Was Stravinsky Bisexual? If He Was, So What?

New Book Raises Questions about 'The Rite of Spring'

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 12:00 AM

As gender studies have spread through academia over the last generation, the romantic lives of the great composers have become fair game for scrutiny. Tchaikovsky was the first major composer outed as a homosexual (and homophobia has figured in some of the attacks on him over the years). Others, including Franz Schubert and Leonard Bernstein, have also come under examination as scholars attempt to parse their lives and music.

For Igor Stravinsky, questions of gay relationships have been periodically rumored but scarcely documented. A new book by Robert Craft, Stravinsky's longtime conductor, biographer and confidant, however, may present a fuller picture.

Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories (Naxos) makes the claim that the composer had pursued (and concealed) several gay relationships while he was married and working on The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, between 1911 and 1913. Craft's evidence consists of a number of unpublished letters, which he says turned up last year when he and his wife were cleaning out their home in Florida. The implications could be meaningful towards the study of works that have been identified for their "masculine" characteristics.

An Ambisexual Phase

Stravinsky's "ambisexual phase," as Craft describes it, started with attempts to connect with Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, the elder son of the famed composer. Andrey was a classmate at the University of St. Petersburg and a music critic with whom Stravinsky sought to win approval. In a letter from January 20, 1911, Stravinsky wrote, "You know after all that I have been in love with you for a long time" but it was not reciprocated by the young Rimsky-Korsakov and it ultimately led to some hard feelings.

Seemingly more serious was a fling with Maurice Delage, a Belgian composer who became a major influence by introducing Stravinsky to Orientalist motifs, which appear in the 1913 song cycle Three Japanese Lyrics. One letter from Stravinsky to Delange recalls, in gushy terms, a three-week vacation the men spent together near Paris. He writes in part: "Far from the brouhaha of the high season of the Ballets Russes, [we were] calm and intimate there in that little pavilion with its little rooms, which I do so wish to see again."

The book suggests intimate relationships with other famous men of the era, notably Maurice Ravel (pictured above, with Stravinsky), although evidence appears more circumstantial. Craft also discusses Stravinsky's younger brother, who was homosexual and close to the composer.

A Longtime Friendship

Craft, who turns 90 this year, met Stravinsky in 1947, when he was a 24-year-old Juilliard student seeking out a copy of a score. Striking up a friendship that lasted until the composer's death in 1971, Craft collaborated on his diaries, and later published several volumes of letters and a biography; some scholars have challenged his distance from his subject though few dispute his knowledge.

At a book signing last week in New York, Craft deflected a question about the chapter on Stravinsky’s sexuality, directing a reporter to his wife, Alva Craft. She said that some of this material had been familiar to the couple in piecemeal fashion, but only now does it start to give a complete picture. She recalled one meeting in which her husband introduced Stravinsky to Glenn Gould and the composer made a sly remark about the pianist's appearance.

Robert Craft writes that the love letters are a "bombshell," particularly since "Stravinsky's principal bisexual experience occurred during The Rite of Spring, widely regarded as the epitome of masculinity in music, comparable to Wagner." Indeed, with its musical violence and raucous premiere, the work has long been "gendered masculine," said Nadine Hubbs, an associate professor of women's studies and music at the University of Michigan. What's more, the discourse around modernism was often presented in macho terms.

"The preferred story for a long, long time is that all of our great artists are the manliest of men and that’s what makes them geniuses," said Hubbs, who wrote the book The Queer Composition of America's Sound. She added that the revelations "raise the stakes and up the ante in ways that affect our understanding of modernism."

Seen another way, Stravinsky's personal relationships were often messy, but they were consistent with both the social milieu of early 20th century Paris and parallel periods in American classical music.

Hubbs said: "I've argued that homosexuality was central in the way that American modernism took place - who knew whom, who collaborated with whom. And what was the nature of the musical idiom that they produced? Now, with these new revelations, scholars are going to have to address the possibility that certain homosexual artists were central to 20th century modernism."

Weigh in: Do revelations of this kind about composers change your perception of their art? Leave your comments below.


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Comments [22]

Mike from Chicago

First off, people need to stop referring to sexuality as a "preference", it's not a choice! Ignorance precedes many on this forum. Secondly, I would hope that that Craft is not trying to exploit Stravinsky for some extra cash. Finally, if these rumors are true, there's certainly no reason for them to be discussed because 1) Stravinsky is not here to defend himself, 2) those letters speak to how people wrote to each other at the time, and 3) no factual evidence exists for us to come to any conclusions. Furthermore, this is Stravinsky's business, no one else should be concerned with his sexuality.

Jan. 18 2014 10:24 AM

Because its Kraft again, making money on Stravinsky. What a parasite. I thought he was dead. Kraft, at 90, betrays his "friend" for a little recognition. He can go to hell!

Aug. 30 2013 04:12 AM
Dimitrios / San Francisco from San Francisco Bay Area

We know every affair or longing Picasso ever had and name his painting styles after them – after Marie-Thérèse Walter, Olga Khokhlova or Sarah Murphy. And often interpret Diaghilev ballets in light of who Diaghilev's boyfriend was at the time. Why is Stravinsky's back story so off limits?

Jul. 20 2013 02:29 AM
Marie Stravinsky

It's a shame to post this article

Jul. 19 2013 12:26 PM
Bill from Eugene, Oregon

Good lord! We all know that many if not most of all artists are either bi or gay! No surprise here.

Jul. 02 2013 03:57 PM
SpearP from RI

THANK-YOU Pamela of Queens! It seems sometime in an intrusive information-age wherein even our goverment is wont to invade our privacy, can we not leave the exalted memory of Stravinsky as it is - was - without seeking new intrigues, plots, and scandals to garner the food of avarice, greed and publication? Frankly, never liked Kraft; he seemed slimey thirty-years ago! Either you love Stravinsky's music or not! That's all!

Jun. 29 2013 09:26 AM
Pamela from Queens

Revelations of a composer's sexuality may serve to expand our understanding of him or her as an individual, but for me, it does not alter my perception of their music. Tchaikovsky's music contains both "masculine" and "feminine" qualities (robust rhythms as opposed to graceful and sensual melodies), and yet it is known that the composer was homosexual.Those qualities, I would argue, resulted more from what Tchaikovsky sought to express musically rather than sexually.

Could we find a better use of our time rather than scouring the contents of dead composers' mail and trying to draw conclusions about their sexual predilections? They are not here to speak for themselves, and if they were, would in all likelihood keep such matters to themselves.

Jun. 28 2013 08:21 PM

Brian, you came into our presence and placed the subject of his sexual preference on the table. To then ask, "So what?" is odd.

Jun. 28 2013 08:02 PM
Kathy of Aragon from Castile

It's a man's world.

Jun. 27 2013 03:33 PM
Stephen J. Herschkorn from Highland Park, N.J.

The need for role models for gay teens is not of small importance.

Jun. 26 2013 12:03 AM
stevel from morristown, nj

The sexual orientation of a composer is about as important as the sexual orientation of a doctor, lawyer, accountant, policeman, etc. The value of their contribution to society is in no way diminished by their sexual preferences.

Jun. 25 2013 11:41 PM
fred glickman from miami, florida

A discussion of Stravinsy's sexuality provides as much of an insight into his music as a discussion of his politics, eating habits, or interest in sports. If Ravel influenced Stravinsky, or vice versa, that's signficant.
Whether or not they had a sexual relationship is not.

Jun. 25 2013 05:01 PM
georaven2000 from NYC

Does Stravinsky's sexual preferences in any way diminish his towering accomplishments or the powerful influence he's had on the music of the 20th and 21st centuries? No way. Bisexual? Martian? Duck? I DON'T CARE!!!

Jun. 25 2013 01:44 PM
SpearP from RI

Really? Are homophobes so INSECURE, so vengeful that they must deprecate the private lives of the famous and wondrously talented? There is NO aggenda here, folks? Get used to it! Some are and some aren't!! That's ALL! HOWEVER, many of the very most creative/talented ones ARE! Oh, how dull, how plain, how regimentetely drab would this world be without them? Fashion? Music? Arts? Design? Archtecture? Written word such as plays, poetry, novels? WHo the hell cares, unless the Xraistoids have an aggenda for an Iran-like Theocracy? Grow-up! Get over it!

Jun. 25 2013 08:01 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

You betcha "so what". The music was great, so there!

Jun. 25 2013 07:56 AM
Bernie from Uws

Yikes, some of the comments on this page got very scary very quickly. I see no problem with exploring such questions. Composers may write music that's very personal to them. Why shouldn't we try and understand the lives behind those creative impulses?

Jun. 24 2013 10:48 PM
EPC, jr. from South Carolina

It is truly sad that this issue regarding sexual activity now enters yet another segment of today's culture, threatening the esthetic elevation which we all prize.

What the off-stage proclivities of some talented people have to do with anything is as little significant as are their eating or exercise habits. The fact that this subject is now being systematically called into play is part of a widespread promotion to gain acceptance of unnatural practices under the guise of celebrity. Only through the dominance of media by deviants does this constant campiness seek the approval of the general (97%) public. Talent is not normal: some talented persons are LGST: therefore normal is to be LGST. Not. Leave art to the talented; promote something worthwhile, like art appreciation, not sex.

Jun. 24 2013 10:09 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

"If We Was?" Does bisexuality make one plural?

I once mentioned the beauty of some actress and the person (male) I was talking to seemed astounded saying, "But she's gay!!" My response?

"It wasn't as if I was going to be fkng her either way. What do I care. She's still pretty."

There are a few issues though. Does the individual try to push the sexuality on others? That applies to all sexual orientations of course - sexual harassment.

Does the sex represent a betrayal of some sort thereby revealing a fundamental flaw in the person. Think of Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards. Maybe Bill Clinton. By their sexual actions they damaged their effectiveness in what they were doing and also destroyed the efforts backers made in helping them and believing there was a chance of some benefit derived from that help - if a lot of people are depending on you to achieve and you betray that dependence in a selfish way (e.g. getting stoned the night before some important event or being caught with three prostitutes before a big speech on family values). As I've indicated, this isn't only about sex or sexuality but its the betrayal that is significant. Also the disclosure of personal aspects that were unknown and, given some circumstances, very significant (e.g. some evangelical pastor at the Air Force Academy who was pushing religion on the students while getting regular 'massages' from male 'therapists.')

Is the sexual pressure job related? I read somewhere that Bernstein made some blunt sexual comments to Glenn Gould which Gould didn't care for. Think of that in terms of the Brahms "Who's the boss?" episode. It takes on very different connotations.

Jun. 24 2013 09:45 PM
Alan Van Poznak, MD from Tenafly NJ

What do you mean by "If We Was, So What?"

Jun. 24 2013 09:37 PM
HYH from Purchase, NY

It is interesting to read about if you are studying up on a particular composer or artist, a factoid, like what religion or race they are, but change my perception of their art? Good grief, no. Who cares? Art is art, people are people. Interesting comparison to Brahms and Wagner -- I used to sometimes struggle with the fact the Wagner was such an anti-semite and apparently Brahms also had issues in that department. But, I LOVE Brahms' music and I do not deny Wagner's musical genius. Hating someone's racist or prejudicial views is one thing but hating because of someone's sexuality, or race, religion, etc.? That doesn't make sense to me.

Jun. 24 2013 07:18 PM
JT Fangio from The Great Northwest

Really! What difference does it make. Why can't we be aware of the music rather than sexual orientation.

With the exception of Brahms and Wagner, I've heard rumors and allegations of homosexuality regarding virtually every other composer, male or female.
Perhaps, they used their animosity for each other ( B and W ) as a smoke screen to obscure their "torrid affair." Since both are long dead, they can't respond to my allegations. This seems to be the common denominator regarding the other dead composers.

My point is, who cares. I love the music regardless of what was done in the bedroom. The great composers were great because of their genius.
To all the insinuators, biographers, and revisionists, may I suggest you enjoy the music and get a life.

Jun. 24 2013 06:38 PM
Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

Regarding which classical composers were gay? Who cares? Why spend your time trying to suggest or prove it?
Will classical performers be next?
Better to atone for the difficulty of African/American composers and performers to gain classical acceptance, e.g. Wm. Grant Still and Marian Anderson.
And not just in Feb. Black History month.

Jun. 24 2013 06:12 PM

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