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 a sounding board for every new Stravinsky work from The Rake’s Progress onward. But his influence on the older man was far too profound to summarize in only a few sentences, extending not only to the introduction of unfamiliar music, but also to suggestions of compositional projects (for example, the orchestration of the 1920 Concertino for string quartet), assembling of texts (The Flood), and introducing Stravinsky to literary works, as well as to political and social ideas.

After 1971 he kept up his conducting career, rerecording close to the complete works of Stravinsky, often in previously unheard original versions and in performances of extraordinary vibrancy, almost the entirety of Schoenberg (whom he had also known), most impressively the Gurrelieder in 2001, and much Webern. He wrote ten additional books containing memoirs, extensive travel writing, and critical essays on art, ballet, music, literature, film, and television.

To music lovers he should be remembered not only as having left an indelible personal mark on Stravinsky’s late music, but as having marked the musical tastes of the entire epoch, helping to bring Stravinsky’s mid-period works as well as those of Webern, Berg, Schoenberg, Varèse, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, and Schütz, not to mention early Stockhausen, and Boulez, into wider cultural consciousness.

He leaves behind a recorded legacy that should be cherished for its rare combination of scrupulousness and sonic immediacy, repertoire to which he devoted his life, and which breathes, resonates, and glows in his hands: the Webern Symphony and Concerto; Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Modern Psalm, Begleitmusik, Piano Concerto, Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, and Bach orchestrations; Stravinsky’s Zvezdoliki, Les Noces, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Persephoné, Orpheus, Cantata, Agon, Canticum Sacrum, Threni, The Flood, Requiem Canticles, and much more.

He was also an accomplished writer; with him dies a mental capaciousness and inexhaustible curiosity comparable to that of few we customarily call intellectuals, coupled with an independence of mind, powers of sympathy, and an emotional reach one encounters only in the great novelists.


His books displayed his encyclopedic memory and extraordinary range of interests, but also an appetite for life and an exuberance that are unlike those of any other writer on music. (Read, for example, his detailed liner notes, or his analytical writing on Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.) And his subjects ranged far beyond music, encompassing everything from Cambodian sculpture to the temples of Carthage, to the writings of Broch and Musil, Emily Dickinson and David Jones, to the paintings of Klimt and Schiele. With their luxuriant vocabulary and rarefied references his books at first glance might have seemed directed only toward an intellectual elite. But their holistic approach, full of humanity, colorful anecdotes, and racy asides along with learned critical thinking, placed them outside the academy.

Like that of a great raconteur who just happens to be extremely smart, Craft’s brand of intellectualism is one that flatters the reader and trusts that his enthusiasms and observations will catch fire in the reader’s mind. Like three midcentury artists he knew well and who surfaced regularly in his diaries, Auden, Balanchine, and of course Stravinsky, Craft was an iconoclast, a complex man with a communicative personality. He had a scholar’s knowledge and fascination with detail, coupled with a provocative candor and humor that were quintessentially American and unbounded by conventions.

Reading obituaries, it is often perplexing to see some giants reduced to a few rather disparaging words of summary, while others who were surely similarly flawed, and who added less to the public good, are remembered fondly and at length. Craft’s obituaries have been rather dry and vaguely sour in tone, emphasizing the difficulties he had after Stravinsky’s death establishing the extent of Stravinsky’s authorship in some of their later collaborative books, and dwelling on disputes he had with Stravinsky’s children and with Stravinsky scholars. It needs to be admitted that the early Craft–Stravinsky conversation books, while obviously more polished than spontaneous conversation, clearly emerged from Stravinsky’s comments and word choices, whereas the later ones began to sound linguistically and stylistically much more like Craft. Indeed, they also seemed to unconsciously communicate this confusion of literary origins, even to revel in them.

For example, the letter from Vera Stravinsky to her cousin in Moscow included in Themes and Episodes, which contains priceless descriptions of Stravinsky’s work habits and of domestic details of the couple’s daily life, was also clearly written in Craft’s style, employing the same compendious vocabulary and densely packed, almost Nabokovian sentences found in Craft’s own writing. The later collaborative books created a misleading impression in a way that the earlier books had not. Stravinsky never did quite speak in the literary style of the books, articles, and letters he coauthored with Craft in the late 1960s.

That this situation led some to distrust Craft and his entire oeuvre is deeply sad. As the writer Jonathan Cott pointed out in 1973, Craft’s Stravinsky channeled not only Stravinsky’s opinions, but also a warmth and depth of feeling distinct from those of “Craft’s Craft.” Stravinsky had worked with coauthors on all of his previous books, including his Autobiography and Poetics of Music, which carry no hint of coauthorship and were signed by him alone, while bearing the profound imprint of the literary styles and philosophical opinions of others.

That there were and are legitimate controversies over fine points of Craft’s stated facts and memories concerning Stravinsky should not obscure the degree to which his writings and actions expressed Stravinsky’s wishes, or the fact that he left in print a colossal record of Stravinsky’s life—one far more detailed and accurate than the record we have of the life of any of the other great composers. Time will sort out where corrections need to be made. Future biographers of the Stravinskys and of Craft himself will attempt to disentangle the strands of love, admiration, artistry, and human need that bound this group of individuals together.

What is already clear is that the Stravinskys and Craft formed the kind of flourishing family unit that probably no natural family could. Perhaps the emotions holding the family together, and the exigencies of keeping Stravinsky working—increasingly urgent as he passed the age of eighty and still had so much music he wanted to compose—fostered a degree of blindness about how the merged literary styles of the two men would appear to others.

It is also clear that this was not a symbiotic relationship in which Craft’s and Stravinsky’s personalities merged. Watch these two men in videos and you will find a study in contrasts as stark as the distinction in their recorded conducting styles. Indeed Chronicle of a Friendship is in part a chronicle of their differences in temperament, tastes, and ways of being. The source of the excitement between them was precisely this. There would have been no symbiosis or love without Craft’s otherness—his American ways, his knowledge of contemporary and early music unknown to Stravinsky when they first met, including serialism, his contact with an intellectual milieu that Stravinsky needed for nourishment, his agnosticism. Likewise Craft was bowled over by Stravinsky’s creative fire. He revered and understood his superstitiousness and religiosity. He clearly loved this elderly Russian couple and flourished within their domain even as he occasionally bridled at the constraints life with them entailed (which he also chronicled in his diaries).


Craft has been described as a kind of “keeper of the flame” and as having spent the forty-five years since Stravinsky’s death rigidly defending his own views of the great man. But the “discipleship” this suggests—a kind of servile identification with greatness, the tendency of epigones who live on after their master to reduce their vitality to rigid dogma—is completely at odds with Craft’s personality. Compare the writings of Craft on Stravinsky in his diaries, Chronicle of a Friendship, Bravo Stravinsky, Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life, and other books to those of Stravinsky’s other biographers. It is Craft who gives the reader a taste of the living, changeable, fallible, comical, volatile, tender, sparkling human being, while those who did not know him sometimes seem to reduce him to a kind of cardboard, objectified stuffed doll of himself, living out his role of being “Igor Stravinsky.” Comparing the tiny, wily, humorous, deep-voiced Stravinsky recorded on film to the one chronicled by Craft, you see as close a match to the man as you will ever find in print. Quoted in the daily logs of Chronicle of a Friendship, his words precisely replicate the style of concrete, pithy Stravinsky utterances preserved in documentary films and rehearsal recordings.

An extraordinary video made in 2010 for Brazilian pianist and composer Jocy de Oliveira shows the then-eighty-seven-year-old Craft recalling Stravinsky’s 1971 funeral.1 Speaking from his Florida home, he faces the camera dressed in a mustard-colored jacket, reaching out to an unseen audience perhaps unused to his style of speech, at once so restrained and so packed with meanings, allusions, and held-back emotions. In complex and carefully formed sentences he refers to the details of the funeral in Venice forty years earlier, the affiches plastered on walls throughout the city showing photos of Stravinsky feeding Venetian street cats, the difficulties of conducting Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles with members of an opera orchestra on break from performing Carmen and unused to the late Stravinsky idiom. He refers to the Requiem as one Stravinsky knew he was writing for himself, “as I suppose Mozart finally realized he was doing.” He describes the cortege carrying the coffin down a canal leading to the open lagoon, then going to the cemetery island of San Michele, and of how he kept thinking of Auden’s lines: “Wherever our personalities go/(And, to tell the truth, we do not know).”2 Conductor and writer Robert Craft bought a plot in the same cemetery years ago, and is to be buried there, near Vera and Igor Stravinsky.