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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, or next to it, which is ideal because the old man is in love with money.

He widens the great man’s knowledge as he also benefits from being in the great man’s circle. Inherently unequal, their relationship, however, gradually becomes not one of a sycophant or a servant and his master but something far more complex. The younger man is ambitious, egocentric, prickly, and he knows how to push. He draws out of the great man a vast, rich, if often embellished and altered account of the past, and he helps set the composer on course for an unexpected renaissance, which entails a kind of artistic volte-face, and which revives the great man’s fortunes. An acquaintance tells the young man, “Your labours for, with, about the immortal figure whom you now know better than anyone, assure you a place not merely in heaven (on which I am a poor authority) but on earth, too.”

Not incidentally, the great man’s wife is enamored of this intense, nervous, boyish-looking young man, who has spiced up her life and reinvigorated her husband’s work. They are “all in love with each other,” observes a friend about the household, whose dynamic shifts as the older man grows even older and the younger man’s role expands—writing for the older man, taking over for him in the recording studio, on the podium. The wife certainly has enjoyed her husband’s success, his genius, impishness, and wit, but she also endures his drunkenness and temper and grows increasingly terrified that the young man might leave one day. The young man sometimes treats the older man impatiently, even impertinently, as if the older man were a balky child or had wronged him—and this raises many eyebrows among people who admire the older man and who also wish to have access to him, or once had access but no longer do except through the young man.

Concert managers and producers have been told they had to accept the young man as a conductor when they wanted the great man for their concerts and recordings. Sometimes they don’t accept, because the fees asked are too high or because orchestras have their own conductors, whom they prefer to the young man. The young man resents all this, and wishes to be recognized for his own talents, which are not inconsiderable but which would never have landed him where he is without the older man. He lives under constant and growing censure, most obviously from the great man’s children, whose position he has increasingly usurped, if only by circumstance; from people who believe that in their joint writings, he is putting words into the mouth of the great man, which he is, more and more so; and from those who dislike the serialism toward which the young man has pushed the great man’s music. “That’s what happens when you invite the Devil…into your home,” a fellow composer says. For the young man, the sacrifices are considerable. But the line between sacrifice and self-interest can sometimes be difficult to draw. It is hard to say whether the older man, who adores the young man but who knows a thing or two about the ways of theater, thinks he benefits from the curiosity and jealousy that the young man provokes, a curiosity that creates for the older man a degree of sympathy, and perhaps even gives him, by providing a distraction, some free room to operate. In any case, the relationship is fraught, not unlike that between father and son.

Except that there are also real sons and a daughter, from the great man’s first marriage, and when he dies, the sordid battle over his fortune—particularly over how much the widow and young man get versus the children—drags on in the courts for years. The German writer W.G. Sebald titled a novel after the rings of Saturn, which are the detritus of some celestial cataclysm—shards from an act of cosmic violence, drifting endlessly across time. The great man’s death leaves behind lives that never quite escape his orbit, including that of the (no longer) young man. He writes, in retrospect, and with what seems like growing bitterness, that the composer to whom he gave so much of his life was

extremely anal, exhibitionistic, narcissistic, hypochondriacal, compulsive and deeply superstitious. He was also quarrelsome and vindictive, which is stated not as moral judgment but merely as description of behavior.

There is a bit of the Victorian biographer John Forster in Robert Craft. Caustic, manipulative, an object both of envy and derision, a confidant, a man who spent his life seeking the company of greater artists, Forster started out running errands for several of his heroes and ended up dictating to them, as he did to Leigh Hunt, whose faltering career he partly reconstructed. From Hunt to Dickens, whom he met, as Craft did Stravinsky, at an opportune and vulnerable point in the great man’s life (in Dickens’s case, just before the death of his beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth): Forster tried to control the flow of information about Dickens and occasionally fiddled with the facts to suit his master and himself, to enhance his own place in Dickens’s legacy, in posterity. “He was ever bustling about his friend, interpreting him and explaining him,” the writer Percy Fitzgerald remembered. “As I look back, I can never call up the image of Dickens without seeing Forster beside him.”1 Many people said it came to seem the same with Stravinsky and Craft.

Great artists are often ruthless in service to their art. This is one of the many lessons in Walsh’s biography. I thought of Bonnard: although unlike Stravinsky a man of unfailing tenderness and modesty, he was shaped in later years by a crucial relationship. Bonnard spent decades sequestered with and catering to a nervous, difficult, sickly wife in what seemed to many outsiders an unhealthy isolation, but out of which he produced the most paradisiacal art. Clearly all relationships are unknowable from the outside. Bonnard needed his wife and their life of isolation to produce the art he did, just as she depended on him.

And so it seems with Stravinsky and Craft. Walsh repeats what is often said: that, whatever else may be held against him, Craft deserves credit for having steered Stravinsky toward a late blossoming of creativity. Craft has said it himself. “What requires immediate and categorical refutation,” he told the music critic Joan Peyser some years ago,

is the notion that when I met Stravinsky he was already acquainted with the works and methods of the New Viennese School. In fact he did not know a single measure of the music of any member of this group…. My guilt is not in having directed or controlled the “spiritual interests of a composer of genius” but rather in trying to bury my tracks for having done so.

This overstates the case. Stravinsky did know Schoenberg’s work enough to go back and forth about whether his rival was a “chemist of music more than an artistic creator” or “one of the greatest creative spirits of our age.” That said, Craft introduced him to Webern and immersed him in all sorts of music—including works by Gesualdo, Byrd, Tallis, and other early composers—that he now wished to associate himself with. Stravinsky, who always exploited people to his advantage, obviously saw in Craft the man he needed to get him where he wanted to go; absent Craft, I have no doubt that he would somehow have gotten there anyway—nor did Craft, who has said he led Stravinsky to water, but that Stravinsky wanted to drink.

There is a story told by Lillian Libman, for a while Stravinsky’s concert agent and publicist, about a recording session of Pulcinella, during which Craft rehearsed the orchestra at a tempo faster than Stravinsky wished. When Stravinsky took over, Craft stood next to him, prodding the players to speed up. Stravinsky reprimanded a clarinetist who faltered. Craft said something to Stravinsky in an undertone. Then another player flubbed and when Stravinsky lost his temper again, Craft audibly took the composer to task. Stravinsky then whirled around. “How dare you address me in this manner!” Craft snatched his coat and fled. The two didn’t speak for days.

  1. 1

    Ian Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography from Shakespeare to Plath (Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 153.

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