Souvenirs sur Igor Strawinsky  by  Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz  (Gallimard, 1929)  Selection translated from the French by  David H. Pickering

Souvenirs sur Igor Strawinsky
by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz
(Gallimard, 1929)

Selection translated from the French by David H. Pickering

The Swiss novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz published his Souvenirs sur Igor Strawinsky in 1929. This memoir, the opening chapter of which is excerpted here in a first-time English translation, arrived fourteen years after the two artists first met on the shores of Lake Genevathe initiation of a friendship that grew into several collaborations, most notably the libretto for L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) in 1918. At the time of their meeting, Stravinsky was writing pieces that were inspired by Russian folk tales, and that could be performed with relatively modest instrumentation, his major sources of income, including commissions from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, having dried up due to the war. Ramuz, meanwhile, had returned to his native Vaud the previous year to be with his young family after a decade spent in Parisian literary circles. Both men were paradoxically seeking modernity in the oldest truths: the land and man’s marriage to it. In Ramuz, Stravinsky found a librettist capable of painstakingly adapting the complex rhythms and cadences of his modernized Russian folk music into the local French idiom; in Stravinsky, Ramuz found an opportunity to break from the formality of Parisian letters and experiment with a form of linguistic primitivism.

For Ramuz, the recollections recorded in Souvenirs were at once a secret message in a bottle and an open letter to Stravinsky, recalling their collaboration and friendship during their five years spent as neighbors. Stravinsky had since become an international celebrity and moved to France, where he had a lucrative contract with Pleyel. Ramuz makes no secret of feeling forgotten, even forsaken, and the text reads as much like a subtly accusatory love letter to an indifferent lover as it does a memoir. A response did come, though perhaps not in the form that Ramuz had hoped: Stravinsky made a few small corrections and annotations to the manuscript, and on the bottom of the last page responded, “As predicted, your bottle was delivered to me and uncorked.”

—David H. Pickering

Igor Stravinsky: Recollections on a Theme

I met Stravinsky, I think it was, in the fall of 1915, which is to say just after the grape harvest had ended in the tiny hamlet of Treytorrens where I’d been living. Situated on the lake between Cully and Rivaz, Treytorrens consists of three or four grand white houses belonging to the landowners; while, just next door, there are three or four other colorless dwellings where the winemakers reside. I was in one of the landowners’ homes, the largest one and nearest to the water; it was here that Ansermet, then the conductor of the Kursaal Orchestra, escorted Stravinsky on a visit from Montreux. In the scarcely fifteen-kilometer ride from Montreux to Treytorrens, the train never once abandons the lake shore, edging the water so closely in places that the tracks pass over a dyke in front of my house. The railroad is still there, but—I record this for the sake of the very young and to mark the passage of time—the locomotives still ran on steam back then. It was that time of year when the vineyards of Lavaux are decked in perpetual plumes of white, black, and mottled mist that might later be seen clinging to the stalks and between the walls, blowing up or down the slope (depending on the wind), sometimes in the upper vineyard and sometimes in the lower, where lies a second set of tracks called the “high line.” It was the lower line that these gentlemen took to visit me, approaching from the Levant on the sunrise side. I knew next to nothing of Stravinsky then, only that Ansermet took him for a “great” musician. I knew he was Russian. I knew that, among other works, he had composed a ballet that was becoming famous (everything in art is inchoate): this was Petrushka. I knew that urgent family matters had led him to move to one of our mountain sanatoriums a year or two earlier, and that he had returned only recently. Those were his outward circumstances; of his personal life I truly knew nothing. Ansermet, as I said, was far better informed. He spoke of the man who, unbeknownst to me, had already composed Firebird and The Rite of Spring, with the admiration of an enthusiastic specialist; in fact, he had recently published an article arguing for Stravinsky’s position at the forefront of contemporary composition, an opinion countless critics have since adopted—but only after the fact. I discovered, to my dismay, that I was the complete opposite of an expert, and it was as little more than a winemaker (albeit a winemaker with no vines, who was nonetheless content to honor the winemakers’ custom of inviting acquaintances over to sample the vin nouveau at harvest time) that I arrived at the nearby Epesses station at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Work is less pressing at that time of year, and indeed, it hardly presses at all; we have all the time necessary to properly receive friends, to escort them down to the cellar and draw from great groaning casks the first small glass of an odorous milky substance, which we then present to them, followed by another glass, and yet another, all the while not uttering a word. Or so the ritual goes. It is only after the fourth or fifth taste that we break the silence: “Well, what do you think?” Of course, I had neither cask nor harvest, yet it was at harvest time and, for lack of proper occupation, as a winemaker that I made my way to Epesses station. Here, only the most local of trains deigned to stop. From one of these trains, during the war, alighted first a tall fellow with a handsome dark beard whom I recognized, then a shorter, beardless man, opposite the vineyard’s abrupt slope and its terraced walls, opposite the small bone meal factory and the double flight of stairs leading up to the “lookout,” a term which I’m not very fond of, coined by excursionists and hoteliers. A tall fellow with a dark beard followed by a short, or at least shorter, beardless man: those are my only recollections. It would be interesting for someone to attempt to write their “memoirs” with absolute candor; it would quickly become obvious that, notwithstanding a resemblance of names, the author’s memory usually plays only a supporting role. The mere effort that goes into conjuring up the objects or events the author wishes to convey necessarily leads to complete fabrication—and without the author even realizing it. Perfect candor would have to allow for a maddening number of ellipses in the text, each supposing a lapse in the material itself—the elusive, shifting, and ill-defined stuff of memory—as though billows of smoke were passing over it, like that mist upon the vines, like the vapors that rise off the lake on warm days, revealing the stalks in all their raggedness. I can conjure many Stravinskys, whenever I wish, but never the one who should fit right here in the company of all the others. I don’t have the slightest recollection what I said to him, nor he to me; I remember only that it was balmy and mild beneath a bright but overcast late-autumn sky. The thin gauze of clouds could not blot it out entirely, as though its glass were lined with oil-paper through which the sun, though impossible to pinpoint, still shone. The vines were shedding the last of their leaves; everywhere the ground was already peeking through the stalks, everywhere the walls had reappeared. Never does the vineyard look so lovely as when the vines are relegated, as plants and by their very leafiness, to a supporting role, as happens in late autumn, winter, and early spring, after and before their overabundant and uniform foliage (despite the sulfur spray) has masked the architecture of the terrain; when nature’s work has outdone man’s. I might point out in passing that if we Vaudois were the “nature-lovers” we purport to be; if we truly aspired to live up to that name, we would feel singularly out of place in the Lavaux countryside, which is in every way the antithesis of nature. Not only is this country of Lavaux built entirely by human hands but its crops, too, owe everything to man. When you think about it, nothing is less “natural” than a grapevine, which it won’t suffice to say man modified from the start, but which, it must be emphasized, is modified every day by all kinds of human interventions like grafting, clipping, debudding, and thinning. In the vineyards, nature only fully manifests itself with the eventual growth (which is monitored and constantly corrected) of the leaves and grapes; so that it’s when the leaves are no longer or not yet there (allow me this paradox, which is only really a half-paradox) that this land truly comes into its own. Its beauty lies in its rhythm, the rhythm of its movements, its architecture and topography; and while man can’t be said to have shaped these, all his efforts over the centuries have tended to make them more regular, better defined, more obvious and orderly, even as the vegetation itself masks them; this land is only completely itself when it’s bare. The day Stravinsky arrived beneath a sky of pale stone, the land, too, was turning back to soil and to stone, with its magnificent forward and backward lurching, its humps and bumps, like those of a great body stirring even in its stillness; the leaves on it were scraggly and scarce, withered by blight and stained red, lovely canary yellow and yellow-orange by the season, creating splashes of color that were a little too sporadic, but still vibrant; and I was glad this country was starting to come alive again to welcome him who was already, then, one of its great friends. I don’t remember whether on that particular day Stravinsky wore (as he did every now and then) the small suggestion of a mustache under his nose, which made him resemble Peter the Great (whom he dislikes; Stravinsky has large features, with a big nose, which would go perfectly with a wig); all that I remember (I will go on trying to be sincere) is that we had gone to tea, or “the 4 o’clock” as we call it here, at La Crochettaz. We had climbed two flights of stairs. We had passed the small bone meal factory. We had crossed several Cézanne landscapes, which wasn’t lost on Stravinsky, who loved Cézanne. We had then turned into the village of Epesses to follow the mountain road, and finally we came to that little pink café, so flush with the hillside and set so far back into it that you hardly realize it’s there until it’s actually upon you, since it’s merely a low-lying façade that narrowly skirts the road, itself narrowly squeezed between the upward and downward slopes. That was where we started to get acquainted, on the terrace abutting the café, on the sunset side to be precise, high above the great wall, beneath the flat-pruned plane trees, seated at one of those wooden, painted green tables; in other words, surrounded by and facing a completely meridional landscape that is at the same time the epitome of the Vaudois; for these are the banks of the Rhône. And if for whatever reason we’d been so tactless as to miss the half-liter of Dézaley they then served us, its bouquet and color wouldn’t have let us ignore it for long.

We made each other’s acquaintance among things and by way of them. Once again, I don’t remember anything about the subject of conversation: what I do remember is the perfect harmony the bread and wine afforded us. For instance, I could immediately see that you, Stravinsky, like me, love bread when it’s good and wine when it’s good, bread and wine together, each for the other, each through the other. This is where your personality and, by the same token, your art—in other words, all of you—begin; I took the outermost path to this inner knowledge, the most terrestrial road. There was no “artistic” or “aesthetic” discussion, if memory serves; but I can still see you smiling at your full glass, the bread you were brought, the carafe. I can see you picking up your knife and the quick, decisive gesture with which you separated the rind from the lovely semi-firm cheese. I came to know you amid and through the kind of pleasure I saw you derive from things, the so-called “humblest” ones; a certain brand and quality of delectation that gets the whole being interested. I love the body, as you know, because I can scarcely separate it from the soul; mostly I love the great unity of their total participation in such a maneuver, where the abstract and concrete find themselves reconciled, where they explain and elucidate one another. For many young ladies, a musician is a big forehead with “ideas” inside (God only knows which ones!): you showed me right away that the musician who invents a sound might be the furthest thing from a specialist, and that he distills it from a living substance, a substance common to all of us but with which one must first make direct and human contact. I became a musician too, I felt myself getting close to you and to music over the bread and wine; the latter had grown and colored between the terraced walls that came cascading down over us and then continued tumbling down the other side of the road to the lake; the former was a big rustic loaf with a hard crust, baked golden on the plateau not far from here. I could already sense that not only would these particulars and the fondness I had for them not separate us, but they would contribute to our understanding; these shared tastes would even allow me to partake in a form of music that I could see first existed materially for you, in the object, before coming into being inside you through all the gates of the body: touch, taste, smell, vision, all of your senses open and docile so that in a way, this music never ended or began, it was born, it could be born of anything, without being confined in advance by its own definition. Simply put, what I perceived in you was a hunger and a feel for life, the love of all things living, and that all living things were for you already potentially music. Your diet was mine. I’m not sure (the connection isn’t obvious) why I thought then of Nietzsche’s line, “I love him who seeks to create higher than himself, and thus succumbs;” the one I loved in you (and still do) was he who, on the contrary, seeks to create lower than himself and does not succumb. I mean (more or less) he who draws his certainties from below and, making sure they are solid, climbs atop them, if climb he can. In other words, one has to be a materialist first (you were), and then a spiritualist if one is able and willing (I think you were), but never and under no circumstances an idealist. The most mediocre German artists (to get back to Nietzsche) have the heads of geniuses and hands like everybody else’s. I don’t mean that you have an ordinary head, but I delight in forgetting your features and looking elsewhere in you for that mysterious power of creation that we mistake for thought because it can be everywhere (this creative power, or the traces of it): in the gait, the waist, the cut of the shoulders, a way of standing, a way of being in action, a way of being at rest. You aren’t very tall, Stravinsky; you don’t look very strong, at least not from afar. And yet you are very strong, in secret, because you want to be and because you need to be. Soon you’d be doing Muller exercises every morning. I watched you, at ease in your body on the terrace of La Crochettaz, and you were already what you’ve always been to me—I mean one of that rare species who is a man in the fullest sense, neither a social type, nor the mere product of an education system, nor an “artist” or specialist, nor an expert in anything. Just the opposite of a specialist or an expert—a man, and a whole one. I mean one who is both refined and primitive, someone sensitive to life's complexities, but also to the basics; capable of the most complicated mental gymnastics, but also the most direct and spontaneous reactions. For one must be both savage and civilized; one shouldn’t only be a primitive, but one must also be a primitive.

We ate, we drank; we were brought a second and third jug of wine. And time flew by. Already evening had crept up unnoticed. Before us the pine table, painted green, had gone to black. I had to strike a match to find the entrance to the stairs in the wall along the road.

For it was now a matter of reaching the house where dinner awaited us a hundred meters below, and the slope is so steep that a staircase leads down between the terraced walls. While I struck matches, hesitating before each of those doors made of iron and wood, painted grey or red or green, new or old, that were cut into the wall bordering the road, we could clearly make out the house’s big brown roof, below our feet and just in front of our knees, lit up by an electric light that was perched above the neighborhood. We could also make out in its immediate vicinity, albeit poorly and from an angle, the winemakers’ homes displaying an illuminated window or two in their façades. Further off, the water was an empty space, running so seamlessly into night that it became the void itself. All that remained to guide us were these lights and this vague patch of roof a hundred meters below, standing as we were at the highest part of a wall, so high up in fact that the emptiness was not only out in front of us, but also to either side. It’s a nice walk down in daylight (the climb up is less so, especially in July and August); it’s the definition of a drop: straight down in front of you, without a shoulder, bend, or switchback, but it’s not a mountain climber’s drop either, for here you’re on stairs, you’re in a country that, to beleaguer the point, is built entirely by man; it’s like being high in a belfry where three of the walls have fallen; you’re not in the wilderness, but among men (that’s the beautiful part). You’re on crenelated walls with crenels that form as many steps; you can let yourself fall if you’re so inclined, but it won’t be on pebbles or between rocks, for rock is shapeless, while here all the stones have been carefully hewn and no less carefully set in cement. This region has been so built up by man that for three months out of the year it literally shuts its iron doors to passersby while the grapes are ripening, and the doors are only opened again after the harvest. Thankfully they were open that evening. We had only to let ourselves fall toward the little lights, which in turn rose up to meet us.

Translated from the French by David H. Pickering


Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947) was one of the most prominent French-Swiss writers of the twentieth century, and is remembered for his novels evoking the struggle of mountaineers and farmers against the forces of nature and myth.

David H. Pickering is a New York-born Paris-based screenwriter and translator. A graduate of France’s national film school, La Fémis, he has co-written several short and feature films, and has subtitled dozens of French films into English.


Banner image courtesy of Stian Mathisen: “The vineyard at Château de Pommard in Bourgogne (Burgundy), France” (CC 2.0)