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