Stravinsky's Run-in with the Boston Police

Jun 29, 2016

No, that’s not Photoshopped – that is Igor Stravinsky at the Boston Police Department in 1940. There is a legendary tale of the Russian composer’s run-in with BPD after performing his controversial arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but first, some background information is needed.

In 1939, the 57-year-old Stravinsky left Paris and headed to Cambridge to deliver a series of speaking engagements at Harvard University throughout the academic year. Given his boundless musical connections in the U.S. and the onset of World War II, Stravinsky chose to settle in Los Angeles, becoming an American citizen in 1945.

Those musical connections allowed Stravinsky the opportunity to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a concert, this particular program including his rather liberal arrangement of the national anthem. The conclusion of the piece was met by a silently confused audience, the awkward tension eventually evolving into collective indignation and rioting. This violent reception culminated with the Boston Police Department dragging Stravinsky off the podium and arresting him for breaching Massachusetts law.

But this tale is untrue.

This tale glamorizes a much less interesting story, but there are some seeds of truth. Stravinsky’s arrangement was on a BSO program twice at an evening concert in January 1944, and it’s true that the listeners found it jarring and unfriendly. After the first performance that night, he was met by BPD officials, who notified him that it is against Massachusetts law to alter the national anthem. Stravinsky quickly complied, and took the second performance off the concluding half of that evening’s program.

And that’s it – the police told him to not do it again, and he obeyed. See – not all that interesting. By the way, in case you were wondering, that image is from Stravinsky’s visa application in 1940, four years before the infamous performance, coincidentally taken at BPD headquarters.

Here is a performance of the offending composition, by the London Symphony Orchestra. Try to refrain from rioting.

The romanticized version of the story has stuck over the years, and is far more ubiquitous than the true account. It is worth noting that a handful of composers really have been arrested, including Satie, Bach, Schubert, and many more.

If you’re new to the wonderful world of Stravinsky, give his “The Rite of Spring” a listen. This one actually did induce riots and fighting at its premiere – the specific events of Stravinsky’s escape subject to speculation, rumors, and glamorization, resulting in countless legendary stories, just like the tale of the national anthem.

Happy Independence Day!

Sources:

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
The New York Times