Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Stravinsky’s Russia

Graham Griffiths

It was in April 2014, I think, when I first exchanged the comforts of the Bodleian Library (Oxford) for the Baltic, and that razor-sharp wind on St Petersburg’s river Neva (accent on VA, if you please).

My modest hotel room, in Pushkin-esque décor, was in the poet’s former residence on the Angliskaya Naberezhnaya, the English Embankment. Convenient, therefore, for the daily walk past the Stravinsky apartment to the Conservatoire, through the snow. Stravinsky’s snow, as I regarded it. At least, this would be an easy non-musical topic of conversation I might share with the great man at our first encounter, on his doorstep. Or so I imagined.

After ten years of Stravinsky research – six on my DPhil, four on Stravinsky’s Piano – I was a free man and, you can see, a little light-headed! High time to visit Stravinsky’s hometown. (I recall feeling acute embarrassment that I’d not made this pilgrimage before committing those thousands of ‘clever’ words to print.) Better late than never, I consoled myself.

To my surprise, when I finally arrived in the Venice of the North it was more a case of never mind late – infinitely better. Within days I had been transported, as it were, to a sense of heightened proximity with my subject, whose famed objectivity had for so long been the object (and subject) of my own subjective objectivity. Precisely! Where was the person, the sentient human being whom I had so perfectly ignored? In a nutshell, that first trip, I came looking for ‘Stravinsky’… and found Igor walking beside me.

As I strolled along (his) familiar pink granite pavements that first morning I became strangely aware of a presence, a dapper ‘energy’ guiding my steps ever on. Immaculate canals gave way to parks and palaces, past church domes and statues commemorating military and literary heroes; onwards to the embankment to view Neva’s waves or, more precisely, their eerie absence. The river was so completely frozen I was reminded of Stravinsky’s description (in his autobiography) of a favourite Spring rite: listening to the groans of the ice as it gradually melted far below the surface, a sure herald of the imminent thaw. I stood as near to the river’s edge as I dared and looked out over the vast expanse, listening as intently as I had done as a child on the banks of Loch Ness. There, too, I could sense something stirring in the deep.

Thus, St Petersburg’s spell bound me securely for several visits although subsequent journeys through Russia’s hypnotic wooded hinterland, with its endless birch forests, left such a mark on my psyche that Stravinsky in Context had no option but to portray birch trees on its cover. What! No portrait of Stravinsky? Rather, he is evoked (between the lines) in the book’s epigraph about the yearning of Russian exiles for a glimpse, a sniff, of those beloved birch trees of home.

My first visit to the Rimsky-Korsakov museum on Zagorodnyi Prospekt was also an encounter of sorts with freezing waves: sound parabolas (parabolae?) frozen in time, hanging in the air heavy with the weight of musical memory. In the apartment’s elegant music room, to my utter amazement, was Rimsky’s original concert grand, the very instrument upon which Stravinsky-the-student had improvised his ‘witty musical jests’ to the amusement of the city’s cultural elite. Vladimir Stasov (considered by Turgenev to be ‘our greatest all-Russian critic’) was a frequent visitor; also, the composer Lyadov and Yastrebstev, Rimsky’s first biographer, and maestro Napravnik of the Maryinsky Theatre.

Now I too sat at the keys, but froze… too wonderstruck (I confess) to venture a single note, let alone play the delicate opening of Pastorale which Stravinsky himself had premiered in that very room in 1907, seated on that very piano bench accompanying Rimsky’s daughter Nadezhda. But I could imagine them. For a brief and intense moment, I was there too.  

One direct and novel outcome of my ‘Russian osmosis’ can be found in Chapter 3 of Stravinsky in Context – an essay on the impact upon Stravinsky, prior to his studies with Rimsky-Korsakov, of his piano teacher, the composer Leokadiya Kashperova (cf. BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime concert, 18 December 2020 on iPlayer). Yet my first visit to Russia in 2014, with its enhanced sense of proximity to Stravinsky, has guided every page of the book, not just chapter 3: from decisions regarding essay topics and the choice of authors, to the wonderfully collaborative spirit that enveloped our project from start to finish in a generous Russian embrace. (It appears that I am still light-headed.)

In the final exciting weeks before completion the essays were landing on my desk like the chaotic arrival of thirty-five carrier pigeons unerringly bearing their precious messages home from distant shores (Japan, Brazil, California, Moscow…). Each essay, to my unbiased editorial mind at least, brings the reader to a much closer understanding of I. F. Stravinsky. This is something that my trips to Russia have taught me: the patronymic is important. Igor son-of-Fyodor (see chapters 1 and 2). Whatever Stravinsky’s postal address in exile, whatever his context, he was inwardly and eternally a son of St Petersburg and a very Russian phenomenon. To borrow again from Context’s olfactory epigraph: as those essays rolled in ‘I can tell you … I could almost smell the birch trees’.

GG, 14 December 2020

Stravinsky in Context, edited by Graham Griffiths, explores the cultural, professional and personal contexts that shaped Stravinsky’s creativity and formed the backdrop to his acclaimed compositions. Available now.

About The Author

Graham Griffiths

Graham Griffiths is an Honorary Research Fellow at City, University of London and a member of the editorial board of the St Petersburg Conservatoire. His publications include Strav...

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