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The New York Times gets sniffy about Stravinsky’s retrosexuality

Weeks after the rest of the world, as is its wont, the Manhattan tattle machine has picked up on Robert Craft’s assertions that Igor Stravinsky had at least two gay liaisons while he was writing the Rite of Spring.

In classic Times fashion, it attempts – without a shred of new evidence – to discredit Craft. Classic Times churnalism. Read it here.

stravinsky nude

(not fit to print in the Times)

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  1. The Ravel relationship had escaped me until now.

  2. Chandler Carter says:

    I don’t defend or criticize Zachery Wolfe, but the scholars he quotes – Tamara Levitz, Millecent Hodgson and Stephen Walsh – are rock solid. Robert Craft’s record of published work, on the other hand, is chocked full of errors – many out of sheer sloppiness, but some with apparent intent to mislead (see Charles Joseph and Stephen Walsh’s work for elaboration). I’m writing a book on The Rake’s Progress, and have combed through everything Craft wrote on the opera and Stravinsky as he composed it. Much is valuable, if inconsistent in his various (and substantially revised) accounts of that time; far too much of it is contradictory and outright wrong. I try to cite him only when it’s consistent with other, independent and reliable accounts.

  3. wry toast says:

    attempts to make homosexual every long-dead person of note in the arts, no longer able to dispute the assertions, is rampant and despicable

    • The desperate attempts to defend every long-dead person of note in the arts or any other field from something that shouldn’t be considered shameful or degrading of that person’s legacy has also always been rampant and despicable, and shows more than a little homophobia. You can observe through history, even faster than anybody had said someone was a homosexual, there would be people throwing tantrums and denying it as if it were the ultimate offence.

      Why should this kind of claim be so vehemently disputed, and why is it despicable, as if someone was trying to discredit and question someone’s reputation with very evil intentions? Will the fact of having had homosexual relations diminish any of Stravinsky importance, or send him to hell, or whatever? Should every person claimed to have had homosexual dalliances defend themselves so vehemently, as if they were accused of a crime?

      These claims about Stravinsky have to be investigated in their own merits, historically, by the evidences presented, which is what most of the people here seem to do, regardless what the claim is about. They should be treated as any other fact, not with this tone of outrage.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The offence is not whether someone had or had not gay relationships but whether claims are made that have no substance. The silly urge to want to know every corner of a dead artist’s life robs that artist of any privacy he or she may have wanted to have.

  4. I don’t understand why you think the claims in the Times are any less valid than what Craft says. Craft says “it’s all in the letters” but what he quoted seems hardly sufficient to make a solid case.

    • Craft spent more than 30 years with Stravinsky, knew his every inflection. The ‘experts’ quoted by the NYT never met him.

      • Chandler Carter says:

        But Craft’s “evidence” is letters written 30 years before he met Stravinsky. Did Stravinsky confess something to him about those dalliances? Why not cite the man himself, then? I would be more inclined to believe it if there was independent evidence. Craft’s judgment alone has been repeatedly shown to be untrustworthy.

      • PR Deltoid says:

        Close personal acquaintance with someone is not, in and of itself, a guarantee of truthfulness.

      • Yes, but the “evidence” Craft cites isn’t really evidence. As interesting as it might be that Stravinsky had a few gay relationships around 1913, Craft doesn’t even refer to some conversation or private information he may have been privy to, but refers only to letters that have been in print for decades now. Furthermore, these letters were part of a culture that expressed itself much more effusively than ours, In fact, it was Stravinsky’s custom to refer to just about anyone as “my dear.” This was the way people wrote in that period. There doesn’t seem to be any smoking gun here.

        In addition.the dance historian quoted in the article makes a very good point. If something had happened between two major artists in that closed circle, everyone would have known about it in short order and someone would have recorded it somewhere – at least in a private communication. It would have been just too juicy to let that one go. These were very gossipy people and the society of musicians and dancers hasn’t changed much over the years. As a young music student among many in a major NYC conservatory in the 70s, I – and the rest of us – KNEW about every sexual peccadillo of every famous and not-so-famous musician of the time. No rumor or speculation was too flimsy to escape examination and discussion. This is very telling. if Stravinsky had a thing going on with Ravel someone would know. Why does every Ravel scholar and any friend/acquaintance of Ravel who has gone on record, insist that they know of no liaison between Ravel and anyone else – ever? And, Ravel and Stravinsky had too many mutual friends and acquaintances – and Delage was one of them – to keep things like THAT quiet. Everyone kissed and told, and I’m sure Delage would have been one of the first. The only sexual matter that Stravinsky ever wanted to keep from someone was his extramarital liaison with Vera de Bosset – and that he tried to keep only from his mother. Not only was Stravinsky quite open about the affair, Catherine (the first Mrs. S.) and Vera were in regular contact and kept each other up on the latest news when Igor was in their midst.

        This one just doesn’t ring true.

      • Daniel Farber says:

        That’s a pretty naive defense. Craft, as is plain from his diaries and memoirs, was a tortured soul. Brilliant though he was and as devoted to keeping Stravinsky’s creativity alive as he was (the most important thing by far), his relationship with IS and with VS as well was overwrought with psychological baggage and, at 89, with the energy of his defense mechanisms diminished if not depleted, he is more than likely to be making mistakes in judgment. On balance, Robert Craft is still more sinned against than sinning.

      • John Kelly says:

        Richard Osborne knew Herbert Von Karajan very well – personally. Does that mean we believe everything he wrote about the man?

        • Richard Osborne, who actually alludes to HvK being bi-sexual at one point so there’s some common ground here.
          In this matter i’m inclined to think that both Osborne and even the less than reliable Craft are on the right track.
          The pairing of Diaghilev and IS doesn’t quite ring true, but IS and Delage are another matter.
          Affectionate greetings aren’t significant but the banned photograph which was sent to him strikes me as an odd gesture within the context of a platonic relationship.

          • From what Craft published years ago (and from the volume, I believe, that included the picture above), Stravinsky was really into physical culture at this point in his life and was vain about his physical condition (perhaps, unconsciously compensating for his short stature). Sending the picture is odd, but, after all, we are talking about a group of people living in a signficantly different culture who were, let’s be honest, ego driven and had more than their share of oddities to begin with. Look at Ravel! Even at their most conventional, they were not June and Ward Cleaver. Since his name has been brought up, I would think that this might entice some curiousity concerning the music of Maurice Delage.

      • Any thoughts on the comments below in answer to that claim? There are some reasons given by people here that I think do undermine your point about how well Craft knew Stravinsky. To summarize: the effusive language was definitely cultural and temporal; Craft has not claimed that Stravinsky said anything about these liaisons to him, but that it is all “in the letters”, but as far as many of us can see, there is nothing in the letters that is close to a smoking gun. Stravinsky routinely, even in later life, called everyone “my dear” (and from his culture, this was typical). The metaphorical use of “in the arms of Diaghilev” sounds to me exactly like saying “politician x is in bed with industrialist y”, as R. James Tobin pointed out. Quite apart from anything else, Stravinsky was nothing if not chameleon-like in his personal relations, and, as well as Craft knew him, he acted differently and spoke differently with him than he did with his other friends and acquaintances, so the language he used in letters thirty years before he met Craft could well be different. Further, some of the “evidence” comes from the words of Delage, who Craft did not know. (nor did he know Ravel, or Diaghilev).

  5. R. James Tobin says:

    The Diaghilev claim seems dubious to me. Diaghilev went for beautiful dancers, it would seem, and Stravinsky was hardly an Adonis. And the expression “in the arms of,” like the one “in bed with” is hardly conclusive of anything beyond symbolic meaning.

  6. The burden of proof is on he who makes the assertion, not he who disputes it. Your introductory paragraph is misdirected, in this case against the NY Times.

  7. John Borstlap says:

    The ‘personality’ of IS as appearing from Craft’s conversation books is obviously a creation of Craft himself, a creation to which IS appears to have been willing to comply. It can be questioned whether Craft was very helpful to IS, and whether leading him into the quite unmusical territory of serialism was a good thing. It is no coincidence that Craft was able to interest IS in serialism when the old man thought himself to have ‘written himself out’ with his neo-classical music. Any composer short of musical stimulus / inspiration, will cling to such type of rational systems, or composers under some psychological pressure, like Berg, being dominated by Schönberg’s scholastic and pretentious mind.

    Craft’s absurd claims as to IS’s early sexual explorations in the Diaghilev circles are a betrayal of trust and confidence, not because gay things are to be disapproved of, but of the unsubstantial nature of them, and which seem merely an attempt to hype-up Craft’s writing another time. It has something parasitical about it and shows how vulnerable great artists are to exploitation by lesser men.

    • Chandler Carter says:

      I take issue with your first paragraph. The Stravinsky/Craft conversation books are not entirely the creation of Craft. If that were the case (as Leo Treitler pointed out to me), then Craft would have continued to write books of interest after S’s death. It isn’t difficult to perceive a unifying voice through all the material published under S’s name – The Autobiography, The Poetics and the conversation books – even though he didn’t execute any of them. The insights, tone and commentary are unmistakably Stravinsky, no matter who chose the words. As to the quality of Stravinsky’s serial works, I think Agon and the Requiem Canticles speak for themselves. S remains the preeminent composer of the 20th century. A 20-something American conductor could never have steered him anywhere he didn’t want to go. It’s not that Stravinsky was impervious to influence; he was radically open to it. But he chose what and who would influence him.

      • Daniel Farber says:

        Of course Chandler Carter and Leo Treitler are correct in this assessment. I hardly think that any of it, however, especially the remarks about Agon and the Requiem Canticles, will register with the likes of Mr. Borstlap, who regards all serial composition as “unmusical territory” and (not surprisingly) cannot hear the enormous aesthetic difference between the music of Berg and the music of Schoenberg.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Which is entirely wrong: I know very well the difference between Berg’s and Schoenberg’s aesthetics, but I was talking about structuralism. That was not so difficult to understand.

          As for Agon: the aesthetic and structural difference between the serial and the tonal movements is also very clear to understand and the serial bits show themselves to be inferior to the tonal ones. Also this is not so difficult to understand and very easy to hear. It is the difference between two fundamentally different musical paradigms. Which is not to say that the Requickels are bad music; it is a masterpiece in its kind. But I was talking about the kinds.

          Before personalizing arguments, it is wholeheartedly to be recommended to first think a bit.

          • Daniel Farber says:

            To refer to serialism as “unmusical territory”–that is to say, to relegate all serial composition to an area that is literally not music–is, I hope you would admit, a very strong statement, to which I and a great many others take issue. Perhaps you did not really intend to suggest this, sir, but this is, in fact, what your words suggest. What I found abhorrent was your cavalier dismissal of an entire realm of music. It is clear, I hope, that what I take issue with is an “idea” and not a “person”. Teaching for 36 years made me realize that the difference is often hard to maintain for the person whose idea is being criticized.

          • John Borstlap says:

            To be clear in this: the distinction between music as an art from and sonic art as an art form does not mean ‘dismissal’ of an art form. What I dismiss, and which is not ‘cavalier’ at all, is the claim of sonic art to be music, and the distinction can be argued in a convincing way, which can not appropriately be done at this place.

            The claim of sonic art to be music destroys awareness of what music really is. Music has two levels: 1) the material level (the notes, their structuring, context etc.) and 2) the psychological level: expression, narrative, communication etc. Sonic art remains on the level of the material which is OK but it totally misses the typical interior space that characterizes music. Sonic art is always static and its structuring always abstract (not discernable in the listening experience), and if there are notes in it, they are not bound by the physical laws of tonality, but acoustically random. It is colour, contrast, effect etc. which make-up sonic art’s interesting aspects, if there are some. With music, it is about creating an interior space which can be ‘entered’ by the listener who can experience narrative, expression, atmosphere etc. in the listening process, aspects which do not reside in the material level (for instance, bad tonal music can be correct and well-made and yet failing to communicate something).

            It is not necessary to feel offended by this observation which is already made for decennia by audiences of music (hence the impopularity of sonic art in the context of music performances, which is NOT conservatism). It is academia which often fails to see the very thing which is obvious to anybody else, because of being focussed upon details and being impressed by theory, also when it is unrelated to reality.

            I would like to say ‘read my book: XXXX’ but advertisements are not in place here.

          • Daniel Farber says:

            Thank you for your very clear reply. I remain dumbfounded by your assumption that what you call “sonic art” is structured in a way that is not discernible (To whom? Certainly conductors and performers can discern it, or do you feel they are deluding themselves?) and that it offers no “interior space” in which narrative, expression etc. can be experienced. I’ve certainly experienced it and many others claim to as well. I do wonder how far your definition of “sonic art” extends: would it include Wozzeck? Lulu? The Bartok string quartets? I also wonder, very parenthetically, if you find analogous limitations in literary modernism (Conrad, Joyce, Nabokov, Woolf) and in the abstract expressionism of 20th-century painting. I much admire your refusal to plug your book on this blog.

          • John Borstlap says:

            All this is a different discussion alltogether.

            I know that the distinction between music and sonic art may sound odd to many people in music life, but it is merely formulating a cultural experience shared by very, very many people, who are told they are conservative and don’t understand their own times. I think that is preposterious, arrogant and dishonest: if criticizing contemporary art would not be possible without being conservative, we would never know if bad contemporary art would exist. And then, everything would be great art, which we know could not be the case.

            That genres sometimes overlap, or have vague boundaries, does not mean they are not there. Wozzeck, for instance, is, however dissonant and quasi-chaotic most of it sounds, still tonal, since it derives its effects from the working of intervals, creating inner space, and of the entire German symphonic tradition (including Wagner) which is implied in the background. It obviously is a (morbid) MUSICAL masterpiece. It is not serial music, not sonic art, although the music hovers at the very edge of acoustical comprehensibility – which is fully ‘in tune’ with the subject. Unmusical people may hear it as sonic art, but then they would be wrong, the whole expressionist nature of this music would be lost on them.

            In sonic art, like Stockhausen, Xenakis or Boulez, or (more recent) Widmann, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough et al, ANY sonic event can follow ANY other sonic event, in acoustical terms, which is not the case with music. That is what I mean by randomness, however strictly the thing is organized on paper. There are gestures in sonic art, like the throwing of confetti at weddings, but that does not mean that the notes do musically connect. I am afraid that people who imagine to experience logic, form, narrative and expression in sonic art have no incling what music is, and that should not surprise us, since sonic art is uttely accessible to unmusical people. That is the reason why there are so many sonic artists. I know by experience that sonicists listen to ‘oldfashioned music’ in a sonic way and do not experience any profound difference between R. Strauss, Mozart or Boulez: it’s all sound to them, one nicely organized in triads and the other nicely in dissonances. Nothing wrong with it, but I argue against such watering-down of a superb art form. If we can merely hear the sound of a piece of music and not what it wants to ‘say’, we better close-down opera houses, orchestras, traditional concert halls (the ‘museum culture’) and enjoy sonic art in modernist spaces, where the functionality of the surroundings match the materialism of the art form.

            In case you would like to read more about these things, you could visit my website – I assume that is not inappropriate here –

          • a domani says:

            Your characterisation as odd is an understatement.
            I would prefer uninformed,
            or perhaps self imposed lack of perspective.
            You pick and choose who you choose to categorise as music.
            Who are you?
            listen and laugh

  8. Mark Shulgasser says:

    Sniffy? On the contrary, Craft’s claims were dubious on the surface, and Woolfe more or less decimates them. He errs only in his kneejerk tribute to the late serial works, which do speak for themselves, but to very few. BTW am I the only person who considers the Rite of Spring to be highly overrated? I hope never to have to sit through it again. Give me Petroushka, Oedipus, or the neo-classical concerti any day.

    • in terms of functioning as dance music I’m inclined to agree.
      Les Noces, Movements, Agon and even a slighter piece like Danses Concertantes give more space for the the choreographic element than the Rite which always seems to swamp the what’s going on stage.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I agree that the Rite has been blown-up as a cultural phenomenon out of proportion. But it IS a masterpiece, in spite of the rather ‘flat’ Danse Sacrale at the end, the very dissappointing ending (the upwards slur plus empty bang), and the morbid subject. I think that Petrushka is a piece of genius from beginning to end without any weak spot or moment – that is, the original version of 1911, not the revised version with a smaller orchestra.

      The Rite became a symbol of what modernism considered the two conditions of the ultimate masterpiece: both blowing-up existing norms and creating a scandal. So, after WW II, composers tried to blow-up norms and making scandal under the delusion that it is THIS which garanties a Master Piece. The Rite deserves to be cleansed from mythology.

      By the way, there is only ONE recording which really does justice to the magical character of the Rite: the one by Igor Markevich and the Philharmonia Orchestra of 1959, which takes slightly higher tempi than indicated in the score. A domesticated Rite performance is awful, maybe you have heard that kind of thing? Then, nothing remains of the terror, angst and nature magic of the piece.

  9. John Kelly says:

    Have read Times article. Times article is skeptical. Can’t believe this is being discussed at such length, will now return to Keeping up with the Kardashians

  10. A domani says:

    The really most important question here is:
    Who cares?

    • John Borstlap says:

      If you don’t care, what are you doing in this blog? You better find your likes & find subjects you care about.

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