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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Igor Stravinsky at the White House

President John F. Kennedy entertained many artists at the White House during his administration as a means of expressing his wide-ranging interest in promoting the arts. One of his most notable and intriguing guests arrived on the evening of January 18, 1962, when the president held a dinner in honor of famed Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky. Held at the height of the Cold War, the dinner highlighted the competing cultural visions of the United States and the Soviet Union. And even as it honored Stravinsky and other musical luminaries, the event showcased the artists’ highly individual personas—and even some of their conflicts.

Stravinsky, who had composed masterpieces such as The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, was almost eighty years old yet still quite active as a composer and conductor. He was a musical innovator and had detractors, including famed cellist Pablo Casals who had performed at the White House on November 13, 1961. Casals thought little of the Russian composer’s music and said so. In response, Stravinsky remarked of Casals and another critic, Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly: “they are talking about the trouble with me which is that I must always be doing the latest thing—they say, who have been doing exactly the same old thing for the last hundred and eighty years. Señor Casals offers extracts of his philosophy, too. It is a matter of some simplicities; of his being in favor of peace, for example, and of playing Bach in the style of Brahms.”1

On January 16, Secretary of State Dean Rusk presented Stravinsky with a gold medal in a ceremony at the State Department. While doing so, Rusk remarked that “You have been a citizen of more than one country. We are deeply proud that you have become an American citizen.” The composer hooked his cane over his arm before replying: “I am particularly happy to receive this as an American citizen.” The emphasis was clear—Stravinsky was an American, not a Soviet citizen.2

Igor and Vera Stravinsky arrive at the White House on January 18, 1962.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Piqued that Casals had performed at the White House before him, Stravinsky initially considered refusing the president’s invitation to dinner until his friend Nicolas Nabokov—another Russian-born composer—convinced him to attend. The guest list was stellar, although it did not please everyone. Besides Stravinsky, Nabokov and their wives, it included the president and first lady; conductor Robert Craft (a close friend and associate of Stravinsky’s); conductor Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia; Press Secretary Pierre Salinger; the president’s special assistant Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson; Chicago Sun-Times owner Marshall Field; and the first lady’s sister Lee Radziwill.3

President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy welcomed the entourage at the White House South Portico, wearing no wraps despite the cold weather. Stravinsky seemed content as they walked through the Diplomatic Reception Room and to the State Dining Room, although Nabokov made “droll and unprintable” comments about portraits of former presidents William Howard Taft and Warren Harding as he passed by them. Craft and Nabokov were annoyed at the composition of the visiting ensemble, the former remarking that it was “more a Kennedy-circle dinner, with political payoffs, than an I[gor] S[travinsky] dinner” and the latter complaining that the guest list was “handled God knows by whom and completely absurdly.”4

The president sat next to the composer’s wife Vera at the oval dining table, directly across from Stravinsky and the first lady. They dined on filet of sole mousse and “shoulder of lamb with green beans prepared with almonds and cold stuffed hearts of artichoke,” along with French cheese and a green salad. Dessert consisted of “a parfait with fresh strawberries and little cakes.” It was a sumptuous meal by White House standards, although Vera Stravinsky remarked privately afterwards that it was “a perfect dinner for concierges.”5

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy welcome composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife, Vera.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Dinner conversation was lively. Vera Stravinsky made the president laugh when she told him about how people had panned the first performance of The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. “The audience rose up and struck their canes on the backs of the seats in disapproval,” she said, and then “shouted that the music was horrible.” First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy—wearing “a long white satin sheath skirt and a black, sleeveless overblouse, sparkling with jet beads” and diamond pendant earrings—meanwhile discussed with Stravinsky how he had traveled all over the world to compose and conduct his music.6

At the end of the dinner President Kennedy toasted Stravinsky. “We are honored to have had two great artists here with us in the last months,” he said, apparently referring to Stravinsky and Casals, although Stravinsky took no apparent notice of this mention of his artistic foe. “As a student in Paris,” the president continued, “my wife wrote an essay on Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde and Diaghilev. I understand that you, Mr. Stravinsky, were a friend of Diaghilev. And I was told that rocks and tomatoes were thrown at you in your youth.” Craft thought the president’s toast suitably short and amusing but also “moving”; Schlesinger later commented that Stravinsky—“an amiable man, very tiny, with a manner of twinkling gravity”—responded to it “with immense charm.”7

In keeping with White House tradition, the guests separated after dinner, with the men proceeding into the Red Room and the women the Green Room. Stravinsky, however, simply followed his wife into the Green Room until an aide fetched him and brought him back to join the men. There Kennedy spoke again with Stravinsky, asking him what he thought of a number of other Russian composers including Dmitri Shostakovich. According to Nabokov, Stravinsky replied “in his most courtly manner” that “Mr. President, I have left Russia since 1914 . . . I have not studied or heard many of the works of these composers. I have therefore no valid opinion.” Far from being offended, Kennedy glanced at Nabokov “over Stravinsky’s shoulder and smiled approvingly.”8

The Stravinskys enter the White House accompanied by President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The reception had not gone on for long before Stravinsky signaled that he was ready to leave. According to The Washington Post he was tired from many days of rehearsing for his opera Oedipus Rex and left looking “exhausted—but happy” to be escorted back to his hotel by Nabokov. Stravinsky provided a different explanation, however, in a letter that he wrote on February 14 to his friend Pyotr Suvchinsky summarizing the night’s events:

"At this small dinner party there was an atrocious selection of 25 people who had nothing in common with me. There was a lot of drinking and everyone (especially I) drank too much. When the President’s secretary [Schlesinger, who confirmed the account] asked me, 'How do you feel, Maestro?' the maestro answered, 'drunk,' and we went home early, because what are we to do at such parties other than drink. . . I think I was not invited for my music so much as for my age and, I think, to be ahead of the Russians, whom I will not visit. To hell with them!"9

Despite such criticism—which was entirely typical of Stravinsky’s unfiltered personality—he clearly remembered the visit with fondness and gratitude. In January, 1964 he commemorated John F. Kennedy—who had been assassinated on November 22, 1963—by composing Elegy for J.F.K., a vocal piece with words by W.H. Auden. “I felt that the events of November were being too quickly forgotten,” the composer told The New York Times, “and I wished to protest.”10 No piece that Stravinsky wrote better suited the mood of a nation.