All in the Family

The second volume of Stephen Walsh’s exhaustive and eloquent life of Stravinsky completes the story of the most famous composer of the twentieth century, who has been endlessly written about but who has remained something of a difficult case for biographers. As Walsh points out, there are hurdles of language—Russian as well as French and English—and for years there was the inaccessibility of certain source materials. But in recent years, the composer’s private papers and manuscripts, along with his father’s account books, have been made available, and Richard Taruskin’s long study of Stravinsky’s Russian heritage has been published. The first volume of Walsh’s work Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882–1934, appeared in 1999. Something like a full and fresh account was emerging.

The biggest hurdle remained the image that Stravinsky assiduously cultivated of himself in later years, through his remarkable factotum and collaborator, Robert Craft, who has published a biography, a diary, three volumes of letters, two scrapbooks of photographs and documents, various conversation books, and many articles, and who was involved, in one way or another, in all of Stravinsky’s musical activities after the mid-1940s. Craft, with his encyclopedic knowledge, acute musical sensibility, and remarkable prose, came in a sense to own Stravinsky, or seemed to wish to, and while he opened up the study of Stravinsky in many ways, his presence also could intimidate those who might imagine challenging him. For decades in these pages and elsewhere, he refined a view of Stravinsky’s life, and of his own role in it, that increasingly was questioned not least because he could be so adamant in defending it. Walsh, in the new book, calls Craft’s work “riddled with bias, error, supposition, and falsehood.” His volume ends up being nearly as much about Craft and his relations with Stravinsky, and with Stravinsky’s family, as it is about the composer, who became inseparable from his amanuensis.

Their association brings to mind the stories of Henry James. A bright but inconsequential young man insinuates himself into the life of a great artist. The artist is no longer young and his creative life, in a new country, despite the glamour and celebrity he enjoys, has come to seem to him a bit stale. His career as a revolutionary is presumed to be over. But he is restless and he is a person of exceptional energy and cunning. He now lives with his second wife, a vivacious, doting woman, a fellow exile, who was for years and quite openly his mistress. As for the young man, who was drawn to the older man’s music as a boy, he is also steeped in the music that has displaced the older man’s work. He is native in the older man’s new country, a tireless cicerone, an unusually gifted writer, and eager to stir things up in the older man’s life. Not incidentally, the young man works for nothing …

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Letters

Correction October 5, 2006

Stravinsky: the Second Exile’ September 21, 2006