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Stravinsky: the Second Exile’

In response to:

All in the Family from the August 10, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

I cannot agree with the opening fanfare in Michael Kimmelman’s review of Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky: The Second Exile [NYR, August 10]. First, the book is far from “exhaustive.” The amount of new material that belongs in a new Stravinsky biography, not found in my own writing and therefore not in Walsh’s, remains extensive. As in his Volume I, the pilfering from my work continues, most often distorted to the point of changing the meanings, sometimes with verbatim quoting, and always without acknowledgment.

The “eloquence” totally escapes me. No cliché from the writer’s well-stocked hoard seems to embarrass him, and he is unduly fond of imponderables. What can be meant by the comment on a piece that “uncomplicated it may be but transparent it remains”? What is the point of saying “When Schoenberg had begun writing serial music in the early twenties, Webern had followed him—and even preceded him in some respects”? In which respects, please? And how can the harp and mandolin in Agon be described as “the two most disembodied yet the least cerebral instruments in Stravinsky’s orchestra”?

The tone is intolerably righteous throughout, fueled by offstage bias and jealous anger. No statement is ever conceded to be “in my opinion,” but is automatically delivered as a ukase. The book’s contribution to musical knowledge is both nil and baffling.

The miscaptioned illustrations in the article are no faults of Mr. Kimmelman. One of them, showing the composer orchestrating, is dated eight years after his death. In the other, the portrait of “Vera and Igor Stravinsky on a table in their apartment, New York City,” in Dominique Nabokov’s 1979 photograph, was actually taken by Gene Fenn in 1948 in the Ambassador Hotel, New York.

Mr. Kimmelman’s analogy of my relationship to Stravinsky with that between “a young man” and a great artist in a story by Henry James insults Stravinsky’s intelligence as well as my own. I also regard the accusation of “insinuating” myself into the life of a great man as an indignity, believing it more accurate to say that through our work together I gained his confidence and respect. Kimmelman also says that “an acquaintance” tells “the young man” that “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.” The author of this observation, Sir Isaiah Berlin, can hardly be called a mere “acquaintance” by anyone who has read the forty affectionate letters, now in print, that he wrote to me over a period of eight years.

Another of the “young man’s” alleged misdeeds is that he has steeped himself “in the music that has displaced the older man’s work.” In fact, I have given more of my life to Schoenberg’s music than to Stravinsky’s, which has not been, and never will be, displaced. I presume that Kimmelman is trying to say Stravinsky’s, not the older man. Attempting to controvert a statement of mine repeated by Joan Peyser that Stravinsky was virtually unaware of Schoenberg before my time, Kimmelman replies that “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.’” The second quotation dates from 1912, a month after Stravinsky attended Pierrot Lunaire in Berlin, the first from 1937. The truth is that in the intervening decades Stravinsky had heard only two very short pieces by Schoenberg, whose works were not played until the time of his death, and who heard very little of his own music, some of it never. Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt would confirm this account of the shameful neglect of the great composer in America circa 1950. In fact, Carter himself co-sponsored the American première of Schoenberg’s great Serenade at MOMA in, I think, 1949, conducted by Mitropoulos.

After tabulating hundreds of factual errors, I closed the book, happy to be free of the author’s antagonisms, and hoping that one day there could be a biography of Stravinsky that conveys some psychological insight into the life of the artist and understanding of his musical mind.

Robert Craft

Gulf Stream, Florida

P.S. Incidentally, Edmund Wilson’s anecdote about Scott and Zelda recordings of the Sacre in 1928 is spurious, since no recording of the work existed at that date. Also, Pulcinella does not employ clarinets.

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