BBC Music Magazine

Stravinsky on film

Michael White talks to director Tony Palmer about the making of his film on the Russian composer, involving a panoply of legendary figures – and the man himself…


Michael White on how director Tony Palmer navigated Soviet officials in the making of his epic documentar­y

Anybody interested in the mortality of great composers ought to know the smudgy film footage (it’s on Youtube) of Stravinsky’s funeral, which happened 50 years ago this month. The scene is Venice. There’s the drone of chanting priests, a fog of incense, an enormous coffin on a jet-black gondola, rowed down the Grand Canal and out to San Michele, the Venetian island of the dead. It feels like something out of Edgar Allan Poe.

‘But it was actually a rather jolly day,’ says Tony Palmer, who was there, ‘with everyone going to Harry’s Bar to get drunk and be noisy. Stravinsky would have approved, given he liked a drink. He wasn’t the austerely other-worldly character people imagine: he was a man of the world, with a world-outlook coloured by irony. And he was a man in his late 80s who’d been ill for a while, so the death wasn’t especially tragic. We celebrated rather than mourned.’

Palmer’s presence at the celebratio­n signalled an involvemen­t with Stravinsky that stretched back to the 1960s when the now-veteran filmmaker was launching his career as someone who specialise­d in music. There had been meetings in London and New York through which he built a relationsh­ip not just with the composer but with those around him, getting things on camera in the process. So it was predictabl­e that years later, when Robert Craft (Stravinsky’s amanuensis/ assistant/vicar on earth) and Vera Stravinsky (second wife and surviving widow) were contemplat­ing a memorial film, Palmer would be the man they turned to.

Knowing everybody, though, was not enough to make things easy. ‘I was summoned to New York,’ recalls Palmer, ‘to see Stravinsky’s lawyer who said: “You realise this film is impossible. On the one hand you have the three surviving children, on the other you’ve got Vera and Craft. The two sides don’t communicat­e, and neither will take part if they know the other is involved. So we wondered who would be stupid enough to undertake this, and we thought of you.”’

Planning began in 1977 and the film, Once, at a Border…, premiered on London Weekend Television’s Southbank Show in 1982 – although by then its length had more than tripled from the commission­ed 50 minutes to three hours, which required the interventi­on of Michael Grade, LWT’S director of programmes. As Palmer recalls ‘He said “This film is far too long, but it happens to be a masterpiec­e”, so he ran it over three nights: Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday.’

What justified the length was that it covered such extensive ground, with footage (either new or archive) of so many people: the entire Stravinsky family, Jean Cocteau, Balanchine, Nicolas Nabokov, Nijinsky’s daughter,

Diaghilev’s secretary, the last surviving dancers who had been onstage for the totemic premiere of Rite of Spring (one of them Marie Rambert)… It goes on: a carnival of legendary names.

Another reason for the length was the amount of footage filmed in Russia which, in the late ’70s, required permission from Tikhon Khrennikov, the secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. Palmer flew to Moscow to negotiate and remembers ‘sitting with him at the end of a long table under portraits of Stravinsky, Shostakovi­ch and Prokofiev, which he proudly pointed to.

This was the man who had discourage­d Soviet performanc­es of Stravinsky; who in 1948 had sat beside his predecesso­r Zhdanov when Shostakovi­ch was denounced; and who advised the Politburo that Prokofiev was decadent.

‘But that said, expecting to find a monster, I found him charming, open and straightfo­rward, arranging for me to go and film wherever I wanted – including trips to remote places like Sorochynts­i, home of the Fair that was important to Stravinsky’s childhood memories.

‘The only place he wouldn’t let me film was Ustilug, the Ukrainian estate where Stravinsky had lived until 1909 when he left and never returned – except once, to sort out some business with a vodka distillery he happened to own! Khrennikov supplied me with library film but refused to let me travel there. And it was only years later that I discovered why: Ustilug was derelict and, being five miles from the Polish border, in the middle of a militarise­d zone with a zillion rockets pointing West.

‘Something else I realised later was that Khrennikov was only nice to me for a reason.

The deal was for the film to be a co-production with Soviet TV, who wanted access to my Western archive material. That was all they were interested in; and when the film was shown in Russia, it was edited down to nothing but the Western material, the Soviet stuff removed. So Khrennikov was tricky after all.’fgv

Forty years later, Ustilug has been refurbishe­d, is now a museum, and Palmer was a guest of honour at the unveiling. But the story of the place, and of the vodka distillery, throws an interestin­g sidelight on our understand­ing of Stravinsky’s finances. As the film explains, through the recollecti­ons of Nicolas Nabokov, the composer endured serious poverty when he lived in Switzerlan­d between the two world wars – a strange situation for the author of Petrushka, Firebird and Rite of Spring, but caused by an inability to claim his copyrights. He blamed Diaghilev: they didn’t speak for two

‘‘ Stravinsky wasn’t the austerely otherwordl­y character we imagine: he was a man of the world with an outlook coloured by irony ’’

years. And decades later he was still trying to sue people about it, until Robert Craft persuaded him that it was a waste of time.

But he was certainly business-minded and, according to Craft, ‘a usurer: he loaned money to people’. Commercial acumen was a part of what, with hindsight, Palmer thinks of as Stravinsky’s ‘worldlines­s’.

‘There was an aura about him. He had dignity. He didn’t like to be called Igor. And I remember the first time I met him being exercised by the fact that he was so small: I felt I had to keep bending over, to be respectful. But he could also get the giggles and play to the camera. Nijinsky’s daughter in the film calls him a caricature dandy, floating around with the Monaco set. And again, he sure liked a drink.

‘He told me that his name should really be Strawhisky. And just as the American president always travels with a bag that has the secret codes, Stravinsky had TWO bags: one with the accoutreme­nts of a composer – rubbers, pencils, paper – and another he’d had specially made with compartmen­ts for a bottle of Swiss white wine and a bottle of Chivas Regal.’

Such were the preference­s of a man who often said ‘Water is for the feet’. And the film includes a wonderfull­y funny moment in a car driving past shops, where the composer becomes agitated and insists ‘I think here we can get a bottle of Scotch’.

What the film also reveals, though, is Stravinsky’s lifelong interest in ritual and Orthodox belief. It’s no coincidenc­e that among his first and last acknowledg­ed works were settings of the Lord’s Prayer. And as Nicolas Nabokov says in the film, although he may not have been a ‘religious composer’, few have written so much music about religion – from Canticum Sacrum and the Symphony of Psalms to the priestly chant and invocation of the saints in Les Noces.

‘There was one memorable exchange,’ says Palmer of a 1960s meeting that he caught on camera, ‘where Stravinsky started talking about God in an emphatic way, announcing “I believe in the person of the Lord. And” – stabbing his finger at me ominously – “in the person of the devil”.’

Given that belief, it’s perhaps odd that, in the film, Craft suggests Stravinsky was scared of death, despite him believing it would never happen to him, and was the sort of person that nervous passengers should have beside them on a plane, because he’d convince them it would be all right. ‘His faith was joyful,’ Craft insists. ‘Kierkegaar­d says that to despair before God is a sin. Stravinsky believed that.’

At the same time, he was hypochondr­iac – though not entirely without reason, given that he suffered everything from typhus and a stroke to bleeding ulcers. ‘Everybody says to me: “You’re looking well”. I’m not feeling well at all,’ he complains in the film – which also features a story about dislodging a hernia during an orchestral rehearsal (not for the squeamish).

Perhaps the most mysterious moment, though, comes where Stravinsky tells the camera: ‘I can wait. I can wait as an insect can wait. I am somebody who has been waiting all my life.’

‘I don’t know what he meant,’ Palmer admits now. ‘It emerged, oracular, like something from the temple of Apollo.’

But this film, too, has been waiting for a long time. Since it aired in 1982, it hasn’t had another television showing in the UK. Which is why it’s being re-released commercial­ly on DVD to mark the 50th anniversar­y of the death – repackaged, in a limited-edition set.

As Palmer says, ‘this film is unique. If I were making it now, I’d shoot with digital cameras rather than 16mm and it would be better for that. But I couldn’t make it now, because the people who appear are all dead. They were the firsthand witnesses to an extraordin­ary story. And we caught them just in time.’

To order ‘Once, at a Border…’ (Tony Palmer Films TPDVD126) visit www.naxosdirec­

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 ??  ?? Celebratio­n of a life: (left) an undated photo of Stravinsky; (right) Stravinsky’s coffin is carried off the gondola at his funeral in Venice; (below) film-maker Tony Palmer (standing) during the making of his documentar­y
Celebratio­n of a life: (left) an undated photo of Stravinsky; (right) Stravinsky’s coffin is carried off the gondola at his funeral in Venice; (below) film-maker Tony Palmer (standing) during the making of his documentar­y
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 ??  ?? Great influences: (left) Robert Craft with the composer in 1962; (right) secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers Tikhon Khrennikov; (below) Stravinsky enjoys a glass
Great influences: (left) Robert Craft with the composer in 1962; (right) secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers Tikhon Khrennikov; (below) Stravinsky enjoys a glass
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