At certain times in his life, Igor Stravinsky liked to date his manuscripts by saints’ days or religious festivals, and if he had survived his own death he would surely have recorded the fact that he died on the Tuesday in Holy Week, 6 April 1971. He might even have noted that it was 45 years to the day since he had written to the great impresario Serge Diaghilev “out of extreme mental and spiritual need”, asking his forgiveness for past transgressions, prior to making his first Confession and Communion since he was a child in St Petersburg. And that was also a Tuesday in Holy Week, 6 April 1926.
The Stravinsky family had been, of course, Orthodox, but it was mainly an Orthodoxy of the bottom drawer, a box-ticking, hatch-match-dispatch sort of Orthodoxy. In his conversation books, Igor says little about church-going, but notes that although his parents were anti-clerical and not at all pious, they still observed the normal fasts and feast days, and were shocked by impiety in anyone else.
He was certainly attracted by the intellectual tradition of Catholicism, something that hardly existed in the Orthodox church.
He himself gave up church-going in his teens, and was vague about the reasons for his apparently abrupt return to communion in his forties. His young American assistant, Robert Craft, thought it was out of guilt at his open infidelity with Vera Sudeikina in Paris while his wife Catherine was slowly dying of tuberculosis in Nice.
But conversion was in the air in 1920s Paris.
Only the previous summer, Jean Cocteau had returned to the Roman Catholic church, admittedly in a metaphorical cloud of opium, and perhaps not wholly uninfluenced by the bronzed, handsome figure of his confessor, Charles Henrion. Stravinsky himself had read the neo-Thomist works of Henrion’s friend and former associate Jacques Maritain (himself a convert), and he had started working with Cocteau on an operatic version of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus.
He might well at this point have become a Catholic himself. He was certainly attracted by the intellectual tradition of Catholicism, something that hardly existed in the Orthodox church. But in the end he stayed loyal to the religion of his youth, chiefly, he said, because of the language of the liturgy, not Russian but Old Slavonic, which he later claimed was his “language of prayer”.
It’s true that he wrote hardly any musical settings of that language after his return to the church. In 1926, at the time of the Diaghilev letter, he composed a very plain Lord’s Prayer, “Otche nash”, and a few years later a Creed and a Hail Mary, both in Slavonic, all three unaccompanied because musical instruments are not permitted in Orthodox services. And that’s also partly why the sacred works he composed afterwards, starting with the Symphony of Psalms, all have Latin, as it were Catholic, or English texts.
He disliked the sound of unaccompanied choirs, having no doubt heard too many singing out of tune, though it’s curious that he never mentions the music in the Petersburg churches, for instance the blue and gold Nikolsky Cathedral, which was a short step from the Stravinsky apartment on the Kryukov Canal, and where the singing is now – and surely was then – of surpassing beauty (and usually in tune). Above all, he knew that works in Russian (or Slavonic) would simply not get performed.
He needed a new source of spirituality, a more direct, perhaps more active spring.
There’s one other possible reason why Stravinsky returned to God in the twenties. Before the 1917 revolution, which found him living in Switzerland and effectively barred from returning home, he had composed work after work based on Russian folk culture, which naturally included all sorts of oblique religious elements.
The Rite of Spring was a remote, primitive example; but much nearer to Christianity was his Russian wedding ballet, Svadebka (Les Noces), none of which happens in church but which deals unforgettably, profoundly with the before and after, the superstition, the piety and the ribaldry. All this was lost to him once he was cut off from home, and it wasn’t long before he needed a new source of spirituality, a more direct, perhaps more active spring.
The Symphony of Psalms, one of the most powerful religious works of the 20th century, bears witness to this need. And later works like the Mass (1948 but begun during the war) and the Canticum Sacrum of 1956 show that it was more than a passing phase.
His own observance, he admitted, became erratic, but in his last years, as judgement approached, he hardly wrote anything but sacred works, including at least two or three masterpieces.
Let’s hope they got him into heaven.
Stephen Walsh is a biographer and emeritus professor of music at Cardiff University. His latest book, Debussy: A Painter in Sound, is published by Faber & Faber.