Modernist Mysteries: Perséphone


Modernist Mysteries: Perséphone is a landmark study that will move the field of musicology in important new directions. The book presents a microhistorical analysis of the premiere of the melodrama Perséphone at the Paris Opera on 30 April 1934, engaging with the collaborative, transnational nature of the production. Author Tamara Levitz demonstrates how these collaborators-Igor Stravinsky, André Gide, Jacques Copeau, and Ida Rubinstein, among others-used the myth of Persephone to perform and articulate their most deeply held beliefs about four topics significant to modernism: religion, sexuality, death, and historical memory in art. In investigating the aesthetic and political consequences of the artists' diverging perspectives, and the fall-out of their titanic clash on the theater stage, Levitz dismantles myths about neoclassicism as a musical style. The result is a revisionary account of modernism in music in the 1930s.

As a result of its focus on the collaborative performance, this book differs from traditional accounts of musical modernism and neoclassicism in several ways. First and foremost, it centers on the performance of modernism, highlighting the theatrical, performative, and sensual. Levitz places Christianity in the center of the discussion, and questions the national distinctions common in modernist research by involving a transnational team of collaborators. She further breaks new ground in shifting the focus from "history" to "memory" by emphasizing the commemorative nature of neoclassic listening rituals over the historicist stylization of its scores, and contends that modernists captured on stage and in philosophical argument their simultaneous need and inability to mourn the past. The book as a whole counters the common criticism that neoclassicism was a "reactionary" musical style by suggesting a more pluralistic, ambivalent, and sometimes even progressive politics, and reconnects musical neoclassicism with a queer classicist tradition extending from Winckelmann through Walter Pater to Gide. Modernist Mysteries concludes that 1930s modernists understood neoclassicism not as formalist compositional approaches but rather as a vitalist art haunted by ghosts of the past and promissory visions of the future.


Why did you write this book?
I wrote this book because I wanted to develop an approach to music history that broke with current traditions. In recent decades, Music historians have tended to explain the development of music in the twentieth century from the perspective of musical style, structural features, or social context. Some interpret the meaning of music by situating it in a social and historical context, while others assume structural analogies between musical and historical processes. In my book, I wanted to recreate in detail the process by which multiple collaborators created a musical event, the melodrama Perséphone. My goal was to highlight the arbitrary, contradictory, and unexpected aspects of each collaborator's creative process, and the coincidences involved in their coming together. In this way, I hope to prevent the symbolic reduction of the musical performance, and explode the myths about its historical meaning.

Why have you spent most of your life devoted to André Gide and Igor Stravinsky?
For most of my career, I have conducted archival research on composers and writers. In this book, I study the writer André Gide, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the dancer Ida Rubinstein, the stage director Jacques Copeau, and the choreographer Kurt Jooss.

I believe I study composers and writers in such depth because I am fascinated by the process of creation, and by the creation of music in particular. The people I study are almost always complex Renaissance figures, who were deeply engaged in the worlds of art, literature, music, and dance. Almost all of them lived between several countries, or were forced to live in emigration, and thus developed lives as "cosmopolitans."

Igor Stravinsky is fascinating for study because he is such a complex and controversial figure. For almost twenty years (from about 1922 to 1939) he remained married to his first wife Ekaterina while having an affair with Vera Sudeikina, who became his second wife after Ekaterina died in 1939. Stravinsky also had many other famous affairs, including that with Coco Chanel, during this time. The double life he led tore apart his family. Further, he had a tendency to become involved in intense friendships with younger men, including Arthur Lourié, Pyotr Suvchinsky, and later Robert Craft. These men devoted themselves to him, and often spoke for him in public, and were involved with his wives and lovers in various ways. When Stravinsky died in 1971, a terrible lawsuit divided his sons from Robert Craft and Vera. The consequences of this legal battle has been felt in Stravinsky research ever since. It has remained very difficult to tell the story of Stravinsky's life, and difficult to know him.

In Modernist Mysteries, I tried to capture Stravinsky's intimate and private life as a composer by going back to countless original archival sources, and by observing Stravinsky from close range in one, controlled, situation (the premiere of Perséphone). Rather than document his life historically as biographer Stephen Walsh has done, I wanted to capture how he felt about love, sexuality, gender politics, music, religion, death, and hope, by exploring in very minute detail his approach to setting the myth of Persephone. By concentrating on a day-to-day description of Stravinsky's life in 1934, I hoped to escape some of the clichés that have plagued the literature on this composer to the present day.

André Gide fascinates for different reasons. He was an immensely courageous writer, who single handedly transformed the discourse on pédérastie and homosexuality in his time. Gide resisted the symbolic reduction of human life and simple solutions to moral problems with all his might; he believed that human beings were complex creatures whose motivations and intentions could not be summarized in simple terms. I wanted in my book describe in detail Gide's battle to have homosexuality accepted in his time, because I think the story can teach us a lot about similar battles taking place today. It is chilling to read about how the Catholic intellectuals tried to destroy Gide for coming out as a homosexual in the 1920s, because of the parallel that can be drawn to arguments and ideas against homosexuality still prevalent in the American media today. I believe that knowledge of history is necessary if we are to avoid committing similar mistakes in the future, and that an awareness of Gide's experience and how he confronted it might contribute to greater acceptance and understanding of homosexuality in the present.

Finally, I committed myself in this book to telling the story of Ida Rubinstein, a fabulously wealthy Jewish-Russian dancer who famously danced for Diaghilev in the Ballets russes, and who continued its legacy with her own private company in the 1920s, and especially after Diaghilev died in 1929. I choose to tell the story of modern music from the perspective of a woman, because I find that women have been frequently, and categorically, bracketed out of its history. By situating Ida in the middle of my narrative, I hope to destabilize the patriarchal framework of modern music history. I focus in my analysis on Ida's relationship to Romaine Brooks, and her importance as a Sapphic icon. I distinguish Sapphic (or lesbian) from homosexual history and describe the separate historical development of each community, thereby countering a current trend in musicological writing to intertwine them. I also want to recover Sapphic history: although Gide's writings on pédérastie have received over a century of intense attention, Sapphic dance and dramatic performance has been virtually ignored by music critics and historians alike.

The lives of my main protagonists converge in my book around the historical event of the premiere of Perséphone in 1934. Without this event, their individual paths may never have crossed. One of my main theses is that music often functions as an event, bringing people together and influencing their lives in unexpected ways. The beliefs, capacity for human error, intentions, and decision-making capacities of Perséphone's collaborators determined the course and outcome of their collective project. As a performance event, Perséphone became a part of history, its music no longer reducible to a mere object (ascore) to be read and for its symbolic value alone.

What is the most important theme in this book?
The plot of the book is rooted in the myth of Persephone, and tells the story of a goddess who is betrayed, "dies" (in Gide's interpretation, descends into the underworld), and is "reborn" as spring. I use the key events of this mythical story to explore how the artists who collaborated on the melodrama Perséphone in 1934 responded to issues of faith, love, death, and rebirth (or the future). The book is dedicated to playing music with my father, who died of cancer when I was 14. In it I describe through the myth of Persephone the process of grieving and coming to terms with loss.