Craft's Stravinsky

Through his own artistry, the writer and conductor Robert Craft shows us anew Stravinsky's music -- music Craft knows better than anyone else
More

BORN in Kingston, New York, into a well-read and musical family, the son of a schoolteacher and an imaginative, if struggling, businessman, Robert Craft developed an interest in twentieth-century music when he was quite young. He briefly tried his hand at composing and then directed himself toward a career as a conductor -- one who would concentrate on new music and lesser-known early music, avoiding what he called the "pop masterpieces." He is known as the conductor who introduced on record the madrigals of Gesualdo, works of Schütz, the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, the complete oeuvre of Anton Webern, much Schoenberg, and works by Berg and Varèse and Stockhausen, among many other things. But most of all he is known for his extraordinary relationship to the life and work of Igor Stravinsky, whom he befriended in 1948, when he was twenty-four (and Stravinsky was sixty-six), and for whom he became a musical sounding board, a source of information on music old and new, a substitute and co-conductor, a traveling companion, and an intellectual stimulus. With Stravinsky he wrote seven books in dialogue and diary form, innumerable articles, and several picture books.

Since the age of twelve Craft had hoped to study with Stravinsky. In his early twenties he sought him out in a few preliminary letters, letters seeking advice on how to obtain performance materials for some of Stravinsky's music. His first letter was not answered. But the next one was, and in Stravinsky's cordial initial replies (reprinted in Selected Correspondence) one senses that Stravinsky was increasingly aware of Craft's dedication to and knowledge of his work and of a great many other things, and the young man's potential helpfulness. These letters are surprisingly warm: Stravinsky's salutations progress from "Dear Mr. Craft" (February 10 and August 29, 1947) to "Dear Robert Craft" (October 7) to, after their first meetings, "Dear Bob" (June 1, 1948), "Hallo, Bob" (October 8, 1948), and "Dearest Bob" (November 9, 1948). Craft's letters mention suggested reading, including W. R. Inge's Plotinus and English commentaries on Bossuet, the author of Méditations sur l'Evangile, a favorite book of Stravinsky's -- volumes that Craft later sent to Stravinsky. The letters and books led to requests on Stravinsky's part for assistance in various small matters, to a meeting, and then to a concert both men conducted (Craft was conducting a full orchestra in concert for the first time). Craft became a member of the Stravinsky household for the remaining twenty-three years of the composer's life.
Craft's first meeting with the composer occurred on the day the Auden-Kallman libretto for The Rake's Progress arrived, just in time for Craft to prove useful in matters pertaining to the English language. Indeed, until his arrival the language of daily life in the Stravinsky household had been almost exclusively Russian. Craft appeared in Stravinsky's life at the moment of the composer's most serious creative crisis. The Rake's Progress was to prove the end and culmination of a long phase of work in which Stravinsky managed to inject new life into the traditional forms and materials of tonal music. He found himself out of touch with the younger generation of composers and ignorant of the music that mattered to them (particularly the work of the Second Viennese School, as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern became known) -- music Craft knew, loved, and understood. It is hard to believe today that Stravinsky did not then even know the basic principles of twelve-tone writing. It was Craft who introduced him to, and acted as a guide in explaining, this music; the composer was a fascinated listener at many of Craft's rehearsals and performances. A new phase ensued in Stravinsky's outlook and output. The history of the music of our time would have been significantly different if Stravinsky had not at this stage of life still sought renewal, and if these two men from different backgrounds and generations had never met.

ROBERT Craft is one of the most interesting writers about music there has ever been -- intellectually lively, unflinchingly direct, broad, thorough, literate, and funny. Under the disguise of anonymity and the pretext of being both a witness to and an important participant in a great man's life, Craft has produced an extraordinary body of writing that reveals a strong and independent creative personality, albeit one that does not declare itself as such. Not surprisingly, he has been compared to Boswell. Critic (writing on everything from Hegel to the TV show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), memoirist, travel writer, and scholar (particularly on Stravinsky, in such books as Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents and Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life), Craft may be hard to categorize but is instantly recognizable. He is a master of understatement; multilayered and allusive by nature, he creates bubbles of surprise, feeling, and wonder in the reader's mind through indirection, wit, implication, and restraint. The writing is so compact that few sentences go by without inspiring additional trains of thought in the writer as well as the reader. The books are liberally sprinkled with long footnotes that turn out to be as full of intellectual and anecdotal goodies as the main text. Unlike many intellectuals, Craft often conveys profound emotion, but he never wallows in feeling, preferring to express it through his observations. In descriptions he can be as dry and specific as a doctor reporting on a patient's condition: he knows the exact name for everything, and his interests and reading are so broad that it would seem he cannot be bored (it is generalizations that are dull). He certainly never bores the reader. His vocabulary is immense, but his use of words at the outer reaches of the language never feels pedantic or self-conscious. (Words like "animadvert," "paralipomena," and "introrse" simply come naturally to him, as do apt quotations in several languages.) Nothing human (or medical or sexual) is foreign to him; he records what's there. He is left-leaning in his view of the world, and he sides with the underdog; yet he has lived a life as rarefied as they come. One feels that he is essentially a loner. He is intellectual but not academic, and totally undoctrinaire. Even in a testy mood, even when playing the role of fussy archivist (as in his essay "The Stravinsky Nachlass in New York and Basel"), Craft is entertaining. The quality consistently communicated in his writing is a joy in being alive.

Stravinsky had a personality at once so strong and so well barricaded that he could devote a lifetime to redirecting it, subverting it, and making it submit to rules, and yet still emerge as the dominant voice in twentieth-century music. The plots of so many of his works -- from Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) to Abraham and Isaac (1963) -- represent the theme of sacrifice. In his innumerable "collaborations" with dead composers, his own idiom was made to speak through past idioms. In his writings Stravinsky spoke of finding freedom in constraints, and of the need for the Dionysian to be tamed by the Apollonian. He sought "distance" in Oedipus Rex and the Mass by deliberately employing the "dead" Latin language. Rigorously avoiding a confessional tone, Stravinsky subsumed his own life experiences in ritual and formality -- as in the composition of the serenely "classical" Symphony in C during the year that saw the deaths of his first wife, his mother, and his eldest daughter. For all this, the overwhelming impression made by his music is, to use his words, of "sensation in all its freshness." The entire freight of his psychology, of his commitment -- of his meaning -- is borne by the notes, timbres, and rhythms. Nowhere does the composer emerge before the curtain to ask for sympathy for the struggle that made the music possible.

It is not surprising that this man would also be capable of retaining an unmistakable, irreplaceable presence while writing his Autobiography, a severely reserved book in any case, with a ghostwriter, Walter Nouvel; creating the outline for his Poetics of Music but not the actual text, which was written by Ravel's future biographer, Roland-Manuel; and engaging in an extraordinarily symbiotic working and writing relationship with Craft. Craft speaks of Vera Stravinsky's understanding of the relationship: "From the first, she believed that I, or someone like me, was essential to her husband if he was to remain in the midstream of new music."

WHILE Craft may sometimes be Stravinsky's advocate, he is never his surrogate. These are two separate artists who, for complex reasons, needed each other.

Stravinsky left an extraordinary recorded legacy, conducting for records virtually all his works that required a conductor -- many of them several times, as recording technology improved. (Some of his pieces, including the Serenade in A, were deliberately composed in such a way that each movement would fit on one side of a 78-rpm record.) In some of Stravinsky's last recordings Craft was the actual conductor and Stravinsky the supervisor.

Craft has now completed fifteen Stravinsky CDs for MusicMasters (three are yet to be released), which, with two other recordings, make up his own Stravinsky series. Along with the recordings of Stravinsky himself and those of Pierre Boulez, they are the most important accounts we have of these vibrant and moving works. In some cases they are the only available accounts.

Craft knows this body of work more thoroughly than anyone alive with the exception of Pierre Boulez (who has, unfortunately, avoided performing some of Stravinsky's neoclassical works), and knows firsthand the composer's wishes. He has access to an exceptional group of musicians -- including members of the Orchestra of Saint Luke's and the London Symphony Orchestra. These CDs show Craft's Stravinsky. Although he has written that a doctor once commented on the similarity of their nervous systems, Craft must know well that he and Stravinsky are two distinct musical personalities, with distinct temperaments. And the way a conductor's temperament influences a performance goes beyond the specifics of his or her conscious choices. It is safe to say that even the old performances recorded by Craft in Stravinsky's presence were different from what they would have been in his absence, just as the performances of the New York City Ballet with Balanchine watching from the wings -- as he used to do -- were no doubt changed by his presence.

As a conductor Craft has two traits that disqualify him from the current conducting glamour circuit: self-effacement and fidelity to the score. He is a conductor very much after Stravinsky's heart, one who opposes what most people would think of as interpretation.

Stravinsky wrote in 1924 of his work the Octet:

To interpret a piece is to realize its portrait, and what I demand is the realization of the piece itself and not of its portrait.... In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems; and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be in music of any real interest. The play of the musical elements is the thing.

The negative side of an undertaking like the CD series is that the sheer mass of material to be covered and the consistency of personnel involved may result in some performances that lack a special sense of occasion. Elsewhere when single works by Stravinsky are chosen, however, they tend to be the same few. Craft has compiled these CDs as interesting programs of music and not, as is more common, according to genre (all symphonies, all chamber pieces, all vocal music). Here works large and small and from all Stravinsky's phases rub elbows. Any one disc, then, enables listeners who know only the warhorses to understand better the context in which they were written -- the composer's body of work.

To speak of major and minor pieces in Stravinsky is in any case misleading. Stravinsky wasted no notes, and neither did he toss off trivial works. His output over the years was steady but not voluminous, and from what one can tell, he composed his often fast-tempo, highly energized music at a deliberate pace. There is a chiseled precision to the writing, without filler or formula. Despite the resemblance in some features to Britten, Prokofiev, Milhaud, and Hindemith, each of whom wrote considerably more music, Stravinsky is much closer in working habits and artistic outlook to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The shorter pieces -- Berceuses du Chat, say, and Scherzo à la Russeare each unique, often create their own genre, and have a gemlike radiance. Some, such as the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which lasts a mere eight minutes, have a vastness of impact that makes the question of scale irrelevant, to paraphrase Stravinsky on Webern. To be sure, a few pieces are of an occasional nature (a tiny choral setting of a Balanchine melody, for example), but these, too, put one in touch with music-making on an exceptional level. Even the arrangements, such as the "Star-Spangled Banner" harmonization for male chorus, tell you something you did not know about what music can be. (How remarkable that with the deft removal of a few melodic elements and a rethinking of the harmonization, this rather ugly tune takes on a hymnlike purity and nobility.)

No one could accuse these performances of lacking vitality. If anything, one might occasionally wish for a slower tempo. But the performances are sonorous and dashing, not dry. Craft often takes the slower passages somewhat faster than is marked in the score, whereas Stravinsky often took the same passages drastically slower than marked. In addition, the fast tempi in Craft are usually somewhat faster than Stravinsky's. In Stravinsky's performances there was, then, more contrast in tempo, and also a kind of weight -- particularly in the bass lines -- that is hard to define but has not been captured by any other conductor, including Craft.

In recordings made of Stravinsky in rehearsal one hears his startlingly low and resonant voice (he was a tiny man), latent with a kind of explosive anger, urging on the players and grunting out the bite of attacks and rhythm; one hears an extraordinary primal energy of rhythmic sense. Just as he upended the relationship between harmony and rhythm in some of his music, with harmony becoming static and rhythm becoming the source of motion, so, too, Stravinsky often reversed traditional notions of melody and inner parts, with the melody almost standing still and the inner voices telling the story. The slow tempo at which Stravinsky recorded the final passage of the Symphony of Psalms allows for a great amplification of the expressivity of the inner voices, such as the alto part and the wonderful fourth trumpet line. Craft's version, both ethereal and very brisk, makes one more conscious of the way the rhythmic patterns of the ostinato supporting bass line and the rapt, awestruck chorus interlock. A similar comparison can be made between the Stravinsky and Craft versions of the sublime ending of the 1966 Requiem Canticles. Perhaps it would be inappropriate to expect Craft to duplicate such mystical moments. Craft believes in the prayer; Stravinsky was praying.

On the podium Craft exudes his own cool, repressed joy, like someone who has heard some marvelous news but is holding it back. There is a no-nonsense dynamism to his approach -- he communicates to his listeners an absolute faith in the music itself.

SOME of the CDs fuse into strong entities; others remain simply collections of marvelous pieces. The most outstanding, in my view, are volumes III, IV, and V in the MusicMasters series, and the recording of Orpheus and Le Baiser de la Fée on Koch International Classics. Orpheus is a masterpiece that could have been created only by an older composer (Stravinsky was sixty-five when he wrote it), so seasoned and restrained is its grief -- but it is still full of the freshness of youthful discovery. The line of Craft's performance never falters as it unfolds the tale over the course of a fleet half hour. So vivid is the composer's aural depiction of ancient times that one begins unwittingly to hear it as the re-creation of a memory. But this is also a deeply mid-century American work. The solo playing of London Symphony Orchestra members (especially clarinet, french horn, and cello) could not be better.

Among the delights of Volume V is the gorgeous Ode of 1943. Cobbled together from unused fragments that had been intended for a film, this work is normally treated as a pleasant diversion. Here the first movement is revealed as a luminous wonder of contrapuntal writing. This CD is also notable for its first-rate performance of the exceptionally original and witty work Renard, based on a Russian fable.

Volume IV, is a joy from start to finish, and includes a performance of Agon featuring the superb violinist Rolf Schulte, an excellent Dumbarton Oaks, a fine Scènes de Ballet, and the irresistible Scherzo à la Russe.

Perhaps most valuable of all is Volume III, which contains one of Stravinsky's tenderest, most lyrical, and least-known large-scale works, Perséphone, along with four other unique compositions: Zvezdoliki, in its best recorded performance; Symphonies of Wind Instruments, in its majestic and hitherto unrecorded original version; the Concertino for Twelve Instruments; and the Octet of 1923, in arguably its best recording. Also important to mention is the beautiful recording on Volume VIII of the seldom-heard Cantata of 1952, one of the most moving pieces of the second half of the century, with its unforgettable tenor solo sung peerlessly by Thomas Bogdan. Other listeners might choose to mention different volumes. All contain revelatory performances of works that even now are too little known.

Craft's knowledge of the original manuscripts, corrections of mistakes, understanding of tempi, and familiarity with every note of Stravinsky's complete oeuvre and of the relationships between works make these CDs precious documents. Craft also has a sense of the continuity of Stravinsky's output across stylistic shifts and of the varied performing approaches that Stravinsky himself took over the years with his music. Where other conductors might bring out details the listener has previously missed, or create out of this or that passage a novel effect, sometimes by distorting the composer's intentions, Craft creates amazement by realizing the composer's intentions -- intentions Stravinsky himself may even have forgotten by the time he made his own recordings. For example, many of his pieces, such as Les Noces and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, create a collage of tempi and musical characters that are not only carefully interrelated but also all relate to one basic underlying tempo. When the proper proportions among the competing tempi are attained, the music becomes magically unified; one hears the various episodes as meshing gears in one large machine. What emerges again and again, especially if one applies this sense of the connectedness of the episodes to the often "episodic" ballet scores of Stravinsky's middle period, is a feeling of wholeness.

In our loud and sometimes coarse age how delicate, life-giving, and powerful this music is, achieving expressivity through precision, art, and the musical mot juste rather than with sledgehammer strokes. That this group of CDs is a labor of love and devotion is apparent in every recording. Indeed, the sterling qualities it represents are the very ones that may have prevented it from being properly appreciated as the important musical event it is.





Allen Shawn, a composer, teaches music at Bennington College. A recording of his chamber music was released last fall, and a recording of his piano music will be released this fall.


The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; Craft's Stravinsky; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 97 - 100.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In