|Stravinsky in his Hollywood studio|
Few things seem further from purple-mountain-majesty America than sacrificial virgins and pagan Russian rituals, two things evoked by Igor Stravinsky’s modernist 1913 powder keg The Rite of Spring. But as BAM raises the curtain next week on A Rite, whose brilliant makers, Bill T. Jones and Anne Bogart, are both decidedly American, it’s good to remember that the émigré iconoclast made his home in the US for over 30 years.
1925 marked Stravinsky’s first visit, and it was an exhilarating, neck-craning affair. “Your skyscrapers impressed me as leading to new visions in art,” he remarked. “What work! What energy there is in your immense country!” In 1939, he returned for good, settling in Boston to deliver his Harvard lectures, where he spoke famously about music as something that could reference only itself, and to conduct the Boston Symphony at the behest of his great champion Serge Koussevitzky.
On at least one of those programs, Stravinsky had included his own arrangement of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” made, as he put it, out of a “desire to do my bit in these grievous times toward fostering and preserving the spirit of patriotism in this country.” But a police misreading of a law prohibiting national-anthem tampering led to a cease-and-desist, and Stravinsky—who had become a US citizen that same year—begrudgingly withdrew it from the bill.
Stravinsky's arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Contrary to legend, the arrangement didn't result in Stravinsky's arrest for tampering with federal property, and the above image isn't his mug shot. It's a photo taken for his visa application.
The tamperer, it turned out, could also be tampered with. In 1940, Stravinsky flew to LA to see how the Disney studios had integrated his Rite of Spring in their animated feature Fantasia. Recklessly, he concluded. It was the first of many brushes with the ruthless American marketplace that Stravinsky, by no means wealthy at the time, would have to embrace. Enter works such as the Circus Polka from 1942, composed to accompany dancing elephants.
But no snob was Stravinsky, and not all of his forays into the commercial and popular were out of need. Of American jazz, he had written that “the music of the future will have to take it into account, no matter what the tendency of the composer.” Perhaps because of the American influence, Stravinsky’s own tendencies had never been so malleable, and so it was out of both pleasure and necessity that he composed film scores, flirted with Broadway, and wrote works like the Ebony Concerto, commissioned by none other than bandleader Woody Herman. In the latter, pagan Russia had morphed into skyscraper syncopation:
Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, conducted by Pierre Boulez
If Stravinsky’s American music seemed to channel a specifically American kind of urban bustle beneath mile-high spires, his personal experience was defined just as much by southern byways and the wide open American west. In 1939, he and his wife embarked on a honeymoon trip to the Grand Canyon, stopping in Galveston, Texas along the way. The port city didn’t take. “We wanted to rest,” Stravinsky remembered, “but not there.” In a later trip, departing from their home in Los Angeles, the Stravinskys piled into a beat up car with the conductor Robert Craft for a 4,000-mile road trip to New York, hugging the coastline the entire way.
Yet it was back beneath the skyscrapers that one of Stravinsky’s most important American friendships would blossom: his relationship with George Balanchine. The two collaborated widely in New York—on the ballet Orpheus (1947), written for the Ballet Society’s (the precursor to the New York City Ballet) first performance at New York City Center; on the scintillating Agon, commissioned by the New York City Ballet; and on numerous other works still very much in the repertoire today.
Stravinsky lived out most of his American years in West Hollywood, only a stone’s throw from fellow composer Arnold Schoenberg, the writer Thomas Mann, and the philosopher T.W. Adorno. But he would die in New York, where he lived from 1969 to 1971. His address? The Essex House on Central Park South. 47 years earlier, The Rite of Spring had made its New York premiere in Carnegie Hall, just four blocks away.