The Genius of Robert Craft

Robert Craft, Vera Zorina, and Vera Stravinsky, New York City, 1980
Dominique Nabokov
Robert Craft, Vera Zorina, and Vera Stravinsky, New York City, 1980

With the death of Robert Craft on November 10, 2015, at the age of ninety-two, the world lost a witness to—and a shaper of—some of the great events in twentieth-century music. Famous to many as “Stravinsky’s assistant,” as the man who helped this essential modern master discover a new course for his later work after The Rake’s Progress, Craft initially became known as the conductor of the first recordings of Webern’s complete works in 1957, of the American premiere of Berg’s Lulu in 1963, of the first multiple collections of Schoenberg’s music on LP, and of many great recordings of early music that provided essential musical discoveries for emerging composers and musicians of the time as well as for the larger public—works by Monteverdi, Schütz, and Gesualdo among them.

Almost simultaneously he became known as the coauthor with Stravinsky of elegant books recording the composer’s memories and thoughts. The first three were in dialogue form: Conversations with Stravinsky, Memories and Commentaries, Expositions and Developments. Then, starting in 1963, came four more, which were divided between Stravinsky’s reminiscences, program notes, and short essays, and Craft’s own diaries. While Stravinsky was alive there was the addition of Bravo Stravinsky, combining photographs, including remarkable ones of Stravinsky’s working manuscripts, with Craft’s text.

Following Stravinsky’s death in 1971 there were several more books of a documentary nature on the composer, which combined photographs, facsimiles of manuscripts, and extremely detailed writings and appendices by Craft, as well as the three-volume Stravinsky Selected Correspondence edited by Craft, his own complete diary from the period he had known Stravinsky, Chronicle of a Friendship, and the book Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life.

But Craft was larger than his association with Stravinsky. He deserves to be remembered as an original in his own right. His life story, which intersected so symbiotically with Stravinsky’s, had its own independent trajectory, one he recounted with appropriate astonishment in his autobiography, An Improbable Life (2002). Born in 1923 in Kingston, New York, to a schoolteacher mother and a struggling businessman father, the young conductor went in a few short years from being a brilliant bookish Juilliard student with highly developed tastes in new and old music to living with the Stravinskys, playing the emerging manuscript score of The Rake’s Progress at the piano with the composer, and spending evenings in the company of W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, and many of the world’s foremost artists.

In twenty-three years as a member of the Stravinsky household he was with them in their constant criss-crossing of the United States, their journeys to Europe, Japan, Central and South America, and their emotional return to the Soviet Union, rehearsing and conducting in alternation with the composer. He was…

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