Few would have imagined that more than 40 years after Igor Stravinsky died, the composer’s sex life would be a source of renewed interest.
Robert Craft, a conductor and Stravinsky’s longtime assistant, writes in his new book, “Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories,” that the composer had several homosexual affairs — including one with Maurice Ravel — during the years he composed his three great ballets, “The Firebird” (1910), “Petrushka” (1911) and “The Rite of Spring” (1913).
If true, Craft’s revelations pose tantalizing questions about Stravinsky’s sexuality as it relates to his art. A towering figure in the history of music, Stravinsky was a private man who led a double life for decades, dividing his time between his wife and four children and his lover, Vera, who became his second wife.
The revelations were much discussed after Craft, 89, repeated his claims in a subsequent essay published last month in the Times Literary Supplement and Musical America, a weekly online classical music magazine, and other websites picked up the story. The composer is in the news this season, which marks the centennial of the “Rite.”
Craft’s assertions have prompted criticism from some scholars.
In a chapter in “Discoveries,” Craft writes, “Ravel and Stravinsky were, of all artists, the most successful in concealing their sexuality. The two were time-to-time lovers....” He further states that Stravinsky had affairs with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s eldest son, Andrey, and with the Belgian composer Maurice Delage.
“In Stravinsky’s own words,” Craft writes, “he was in love with Andrey, a University of St. Petersburg classmate and music critic.”
The purported affair with Delage is based on a letter from October 1912, in which Stravinsky appears to pine for Delage and “that little pavilion which silently guards the memories of our compatible life of a year ago.”
Craft writes that “the bombshell of this love letter is the discovery that Stravinsky’s principal bisexual experience occurred during ‘The Rite of Spring,’ widely regarded as the epitome of masculinity in music, and comparable to Wagner.”
This is not the first time Craft has been at the center of controversy. Stephen Walsh, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales and author of a well-received two-volume biography of the composer, wrote in an email that “Craft has a track record for reconstructing history.” He said Craft, as editor, had rewritten Vera Stravinsky’s diaries and manipulated the composer’s letters in the three “Selected Correspondence” volumes.
Walsh could not find evidence of any affairs with men. “In all my readings of Stravinsky’s correspondence in Russian, French, English and German, there is no hint of sexual innuendo, certainly no homosexual innuendo, just the usual over-affectionate greetings, which were more or less conventional,” Walsh wrote.
“Russians habitually sign off with ‘obnimayu,’ meaning ‘I embrace [you],’ Walsh added. “And of course the French, too, were always embracing and kissing at the end of their letters, and no doubt in person as well, without necessarily jumping into bed with every correspondent.”
Tamara Levitz, a professor of music at UCLA and editor of “Stravinsky and His World,” a companion book to next month’s Bard Music Festival celebration in New York, also disputes Craft’s most recent assertions.
“Craft has done enormous service to music and Stravinsky,” Levitz wrote in an email, “and I am always aware of my desire to honor and respect him, while also correcting his work. He cites letters that are mostly known, and he both mistranslates them and cites them loosely in order to make them into something they are not.
“There is no evidence whatsoever in all of the Stravinsky archive to support the thesis that he had affairs with Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, Delage or Ravel.”
In two hour-long phone interviews from New York, Craft explained that Stravinsky’s letters during the period in question “are very different from any others — these kisses and things. The fact that he was living alone with Delage while composing the ‘Rite’ indicates something.”
Craft called Stravinsky’s letter to Delage — translated, he said, for the first time in his book — “a sexual letter, and it’s been in print for 40 to 50 years.”
Asked for his source about Stravinsky’s affair with Ravel, Craft said, “I used the now popular Benjamin Ivry book on Ravel as a primary source.”
But Levitz said that Ivry’s book has been discredited. “Stravinsky forbade sexual gossip at his dinner table,” Craft recalled, “saying that ‘You do not know unless you were holding their legs.’
“Letters are the only source for love affairs, since no autographed condoms survive,” Craft said, adding that Stravinsky was kidded about having once shared the same bed with Ravel. “People would laughingly ask: ‘How was it?’ To which his laughing answer was always, ‘You will have to ask Ravel.’”
Levitz said that Stravinsky was involved in the gay and lesbian community artistically, and that the “Rite,” far from being the “masculine” work Craft described, “has been a vehicle for feminist expression for a century.”
As examples, Levitz cited the work of Pina Bausch and Mary Wigman. “Stravinsky’s sexuality is important,” she said, “because he wrote so many stage works in which he represents men, women and trans people in various ways. To understand this representation, we need to understand him. Stravinsky rarely presents gender and sexuality in a conventional way.”
Ultimately, even Craft agreed that the controversy comes back to his art, as it rightly should. As the critic Paul Griffiths put it in an email, “I think music is deeply sexy, but which way it swings I can’t tell you.”