Monday 25 June 2018

The 'apostle of bourgeois music' who dined with JFK

Warm front: Igor and Vera Stravinsky are greeted at the White House by the Kennedys
Warm front: Igor and Vera Stravinsky are greeted at the White House by the Kennedys

George Hamilton

Back in January 1962, President John F Kennedy hosted a dinner in the White House "in honour of Igor Stravinsky". There was nothing unusual in the president entertaining a prominent figure from the arts, an area he was keen to promote.

What was extremely significant, though, was the timing, for this was at the height of the Cold War - and here was the president of the United States having as his guest-of-honour a Russian musician.

Not that Stravinsky was in any way a representative of the Soviet Union - the Revolution of 1917 had sealed his fate as an exile. His property back in Russia had been confiscated.

But with Kennedy and Khrushchev squaring up to each other - within a matter of months, the whole thing had escalated into the Cuban Missile Crisis which had the world hovering on the brink of nuclear war - it was certainly a matter of note that it was a Russian who occupied the prime position in the White House that night.

Stravinsky, his formidable early reputation forged with the Ballets Russes in Paris, had been living between France and Switzerland since 1914.

The outbreak of World War II drove him from Europe and he moved to the United States, settling in Los Angeles.

Back home in Russia, his work was being treated with contempt. The General Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers no less denounced Stravinsky as "an apostle of reaction in bourgeois music".

But he was becoming popular in America. He made it into Hollywood, part of his The Rite of Spring was used in the soundtrack to scenes of battling dinosaurs in the Disney movie Fantasia.

Around this time, Stravinsky developed the notion of making a gift to his host nation in the form of a reworked version of the US national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

He reckoned only experts could give it voice and he wanted to make it simple for everybody to sing. "I gave it the character of a church hymn," he said at the time.

Interestingly, although regarded as such for over a hundred years, The Star-Spangled Banner only became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931, for the very reason Stravinsky set about amending it. Congress argued for years over the suitability of the song.

Stravinsky's version nearly landed him in trouble with the law. It had been played on a handful of occasions when he brought it to a concert series in Boston.

The Friday programme in Symphony Hall brought positive reviews in the local papers the following morning.

But the news agency Associated Press picked up on the "odd, somewhat dissonant harmonies" of the Stravinsky arrangement. Concertgoers, who had stood to sing the anthem, eventually gave up trying.

America was at war. This struck a nerve. "Star-Spangled Banner Version of Stravinsky Startles Audience" ran a headline in the New York Herald Tribune, which found echoes coast-to-coast.

And the Boston Police Department got involved. For it was an offence under Massachusetts law to tamper with national property.

Several officers turned up at the Saturday night concert, ready to take whatever action was necessary. They advised Stravinsky of the seriousness of the situation. Wisely, he reverted to the standard version of the anthem.

By the time of the White House dinner, the composer was being feted as a giant of 20th-century music. And almost nine years after the death of Stalin, attitudes in the USSR had mellowed.

On the same date, Thursday, January 18, 1962, Stravinksy's ballet Petrushka was beginning a revival run at the very heart of the Soviet Union, in the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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