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
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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.

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