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How Igor Stravinsky Changed Our Lives

Violinist Zvi Zeitlin passed away in 2012. He had started to write his memoirs and planned to include a chapter on his experiences with Igor Stravinsky. He never got to do this, so his widow, Marianne Langner Zeitlin, has written her own memories of that episode in their lives.

On a glorious day in the summer of 1962, I stood beside my husband, concert violinist Zvi Zeitlin, in Israel’s Lod Airport, quaking with excitement, tinged with awe. Along with government officials, a children’s choir, and a brass band, we were on the red-carpeted tarmac to welcome Igor Stravinsky, the legendary composer whose life was emblematic of Western music for nearly all of his 80 years.

Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, Satie, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Picasso, Cocteau, Proust — who of the major 20th-century composers, writers, painters and dancers wasn’t associated with Stravinsky at one time or another in his long career? Beginning as a wunderkind with his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (a pillar of the famed Mighty Five of Russian music) he went on to become one of the enfants terrible of Paris in its avant-garde heyday. Indeed it was his volcanic “Rite of Spring,” and the riot that erupted in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées at its premiere that was one of the seminal events of that period. In the late 1930s, he moved to the United States, joined the famous émigré colony in West Hollywood, and soon became one of its resident artistic treasures.

I’d become a Stravinsky fan ever since hearing Zvi play his “Duo Concertante” at his debut recital 11 years earlier. The composition contrasted with the other classical works on the program like a pointillist painting in a room full of medieval art. Stravinsky had written the work shortly after he’d completed his violin concerto, claiming he still hadn’t exhausted his interest in composing for the violin, and described the theme “as offering a musical parallel to old pastoral poetry.”

String Theorists: Igor Stravinsky onstage with violinist Zvi Zeitlin. Image by Courtesy of Marianne Langner Zeitlin

As for the violin concerto, before tackling it, he’d asked the composer Paul Hindemith, who was also a violinist, whether the fact that he didn’t play the violin would limit his ability to compose for that instrument. Hindemith not only assuaged his fears, but also told him it would probably help, since he would avoid a routine technique, and it might even spur new ideas for the violin.

And spur new musical ideas it did. And more protean things as well. It was because of this violin concerto that I was standing there on the tarmac, for Zvi was going to premiere the work all over Israel with the composer at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

At last the large silver plane landed, the aircraft door flung open, and the owl-faced musical father figure himself emerged first. As soon as Stravinsky’s foot landed on the first step, a spirited rendition of “Havenu Shalom Aleichem,” (“Welcome in Peace”), burst forth from the well-trained choir, accompanied by the oom-pa-paing band. A smile as big as a half moon wreathing his face, he halted for a moment, visibly moved.

Not surprisingly, so was I, as I contemplated the enormous history that this tiny figure, nattily dressed in a navy suit and striped tie, represented. There he was, in my mind’s eye, as a 4-year-old imitating the singing of the women going back after a day’s work in the Russian countryside; there he was seeing Tchaikovsky after the first performance of his “Pathétique” symphony (just days before his death); there he was meeting his mother off a Soviet boat in Berlin in 1922 after he’d gone into exile following the Russian revolution.

And here, unbelievably, he was now.

Behind him came his equally delighted wife, Vera Stravinsky — an artist in her own right — waving jauntily. Robert Craft followed, Stravinsky’s Boswellian chronicler (two of the seven acclaimed volumes covering every aspect of the composer’s life had already been published at the time — from which, I confess, I’d boned up plenty in preparation for this meeting) and associate conductor.

As the choir lustily sang on, speeding up with each repetition of the opening phrase, the composer laid his right hand to his heart in appreciation. Gazing at all three of them, haloed by a golden Mediterranean sun, while the children ended on a bombastic note and flung up their arms as if to embrace them, I had a dayenu moment: Only one of these godlike figures would have been enough.

After the welcoming speeches came and went, I was walking for a moment alongside Stravinsky to his waiting limousine, and he said in his thick Russian accent, “I see you are a real patriot.”

I couldn’t figure out what he meant; beyond the initial greeting upon introduction, I’d hardly said more than two words to him. Through his wire-rimmed glasses, he gave me a sidelong quizzical look, which mystified me further. Was he mistaking me for somebody else, was this merely the ramblings of an octogenarian, or was this perchance a touch of senility? I was grateful we were interrupted when his wife joined us, and was spared a reply.

Vera Stravinsky was the consummate cosmopolitan. She was in her mid-70s when we met, but dressed in a form-fitting linen sheath, a tear-drop hat with a short veil perched beguilingly on her head, she looked every bit the famed femme fatale of her youth.

“Aren’t they all darling, bubushkin,” she said, referring to the members of the choir standing nearby. “Don’t you think?”

“Nothing,” he replied, “is more beautiful than the innocence of children.”

Stravinsky must have realized that I didn’t understand his earlier remark because, later on, when the lengthy farewells were over and dinner plans were arranged, he referred to my patriot dress. A penny dropped. Purely by coincidence, I was wearing a white dress with blue stripes: the Israeli colors.

Nothing escaped his notice. Not even a woman’s dress. And then I remembered that among the pantheon of his early liaisons (not too mention assorted benefactors and benefactresses) was one with Coco Chanel.

That evening at dinner, the Stravinskys regaled us with stories about their recent visit at the White House. The Kennedys were charming, they were elegant, and the dinner, French haute cuisine, but of course, as Jackie was proud of her newly-acquired French chef. Kissing his thumb and forefinger expressively, Stravinsky said: “Tres delicieux, tres delicieux… But…”

It turned out to be a long, drawn-out and big “but.” “Yes, elegant, charming but they surprised me, these people.” He lifted his eyeglasses to place them on his forehead and raised his voice a notch. “They never hear of my ‘Sacre’ [‘Sacre du Printemps,’ or ‘Rite of Spring’]. Never heard the work, never heard about the premiere.”

“Ah, bubushkin,” Vera said, shaking her head disdainfully. “What did you expect? He doesn’t know the first thing about music. But from Jackie, with her cultural background, I expected better, but no, she didn’t say anything. Maybe she didn’t want to show him up.”

“Maybe so.” He paused to remove a cigarette from his silver case and placed it in his cigarette holder. “When I wrote that work, I remained in isolation from early morning until the end of the day, and never even took a nap.”

“Now he takes naps, ” Vera said, with a roll of her beautiful dark eyes. “He always takes naps. And to save time so he can nap, he writes with special ink and has an electric eraser so he can make changes quickly.”

Stravinsky related the story of how a subsequently famous Picasso sketch of him was once held up in 1917 at the Swiss border by a customs officer. “Can you imagine? He was convinced it was a secret military plan and he took it from me. I argued but he wouldn’t budge. After all, it was wartime. It was only after I managed to get a British Embassy friend to identify me and help me that I got it back.”

Craft spoke of the recording made a few months earlier of Stravinsky’s “Anthem: the dove descending breaks the air” with the composer conducting the Toronto Festival Singers. And earlier that summer, he told us, CBS had broadcast the premiere of “Noah and the Flood,” which it had commissioned. He gave us one of his charming boyish smiles. “Unfortunately, we weren’t there for it.”

Zvi and Stravinsky discussed the source of his inspiration for some of the finer points of his violin concerto. “I didn’t write before this for violin, it was my maiden voyage writing for that instrument. But I was not a complete novice, I solved some of the technical problems already in ‘Histoire d’un Soldat.’”

At one point, as he peered at his plate, Stravinsky confided that he loved to perform because, he said, “Then I compose better. I am in the battlefield and know exactly what is needed.”

When he ordered tea with his dessert, he asked the waiter for some honey for it. “You have royal jelly honey, maybe? You know, special honey for the queen bee.”

We’d already learned that Stravinsky was somewhat of a health food nut, for earlier, aided and abetted by his wife, they’d both made certain the fish they ordered was caught that day and the vegetables newly picked.

The waiter shook his head apologetically. After he left, Stravinsky said, “We usually carry our own, but we forgot it.”

That was the first time I’d heard such a thing existed, and, in answer to my query, he said: “As you can imagine, honey fit for a queen bee, is best honey of all. But I’m sure you won’t find it here.”

“You forget,” Zvi said, “you’re in the land of milk and honey.”

Stravinsky smiled. “I know, I know. But not queen bee honey.”

“Maybe so, but maybe not.”

The next day, after a little research, I made the 13-mile trek by bus from Tel Aviv to Kfar Sirkin, a moshav near Petah Tikvah. There I bought a jar of royal jelly honey and, with a ta-da flourish, presented it that night at dinner to the maestro. “Never underestimate the land of milk and honey,” I said.

Stravinsky behaved as though I’d personally delivered the moon, or, more likely, since we were in the neighborhood of its origin, some manna from heaven. “I knew you were a true patriot,” he said, beaming. He lifted and pressed his two palms together. “You’ll see. This’ll bring back my youth.”

In the luxurious limousine that officially transported us — the Stravinskys, Robert Craft, Zvi and me — over hill and dale and urban delights, we travelled to Jerusalem one afternoon. As the car traversed the Judean mountains, we saw the abandoned, rusted old tanks and other debris that remained as permanent reminders of the siege of Jerusalem during Israel’s fight for independence in 1948. “This is the road that Jesus took when he first came to Jerusalem from Judea,” I said to Stravinsky, who was sitting next to me on this occasion, “and you’ll note that there are no distracting signs or billboards allowed so everybody can be alone with their thoughts at such a time.”

I was, as I was to remain the whole time I was in his company, in awe of Stravinsky, and was extremely careful what I said to him. After all, he was the man who had once famously said of Richard Strauss, “I would like to admit all Strauss operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant banality.” You don’t mess with somebody capable of a zinger like that. But, more often than not, far from the profundity for which I aimed, I felt I probably sounded too saccharine, if not fatuous, and this, I feared, was one of those occasions.

I didn’t even think he’d heard me, but that evening, at the reception after the concert in Jerusalelm’s Binyanei HaUma, I was standing behind a fern room divider when I overheard Stravinsky speaking to Teddy Kollek — aide to former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and soon to become the legendary six-term mayor of Jerusalem. “It was wonderful this afternoon,” he said, my ears perking up, “to travel the road that Jesus took when he first came to Jerusalem from Judea. Bravo that you don’t have any signs or billboards to distract one so everybody can be alone with their thoughts at such a time.”

One of Stravinsky’s famous sayings is: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

One of the highlights of this tour was the opening of a show of Vera Stravinsky’s incisive gouache abstractions in a fashionable Tel Aviv gallery. An accomplished pianist, silent film actress and dancer, Vera was born to parents of Baltic German nobility in St. Petersburg in 1888. She studied art at the University of Berlin and began to paint during the Russian Revolution. When she met Stravinsky in 1921, she was married to the painter Serge Sudeikin, with whom she had compiled an album of relics, poems, sketches and fragments of music of a bygone Russian age. (Little would she then have imagined that, ironically, after she married Stravinsky, the two of them would become the embodiment of that bygone Russian age at its most glorious.)

Although she left Sudeikin after she and Stravinsky began their affair, Stravinsky was unable to tear himself away from his wife Katerina and their four children, and Vera had to content herself with sharing him with his wife for the next 18 years. But she probably got the better part of the bargain since she accompanied him at his public appearances — the reverse of what usually happens in such cases. Upon his wife’s death in 1939, Stravinsky married Vera in the United States, where they had moved to escape the war.

Vera reveled at the turnout for her Israeli debut, flitting among the large crowd of admirers, relating the source of the abstract shapes and forms of her paintings, which so eloquently captured the color and verve of daily life, as well as its ephemerality. With her signature hat and veil and flowing chiffon dress, she still carried herself like the prima donna assoluta she always was, for once not hanging on her husband’s all-encompassing arm. (Metaphorically, that is, since she towered over him.)

Even though it was probably thanks to Stravinsky that the show was taking place, there was no doubt her work had great merit, and, as much as she loved her bubushkin, I couldn’t help wondering if she didn’t sometimes resent always being in his shadow — and in his debt.

I especially felt this when we were all together in the close quarters of the limousine driving from place to place. On one occasion we were invited to visit Israel’s then-president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

Visionary, writer, historian, lawyer, pioneer and educator, Ben-Zvi was honored by the First Knesset of Israel as the “Father of the State of Israel.” Together with his wife Rachel, also a leading educator and pioneer, he had lived in a simple hut in Jerusalem for 26 years until he was named president of Israel.

This was not a routine meeting. If anybody could be said to embody the high ideals that characterized the founders of the new state, it would be Yitzhak and Rachel Ben-Zvi. For my husband and me, this was the high point of our trip.

Not so for Vera. When we got to the parking lot, she took one look at the simple wooden structure which served as the official presidential reception hall, lifted her aristocratic nose, and said: “You all go in, I’ll just stay in the car.”

There was a palpable intake of breath in the limousine. Both Stravinsky and Craft took turns remonstrating with her, but to no avail.

“Can you imagine,” Zvi whispered in my ear in Hebrew, “her doing this when they visited the Kennedys? I’m glad they weren’t with me yesterday.” He was referring to a Sabbath Bible study session he’d had at the home of David Ben-Gurion.

“Please,” Stravinsky was pleading, “you —”

Vera remained adamant. “Go ahead without me. I’m just not interested.”

Stravinsky turned to us with a gesture toward the door and said: “I’ll deal with this alone.”

I don’t know what he said to her but a minute later a chastened Vera came out of the car and silently joined us.

From the moment we stepped over the threshold of the president’s home, the atmosphere changed completely. The pleasure the Ben-Zvis displayed in the reception they gave us, wherein they expressed both cognizance of Stravinsky’s stature and delight that Zvi was premiering his concerto in Israel, was heartwarming. To each man, Ben-Zvi presented a walnut-framed copper medallion engraved with their individual names and the logo of the Israel Festival. Rachel Ben-Zvi presented Vera and me with beautifully hand-embroidered Yemenite evening purses.

As we sat down to sip Israeli wine and crackers and cheese, the talk was all over the map: from Stravinsky’s shift from neo-classicism to ascetic serialism (thanks in large part to Craft’s influence) to the recent demise of the Orient Express, which had fallen victim to the time-saving lure of the airplane. “So many changes,” said Stravinsky, shaking his head, “always changes.”

“You should know,” Ben-Zvi said, turning to him with a smile, “some you brought about. I still can recall reading about the furor when the ‘Rite of Spring’ first came out. I was in school in Istanbul at the time. That was some change!”
Remembering Stravinsky’s remarks about Kennedy on this same subject, Zvi and I avoided looking at each other, but we both knew what the other was thinking.

“Yes,” said Stravinsky, after a pause, “some change. It’s very doubtful that even my beloved teacher Rimsky-Korsakov himself would have accepted it. He once said to me ‘Better not listen to Debussy. You run the risk of getting used to him and could end by liking him.’ And that was about ‘La Mer.’ So you can imagine what he would have thought about the ‘Sacre.’”

“Could you tell us about the night of the premiere?” Ben-Zvi asked.

Carefully Stravinsky set his wine glass down on the table. “The night of infamy? You wish to hear about it?” Looking around at our expectant faces, he threw his head back impishly for a moment, and then went on to give us a short description of that night, although I’ve since read so many different versions of the event by him, it’s difficult to remember which one it was. All of them, however, either credit or blame Serge Diaghilev and the intense advance buildup he’d orchestrated for what became, as an English newspaper termed it, “Riot at the Rite.”

One thing I do recall clearly was how Stravinsky described Diaghilev’s reaction to the score he’d commissioned when he heard it for the first time. “How many times, he asked me, do you repeat this same ferocious chord?” Stravinsky lifted his two hands into fists to give us a rousing imitation of the dissonant polychord. “Fifty-nine times. Until the end. He grew pale because he feared even two repetitions were enough to empty the theatre.” He paused and his teeth flashed a wide grin. “So you see, long before the premiere, rumors are flying and tongues are wagging everywhere. Some predicted it would be the end of all music that night. Can you imagine what it felt like?”

We shook our heads.

“Even for me it is like a dream now,” Stravinsky said. “I was mostly backstage during the performance, left soon after the opening, after telling that taunting audience to go to hell. ”

“How was Nijinsky that night?” asked Rachel Ben-Zvi.

“In all fairness,” Stravinsky turned to face her, “nobody can be faulted for anything with an audience like that. He’d never choreographed anything before in his life. Diaghilev kept ordering the electricians to turn lights on and off hoping to stop the noise, but nothing helped. Nijinsky was like a madman. Poor man stood on a chair screaming, ‘Sixteen, seventeen’ — they had their own method to keep time. But who could hear him over that noise? I held him by his clothes all night to keep him from rushing on the stage.”

“So you kept the show going. You stuck it out,” Rachel Ben-Zvi said, clapping her hands.

Stravinsky bowed his head for a moment. “Yes, I stuck it out. What else to do? No alternative.”

“No alternative,” said Ben-Zvi. “That’s one of our slogans here. We stuck it out too. May you continue to stick it out and compose until 120 years. That’s another of our slogans.”

Stravinsky smiled. “I’ll settle for 100. Compose? I am a maker. I make. And I compose because I am made for that and cannot do otherwise.”

“How fortunate for all of us,” Ben-Zvi said, pouring another round of drinks and lifting his glass. “Let’s drink to that. L’Chaim.”

“Two’s company,” the saying goes, “three’s a crowd.” The saying would come to my mind every now and then in relationship to the triumvirate with which we travelled. Or should I say ménage à trois?

Because it was a ménage à trois, but unlike any the term usually describes. It is a credit to Vera and Craft that they recognized they were both essential to Stravinsky, and made whatever personal accommodations necessary in the furtherance of his legacy. We’ll never know exactly how it all worked but there’s no doubt Stravinsky owed much of his inspiration and the broadening of his intellectual horizons to them.

And yet, two’s company. Two will either resent, gang up, or subtly, or not so subtly, exclude the third. And alliances can change depending on the circumstances: Sometimes it was Stravinsky and Vera against Craft, sometimes Stravinsky and Craft against Vera. But mostly I had the feeling it was Vera and Craft against Stravinsky.

And who could blame them? Despite their own formidable individual achievements, they owed their presence in the rarefied circles in which they now operated to Stravinsky. He was on an artistic plateau by himself, and they weren’t allowed to forget it for a moment. Against this all-powerful father figure who could do no musical wrong, who wouldn’t occasionally rebel?

Of course all of this was unspoken, under the guise of Vera’s haute Mme de Guermantes manners and Craft’s faithful attention to every detail of the Maestro’s existence.

The only dissonance occurred one afternoon when we were travelling from Jerusalem to Haifa. Craft had managed to obtain a copy of an English-language newspaper and was reading it in the front of the limo where he was seated next to the driver. When he opened the newspaper he found an interview featuring Mstislav Rostropovich, who had recently initiated the idea of creating contemporary music festivals in the Soviet Union, and began reading it aloud. In it, the cellist was asked which 20th-century Russian composers had influenced him, and he gave a list.

I can’t remember all of the names, probably Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and the like, but, conspicuous by its absence, was that of Stravinsky.

“No,” Craft said to Stravinsky, after citing the list of names again and skimming the rest of article quickly, “very strange, but there’s no mention of you.”

Stravinsky was stung to the quick and Vera leaned over to stroke his hand. “Well,” he finally said hoarsely, “not strange at all. What can you expect? What does he know of me? I left Russia when he was a child and since 1922 they have never allowed any of my works to be played. Even my name is forbidden there.”

(Stravinsky’s ostracism in his native land was to come to an end very soon. Shortly after his trip to Israel, Nikita Khrushchev with the beginning of what became known as the Khrushchev Thaw, invited Stravinsky, after a 50-year absence, for an official state visit to the USSR. A hero’s homecoming ensued.)

I will not attempt to go into the rehearsals and concerts with all-Stravinsky programs that took place. Suffice to say the “Symphony in Three Movements” was magnificent, the “Ode” enchanting, the “Firebird” electrifying. Who knew better than Stravinsky how to season every one of his musical tidbits to perfection?

“You know,” he said to Zvi after interrupting him while he was rehearsing an evocative melody in the last movement of his violin concerto. He pointed to the score. “I know this melody very well. But I want the audience to know it just as well!”

“You mean you want me to play it out more,” Zvi said, lifting his violin to his shoulder and giving a sample.

“Precisely.”

Presumably Zvi played it boldly enough to elicit an adulatory letter from the composer (“Your gifts deserve the highest recognition,”) which resulted in Zvi thereafter performing the work in many places all over the globe.

Five years later, the January 5, 1967 program of the New York Philharmonic included a piece by Zvi about his experiences with Stravinsky. He reminisced.

“In September 1962, a group of people, tired from a full day’s sightseeing trip through northern Israel, following a grueling all-Stravinsky opening concert of the International Music Festival, was enjoying a relaxing dinner at the Galei Kinnereth restaurant in Tiberias, overlooking enchanting Yam Kinnereth, or Sea of Galilee… Suddenly Stravinsky, with glass raised, turned to me and, thanking me for my performance of his violin concerto which had its Israel premiere the night before, said: ‘And now I would strongly urge you to play the Schoenberg concerto.”

And then Stravinsky added with his roguish twinkle, “You’ll find it even more frightening than mine.”

It was Zvi’s performance of the premiere of the Schoenberg concerto with the New York Philharmonic that occasioned this essay.

But during that conversation in Israel, Zvi was surprised by Stravinsky’s recommendation, having been under the impression that there was some antipathy between these two musical giants, for Schoenberg had once written a nasty verse about Stravinsky, and he said as much.

Stravinsky dismissed the suggestion with a smile. “Let bygones be bygones. Until his death, Schoenberg continued to explore new ways and new laws of serial music.” He then went on to list some of the works he particularly admired: “Pierrot Lunaire,” “Serenade,” “Variations for Orchestra.” “For these and the concerto, he is among the great composers.” Like the Stravinsky concerto before it, Zvi went on to premiere the Schoenberg in dozens of cities, performing it some 67 times around the world. He is the violinist most associated with the Schoenberg violin concerto. He also recorded all of Stravinsky’s violin works with pianist Barry Snyder for Pantheon Records. So while the time we spent with Stravinsky in the span of a long life was short, the impact he made on Zvi was timeless.

In short, he changed his life. And by extension, mine too.

Born in Toronto, Marianne Langner Zeitlin is the author of three novels, including ‘Motherless Child.’

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