Igor Stravinsky in Venice

Above, an early (1915) sketch of Stravinsky by Jacques-Emile Blanche. I think Stravinsky looks uncharacteristically dandified and slightly on the defensive, as though he’d just been caught in the act of raiding Leon Bakst’s wardrobe prior to a night on the town. Below, an excerpt from a talk I gave on Stravinsky and his friend Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac.

By 1925 things were looking up for Stravinsky, to the extent that he had bought a car, a Renault. He went tearing around the Riviera and northern Italy, at one point getting stranded in a thunderstorm and nearly driving off a precipice in the Alpes Maritimes. He finally arrived in Venice in September, where he was to perform his Piano Sonata at a series of concerts organised by the International Society of Contemporary Music. He was observed holding court at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac by the Venetian composer, Gian Francesco Malipiero, a somewhat embittered and likely jealous type, who describes how the assembled company, “the flower of international snobbism”, avidly drank in Stravinsky’s every word. Tea was served, and when offered a second cup Stravinsky held forth: “‘For a Russian, tea drinking is the focus of nostalgia’. (At this, there passed before our eyes the vision of a rapid succession of Cossacks and sleighs, followed by packs of wolves moving across an immense snow-covered plain.) ‘In the West,’ he continued, ‘in the absence of the samovar, tea-drinking is quite a different matter. C’est un autre goût.'” The sonata was a success. The trip was congenial. There are photographs of the diminutive, bespectacled hero swanning about in a gondola and posing with Winnaretta on the loggia of the palace [see below].

When Winnaretta first encountered the Ballets Russes in Paris, its programming was judiciously balanced between tried-and-tested favourites like Boris Godunov or Ivan le Terrible, and debut performances of new pieces by young composers of the avant-garde. The most celebrated of these, which Winnaretta attended, was the raucous première of Le Sacre du printemps at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées: “The howls of some, the applause of others, went on for an hour – the orchestra reduced to silence. Here and there someone would rise and shout his views at the top of his voice, each party abusing and insulting the other in the most violent way. I was present each time the ballet was given, and until the end of the Season the same riotous scenes took place night after night, sometimes lasting for more than an hour […]. Still the army of admirers grew stronger and stronger, and Stravinsky was overwhelmed with applause when the curtain finally went down.” Winnaretta was taken by the young composer: “From the first it seemed to me impossible not to recognize the importance of this new genius, and I still think he dominates all others who have appeared for more than a quarter of a century.”

One of the most pleasing snapshots in the palace photo album was taken in the 1920s. It shows Winnaretta and Igor Stravinsky standing on the palace loggia, overlooking the Grand Canal. She wears a jaunty little hat and is clearly in excellent spirits. The diminutive, bespectacled master stands at her side, a familiar picture of poised, sardonic intensity. They seem to be good friends. Indeed, it might be said that what set Stravinsky apart from Winnaretta’s other protégés, with the possible exceptions of Gabriel Fauré, Artur Rubinstein and Ezra Pound, was that he had no deadening need to draw on her considerable reserves of maternal instinct: here was a person palpably in charge of his own destiny, who had no need of an Aunt Winnie to pick up the pieces when things got tough. This can only have been a relief from the workaday housekeeping that any patron of the arts must routinely undertake. In Winnaretta’s case this included, though was not restricted to, briefly riding the ebb and flow of Paul Verlaine’s alcoholism; keeping Erik Satie out of jail for long enough to complete Socrate; nursing Vladimir Horowitz through a series of nervous breakdowns; patiently nurturing dangerously fragile souls such as Clara Haskil, Francis Poulenc and Nadia Boulanger.

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