Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Stravinsky and Craft

Igor Stravinsky was and is in many ways a kind of iconic composer of 20th century modernism. His bold early works like Petrushka and the Rite of Spring are absolute classics of their kind, standing in the front rank of all music composed in the 20th century. The way in which they tended to irritate the more conservative listeners was also characteristic of much 20th century music. His progression from style to style was a trait shared with Picasso. Finally, his need to describe, explain and promote his music was a tendency that, while it began in the 19th century, certainly reached a climax in the 20th. To this end, his constant companion, amanuensis, publicist and assistant was Robert Craft. Richard Taruskin, in his magisterial history of Western Music, tiptoes around Craft's role, only briefly mentioning him as a conductor. But The Nation has a sizable article on Craft and Stravinsky titled "The Alter Ego of Robert Craft" (which seems to have things rather backward). Let's have a look:
from 1948 to 1971, Craft was inseparable from the music and household of Igor Stravinsky. The exact workings of their partnership, however, remain a matter of controversy. Not exactly an amanuensis, Craft was a constant companion, artistic consultant, coauthor, co-conductor, ghostwriter (for both the composer and his wife), and, after Stravinsky’s death, keeper of the flame. To some extent, he was also a co-composer, or so he claimed. As early as 1952, he persuaded Stravinsky to rescore a movement of his Cantata—no small matter, considering that Stravinsky is generally considered one of the greatest masters of orchestration. The Cantata also marked Stravinsky’s first move in the direction of serial composition, a change for which Craft took full credit.
How important was Craft's role? If we take him as witness, very important indeed:
In Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, published in 1994, Craft rejected the usual notion that he was Stravinsky’s Boswell, arguing instead for a much grander partnership in the spirit of the journal-keeping Goncourt brothers: “I would lean over his shoulder as he wrote, each of us acting as the other’s intercessory.” Craft similarly claimed in Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life (1992) that the series of conversations between him and the composer, which began to appear in book form in 1958, were “the only published writings attributed to Stravinsky that were largely by him.” Yet Craft also stated in Glimpses that Stravinsky’s English wasn’t fluent enough for a sustained dialogue—an astounding admission, because the Conversation volumes present the composer as a contemporary Dr. Johnson with a masterful command of English, an Oxbridge don’s breadth of cultural reference, and a curmudgeon’s zero tolerance for fools, critics, and most other conductors. In short, “largely by him” was a fiction; the actual words were Craft’s. If you read the articles, letters to the editor, and testy rejoinders that Craft wrote for The New York Review of Books long after Stravinsky died, you’ll find that their style is indistinguishable from the distinctive, combative one that Craft says was entirely Stravinsky’s own.
At least one biography of Stravinsky takes a great deal of space to discuss Craft's role in detail and, as a result, prompted a literary battle royal between the author, Stephen Walsh and Craft himself.

Let's have a listen to Robert Craft conducting Stravinky's ballet Agon. This is part one with the Orchestra of St. Luke's:


Ken F. said...

From what I've read, much of the published Conversations were to a large degree fabricated by Craft. Craft attached himself to Stravinsky at the beginning (good career move!). Craft did play an important role in postwar American musical life, introducing Stravinsky to the Second Viennese School and acting as a go-between for Stravinsky and Schoenberg -- when Craft met Schoenberg, Schoenberg asked Craft how Mr. Stravinsky was doing, and was impressed that Craft knew Schoenberg's Herzgewaesche. Schoenberg and Stravinsky never met, even though they lived in LA. Apparently there were opportunities at parties they both attended, but Stravinsky was afraid somehow to approach Schoenberg. Mrs. Stravinsky, though, liked to drive, and did drive to the Schoenberg's home (after Schoenberg's death) and met with Mrs. Schoenberg and their daughter Nuria.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, there certainly seem to be clues that it was really Craft's eloquence on display in the books rather than Stravinsky's.

Stravinsky and Schoenberg, living in the same neighborhood in Los Angeles and never meeting one another is pretty fascinating. But I can understand it. They were the great rivals of 20th century music. But it would have been very interesting to hear their conversation if they had met! Probably chat about royalties or something!