The Magazine

Music's Greatest Ventriloquist

Robert Craft and his Stravinsky.

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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An Improbable Life
by Robert Craft
Vanderbilt University Press, 560 pp., $39.95

Memories and Commentaries
by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft
Faber and Faber, 336 pp., $35

WHEN IGOR STRAVINSKY died on April 6, 1971, the composer George Perle remarked that "this is the first time in six hundred years that the world has been without a great composer." Dimitri Shostakovich was still alive (he died in 1975), but Shostakovich could not compare with Stravinsky for the range, power, and Mozartian multivariousness of the latter's work. Music isn't Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, and there is no point in attempting to seed composers, but Stravinsky's rank is obviously very high--higher, surely, than any other twentieth-century composer. Thirty-two years after Stravinsky's death, the world is still without a composer of his stature.

We know more about Igor Stravinsky--his methods of composition, his personal habits, family relations, thoughts, point of view, temperament--than we do about any other composer in the history of music. The reason we do is that on March 31, 1948, a twenty-four-year-old musician, a former student of trumpet, piano, organ, and, later, conducting at Juilliard, then quite unknown in the world, called on Stravinsky at his hotel in Washington, D.C., to pay his obeisance to the great master, himself then sixty-five. Offstage, cymbals crashed, harps fluttered, and trombones blared, for this was a meeting of the greatest import for both men and for serious music. W.H. Auden, then working on the libretto for Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress," was also in the room, but next to the young man, whose name is Robert Craft, he turns out to have been a minor player.

Stravinsky and Craft--the coupling of names doesn't have quite the ring of Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hart, or, for that matter, Smith & Wesson. But if never a joining of true equals, Stravinsky and Craft's was nonetheless a genuine partnership, even though it became one slowly, as the young man insinuated himself into the confidence and finally the love of the older master.

As a boy, Craft had become, as he with his penchant for ornate vocabulary might put it, "ensorcelated" with Stravinsky's music. On his first overture to the composer, he used the old Ben Franklin gambit: To get into the good graces of someone more important than you, have him do you a favor rather than the other way round. Before meeting Stravinsky, Craft wrote to seek advice on some technical questions about performing his music and then, in a second letter, asked to borrow a score. Nothing, as Franklin knew, better disposes a man to you than his knowledge that you are already in his debt. Apparently it didn't hurt that Craft, in an attempt at a full-court press, continued to bombard Stravinsky with a flurry of letters.

It didn't hurt, either, that Craft had approached Stravinsky at a time when his career seemed on the decline, or at least at a standstill. As Craft recounted in later years, most of Stravinsky's music was out of print. "He was not recording, and concert organizations wanted him to conduct only 'Firebird' and 'Petrushka.'" He had not yet begun writing twelve-tone music, and thus was isolated from the new generation of serious musicians. Enter Robert Craft.

In time, Craft moved to Los Angeles to live near the Stravinskys, and in June 1949 he moved into their house, where he served as a combination general factotum, guide to the habits of the American natives, ombudsman of their social life, musico-technical assistant, and all but adopted son. Stravinsky was then living with his second wife, Vera, with whom he had no children.

BEING IN THE COMPANY of Stravinsky, basking "in the man himself, whose energy, alertness, and vivacity left everyone else behind," gave Robert Craft a grand high. And why not? Socially and intellectually, the scene was populated with names that we should nowadays designate as A-List, and to the highest power. Craft's diary, "Stravinsky: Chronicles of a Friendship," whose most recent edition appeared in 1994, has an index as high-flown for its day as anyone can imagine: George Balanchine, Marlene Dietrich, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, and various baronesses, flush and broke. Craft himself once went out on a date--to no apparent consequence--with Rita Hayworth, not something he is likely to have done without his Stravinsky connection.