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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Potato and Juliet: how Mark Rylance makes children like Shakespeare

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences which can be used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. 

How young can you learn Shakespeare? A rare repeat of a 1998 programme presented by Mark Rylance (27 April, 6.30am, rebroadcast 1.30pm and 8.30pm) asks the question. Not yet a superstar incapable of resisting a part in the new Christopher Nolan film, Rylance was then the artistic director of the Globe Theatre. Just an Abrahamic guy in a silly hat (most likely), sitting all mystical in a class of six-year-olds and asking things like what the word “Romeo” makes them think of.

“Potato,” someone decides. “Now, girls,” giggles Rylance, “would you fall in love with a boy called Potato?”

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences that can then be cast into solid chunks and used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. When Rylance talks about hoping that children recognise Shakespeare as a “playful friend, rather than someone they are going to meet on a forced march to an exam”, the unpreening lightness of his delivery suggests one, unscripted take. “He wrote for the ears,” the director went on. “It just sounds interesting. His words have body and form.”

I suppose the question is not so much how young you can teach Shakespeare, but how young you can teach any (great) poetry, because children instinctively take to it. For instance, a big-screen adaptation of T S Eliot’s Cats has been announced. In the fantasies of my friend James, this adaptation will feature Channing Tatum as Rum Tum Tugger and Lady Gaga singing “Memory”, and will be produced by the team behind The Incredibles. In short, a poem with children in mind while the adults sit there thinking: “What the f*** is this? There’s no plot at all!”

Instead, the upcoming Cats will be directed by the sombre Tom Hooper, doubtless brought in to “study” the text. Give me Rylance’s six-year-olds any day, imagining what things Henry V might have noticed the night before the Battle of Agincourt. “Wolves howling,” breathes one. “Bats flapping,” gulps another. Then finally – and this suggestion couldn’t be bettered – just before Henry steps out to claim “. . . I think the king is but a man, as I/am”, he possibly spots “a mouse rolling on his bed”. 

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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