Stravinsky Crafted Once Again

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is an international writer and journalist based in Bordeaux. His commentaries and reviews appear in the International Herald Tribune, American Spectator, and Facts & Arts, among other publications.

In the picture Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky

Robert Craft knew from an early age that his considerable musical gifts would never be quite enough to make him a great composer, conductor or performer. He decided that instead he would attach himself, Boswell style, to a great musician and chronicle the creative process of a truly monumental personage. 

We are all fortunate that he chose Igor Stravinsky as his subject.

Craft describes the moment lightning struck: ”On April 7 1940 I heard a live broadcast of Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring with the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall and resolved to dedicate my life to music, particularly his.” 

Craft and Stravinsky made an odd couple in the contemporary arts world for more than 20 years, Craft with his clean-cut, horn-rimmed good looks and the diminutive Stravinsky trotting alongside, becoming more troll-like with each passing year. They lived closely together, sometimes under the same roof, as Craft collaborated with, nudged and protected the awkward Russian genius. Stravinsky’s wives and children came and went.

Stravinsky, who died in 1971 at the age of 88, is acknowledged as probably the greatest composer of the 20th century and even today remains one of the most intensely studied individuals by music academics. The history of music contains no equivalent creative surge to match Stravinsky’s output from age 27 to 29, during which he produced The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. He of course went on to experiment in new, untested areas of composition, rarely stopping to try to please the public. 

Craft’s contributions to these studies have been enormously valuable, despite years of sniping by rival music writers and Stravinsky specialists.  He is accused of “crafting” Stravinsky’s image and protecting him from others while molding some material in a self-aggrandizing fashion. One professor called him a “spin-doctor”.

Beyond dispute is the fact that Craft’s several Stravinsky books, including his volumes of conversations, have offered unique glimpses into his subject’s work methods, intellectual life and musical mind. No other composer in the history of music has allowed such intimate scrutiny of his private and public habits. 

Considering Craft’s long history of Stravinsky-watching, and the abundant biographies and analyses by others, I wondered what might be left to say that hasn’t already been said in some related form.

But now in his 90th year, Craft has done it again. His latest book, Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories, (Naxos Books, $19.99) perhaps his last, is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring, acknowledged today as the turning point in mainstream composition. The book comes from the relatively modest Naxos book publishing arm and includes a CD of The Rite of Spring conducted by Craft. 

The book is a delightfully fresh and witty collection of personal memories and an unapologetic love letter to his subject. He seems to have swept up all his unused memories, many of them delicious, and packaged them for our pleasure.

The author championed the composer when the music establishment still held back. The shocking Stravinsky harmonies and rhythms would change serious music forever but no one knew that in 1913, or even in the 1940s when these two men became associated.  Craft won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York but found the atmosphere rooted in the past. “It proved disappointing,” he writes. “Stravinsky was ignored as well as despised as an iconoclast, which redoubled my passion for his music.” 

They made their first connection out of pure chance – a connection that worked because Stravinsky had a superstitious streak. Craft needed the score of Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and his request, addressed directly to the composer, arrived by mail on the day Stravinsky was beginning a revision of the work. To the spiritual-minded Stravinsky, this was a sign.

In short order, Craft was at Stravinsky’s side and a deep and productive friendship had begun. Recalling this convergence, Craft writes, still in disbelief, that “a twenty-three-year-old rustic with a nervous-wreck temperament” ended up sharing the podium with the “world’s most eminent composer-conductor”. 

Craft and Stravinsky developed a mutual dependency but Craft considers himself the lucky one. “I felt as if all my years of formal education were not worth one hour of this man’s company,” he writes, “since everything he said was filtered through one of the most acute sensibilities of the century.”

Craft’s wide-ranging memory, stimulated by his private archives, offers a casual history of the arts in the 20th century as told through the eyes of a premier participant. Anecdotes bring together their central character with Schoenberg, Diaghilev, Nijinski, Webern, Balanchine, Thomas Mann, Picasso, Dali, T.S Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Babbitt, Cage, Carter and Sessions, to name a few. 

The book happened almost by accident. As his publisher told me in an email: “He was going through his archives and came across new material -- material he hadn’t considered for a very long time, which spurred him on to write the book.”

Some of the material may have been held back to observe old standards of propriety now long gone. Stravinsky’s intense physical association with Belgian composer Maurice Delage, which led to three weeks at the Delage gay agapemone (love-cottage) near Paris with the “notoriously homosexual” Russian Prince Argutinsky, whose letters are still in private hands. Craft notes that Stravinsky later sent Delage a nude photograph “with a prominent upwardly mobile nozzle”. Elsewhere, Ravel is described attending a gay evening dressed in a tutu. 

Craft uncovers one love letter written to Delage during The Rite of Spring composition. Craft calls it a “bombshell” because The Rite is “widely regarded as the epitome of masculinity”.

Glimpses of the great man in creative mode are particularly vivid.  “The act of creation was so strenuous that he immediately began to perspire and, discarding his shirt, continually mopped his head and neck with towels. His facial expression during struggles with harmonic combinations could be painful to watch but when he had found one that satisfied him, he smiled radiantly.” This could take long hours of patience but as he told Craft, “I can wait as an insect can wait.”

Craft’s usefulness as a source of Stravinsky material led him to bridle at other writers who borrowed too freely. Exasperated at Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky: The Second Exile, Craft complained to the New York Review of Books that his work was being unfairly recycled. “As in his Volume I,” Craft wrote, “the pilfering from my work continues, most often distorted to the point of changing the meanings, sometimes with verbatim quoting, and always without acknowledgement.” 

The debate around the reliability of Craft’s work may continue long into the future but the essential corpus of material he produced will always be an indispensable sourcebook of the great man’s life.


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