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. 

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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 presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

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

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