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Dear Mr. Stravinsky

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

In May 1953 Boston University proposed to commission Igor Stravinsky, by then living in Hollywood, to write an opera with Dylan Thomas, who was staying in New York, and had a few months to live. They met in Boston, and Stravinsky recalled the occasion in Robert Craft’s book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

His face and skin had the colour and swelling of too much drinking. He was a shorter man than I expected, not more than five feet five or six, with a large protuberant behind and belly. His nose was a red bulb and his eyes were glazed. He drank a glass of whisky with me which made him more at ease, though he kept worrying about his wife, saying he had to hurry home to Wales ‘or it would be too late’. I don’t know how much he knew about music, but he talked about the operas he knew and liked, and about what he wanted to do. ‘His’ opera was to be about the rediscovery of our planet following an atomic misadventure. There would be a re-creation of language, only the new one would have no abstractions; there would be only people, objects, and words. He promised to avoid poetic indulgences: ‘No conceits, I’ll knock them all on the head.’ He agreed to come to me in Hollywood as soon as he could. Returning there I had a room built for him, an extension from our dining room, as we have no guest room. I received two letters from him. I wrote him October 25th in New York and asked him for word of his arrival plans in Hollywood. I expected a telegram from him announcing the hour of his aeroplane. On November 9th the telegram came. It said he was dead. All I could do was cry.

Here’s the letter Thomas sent Stravinsky after that meeting:

The Boat House, Laugharne
Carmarthenshire, Wales
16th June 1953

Dear Mr. Stravinsky,

I was so very glad to meet you for a little time, in Boston; and you and Mrs. Stravinsky couldn’t have been kinder to me. I hope you get well very soon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the opera and have a number of ideas – good, bad, and chaotic. As soon as I can get something down on paper, I should, if I may, love to send it to you. I broke my arm just before leaving New York the week before last, and can’t write properly yet. It was only a little break, they tell me, but it cracked like a gun.

I should very much like – if you think you would still like me to work with you; and I’d be enormously honoured and excited to do that – to come to California in late September or early October. Would that be convenient? I hope so. And by that time, I hope too, to have some clearer ideas about a libretto.

Thank you again. And please give my regards to your wife and to Mr. Craft.

Yours sincerely

Dylan Thomas

Igor Stravinsky conducts L’oiseau de feu

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

Here are some of Stravinsky’s thoughts on other composers, taken from Robert Craft’s less than reliable book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

I remember seeing Mahler in St. Petersburg. His concert there was a triumph. Rimsky was still alive, I believe, but he wouldn’t have attended because a work by Tchaikovsky was on the programme (I think it was Manfred, the dullest piece imaginable). Mahler also played some Wagner fragments and a symphony of his own. Mahler impressed me greatly, himself and his conducting.

Rachmaninov’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl. He was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal.

Ravel? When I think of him, for example in relation to Satie, he appears quite ordinary. His musical judgement was quite acute, however, and I would say that he was the only musician who immediately understood Le Sacre du Printemps.

Satie was certainly the oddest person I have ever known, but the most rare and consistently witty person, too. No one ever saw him wash – he had a horror of soap. He was always very poor, poor by conviction, I think. His apartment did not have a bed but only a hammock. In winter Satie would fill bottles with hot water and put them flat in a row underneath his hammock. It looked like some strange kind of marimba.

We – and I mean the generation who are now saying “Webern and me” – must remember only Schoenberg’s perfect works, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Herzgewächse, Pierrot, the Serenade, the Variations for orchestra and the Seraphita song from Op. 22. By these works Schoenberg is among the great composers. They constitute the true tradition.

If I were able to penetrate the barrier of style (Berg’s radically alien emotional climate) I suspect he would appear to me as the most gifted constructor in form of the composers of this century. His legacy contains very little on which to build, however. He is at the end of a development.

I would like to admit all Strauss operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant banality. Their musical substance is cheap and poor; it cannot interest a musician today. I am glad that young musicians today have come to appreciate the lyric gift in the songs of the composer Strauss despised, and is more significant in our music than he is: Gustav Mahler.

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