Book review: Teaching Stravinsky by Kimberly A. Francis

First published in Gramophone, February 2016

Teaching Stravinsky
Kimberly A. Francis (Oxford University Press)

Skim the title of Kimberly A. Francis’s new book and you could be forgiven for assuming that Igor Stravinsky had at one point been a student of Nadia Boulanger. And why not? La grande dame of 20th century French music pedagogy taught basically everyone: Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla — heck, Quincy Jones. But she never taught Stravinsky, who was five years her senior and already on the brink of international stardom when she was first knocked sideways hearing his music (the Paris premiere of The Firebird) aged 23 in 1910. Two decades later, now a revered teacher at the École nationale, she did teach his son Soulima and thereby became Stravinsky’s friend, advisor, ardent champion, sometime surrogate family member, maybe more. Theirs was a shifting and not-always-clearly-defined relationship, and in Francis’s hands it makes for engrossing reading.

The book’s subtitle is Nadia Boulanger and the Consecration of a Modernist Icon, full of enticingly loaded terms. The degree to which Boulanger came to consecrate Stravinsky as the 20th century’s most important composer has provided plenty of musicological gossip and gender prejudice over the decades, and Francis rightly smarts at some of the more belittling epitaphs including Virgil Thomson’s “musical midwife” or Robert Craft’s “prodigious proof-reader”. She laments what she sees as sexist sidelining in standard Stravinsky literature of a woman who threw her considerable cultural clout behind the composer’s neoclassicism, crafted his public image, taught his works to generations of influential students and provided robust creative feedback.

We get ample glimpses of Boulanger’s intellectual fierceness. Clearly she had a better mind for nitty-gritty than Stravinsky did, and it shows in her fastidious corrections of the Symphony of Psalms, Dumbarton Oaks, Persephone and other drafts. But Francis also gives Boulanger credit for shaping Stravinsky’s life choices as well as his artistic ones. She attributes his religious swing in the 1940s to Boulanger’s arrival in California and infers that the rise of Robert Craft as close advisor to Stravinsky in the last two decades of his life filled a vacuum left by Boulanger’s departure from the United States after the Second World War. While Craft encouraged the composer towards serialism, “Stravinsky needed to distance himself from tonality — and, by extension, one can only assume, from Boulanger”.

Francis declares her own colours early: “This is first and foremost a feminist account of Boulanger’s professional interactions with Stravinsky, his family, and his music,” she tells us, with due doffing-of-hat to feminist musicologists like Marcia Citron, Annegret Fauser, Ellie Hisama, Carol Oja and Judith Tucker. It’s hard to know what gender meant for Boulanger herself. Certainly her relationship to feminism wasn’t straightforward: she believed a woman should only pursue a profession if absolutely necessary and that a career should never jeopardise the responsibilities of mother and wife — seemingly at odds with her lifelong pursuit of status and success. She never married, never had children.

The romance question is conscientiously dodged for a good half of the book, presumably to avoid dealing with standard assumptions that Boulanger was passionate about Stravinsky’s music for reasons other than intellectual. Then on page 116 Francis finally confronts the matter outright: were they lovers? Rather deftly, she leaves the matter unresolved, instead simply noting the changing tone of correspondence from professional to intimate to frosty. She also includes the marvellously trivial detail that in July, 1939, Stravinsky visited Boulanger at her country cottage and did his laundry while there. (We know this because of a dry-cleaning receipt that lists two pairs of linen socks, three handkerchiefs, two pairs of boxer shorts and three shirts — two white, one yellow-brown — which some commentators has been proof enough that naughty behaviour must have occurred.)

Francis’s broader point that Stravinsky relied heavily on the movers and shakers around him is hardly a new one, but she brings Boulanger closer into the fold than ever before. He needed her as much as she needed him. She secured commissions and promoted his music, bolstering his career and her own status as cultural taste-maker. It’s a convincing case. The book ends with a more general plea that we shift musicological narratives away from the cult of the individual toward a more Bourdieunian acknowledgement of the interdependent people who make art happen. “There has yet to be a large-scale use of Bourdieu within the historical musicological literature,” Francis points out, which maybe isn’t surprising given collective attribution is an uncomfortable fit for an industry that likes to promote the myth of creative genius. By readdressing the Boulanger-Stravinsky dynamic, Francis has done her bit.