Anyone who appreciates Igor Stravinsky should watch Once at a Border - a DVD which is loaded with not only biographical, but personal insights into the man who launched the 20th century.
I have always been fascinated by the music and the man whom Philip Glass has called “the greatest composer of the 20th century.”
As a young music student, the first time I heard the Rite of Spring, I was following the score. It was if a new world was opened before me. The opening bassoon lament soon dissolves into that fireball of changing meters- an idea which changed the course of music forever. My own musical world was certainly changed forever.
Stravinsky starts with a story about being questioned at a border as to the validity of “composer” as his occupation on his passport and hence the title. At nearly three hours, this film by Tony Palmer is comprehensive in every way.
Footage of the master himself, who often narrates, along with short appearances by Nadia Boulanger, Georges Auric, and many other musical luminaries, makes this a must-see.
There are so many fantastic moments, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. At one point, Robert Craft is seated at the very piano that the master used to compose. We first learn that the piano was always out of tune. Stravinsky did not mind because his inner ear, that is, his ability to hear music in his mind, was so strong. Not only was it out of tune, but muted. I find that a bit ironic for a man whose music could be so aggressive and loud.
Many times during the film, I felt like I was seeing something so rare and incredible: Stravinsky walking about the room where he wrote the Rite of Spring or out in his garden at his Hollywood residence. Those seemed to me like having a film with Beethoven talking about his ninth symphony. Simply magic.
He bridged many worlds-coming from the time of the Tsarist regime, he seemed to be an 19th century gentleman with all of its social customs. For example, he hated familiarity. Someone called him Igor, instead of Mr. Stravinsky, and he wouldn't engage with that person any further. Yet, when he came to America in 1939, he loved Los Angeles and became far more relaxed, even embracing his celebrity and making new friends.
Stravinsky was a man of contradictions. The composer was a hypochondriac who had his blood tested every week, yet loved to drink spirits like whiskey and even smoked. He remained married to his first wife, Katerina, for 33 years, but during the marriage he met his second wife, Vera, who was married at the time, and had an affair with her.
Mrs. Vera Stravinsky makes an all-too-brief appearance near the end of the film, looking a bit sad and lost. Perhaps she declined to be interviewed extensively, but it makes me wonder why she wasn’t more a part of the film? Imagine the insights.
We can read all the books we want about Stravinsky, but we cannot know as much as when we see him conducting his music. This odd elderly little man, conducting in restricted movements-keeping his arms close to his body, making these priceless facial expressions- this tells us so much about the man.
One of the most insightful moments comes when Craft tells us that Stravinsky had a very simple credo when it came to faith: it is a sin to despair before God, to paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard. He was fearless, never believing anything bad was going to happen to him, even death. Craft and his wife Vera were at his bedside when he passed. He was more worried about her and kept stroking her arm to comfort her.
There are some moments where the film drags a bit; particularly the scenes of the country fairs. Although these were to be important influences (Petrushka and Pucinella), the shots are too long. At times, the film quality, discounting the archive material of course, seems a bit grainy.
All in all, I’m going to give this a very high rating.