REVOLUTIONARY SOURCES, PART IV: MUSIC AND REVOLUTION. “A Letter from Stravinsky: Nostalgia, Emigration, and Identity.”

By Alec Vivian.

GV 1786.A54 S58 1921

Stravinsky, Igor. “A Letter from Igor Stravinsky.” Program notes for The Sleeping Princess. Russian Ballet. Leon Bakst. Leicester Square, London W.: Alhambra Theatre, 1921.

Note:  this is the seventh of several articles posted to The New Contemporary that feature writing from this Fall’s Havighurst Colloquium, “Russia in War and Revolution.”  Each student in the class had to select an object from the Andre de St.-Rat Collection in Miami’s Special Collections and write about it.  These writings, as you will see, spotlight the incredible collections in our library.  They also highlight how the Russian Revolutions in 1917 involved a battle over meaning:  through these primary sources, one can read the words, see the images, and therefore gain more insight into the experiences of revolution.  Other papers have been posted to the History Department’s new online journal, Journeys Into the Past:  Special thanks to Masha Stepanova, Miami’s extraordinary Slavic Bibliographer.

“I’ve spoken Russian all my life, I think in Russian, my way of expressing myself [slog] is Russian. Perhaps this is not immediately apparent in my music, but it is latent there; a part of its hidden nature.”[1]

In the year 1921, Russian composer-turned-celebrity Igor Stravinsky had experienced a rather copious amount of change in his personal life. Exiled from Russia while vacationing in his summer home in Switzerland in 1914 and divested of commissions due to Russia’s failure to comply with the Berne Convention, Stravinsky also redeveloped  his musical style. Stravinsky’s acclimation to a life banned by Russia proved to be a difficult endeavor for the “White” composer. At the same time, however, the Imperial apologist continued to create a name for himself. Known for being an Avant-Garde composer who embraced the lifestyle principles of Modernist culture, Stravinsky acquired celebrity status internationally as a result of his bombastic risk taking.
Although Stravinsky is posthumously recognized for his radical assimilation into western society and its opposing ideologies, the fascinating issue left unaccounted for by most individuals was his strong, genetically ingrained Russian favoritism (as he would put it). This sense of “Russianness” remained nucleic for Stravinsky’s musical and personal being, revealed through interviews, letters (such as the one to be discussed), and analysis of his musical works.

His misappraisal of Russian society after the Revolution, however, came off as dissident to the Soviets because of his strong anti-Bolshevik ideology, despite the fact that this label resulted from disconnect rather than deliberate acts of dissent.[2] As a  zealous anti-Bolshevik who coerced his peers into dissenting against the Bolsheviks, however, Stravinsky embellished his celebrity image, embracing individuality and engaging the public with a “mask” approach, resulting in an acquired lifestyle antithetical to the Bolshevik project.[3] An example of an émigré who retained a deep love for his country, Stravinsky’s exile resulted in acquisition of a nostalgically distorted perspective of the state of his homeland. The result of narratives he utilized in the letter  and his worldview-shattering return to Russia in 1962 all highlight the developed disconnect Stravinsky had incurred as a result of emigration.

Stravinsky as an Imperial Russian

“… In the first place (producing Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Princess.”) is a personal joy, for this work appears to me as the most authentic expression of that period of our Russian life which we call the “Petersburg Period”…”[4]

When interpreting the writing of Stravinsky, it becomes quite obvious that he retained a fondness for Imperial Russia as opposed to a Bolshevik state. Born into a family of minor Polish nobility in 1882, Stravinsky grew up as an elite in Russia during this “Petersburg Period,” having enough privilege to take composition lessons, build himself up to international musician status, own a massive music library within Russia, and compose for the traveling Ballet Russes with Sergei Diaghileff and Leon Bakst by the age of 31.[5]

His denouncement of an ideology centered on the “Soul of the Russian Peasant” in preference to Tchaikovsky’s use of “true, popular sources of our race.” This view accentuates Stravinsky’s dependence on nostalgic memories, utilizing fantasy as a way to promote historically Russian narratives as a way to mask the unwanted change in Russian governance. Condemning ideologically-conforming works of art for exemplifying “Muscovite Picturesqueness,” Stravinsky claims in his letter to Diaghileff that Tchaikovsky’s ability to Russify music while emphasizing ideas from Western European influence amplifies his significance as a Russian artist, just like Pushkin in literature or Glinka in song. Unfortunately, as Lenin began censoring the arts in order to further propagate the new party ideology, music and art became more accessible for the newly-emphasized proletariat, creating a popular artistic preference for “picturesqueness” over his Avant-Garde works.

An Émigré with a Musical Identity Crisis

“Without a doubt, Stravinsky …  bore with him the wound of his emigration; without a doubt, his artistic evolution would have taken a different path if he had been able to stay where he was born. In fact, the start of his journey through the history of music coincides roughly with the moment when his native country ceases to exist for him; … he finds his only homeland in music.”[6]

Although he obtained an exemption from fighting in the war, Stravinsky struggled through a 9-year period of adjusting to life as an émigré.[7] From 1914 to 1923, Stravinsky’s work on The Wedding acts as the primary indicator of a morphing style. All songs written during this period drew from the same corpus of Russian folklore as The Wedding, yet all of his piano works hinted at a different direction for the future of Stravinsky’s compositional style.[8] During this same time, the future of the Ballet Russes in Europe was looking bleak, prompting Sergei Diaghileff to take his company to the New World in 1915. This tour forced the well-known Modernist to explore different musical facets, such as debuting as a conductor with “The Firebird Suite” in Europe and debuting the piece in New York with the company.[9]

In 1917, Stravinsky reached the zenith of internal conflict with his relations to his homeland. In February, Stravinsky longed to return home in support of Russia’s “Liberation.” However, when the Bolsheviks seized power in October, all the Ballet company’s financial struggle, his wife’s health, lack of commission and royalties from his own works began to inhibit Stravinsky’s access to needed resources. In response to this, he began work on The Soldier’s Tale that ended up lacking the “Russianness” of The Wedding, and instead took great influence from the composer’s discovery of jazz from the U.S.[10] At this moment, Stravinsky saw his emphasis on Russian culture weaken, enabling him to develop his own style in composition that saw him accumulate popularity in the western sphere of art.

On Stravinsky’s Return in 1962

“Modern Nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world …”[11]

After “The Soldier’s Tale”, Stravinsky eventually reverted back to his initial emphasis of incorporating Russian folk themes in his music. His most notable example of this, however, resided in his work, The Ode of 1943. Commissioned by fellow émigré Serge Koussevitzky for the passing of his wife Natalia, reviewers of the piece say that the work was completed with a more professional tone, a characteristic facet of Stravinsky’s “masked” approach to his work.[12] Prior to this, however, his wife, daughter, and mother all died within a 2-year period in 1938-39. This sent Stravinsky into a very deep depression, and also helped him write “The Ode” with a more personalized affect.[13]
What makes this piece unique, however, rests within the interpretations of Russia that Stravinsky projects. On his return to the U.S.S.R. in 1962, Stravinsky discussed the story about the piece, explaining his use of Ancient Russian echoes providing a unique expressive voice to create a piece that spoke of distance, loss and sorrow. This combination symbolically parrots his reactions upon returning to his homeland, as he realized that, after The Right of Spring and Petrushka, his interpretation had been nostalgically constructed, and that his interpretation of his home was built on developed false memories.[14]


In retrospect, Stravinsky’s appreciation of the Russian Revolution is admirable, especially given the circumstances in which he was brought up. His views, however, never aligned with Party ideology, thus discrediting his Russian perspective up until the end of Stalinism. Although his misappraisal of societal climate within the Soviet Union could possibly be blamed on his embodiment of the 20th century “celebrity” persona, we now understand that his personal interpretation toward the State’s condition was rooted in a longing for an alternate future after the Russian Revolution, rather than maintained ignorance about his homeland.

Works Cited

Cross, Jonathan. “Stravinsky in Exile.”.” Stravinsky and His World, ed. Tamara Levitz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.) 2013.

Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays. Univ of California Press. 2016.

Wenborn, Neil. “The Illustrated Lives of Great Composers: Stravinsky.” 1999.

GV 1786.A54 S58 1921

Stravinsky, Igor. “A Letter from Igor Stravinsky.” Program notes for The Sleeping Princess. Russian Ballet. Leon Bakst. Leicester Square, London W.: Alhambra Theatre, 1921.

Svetlana Boym, Boym, Svetlana. The future of nostalgia. Basic Books, 2002.

Recommended Reading:

Craft, Robert. Conversations with Igor Stravinsky. Faber & Faber, 2013: In this collection of Q & As, Stravinsky’s personality, ideology and musical approach are all interrogated. Great read for understanding the nuances of Stravinsky.

[1] Cross, Jonathan. “Stravinsky in Exile.”.” Stravinsky and His World, ed. Tamara Levitz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013,) 2013, 4.

[2] Stravinsky consistently chastised Arthur Lourie for being too “Liberal”, repeatedly refusing to speak to him out of suspicion that he was a Bolshevik sympathizer. For more on Stravinsky as an anti-Bolshevik, see Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays. Univ of California Press, 2016. Harvard, pg. 180-185.

[3] The “Mask” is apart of the early 20th century Modernist phenomenon where celebrities would have two separate projected personalities. Stravinsky was noted for embodying this concept in both his musical works and in his interactions with the public and media. For more information on the celebrity, the “Mask” and Stravinsky’s use of the two, see Cross, 6.

[4] Stravinsky, Igor. “A Letter from Igor Stravinsky.” Program notes for The Sleeping Princess. Russian Ballet. Leon Bakst. Leicester Square, London W.: Alhambra Theatre, 1921.

[5] Cross, 3

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Stravinsky was exempt from war duties due to medical reasons, even though it was possible for him to enlist anyway. Although this exile proved taxing for Stravinsky and his development as a musician, the exile is labeled as “chosen.” For more information, see Wenborn, Neil. “The Illustrated Lives of Great Composers: Stravinsky.” 1999. 67.

[8] Ibid., 68-69.

[9] Stravinsky’s and Diaghileff’s successes up until this point were intertwined, so at this point it was up to Stravinsky to figure out his own musical strengths and abilities in order to keep himself financially afloat. For more info, see Ibid., 70-71.

[10] Through The Soldier’s Tale, Stravinsky received patronage from the Swiss Philanthropist Werner Reinhart, an amateur clarinetist. For more information, see Ibid., 80-82.

[11] Boym, Svetlana. The future of nostalgia. Basic Books, 2002. 8.

[12] Cross, 5-6.

[13] Between the time that “The Firebird” and “The Ode of 1943” were written, the style marking “espressivo” had been virtually absent from his works. This provides musicologists with a subtle hint that this work had an element of personalization. For more info, see Cross, 6.

[14] Ibid, 8-9.

Alec Vivian is a senior majoring in Music Education.

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