A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934

The small town of Oranienbaum lies on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, some fifty kilometers to the west of St. Petersburg. The ground rises gently from the sea to what remains today the main feature of the place, the great baroque palace of Peter the Great’s corrupt favorite Prince Alexander Menshikov, with its rambling Dutch park — now, alas, somewhat forlorn — originally laid out in 1714. At one corner of the park a lake debouches into a stream by way of a modest waterfall surrounded by rocks and pine trees, a sufficiently Alpine setting, apparently, for the street which runs east from the park gate nearby to have been christened with the otherwise absurdly fanciful name Shveytsarskaya Ulitsa — Swiss Street.

But another, less imaginary thread links this provincial Russian street with the land of the cuckoo clock and the numbered bank account. For it was here, in the wooden dacha of one Khudintsev — Oranienbaum house number 137 — that Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born at noon on 5/17 June 1882. And while Switzerland may have left its faint mark on Oranienbaum, Oranienbaum was to leave an indelible imprint on Switzerland, a fact also recorded in a street name, no less incongruous — that of the rue Sacre du Printemps in the suburbs of Clarens, on the northern shore of Lake Geneva.

Like most provincial towns of what was once the Soviet Union, Oranienbaum is today a depressing epitaph to three-quarters of a century of bad management, bad economics, and bad architecture. The Soviets destroyed it by their own unique combination of neglect and vandalism. Menshikov’s park, with its palaces and walks, was left to decay; but much of what otherwise remained from tsarist times, and survived the German bombardment of the early forties, was bulldozed and replaced by concrete and gray brick which, as usual, in turn soon crumbled and peeled. The town’s name was changed from the too-German, too-Petrine « Orange Tree » to the harder-nosed Lomonosov, in honor of an eighteenth-century philologist from chilly Archangel. Shveytsarskaya Street became Ulitsa Vosstaniya — Revolution Street. The dacha Khudintseva was heedlessly pulled down and replaced in 1934 by an electricity substation, itself now rusting and decrepit. Of all the great birthplaces of Western art, this must surely be one of the most philistine and dispiriting.

More than seventy-five years later, Stravinsky told Robert Craft that « we never returned to Oranienbaum after my birth . . . and I have never seen it since. » But on this, as on countless other points of fact, his memory betrayed him. The Stravinskys went back to Oranienbaum at least twice, in the summers of 1884 and 1885, and Igor’s younger brother, Gury, was born there too, on 30 July/11 August 1884, though in a different house. The place was a fashionable summer resort for the Petersburg artistic-literary intelligentsia, and since Igor’s father was a singer and a bibliophile, he was merely following a trend by summering there. Tolstoy, Nekrasov, and Fet, among writers, and — among painters — the realist peredvizhniki (« wanderers ») Savrasov, Shishkin, and Repin, all stayed and worked in Oranienbaum. Stravinsky apart, musicians remember it as the place where Musorgsky spent his last summer (1880), working on Khovanshchina and Sorochintsi Fair, and quietly drinking himself to death. In the second half of the nineteenth century a theatre was built in the station square, and Fyodor Stravinsky performed some of his best-known operatic roles there, including Varlaam in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Farlaf in Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, and (a month or two after Gury’s birth) Ramfis in Verdi’s Aida. Fyodor would transport his entire household to Oranienbaum in about the middle of May, and he himself would commute to and from St. Petersburg, Viborg, or even distant Moscow, according to the pattern of his performance schedule. It so happens that there was a family connection with Oranienbaum, since Fyodor’s wife, Anna Kirillovna, had a first cousin, Ivan Ivanovich Kholodovsky, living there, and the account books record at least one subsequent visit by the Stravinsky children (in February 1892). Dyadya (Uncle) Vanya, as he was known to them, was an army general whose uniform braid Igor remembered sucking while he was being held up for a photograph. We may picture Anna and her cousins walking in the Menshikov park in the high summer of 1884 with her four sons: Roman, aged eight, Yury, aged five, the two-year-old Igor, perhaps hand-in-hand with his stout German nyanya (nurse), Bertha Essert, and the tiny Gury, strapped to his wet nurse. Although no such actual photographs have survived from that age of studio portraiture, and although Igor Stravinsky remembered nothing of Oranienbaum itself, we can construct the rather stiff, well-behaved, Victorian family group, matriarchal and unsmiling, from the evidence of somewhat later family portraits which do survive. Or was the reality, in Fyodor’s occasional absence, more unruly?

As with every family event of the least importance, Fyodor Stravinsky recorded Igor’s birth in painstaking calligraphic detail in his account book, together with the name of a young lady, Tatyana Yakovlev, who was to be his wet nurse for the first twelve months of his life; and he also kept the page of the calendar for that day, carefully inscribed with information about the birth, and with the name of the baby’s personal saint — the Holy Martyr Prince Igor — pasted onto the page in addition to the official saints and martyrs listed for that day. A mere six days earlier, Fyodor had been in Moscow singing Galitsky’s aria from Prince Igor in a concert conducted by Anton Rubinstein, and Richard Taruskin argues that, while conventionally naming his son after a listed (if obscure) saint, the proud father really had in mind the less-than-saintly hero of Borodin’s opera. The implication that Fyodor had some special sense of his third son’s musical destiny (since, after all, he apparently made no attempt at operatic names for the other three) might seem contradicted by Stravinsky’s later recollection of his parents’ disdain for his musical talent. But as we shall see, the composer’s memories of his family relations are no more to be trusted than his supposed reminiscences of his own baptism in the Nikolsky Cathedral, St. Petersburg, on 29 July/10 August 1882, which he describes in sensational detail, even down to his « intestinal reaction » at being immersed. Of course, we are not really asked to believe that these are personal memories, merely a blend of family tradition with normal Orthodox observance. They do nevertheless draw attention to a contradiction between what Stravinsky tells us he felt about his childhood and what he actually felt about it if we believe surviving contemporary documents. Fyodor’s « naming and honoring of the chosen one » — like the one in The Rite of Spring — may be a little too emblematic for real life, but it was nevertheless the prelude to a childhood of profound intensity and richness which Stravinsky never forgot and which colored his attitude, both to the world and to art, for the rest of his days.

Like all events and entities, every child is a zero point from which both the past and the future radiate outwards. But with Stravinsky the effect was magnified by war, revolution, and exile, and the sense of severance from the past is, with him, particularly acute. He himself expressed this (rather than any factual truth) when he told Craft that « the real answer to your questions about my childhood is that it was a period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell. » But who exactly were the objects of this strange and surely retrospective Messianic venom?

The Stravinskys were, in the terms of late tsarist Russia, downgraded dvoryane, or minor nobility, though if we were to interpret that in modern Western terms, we should pprobably describe them as well-connected bourgeoisie, or perhaps urbanized gentry. Anna Kirillovna Stravinskaya, Igor’s mother, came decidedly from the landowning, governing classes of nineteenth-century Russia. Her maternal grandfather, Roman Fyodorovich Furman (1784-1851), had been a Privy Councillor (tayniy sovetnik) to Nicholas I and a finance minister on the governing council of the so-called Kingdom of Poland (actually by this time a fief of the Russian Empire), while Roman Furman’s father, an agronomist originally from Saxony, had attained the lesser, but nevertheless distinguished, rank of Court Councillor (nadvorniy sovetnik). Moreover, Roman’s mother, Yelizaveta Engel, belonged to another blue-blooded family of Privy Councillors, while his aunt Anna Engel herself married into the aristocratic Litke family, and her children included two of the most famous admirals in modern Russian history, one of whom was incidentally also the great-grandfather of Sergey Diaghilev.

Anna Kirillovna Stravinskaya was hardly less well connected on the paternal side. Her father, Kirill Grigorevich Kholodovsky (1806-1855), though he owned no land, was a second- or third-generation nobleman who, like Furman, achieved high political rank under Nicholas I: he became a State Councillor, a member of the Council of Thirty, and Assistant Minister of State Properties. At the time of the birth of his youngest daughter in 1854, Kholodovsky was for some reason living in Kiev. Anna was the last of four daughters, and the only one who did not marry a landowner. Her widowed mother, Maria Romanovna, seems indeed to have opposed her marriage on these grounds, though Anna’s youth (she was still only nineteen at the time of her wedding in May 1874 [OS]) and the fact that her intended was a musician were doubtless factors as well. Fyodor’s letters of the time even had to be delivered covertly through a sympathetic Kholodovsky aunt. « It’s terribly disagreeable for me, and even somewhat painful and distressing, » he wrote from Odessa, « that Mamasha is so upset as to be actually growing thin and ill; I thought and think that the reason lies not simply in the idea of being separated from you, my dear, but in the fact that she perhaps regrets having agreed to our marriage at all; if so, then it will now be too painful for me to see her. »

For all Maria Romanovna’s disapproval, Fyodor could point to quarterings no less impressive than his future wife’s, even if he had a good deal less to show for it in material terms. The Stravinsky family, like the name, is Polish, a fact which needs to be stressed in view of recent and perfectly understandable attempts by Kiev scholars to claim Stravinsky as a Ukrainian of Cossack lineage. The so-called Soulima-Stravinskys are more accurately described as « Strawinscy Herbu Sulima, » to adopt for the moment the old Polish spelling of the two names: that is, the Strawinscy family with the Sulima coat-of-arms. This simply means, for our purposes, that this branch of the Strawinscys claimed descent from the more ancient — probably German — house of Sulima. Stefan Strawinski traced the family tree back to the late sixteenth century, when the Strawinscys held high state office, in a kingdom where there were no hereditary titles and power was symbolized by honorific titles associated with purely ceremonial duties. For instance, there was a Strawinsky Kasztelan (castellan) of Minsk and Vitebsk, and another Strawinscy Kasztelan of Brest, who later became Voyevoda — that is, Governor — of the province of Minsk. These posts brought with them seats in the Polish Senate and royal lieutenancies; in other words, their holders were ceremonial grandees like modern British lords lieutenant, and inevitably they were large landowners. Gradually the family fortunes declined. In the next generation (the mid-seventeenth century), Strawinscys held honorary stewardships and magistracies; one Krzysztof Strawinscy was czesnik oszmianski — cupbearer at Oshmyany, a town between Vilnius and Minsk. But these were altogether more provincial appointments, conferring purely local authority. Of Fyodor’s great-great-grandfather Stanislaw Strawinscy (who married in 1748) we otherwise know only that he inherited a village called Szokinie, in the Strava region, but, instead of leaving it to his eldest son, sold it to a nephew and, presumably, spent the money. A mere three generations later Fyodor’s father, Ignaty Ignatyevich (1809-93), is no longer a freeholder at all, but a leaseholder and a working estate manager and agronomist, in the village of Noviy Dvor near Gomel in the southeastern corner of what is today Belarus, but was then in the Minsk province of tsarist Russia.

While the genealogy depicts a gradual decay in the social and economic standing of the Szokinie Stravinskys (to revert, now, to a transliterated Russian spelling), the geography reveals a parallel southeasterly drift, but always within the borders of the ancient Grand Duchy of Lithuania — the eastern half of the pre-Napoleonic kingdom of Poland. To put this another way, Stravinsky territory was, very roughly, modern Belarus: that is, White Russian-speaking and Orthodox, as opposed to Polish and Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, according to the composer, Fyodor’s father was still Catholic, while Fyodor was baptized Orthodox only because his Russian mother, Alexandra Ivanovna Skorokhodova (1817-98), was Orthodox, and under Imperial Russian law — relevant in the former Polish eastern territories after the partition of 1793 — the children of a mixed marriage had to be Orthodox. We can add, speculatively, that in wedding the daughter of a Russian Orthodox small-landowner in the remote southeast of those territories, Ignaty Stravinsky was marrying well beneath himself and his ancestry, but also that, in turning his children into Russians, he was opening to them new horizons and a new culture. Fyodor’s somewhat rootless success as an opera singer might not have been possible without his first being declasse and depolonized.

Ignaty Ignatyevich, Fyodor’s father, seems in any case not to have taken kindly to his Orthodox wife, nor she to him. According to the composer, Ignaty was a womanizer; and according to the composer’s niece Xenia, he was a bad businessman and a failure at estate management. At all events the couple separated and soon divorced. Perhaps this was even as early as the 1840s, since Fyodor Stravinsky, who was born in 1843, was brought up in the house of his maternal grandfather at Bragin and later recalled sitting in the window of this house with his nyanya, watching the Cossacks ride home from the Hungarian war of 1848-49. Ignaty went off to Poltava, in the Ukraine, where he again perhaps failed as an estate manager, since he ended his long life in Tiflis, in the house of his daughter Olga Dimchevsky.

There is a bizarre footnote to this tale of Fyodor’s ancestry. The maternal grandfather, Ivan Ivanovich Skorokhodov (1767-1879), is none other than the « old gentleman » of Stravinsky’s Dialogues, who died at the age of 111 « as a result of a fall while trying to scale the garden fence on his way to a rendezvous. » This irresistible picture is both too good and too obviously apocryphal to be worth denying. But Skorokhodov seems to have been no philanderer like his son-in-law, but a sweet old man who put a roof over his daughter and her children and was still worrying about his grandchildren’s welfare after they were married. A gentle, uncomplicated letter survives from him to Fyodor Stravinsky, among other things congratulating Fyodor’s son Roman on his second birthday. It is an awe-inspiring thought that if Roman had been Igor, or if Skorokhodov had survived three more years, composer and great-grandfather would between them have spanned two centuries of continuous life.

(C) 1999 Stephen Walsh All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-679-41484-3