Regardless of your opinion of his music, there is no doubt that Igor Stravinsky was one of the most significant composers of the twentieth century. I love his music and find his many changes in style fascinating. And while his big well-known masterworks (even the debate over which those are) are more widely appreciated, I also find his smaller works interesting and engaging. No matter what he did, Stravinsky created works that were among the most lively and engaging in whatever style he was using. He was fiercely independent and uncompromisingly himself. Given the course of the life he led and the multiple exiles alluded to in the subtitle, the strength he had to maintain that originality is possibly the most amazing thing about the man.
This very large and very detailed biography of Stravinsky's life from 1934 until his death in 1971 is fascinating on several levels. For me, the most interesting part and the primary reason I wanted to read the book is to read in more detail the circumstances of the birth of the compositions from this half of the composer's life. Who commissioned what, how the final composition was or was not what was originally discussed, what the considerations were for the resources used, and then Stravinsky's use of serial techniques (and how that developed and how the variety of approaches he took to serialism remained Stravinsky).
There is also the story of his life in Europe and then the move to the United States. The strange relationship between Stravinsky's first wife (whom he loved all his life even after she died) and his second wife, Vera, while his first wife was still alive and Vera was his mistress. Of course, this affected his relationship with his children, as did his life in Hollywood while they lived in Europe. Soulima later came to California and lived with Stravinsky for a time, but got a post on the piano faculty of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Stravinsky's family details are not simple and it is interesting how the author, Stephen Walsh, teases them out.
Stravinsky never held an academic post beyond some short term lecturing and teaching of composition. He never even received an academic degree. He was a man who had to depend on himself and his music to make his way in the world. The reputation he had developed as modernist was both a source of pride and riches as well as a reason for others to attack him (from both the old and new guard). That he was strong enough to take the blows and keep composing and creating wonderful new works is a testimony of his own internal strength and of those who cared about him and supported him emotionally and in the practical day-to-day matters that allowed him time and space to compose.
Of course, whenever one considers this portion of Stravinsky's life, especially his close associates, the name of Robert Craft is right at the front if a bit off center. Walsh presents a complex picture of Craft (which means it is likely close to realistic) that acknowledges the important role Craft performed in getting Stravinsky through his compositional crisis after "The Rake's Progress". Stravinsky thought he was finished. He was nearly seventy years old and most composers (with a few notable exceptions) are no longer composing by that age. But many writers and composers have a period of being blocked at one time or another and find a way out. Would Stravinsky have found a way out on his own? Maybe. However, Craft was there and it was his support and guidance in the serial methods that gave Stravinsky new impetus and we have several wonderful masterpieces and many other interesting works from 1952 that would certainly not have come about without Craft and the role he played. However, Walsh also takes a clear and dispassionate look at Craft's statements and finds some of them truthful, others somewhat at odds with the facts, and others to be outright misrepresentations. The author is also as clear as it is possible to be about which letters, reviews, and books Craft wrote in Stravinsky's name. At some point it is not knowable whether Craft was saying what Stravinsky wrote in different words or which pieces are Craft using the Stravinsky name to advance his own agenda.
The last few years of the composer's life, after the "Requiem Canticles", are a period of decline and rising family tensions. How all that explodes in sad recrimination and jealousies after Stravinsky's death is quite sad. Nobody comes off all that well, but Vera and Craft least of all. I am sure they would tell this story differently (and Craft has), but it seems to me that the children (then older adults) were not treated as well as they should have been.
In any case, I am grateful to Craft for the support he gave Stravinsky and music that support allowed him Stravinsky to write and the support he gave Stravinsky in promoting his work and in conducting and recording his works, especially when Stravinsky was too frail to do the work himself. Craft as a person is simply human after all with feet of clay (maybe clay up past the knees for all I know), but he still fulfilled an important purpose in Stravinsky's artistic life. Others may well have their own jealousies and resentments against him that exaggerate his flaws and assign motives that do not exist. Still, this book does a fine job in sorting out certain aspects of various situations that have been muddled. However, I fear that Walsh has an agenda that might bias some of what he has reported here. I do not know Craft or Walsh and I suppose my personal bias is to give Craft more the benefit of the doubt than Walsh.
The author does say some strange things about disease, but he is using the language the Stravinsky's used. For example, that a cold worsened into the flu or that tuberculosis was inherited. There is more of this kind of thing. He also focuses a great deal on the high commission and conducting fees Stravinsky charged. This is a fair point, but isn't really given its full context. Stravinsky was in huge demand; he was a unique commodity so he simply asked for enough money to make it worth his while. This may have upset some who would have preferred to get his work more affordably, but so what? Just compare what he received to popular artists such as Elvis and Frank Sinatra and all of a sudden he doesn't look so well paid.
For me, the most odd thing the author said is on page 464 where the author refers to "The Rite of Spring" as a late romantic masterpiece. I was so startled that I had to stop reading. I remember when I first heard this work in 1971 or 1972 in a high school music theory class (music rudiments and grammar, really). It astounded me because I had never heard anything like it. As I played recordings for my friends, some thought I was running the music backwards. Nowadays, it does not shock nearly as much as it did even a few decades ago, but it certainly still has freshness and power.
Stravinsky is a modern composer, not a Romantic composer of any stripe. You might get away with calling Firebird romantic, but even there it has little in common with Mahler or Richard Strauss or even Rachmaninoff does it? Such a label seems to me to be too much bowing to the serialists and other academic moderns. Is this really the term being used for this founding work of modern music outside the Boulez - Stockhausen - Babbit believers?