Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works
by Eric Walter White
University of California, 608 pp., $18.50
Reviewing Igor Stravinsky’s life, works, career, polemical statements, or any books regarding these, one can stipulate that he has been since 1910 a major modern force, that he is now the most admired living composer, and that in the present decade he has revealed himself as a remarkably sharp musical observer. The latter personality let us call Craft-Igor, since it is a double one, in which the voice is the voice of Robert Craft, but the head is of Igor Fyodorovitch.
In Themes and Episodes, fifth volume of this perfect impersonation, though the voice takes formal leave of personal diary-keeping, surely Craft has not for the last time served as chief of English language protocol for the master’s many verbalizing needs. Also, the composer’s wife, Vera de Bosset, becomes a speaking member of the trinity. And most welcome she is, since with her painter’s prodigious visual memory she gives us Stravinsky in domestic close-up while watching over him as one might a patient or a child, and writes about his life, his house, his habits with unfailing warmth, good humor, and good sense. This in two long letters written to a cousin in Russia and translated anonymously with infinite grace. One does hope that in future chats she will be present, if only to give us the logistics of a life so far-flung geographically and at the same time so tightly tied into a three-person package by the great man’s urgencies regarding daily work, liquor, bodily symptoms, and the highest fees.
Craft has served Stravinsky during fifteen years as assistant conductor and during ten as interviewer for eliciting from him printable statements of musical opinion. Also, as traveling companion and cultural guide the youngman-who-reads-many-books has been a door opener. It was not till Craft became a close associate that Stravinsky showed any notable interest in either Arnold Schoenberg or in 12-tone serial music, both of which he now follows piously, at least within the limits of his eighty-five-year-old’s power of self transformation, which is considerable. And in the domain of Renaissance vocal music, which he has taken in late years almost for his own discovery, he must have been guided toward many an odd practitioner—Heinrich Isaac, for instance, or Gesualdo di Venosa—by the reading of the younger musician. If not to these, then at least to the minor Elizabethan poets and to Dylan Thomas; for Craft, right along with his alertness to music, is a fin lettré aware of trends in literary prestige.
As a writer he is less straightforward than either of the Stravinskys. Vera, in this regard, is the perfect one. Igor, as a Russian experienced in at least four other languages, is fascinated by words of Latin origin. And as an artist, moreover, he is prone to lay out any contemporary composer or rival performer who displeases him, which most of them do, as well as to rewrite the history of music for his own benefit, as every other …