Craft on Stravinsky

May 4, 2009

Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship
Robert Craft (Vanderbilt, 1994)
588 p. First reading.

Robert Craft first met Stravinsky in the late 1940s, and for the next 23 years, until Stravinsky’s death in 1971, they saw one another almost daily.  Craft served as conductor, collaborator, travel companion, amanuensis, manager, care-giver, and friend.  Over those years he kept this journal of his life with the Stravinskys, and it is a document unique in the history of music, containing observations of the composer, his conversation, his dinner companions, his family life, his music and creative process.  It makes for fascinating reading.

Stravinsky was already in his 60s when Craft entered his life. After their first meeting, Craft penned this description of the composer:

He is physically so extraordinary, in any case, that nothing less than a life-size statue (not merely a head or bust), or scaled to life drawing … could convey his uniqueness: the pygmy height, bandy knees, fleshlessnesss, football player’s shoulders, large hands and wide knuckles, tiny head with recessive frontal lobes, sandy hair (black in photographs), smooth red neck and high, Woody Woodpecker back hairline.  He is so absorbing to watch that to attend to what he says requires an effort.  (31 March 1948)

A touch of star-struck sycophancy in there, perhaps, but it’s a vivid (and accurate) description.  At this time Stravinsky was already the world’s most famous composer, and probably most listeners would agree that this best music — certainly the music that has thus far proved most popular and enduring — was already behind him.  But he remained an immensely energetic, adventurous, and fertile creative artist, yet to undergo a revolution in his compositional style (under Craft’s influence, it has sometimes been said), and Craft’s insider’s view of Stravinsky at work was of absorbing interest to this music lover.  Here he reports on his first visit to Stravinsky’s composing studio:

His piano is a tacky-sounding and out-of-tune up-right dampened with felt.  A plywood board is attached ot its music rack, and quarto-size strips of thick manila paper are clipped to it.  All the staves are drawn with his styluses.  To the side of the piano is a kind of surgeon’s operating table on which the cutlery consists of an electric pencil-sharpener, an electric metronome, four different sizes of styluses, colored pencils, gums, a stopwatch.  “Singing” all the time, facial muscles swelling, mouth quivering, veins bulging, he skips from part to part, searching for notes on the piano and groaning until he finds them, or, when the reach is too wide, asking me to play them.  All of this is animal-life, or at least very physical, especially the grunts of satisfaction when the right chord is sounded exactly together.  At the end, covered with perspiration, he mops his face with a towel from the table by the piano.  The surprising part of the audition is the discovery that he wants reassurance. (31 July 1948)

Craft has been called Stravinsky’s Boswell, though he himself explicitly rejects the label.  The two chroniclers did share, however, a penchant for recording the memorable sayings of their subjects.  Stravinsky was not nearly as prolific as was Johnson in the generation of these aphorisms and witty ripostes — who could be? — but Craft did capture a few.  “Tradition carries the good artist on its shoulder as St. Christopher carried the Lord,” he said on one occasion (14 February 1952), and it is true, despite his reputation as a modernist innovator, that Stravinsky profoundly honoured the tradition to which he was heir:  we learn that on the wall of his studio were hung portraits of Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  That is not to say that he didn’t have a harsh word now and then for his fellow composers; it is well-known that he disliked Schoenberg (who lived in the same neighbourhood but whom Stravinsky rarely met), and, on one occasion when asked “what specifically” he disliked in the music of Richard Strauss, he responded, “I do not like the major works, and I do not like the minor works.” (11 June 1966)

Craft was himself a talented musician — to this day he remains one of the world’s great interpreters of Stravinsky’s music — and now and then he offers his own thoughts on the music of other composers.  Upon attending a music festival dedicated to Iannis Xenakis, Craft offered this delightful appraisal of Xenakis’ Bohor:

The program’s centerpiece is an avalanche of electronic noise called Bohor, which, pronounced as one syllable, partially describes its effect.  An experiment in sonic sadism, Bohor is inflicted by “quadruple stereophony,” bruited, in other words, by eight loudspeakers shaped like dryers in a beauty salon and aimed at the audience like death-ray machines.  A jet motor seems to switch on in one’s penetralia. (26 October 1968)

Craft’s chronicle coincides with Stravinsky’s late period, and especially with his unexpected adoption of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques.  This was scandalous at the time, for much as the music world had divided into “Brahmsians” and “Wagnerians” in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century had seen camps of “Schoenbergians” lining up against the “Stravinskians”, and Stravinsky’s adoption of Schoenberg’s methods seemed an abdication.  Craft has sometimes taken the blame for the change, it being alleged that he corrupted the composer with his influence, but others have argued, fairly convincingly, that Stravinsky’s own native philosophy of music — that compositions are musical objects that express thoughts, not emotions — is well-served by the techniques of dodecophony.  The major works written during this period are the opera The Rake’s Progress, Canticum Sacrum (written for and premiered at San Marco in Venice), and Requiem Canticles, among others.  Craft often premiered these pieces, and it was interesting to read his reports of those occasions. (They were less dramatic than the premiere of The Rite of Spring.)

Much of their time was spent travelling the world giving concerts, and the journal sometimes reads like a geographic pinball game: Rome, New York, Paris, Berlin, Venice, Florence, Los Angeles, Toronto, Hamburg, back to Rome.  Often the city name is simply noted along with one or two observations about the concert, but on a few special occasions Craft slows down and focuses his attention on their environs.  His lengthy observations about Israel in the 1960s, for instance, are fascinating, as are his thoughts during the Stravinsky’s long awaited return to Moscow in late 1962.

For the last four years of his life, from late 1967, Stravinsky’s health was failing and he was in and out of hospital.  He continued to travel, but he did not conduct, nor did he complete any new works.  Craft’s account of his decline and eventual death is quite moving.  On 4 April 1971 Craft made this thought-provoking entry: “I do not want him to die — or, of course, want him to suffer; but if the choice were mine, it would be for more suffering, and I would take the responsibility for it on pain of perdition because I know there is more life in him still, life of the most precious kind.”  The suffering did not last: Stravinsky died just two days later.  His funeral and burial were in Venice, and Craft’s account of the ceremony and its aftermath, as the tomb turns into a pilgrimage destination for lovers of Stravinsky’s music, closes the journal on a high note.

A case could be made that the most interesting people in this chronicle are not the Stravinskys, but rather their dinner guests and friends.  Many of the great artistic and cultural figures of the twentieth century wander across these pages: Jorge Luis Borges (“Nervous and shy as a ferret, he continually folds and unfolds his napkin, realigns the silverware, traces the creases in his trousers [31 August 1960]”), Ingmar Bergman (“His English, resourceful if not flawless, is abetted by hand movements that become livelier and increasingly expressive the more he speaks.  Everything he says, moreover, is clear, formed by a well-tailored mind, and nothing about him is tentative. [16 September 1961]”), Robert Oppenheimer, Salvador Dali, Edwin Hubble, Graham Greene, Maria Callas, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Mann — even Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII).

The Stravinskys were long-time friends of W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, and T.S. Eliot, and all make numerous appearances in the journal.  Auden comes across as a puritanical Englishman (but Craft is only able to address religion in an ironic tone, so his judgement in this matter may be untrustworthy) who dashes off poems like memos and has a prodigious capacity for drink.  Some will smile at his assessment of Tolkien: “J.R.R. is ‘in’ with the teenage set, you know, and is no longer the exclusive property of dotty school teachers and elderly cranks” [16 January 1966].  It remains the view of the literati to this day.

Craft describes T.S. Eliot this way: “He is a quiet man, slow in formulating his remarks, which trail off in diminuendo, and the life in him is not in his voice [a voice which Craft describes as “weary, mournful, and as bleak of this December afternoon”], but in his clear, piercingly intelligent gray eyes.  He breathes heavily, wheezes, and harrumphs a great deal, ‘Hm, hmm, hmmm,’ deepening the significance, it seems, with each lengthening ‘m’. [8 December 1958] I can hear him in my mind’s ear.  It might seem an unappealing portrait, but consider Stravinsky’s own comment on Eliot: “He may not be the most exuberant man I have ever known, but he may be the purest.”

Aldous Huxley was a good friend of the Stravinskys through the late 1940s and early 1950s, and they saw one another nearly every week.  A casual reader of Huxley (like myself) may not know that Huxley was a polymath who routinely astounded his friends with his ability to discourse, at length, on just about anything.  Craft: “And what does he talk about? The finding of bacteria at ocean depths; the heightening of erotic sensibilities through breathing exercises; the greater sexual appeal of the larger and lower-voiced male Tingara frog (the Physalaemus pustulossus); Baudelaire’s Latin poems, which “demonstrate wide reading in the type of poem but complete ignorance of stress, merely duplicating the number of syllables”; problems of multiple meanings in Pali, “which is not a subtle language, but his thirty different words for ‘knowledge'”; Augustus Hare (whose taste for oddity seems to me rather like Mr. H.’s own); the possibility of flights to the moon within a decade if enough money were to be diverted to the project, although Mr. H. says that his only interest in visiting another planet would be to establish contact with an older civilization.  This river of learning is continually nourished by tributaries of quotations — a clerihew, the whole of La vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui, which he recites as though he were reading from an oculist’s chart, except for one small stumble of memory, from which he picks himself up with an air of surprise that none of us had caught him as he tripped. [27 July 1949]”  On another occasion, Huxley offered this analogy for T.S. Eliot’s criticism: “A great operation that is never performed: powerful lights are brought into focus, scalpels are laid out, anesthetists and assistants are posted, instruments are prepared.  Finally the surgeon arrives, opens his bag, then closes it again and goes off. [24 March 1952]”  I don’t know Eliot’s criticism well enough to know if this contains a truth, but it’s certainly a good description of some criticism. On the same day, he uttered this oracular jewel: “Cerebrotonics should eat bananas every day”.

An interesting book, then, even if a good portion of the interest is extra-musical.

***

Here is the conclusion of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with Valery Gergiev leading the London Symphony Orchestra in 2007:

Here is some amazing footage of Stravinsky himself, at age 82, conducting The Firebird.  This would have been one of this last appearances as a conductor:

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