Igor Stravinsky walking down a London street, between rehearsals with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1964. Photo: Getty
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Time out of mind: recollections from Stravinsky’s childhood

His parents opposed the idea of him becoming a composer, pushing him bullishly towards the law. 

Composer of the Week
BBC Radio 3

The first in a week of programmes about Igor Stravinsky (4 August, noon) made clear that he was no child prodigy: he composed his first piece at 19, while Mozart was writing music at five and Beethoven at nine. Stravinsky’s parents opposed the idea of him becoming a composer, pushing him bullishly towards the law. His father, a bass baritone, was “cold and angry” and his mother “stern and obsessed with ill-health”. Igor recalled, with a quiver, his governesses (“a gang of sadistic perverts”) and continually felt “friendless, small and delicate” at school. Thank God for his fat, happy nanny.

Other powerful recollections from his St Petersburg childhood included spying Tchaikovsky from behind during a performance at the Mariinsky Theatre and noticing with awe the black material swathing the building after the great man’s death. Stravinsky – who, after the onset of the First World War and then the Russian Revolution, lived in exile variously in Switzerland, France and the US – said his love of St Petersburg was so intense that he didn’t like looking too deeply into his memories for fear of realising how attached he was to the place. Clear memories he found unbearable; even the cry of a seagull was too penetrating. “An old man knows,” mourned the composer, “that seagulls are reminders of death and were such even when he watched them by the Neva when he was seven or eight.”

Like most of us, Stravinsky preferred memory to remain inaccurate, indistinct. Even Nabokov (also a St Petersburg exile), who had an exceptional eidetic memory and chose to spend a lot of time there, admitted to a horror of home movies, in which clear objects as benign as prams took on the “smug, encroaching air of a coffin”. It felt particularly appropriate to have memory discussed on the radio in August. That sensation of journeying back in thought until thought itself tapers away, leaving you with something more slippery, sadder, is more often than not accompanied by sun flecks and patterns of summer greenery. As the brilliant, melancholy programme segued into the pas de deux from Stravinsky’s one-act ballet The Fairy Kiss, the music seemed to tuck itself into the more remote regions of the mind, which is precisely where Stravinsky belongs: abstract, fragmented, deep. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear