Last year a new biography of the composer Igor Stravinsky was published. It became the latest in a long line of biographies in which the subject’s sexuality was “outed”. For Stravinsky the word used to describe this sexuality was “ambisexual”.
The biography, titled “Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories”, was written by Robert Craft who for 23 years acted as the composer’s collaborator on many projects. The two first met in 1948 when Craft was 24 and Stravinsky was 65. Their relationship was purely professional, though they became close friends. Craft collaborated on many of Stravinsky’s works and recordings, though he also had his own career as a conductor and writer. Their close friendship meant that Craft was privy to many of Stravinsky’s private thoughts and memories, and these formed the basis of the new biography.
The ambisexual revelations came from the period in Stravinsky’s career before Robert Craft was born. During a short period beginning in 1910 it appears that the composer found himself falling in love with several men, and enjoying the company of other composers, musicians and dancers who all dabbled in same-sex relationships.
The first of these relationships which Craft mentions is that of Stravinsky’s love for Andrei, the son of another famous composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The Rimsky-Korsakov family were to become almost like his own. Stravinsky came to regard Nikolai, at that time the greatest living Russian composer, as his second father after the death of his own from cancer in 1902.
It was during his time studying under Rimsky-Korsakov that Stravinsky fell in love with Andrei, as he told Robert Craft. Stravinsky was actually married by this time and had two children. It was also at the start of his “Russian Period” when he was writing ballets for the impresario Sergei Diaghilev (incidentally, the two men are related – their great-great-grandmothers were sisters).
The first of these ballets for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes was “The Firebird”. It was an overnight success and shot Stravinsky to stardom. He dedicated the ballet to Andrei, but he was bitterly disappointed by Andrei’s absence from the premiere of “The Firebird” in Paris. Almost immediately afterwards Stravinsky began writing his next ballet, “Petrushka”.
After the rejection of Andrei, according to Robert Craft, the composer’s romantic attentions were turned towards another composer, the Belgian Maurice Delage. During Spring 1911 they spent three weeks at the latter’s Paris home. Also invited was Prince Vladimir Argutinsky-Dolgorouki, described in several sources as “notoriously homosexual”. Exactly what went on will be a subject of speculation for a long time, but I think the fact that Stravinsky sent Delage a photo of himself – in the nude – gives us just a tantalising hint.
“Petrushka” premiered a couple of months later, again in Paris. And, once again, it was a huge success, due in so small part to dancer taking the lead role, the great Vaslav Nijinsky.
Working closely in the homosexual circle of Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes for several years must have had some influence on Stravinsky’s work. Yet it is strange how his third and final ballet for Diaghilev, “The Rite of Spring”, has been described as “the epitome of masculinity in music”. Whether it is or not, there is no doubt that it created something of a shock to the ballet-going public when it premiered in 1913. In the words of another gay associate in Paris, Jean Cocteau, “All the elements of a scandal were present”. Afterwards Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nijinsky went to a restaurant where Diaghilev commented “Exactly what I wanted”.
Much has been written about Nijinsky’s performance as the lead dancer. A more detailed account of the ballet would be better left for a separate article in the future. Stravinsky’s music was one of the elements which stood out as innovative.
Stravinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev produced some of the greatest music of the early 20th century, yet the need to speculate on any romantic relationship seems immaterial. Working with such a close group as the Ballet Russes Stravinsky found a kind of love which helped to create innovative pieces, whether his love for fellow men was platonic or otherwise. Before and after this brief three-year period he lived a vigorously heterosexual life.
Many musicologists and critics have questioned Robert Craft’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s words and letters. What it really boils down to is who was most closely associated with Stravinsky and in the best position for make an informed opinion?