Igor Stravinsky Appears on American Network TV & Tells Stories About His Unconventional Musical Life (1957)

One evening in 1957, view­ers all across Amer­i­ca tuned in to see Stravin­sky. The broad­cast was­n’t a per­for­mance of Stravin­sky’s music, although those would con­tin­ue to draw tele­vi­sion audi­ences well into the fol­low­ing decade. It was a con­ver­sa­tion with the man him­self, Igor Fyo­dor­ovich Stravin­sky, who even when he was still alive had become an insti­tu­tion by virtue of his indus­try and inno­va­tion. “For half a cen­tu­ry, Stravin­sky’s musi­cal explo­rations have dom­i­nat­ed mod­ern music,” says the pro­gram’s nar­ra­tor. “His near­ly 100 works — bal­lets, sym­phonies, reli­gious music, even jazz — have often out­raged audi­ences at first hear­ing.”

The famous­ly “riotous” audi­ence reac­tion to the Paris debut of Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring had hap­pened 44 years ear­li­er, back when the Russ­ian-born com­pos­er was ris­ing to inter­na­tion­al fame. But by 1957 he’d been an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen for years, and it’s in his Hol­ly­wood home — and on the eve of his 75th birth­day — that NBC’s crew shot this episode of Wis­dom.

Hav­ing debuted just that year, Wis­dom would con­tin­ue to run until 1965, broad­cast­ing long-form inter­views with fig­ures like Mar­cel Duchamp, Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost, Som­er­set Maugh­am, and Eleanor Roo­sevelt. Here Stravin­sky speaks with his young pro­tégé, the Amer­i­can con­duc­tor Robert Craft, who asks him to remem­ber var­i­ous chap­ters of his long musi­cal life, which includ­ed encoun­ters with the likes of Niko­lai Rim­sky-Kor­sakov, Dylan Thomas, and Pablo Picas­so.

The sto­ry begins with Stravin­sky’s first impro­vi­sa­tions at the piano dur­ing his child­hood in Rus­sia (and his first lessons, taught by a woman of nine­teen: “for me that was an old maid, but of course I was in love with this old maid”). All through­out, we see flash­es of the inven­tion-above-con­ven­tion sen­si­bil­i­ty that made Stravin­sky more a Homo faber, as he liked to say, than a Homo sapi­ens. “Who invent­ed the scale?” he asks, rhetor­i­cal­ly. “Some­body invent­ed the scale. If some­body invent­ed the scale, I can change some­thing in the scale and invent some­thing else.” And why is it, Craft asks, that every new work of yours arous­es protests in the pub­lic? “Each time I have new prob­lems, and this new prob­lem requires a new approach,” Stravin­sky explains, and but for the pub­lic, “the idea of a new approach, of a new prob­lem, does­n’t come to their mind.” So you’re ahead of the pub­lic – includ­ing, implic­it­ly, the Amer­i­can pub­lic view­ing at home? “Inevitably.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Igor Stravin­sky Remem­bers the “Riotous” Pre­miere of His Rite of Spring in 1913: “They Were Very Shocked. They Were Naive and Stu­pid Peo­ple.”

The Night When Char­lie Park­er Played for Igor Stravin­sky (1951)

Stravinsky’s “Ille­gal” Arrange­ment of “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” (1944)

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Hear Igor Stravinsky’s Sym­phonies & Bal­lets in a Com­plete, 32-Hour, Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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