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

Photo: Getty
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Nicholas Serota's Diary

The Arts Council England chair on tea with Lord Sainsbury, solving problems with cake, and opening up the industry.

On Saturday, I head to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see Tommy, an extra­ordinary production of The Who’s musical that has emerged from a collaboration between the Ipswich-based New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, a consortium taking work with deaf and disabled performers into the mainstream. Preconceptions about what we understand by “disabled” are blown away. The cast dazzles with talent and brings to the work a bold perspective that leaves the mind fizzing with challenges. How important it is to make this kind of work central to what we do.

Sunday

A chance amid a busy transitional time to enjoy a private party at home, with a collective celebration for daughters’ and grand-daughters’ birthdays. Lots of cake-eating, which is good practice for my new job at the Arts Council, where any difficulty can be surmounted with the help of a slice of lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.

Monday

My first full day in my new office at Arts Council England in Bloomsbury. A massive in-box to clear. Bent double over this most of the day, I manage somehow to do my back in again, thus proving that the burden of the abstract is no less weighty than that of the real. There are also emails from former museum colleagues at the Art Basel fair, where Maria Balshaw is the centre of attention.

Tuesday

A day of meetings with wonderful benefactors: including tea with Lord Sainsbury and his wife, who have done a huge amount to improve access to the arts. Their support for the Ashmolean, the Holburne in Bath and London-based galleries is well known. They have also been involved with a wholesale redesign of public areas at the Royal Opera House, which will lead to greater access and use for education and events during the day, as well as a complete makeover of the important Linbury Studio.

I finish the day by hopping on the Tube to the Tate to attend a farewell party for a long-serving member of the building projects team. We joined and left at the same time and, in between, we have built a lot together. So it was poignant.

Wednesday

I head to the national council of the Arts Council, and we sign off on the new national portfolio for 2018 to 2o22. It ends an exhaustive process that began 18 months ago.

This is where the Arts Council will spend the bulk of its funds over the next four years, some £1.6bn in total, across 831 organisations that determine the future direction of the arts sector. It has been fascinating. The Arts Council remains a custodian of standards and aesthetics, but it is also increasingly working with partners across government, local authorities, higher education and communities as a developer of social environments, giving people a voice and helping them to articulate what is culturally relevant to their lives. There are evolving expectations. People now look to the arts to increase well-being and regenerate local economies. Fortunately, despite the cuts in recent years, the Arts Council still has excellent knowledge and networks to help it deliver national policy at a local level.

There are two important headlines to the investment we agreed. First, that it delivers a substantial increase in funding outside London – roughly £170m over the four years, supporting a geographically wider and a more genuinely diverse range of organisations. We have held nothing back. The time is right to invest for lasting change. As the success of Hull as the UK City of Culture this year has shown, there is an appetite and a need for the arts. We can and will do more for people everywhere.

Second, we have done this without any overall reduction in investment in London, where we have refreshed the portfolio, bringing in from the margins some brilliant and challenging companies. That has been made possible by the selfless way that leading organisations based in London have taken a small cut so our funds can go further. They understand that everyone benefits from a more diverse arts world – not least London. The strength of this wonderful city comes from the breadth of the cultural conversation it has. It is an inspiration, even in the darkest moments.

Thursday

To a BBC board meeting, where we touch on the progress of Culture UK, the partnership that brings together the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland. There is funding for organisations to make content that can be shown on the BBC and plans so far to put theatre, opera, ballet and the spoken word into broadcasting, while the BBC’s online platform can widen public access to such events as the Manchester International Festival.

Friday

Another full day at the Arts Council, reviewing plans for the announcement of the national portfolio, discussing the nuance of particular decisions, prepping with a huge amount of detail. I’m also thinking ahead to events in July, when I’ll be talking about the international work of arts organisations at the Creative Industries Federation conference. There is a strong awareness of the “soft power” of the arts, while we often overlook the obvious – that international exchange, collaboration and experience are crucial to the standard of practice we enjoy in Britain, and that they are also a valuable and potentially huge source of income.

Again, the Arts Council has expertise in this area. It takes time and investment to acquire this knowledge. Over the next few years, we will need – as an arts sector and as a nation – to make the most of all the expertise we possess. I’m looking forward to the challenge. 

Nicholas Serota was the director of Tate between 1988 and 2017. He is now the chair of Arts Council England

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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