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
Memoirs
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.

Stravinsky, as Craft acknowledges in his autobiography, "An Improbable Life," had his own motives for taking on this young man. He realized that Craft, for whom the two sacred works were then Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Arnold Schönberg's "Pierre Lunaire," knew a good deal about "new tendencies (and new contrivances) in music from which he felt isolated." That he spoke English, in which Stravinsky wanted to improve himself, and had a native's instinct for American culture, were also in Craft's favor. The young Craft was useful to Stravinsky in a thousand roles, some of them, at least at first, embarrassingly close to that of errand boy. And he obtained his services for nothing--it was years before Craft received a regular salary for his work with the composer--for Stravinsky, despite bursts of generosity and personal extravagance, tended to throw nickels around as if they were manhole covers.

Craft soon enough established his indispensability to the composer and to his household. He was no mere amanuensis, musical version. He widened Stravinsky's culture, making the great man vastly more Anglophone. Meanwhile Craft quickly cosmopolitized himself, learning French, German, Italian. He helped Stravinsky jump, as he puts it, "on the twelve-tone bandwagon," turning him into one of those serial killers (as people opposed to such music like to say). He convinced Mrs. Stravinsky to return to her painting. They called him "Bobsky," sometimes "Bobinsky."

No exact precedent exists for the relationship between Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft. Craft was no Boswell, skipping along to keep up with his great man, stroking and stoking him, putting questions right into his kitchen. Nor was he a slaveringly sycophantic Eckermann, sitting at the feet of Goethe in Weimar, recording the great man's opinions for a posterity that would be slightly bored by them. While Craft never questioned the inequality inherent in his relationship with Stravinsky, neither did he allow himself to be daunted, let alone cowed by his secondary position. The younger man influenced the older in ways subtle and serious. Both Stravinskys came to trust his judgment on matters musical and extra-musical.

"THOSE WHO WISH to be near great men must be prepared for demands on their selflessness," wrote Lillian Libman, who late in Stravinsky's life worked as his manager and press secretary, "and they must also be willing, incidentally, to withhold their own opinions." Robert Craft, she goes on to say, "never fulfilled the latter requirement, but he certainly met the first." Craft seemed to know exactly how far he could push Stravinsky, how much he could rely on his good will with the temperamental genius. In an essay entitled "A Centenary View, Plus Ten," Craft calls Stravinsky "quarrelsome and vindictive"--and so, if one may say, has Craft seemed since Stravinsky's death. He writes that "no one before ever seems to have contradicted him, or questioned a patently foolish statement (of which he was as capable as anyone else)." Somehow, Stravinsky took both from the forty-one-years-younger Craft.

One great service Craft rendered was in leading Stravinsky through his own memoiristic writing, a good deal of which took the form of Craft (R.C.) asking the composer (I.S.) questions both historical and methodological. These questions allowed Stravinsky to release a good deal of fascinating information that might otherwise have been lost. Stravinsky was born in 1882 and was already a figure of international fame before he was thirty, when he began composing music for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. His charmingly elegant music for the ballet "The Firebird" (1910) brought him such acclaim that someone, confusing the man with the work, and forgetting the exact name of the work, referred to him as "Mr. Fireberg." Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" (1913), a work that, by smashing all conventional notions of harmony, became one of the great artistic succès de scandale of the last century, placed its composer permanently in the avant-garde pantheon.

AS A MAN who had achieved great fame young, Stravinsky met everyone. At the party given by the Princesse Violet Murat, in which Marcel Proust and James Joyce were in the same room, Stravinsky was also present, not yet knowing who Joyce was and listening to Proust extol the late quartets of Beethoven. Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Maurice Ravel, Vaslav Nijinsky, Gustav Mahler, Paul Valéry, Romain Rolland--Stravinsky had known them all and met most of them as an equal. Having his memories of them recorded in the tranquility of old age, as they are with pleasing lucidity in "Memories and Commentaries," seems a fine and valuable thing.

Owing to the various "conversations," we also have a sense of Stravinsky's general point of view, which is always interesting and sometimes highly comic. One of my own favorite Stravinsky stories, repeated in "Memories and Commentaries," is about the time he wrote music for Billy Rose's show "The Seven Lively Arts." After the show's Philadelphia opening Stravinsky received a telegram from Rose reading: YOUR MUSIC GREAT SUCCESS STOP. COULD BE SENSATIONAL SUCCESS IF YOU WOULD AUTHORIZE ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT RETOUCH ORCHESTRATION STOP. BENNETT ORCHESTRATES EVEN THE WORKS OF COLE PORTER. Stravinsky wired back: SATISFIED GREAT SUCCESS.

Marvelous bits, witty and wise, are recorded almost by the way in "Memories and Commentaries." "Diaghilev was no intellectual," Stravinsky at one point notes. "He was much too intelligent for that. Besides, intellectuals never have any real taste, and no one has ever had such great taste as Diaghilev." The tastelessness of intellectuals, in my experience, is quite true. Stravinsky remarks that he finished "The Rite of Spring" in "a state of exaltation" and "while suffering a raging toothache." He was not averse, we learn from Craft, to referring to critics as "hemorrhoids," or remarking, apropos of small English fees for conducting, that he accepted one merely "to establish a record." Stravinsky had a low opinion of conductors generally, thinking them much-overvalued, highly unoriginal people, which puts a nice hole in the maestro mystique. Craft fills us in on Stravinsky's work habits (painstaking) and bathing habits (slapdash). He quotes Stravinsky quoting Erik Satie: "To have turned down the Légion d'Honneur is not enough. One should never have deserved it." Stravinsky himself, sensible man, was chiefly interested in prizes that brought cash with them.

On a more serious front, one learns from "Memories and Commentaries" of Stravinsky's great regard for the music of Tchaikovsky and Schubert and his low regard for that of Liszt. Monteverdi was especially important to him. In his last years, he listened to Beethoven almost to the exclusion of anyone else, and claimed that of the late quartets the C# minor was one in which nearly everything is "perfect, inevitable, unalterable. It's beyond the impudence of praise, too; if not of criticism."

If Craft orchestrated Stravinsky's conversation, he also made small but serious changes in his music. Some of these came about through discussion of Stravinsky's compositions, some through rehearsals of works about to be performed. Craft, too, soon became known as the leading interpreter of Stravinsky's music, though the composer didn't really believe in interpretation: best, he felt, to play the notes and observe the tempi as written. Craft is undoubtedly correct when he claims that he provided the "path" to the new music that Stravinsky began to compose and when he says that "I do not believe Stravinsky would ever have taken the direction that he did [in his later music] without me."

How splendid it would have been to have had the views of their own music and that of their contemporaries and predecessors of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Alas, they all lacked a Robert Craft.

A COMPLICATION ARISES, however, over the question of how much in these printed conversations is pure Stravinsky, how much is Stravinsky put through the filter of Craft, and how much might be Craft alone speaking through Stravinsky. (Craft also wrote longish, quite brilliant letters over the signature of Vera Stravinsky.)

This is the subject of a controversy of long standing. In his autobiography, Craft tells us that the place to find the closest proximity to the truth about his contribution to the public literary persona of Igor Stravinsky is in a review written by Paul Driver in the London Review of Books of January 23, 1986. There one finds Driver writing that the much praised prose style of Stravinsky is in reality "Craft's prose." People who have elsewhere recorded the composer's speech--see, for example, Paul Horgan in "Encounters with Stravinsky"--will recognize that, however brilliant and amusing he may have been, he was simply not capable of the subtleties of syntax, irony, and wit with which Craft has endowed him. Driver writes that "while Stravinsky was presumably pleased to have his language souped up by a stylist like Craft, he was clear from the start that the 'conversations' were essentially Craft's own writing." Driver thinks this on the whole a good thing, and thanks Craft, whose "industry, dedication, and literary skill . . . have gone to devise a persona in which Stravinsky could say, in English, the most marvelous and necessary things," and that therefore we ought to be grateful to him.

Others feel that gratitude is not the proper response. In a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, David Schiff, author of a study of the composer Elliott Carter, writes that it will take years to disentangle what was said and believed by Stravinsky, and what by Craft. He also accuses Craft, in "Memories and Commentaries," of revisionism, leaving out of this newest book opinions from other books that haven't held up over time, among them Stravinsky-Craft's dismissing of Benjamin Britten and Olivier Messiaen, and overrating the music of Stockhausen. Perhaps the musicological industry should be even more grateful to Robert Craft for having left them a mess the cleaning up of which will provide them with years of work.

AS SOMEONE whose knowledge of serious music is fully two rungs down from that of a dilettante, I have a chiefly extra-musical interest in the Stravinsky-Craft relationship. A great Henry James-like story is buried in this relationship, awaiting a writer with sufficiently broad culture and deep understanding to write it. Craft has written that he himself even now does "not yet understand the real relationship, . . . personal, professional, psychological, cultural," that he had with Stravinsky.

The Jamesian story is that of a young man, aware of his limitations, who is able to connect the small red wagon of his talent to the powerful engine of a genius, behind which he comes to realize that, if he hangs on, he will eventually be driven into Jerusalem. Thrilled by the opportunity it allows him of living on a plane well above his dreams--his first weeks with Stravinsky, Craft writes in his autobiography, were "the most exciting of my life," for he found himself in the company of musical celebrities, consuming strange and wonderful foreign food and drink, and above all spending time with the man himself, who "dominated not only gatherings of people but even his physical surroundings"--the young man soon recognizes that such chance as he has to leave a mark in the world is through his connection to genius. In his autobiography, Craft quotes Isaiah Berlin writing to him, "your labours for, with, about the immortal figure whom you now know better than anyone, assure you a place not merely in heaven (on which I am a poor authority) but on earth, too."

The story now takes a slightly macabre turn. Our young man, once established in the household, finds that he is in a position to influence the master. He renders himself indispensable, and the genius and his wife end up becoming quite as dependent on him as he on them. Soon he is performing the odd role of intellectual ventriloquist, speaking through the man whose thoughts, now indistinguishably intermingled with his own, command much greater attention than his speaking in his own voice could ever hope to do. The genius and he are joined not at the hip but by a hyphen: Stravinsky-Craft.

A successful story needs not only a subject but a theme. Tricky terrain begins here. Might the theme be that one cannot swap families without hidden expenses being added to one's spiritual tab? Robert Craft in fact loved his parents and never did learn what they thought of his transfer of allegiance to chez Stravinsky. In his diaries, Craft on October 4, 1953, wrote: "My deepest problem: I have changed families and at a terrible cost substituted my ideal family for my real one. Where I am now is exactly where I thought I wanted to be ten years ago, the old story of getting what you think you want."

Stravinsky had a life before the advent onto the scene of Craft, and he continues to have a life (in posterity) long after his own death. But can it be said that Craft has had a life after Stravinsky? The ubiquitous (in everyone else's memoirs and book indexes) Stephen Spender thought, "Bob couldn't face life without Stravinsky." After quoting that remark in his autobiography, Craft responds in a footnote, "I knew I could continue to live in different circumstances." Yet he also refers to the time "between 1948 and 1971, when I used to be Stravinsky's 'Bob,'" to which he adds: "(Who am I now?)"

ROBERT CRAFT has continued to conduct, having established a reputation as a conductor of modern music. He has had the vast Stravinsky papers and other matters Stravinskian to deal with. He has stood guard over the flame of Stravinsky's reputation, and my guess is that, as long as he lives, no one will be permitted to write a biography of Igor Stravinsky with which he will not find horrendous fault. As for Craft himself writing Stravinsky's biography, he remarks, rightly, that he played too large a role in the later years of the composer's life even to consider writing such a book.

The Stravinsky-Craft story also contains a fine Jamesian irony. This is that, while Craft has now lived more than thirty years since the death of the composer, there is a strong sense in which, without his Stravinskian connection, Craft's is the story of a less-than-pleasant man who has had the usual share of domestic and health crises. He has gone on to write occasional criticism in the New York Review of Books and other places, but, unless he is writing about Stravinsky, his writing--carping, crabbed, often pridefully pedantic--does not win admiration, or even generally hold attention.

The final Jamesian irony is that Robert Craft is able to write supremely well only as a ventriloquist, requiring no less than an authentic genius for his dummy.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.