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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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.