day the Violin Concerto, another day the Duo Concertante, they say I 'jump'. This causes ill-feeling and misunderstanding, because I do not 'jump'! It is simply that with every fresh work I undertake I have a new set of problems to resolve, I am working with completely new material and often with different instruments.

For example, after writing the Violin Concerto, I became deeply interested in studying the role of the violin in chamber music, and the idea of the Duo Concertante for Piano and Violin, which I lately recorded with Dushkin, was born. For years, the mixture of piano chords with chords made to vibrate by the bow had seemed to me to produce confused pseudo-orchestral effects which are anything but pleasing. To solve this instrumental and acoustic problem, I was finally obliged to have recourse to the minimum number of instruments — two only, the blending of which seemed to me much purer than that of the piano and several stringed instruments. But why stigmatise this as a 'jump' from the Violin Concerto? It is merely different, just as at one meal I eat fruit, at the next a beef-steak, at the next cakes. No one quarrels with this, it is simply commonsense. And I do not want to quarrel with my critics if only they would not always be so busy 'explaining things they do not understand themselves! All the time, other people try to explain me, when really only I can explain myself. Continually critics ask: 'What possessed Stravinsky to do this, or that, or the other thing at all?' But it never occurs to them that always there is a reason for what I do, or to say to themselves 'Stravinsky had some definite aim in composing this work. What was his aim, and has he succeeded or failed in achieving it?'

In the same way, many people seem obsessed with the idea that I do not desire to express emotion in my music.

They are completely mistaken.

The emotion is there all right – I myself feel it and express it, and for those who cannot or will not share it, I can only suggest that they consult a psychiatrist!

Listeners are too ready to condemn the 'new' music because it is not overflowing with the type of melody and emotion to which they are accustomed and which they can recognise at a first hearing. I think that before they rush in to criticise, such people would do well to recollect that, in his day, even Gounod was accused of writing music without melody, and that within living memory the same charge was levelled at Wagner and Debussy.

The ordinary music-lover has always found it difficult to understand the new music of his own time – to participate in the emotions and appreciate the melodic ideas of any composer who has something original to say and an original way of saying it. It is only of recent years that the depths of feeling inherent in Mozart's music have been generally realised and understood, yet the emotion itself was always there for those with ears to hear and hearts to understand!

But I am afraid that such people are growing rarer instead of more plentiful, because although there never was a time when music was more widely distributed, this very fact is turning the great majority into lazy listeners who want to hear only what they already know or can recognise as familiar in type and form; who are afraid of originality and of new experiences in music. The possibility of hearing music at any time by merely turning a switch or putting on a record serves to encourage a superficial attitude towards music that threatens to undermine its foundations. In former days, young ladies who were considered accomplished used to eat cakes in their drawing-rooms and play on the piano. Nowadays, they still eat cakes, I imagine, but the piano is closed and the radio accompanies the cake-eating! C'est énorme, ça!

Myself, I would prefer infinitely a young lady who played the piano badly – bêtement — to one who only listens. Those who have made music themselves understand better, and those who understand hear better. And we shall never have a world in which music is genuinely understood, appreciated, reverenced and loved until listeners become active again – active not only in performance, but in making definite efforts to participate intelligently and receptively in all they hear.

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