Alone With Stravinsky: In His Closing Silence, Echo Of ‘Sacre’ Raged

Stravinsky in the 1920s

When Igor Stravinsky died in his Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan on April 6, 1971, the world took immediate notice. The obituary the following day in The New York Times ran at the top of the front page, flanked by stories about the presidents of the United States and Pakistan. It continued inside on one full page and spilled over to the next, alongside a sidebar of tributes by major artists.

Donal Henahan wasted no time in putting the Russian-born composer’s impact in context to open the obituary. “Igor Stravinsky, the composer whose ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ exploded in the face of the music world in 1913 and blew it into the 20th century, died of heart failure yesterday,” he wrote.

But it was a sentence toward the end of the piece that particularly caught my attention: “The composer’s body was taken to Frank E. Campbell’s at Madison Avenue and 81st Street.”

At the time, exactly half a century ago, I was a horn player in my freshman year at the Mannes College of Music, then located on 74th Street between Lexington and Third, about a 10-minute walk from what long has been called The Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel. The funeral home was — and still is — renowned for helping the world say farewell to notable figures. The long and varied list includes Irving Berlin, Joan Crawford, Mario Cuomo, Greta Garbo, George Gershwin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Heath Ledger, The Notorious B.I.G., Joan Rivers, Arturo Toscanini, Rudolph Valentino, and Tennessee Williams.

The 31-year-old Valentino’s 1926 funeral, at a different location, drew nearly 100,000 mourners. The Campbell’s on Madison Avenue faced a mere 20,000 for the funeral of Judy Garland (dead at 47) in June 1969, when fans waited throughout the night to catch a glimpse of their idol’s body in a glass-enclosed casket.

Would Stravinsky, who died at 88, receive anything resembling such adulation? He was, after all, a titan in his field, an innovative artist who influenced generations of musicians and beguiled/fascinated/perplexed audiences worldwide.

Given Stravinsky’s contributions to cultural life for so much of the 20th century, I perhaps naively expected Campbell’s to be swarmed with admirers, which didn’t stop me from taking the short walk from Mannes to the funeral chapel on the pleasant afternoon of Thursday, April 8, to pay my respects.

The opening of ‘The Rite of Spring,’ in Stravinsky’s hand

To my initial surprise, Campbell’s didn’t even appear to be anticipating a crowd. No one stood outside the building as I approached. The lobby was empty, and it had no signage to direct guests to where they might show their gratitude to the composer. A staff member soon appeared to offer assistance. When I said I was there for Mr. Stravinsky, he told me to follow him.

We rode an elevator to the third floor, which was notable for its glaring silence. He took me to a large room with rows of folding chairs and a mahogany casket surrounded by a bounty of white flowers. “That’s Mr. Stravinsky,” he said, and suggested that I sign the guest book before I left.

Whereupon he departed, leaving me alone with Stravinsky — and the sounds of his music racing through my brain. Rhythmic passages from The Rite of Spring gave way to colorful bits of The Firebird, Petrouchka, Pulcinella, and The Fairy’s Kiss. I couldn’t know then that I would play horn and tenor tuba in performances of The Rite of Spring not long thereafter, or later go on as a music critic to write about Stravinsky.

The funeral home on Manhattan’s East Side where Stravinsky was celebrated

At that moment, with only the casket and flowers before me, I wondered how it was possible that Stravinsky wouldn’t be a magnet for musicians, scholars, and listeners who reveled in his radical and enchanting creativity. I sat there for the eternity of five minutes, signed the guest book, and wandered in a daze back to Mannes.

Of course, Stravinsky did prove to be a magnet, if on a more modest scale than celebrities Valentino and Garland. The day after my visit, as the Times had announced in the obituary, Campbell’s would be the scene of a Russian Orthodox service for the composer in the chapel on the main floor.

“Representatives of President Nixon and of the Soviet Union were among the hundreds who overflowed the chapel of Frank E. Campbells,” the Times reported. “Hundreds of music lovers stood in line in the street for more than two hours before the service began at 3 P.M. Many of them were unable to get into the chapel and stood in the lobby, beyond the doors that were opened to allow them to hear the service.

“In the pews before the flower‐covered mahogany coffin were such notables as Artur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Marilyn Horne, Henry Lewis, Sol Hurok and Leopold Stokowski.”

And why not the great choreographer George Balanchine, with whom Stravinsky had collaborated on so many important ballets? The Times provided the answer in its report about the event: “Many of Mr. Stravinsky’s oldest and closest friends, such as George Ballanchine [sic], director of the New York City Ballet, were not present because they had preferred to attend private services at the funeral chapel on Tuesday and Wednesday.”

In the room where I visited Stravinsky on Thursday.

The gondola carrying Stravinsky’s casket to his final resting place in Venice

Several days after the public service, the coffin was flown to Venice for another funeral and then floated by gondola to the cemetery on the island of San Michele for burial near Serge Diaghilev. In May 1913, the Russian impresario had made it possible, as Henahan so aptly put it, for The Rite of Spring to blow the music world into the 20th century.

Writing about my five minutes with Stravinsky would become a personal rite of spring in subsequent decades. As a music critic, I would revisit the experience in early April in 1981 (Akron Beacon Journal), 1991 (The Pittsburgh Press), 2001 and 2011 (The Plain Dealer in Cleveland), and now here in 2021 on the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death.

A theme on an indelible memory with, as it were, four variations.