Brian Wise covers the classical music business for WQXR, including aspects of performance, technology, philanthropy and institutional trends. He produces the Café Concerts series and the podcast/show Conducting Business. He manages the station's homepage and makes sure what you hear on air is what you see online. Follow him on Twitter at @Briancwise.
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 Craft's evidence consists of a number of unpublished letters, which he says turned up last year when he and his wife were cleaning out their home in Florida.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.