Yesterday I took a vaporetto out to San Michele, the cemetery island of Venice. It was seven-thirty on a Sunday morning, and my only fellow passengers were several elderly people whom I took to be widows and widowers, bearing flowers for their loved ones. I was preparing to pay my respects to Igor Stravinsky, who loved Venice and held the premieres of The Rake's Progress, Canticum Sacrum, and Threni in the city. (The venues were, respectively, La Fenice, the Basilica di San Marco, and the grand Tintoretto hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.) On April 15, 1971, a lugubrious gondola bore Stravinsky's coffin to San Michele; he was buried a few paces from the grave of Diaghilev, in the Orthodox section of the cemetery. If Diaghilev’s tomb is a bit on the gaudy side, Stravinsky’s, like Mahler’s in Grinzing, is forcefully simple: a horizontal slab with the composer’s name across the top and a cross toward the bottom. Vera Stravinsky is beside him, her grave identical in design. (I omit pictures out of respect for the cemetery’s policy of not allowing photography. The shot above shows Dante’s Boat, a Georgiy Frangulyan sculpture that was installed in the waters near San Michele during the 2007 Biennale and seems to have become a permanent fixture.) A recent visitor had left a piece of paper on which was written the famous E-flat/F-flat dissonance from the Rite. Unable to improve upon that gesture, I placed a pebble among dozens already resting on the slab and thought of what Stravinsky said when Diaghilev asked him how long those chords would go on: “Till the end, my dear.”
I walked on to the Protestant section, which holds Emanuel Wolf-Ferrari, Joseph Brodsky (a recent mourner had left a fedora), and Ezra Pound, occupying a bushy, inconspicuous plot with his companion Olga Rudge. Feeling that Pound seemed overlooked, I scribbled three favorite lines on a piece of notebook paper and offered them up:
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
The words fit the warm, still air of Sunday morning. Finally, after some minutes’ search, I found Luigi Nono, whose monument is beautiful and austere: a rough, irregular piece of rock at the head of a bed of ivy. Here, too, I placed a pebble, though the gesture seemed intrusively sentimental.
Perhaps I should try to explain this morbid habit of visiting composers’ graves. In the summer of 1995, I made my first trip to continental Europe, writing up my travels for the New York Times. (Eternal thanks to John Rockwell for urging me to go, and to Jim Oestreich for publishing the results; my account of music and World War II became the kernel of The Rest Is Noise.) It occurred to me that I could tie together the summer by describing how composers are commemorated in different countries, and so I patronized the relevant cemeteries in each city on my itinerary. I don’t think the piece is one of my best efforts, but I have fond memories of the curious, meandering journey that it records. On my current Italian sojourn, I’ve been catching up with some eminences I missed in 1995. I still have yet to see the master of them all, the one in Leipzig.