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Things That Have Interested Me

Bravo Maestro

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
16 December 2006

Robert Craft, the American conductor and Stravinsky's former assistant, was in London recently, and his publishers, Naxos Books, put on a tea at the Ritz. Craft's new book, Down a Path of Wonder, is a collection of his essays and memoirs, covering a wide range of music, literature and travel. At its core is a series of pieces about those composers Craft has known: Stravinsky pre-eminently, but also Schoenberg (whose work Craft championed in America in the 1950s) and others. Writers encountered include Auden, Isherwood and Evelyn Waugh.

Naxos is somewhat new to book-publishing, but is interested in the kind of tie-up whereby you buy, say, a book about Beethoven, which includes the facility to download from their site the music mentioned in the book. While setting up this kind of mass publishing, the people at Naxos realised that they were also in a position to market more specialist music books, and this was their first experiment in that direction. Obviously, its appeal for them also had something to do with the fact that Craft has conducted several of their Stravinsky and Schoenberg recordings.

Anyway, they put on a very good tea in a room full of extravagant pink floral arrangements, and Craft read to us from his book, while his wife, Alva, held the microphone. We all moved to the edge of our seats, because Craft has a soft voice and is a controversial figure who has been attacked periodically and is quite prepared to answer back. The Naxos people, while full of deference and (I thought) genuine respect, were visibly nervous, perhaps that he would lose the patience of his audience, or perhaps that he would land them in some thumping great libel suit.

I wouldn't be able to form an opinion as to the merits of any argument about Craft, but I think I have a sense of how things began. We all, in our relationship to the great artists or writers who interest us, have a tendency to possessiveness. Suppose we read Stendhal and form a deep admiration for his work. Along with that admiration there comes a sneaking sense that we not only know the man very well, we know him better than anyone else. In those moments when Stendhal perhaps felt undervalued or misunderstood (if such there were), we would have understood him. We would have been there (supposing we had been there) to listen to his woes.

It's a fantasy, of course, and it's a fantasy that is always getting out of hand. Particularly unwelcome in such a fantasy is the knowledge that there actually was somebody in, roughly speaking, the role we imagine for ourselves. In Stravinsky's case, Craft lived for 23 years as a member of the composer's family: "We co-rehearsed and co-conducted concerts and recordings; listened to music together at home, at opera houses, theatres, concert halls; spent countless hours together in cars, steamships, trains and planes ... I read to him during evenings at home regularly throughout the years, and, of course, conversed daily with him in all of our activities."

Naturally, given these circumstances, anyone who wanted to get near Stravinsky in the latter part of his life was going to encounter Craft as well. Here is Pierre Souvtchinsky, quoted by Craft from a recent book: "Écoutez, he [Craft] can be insufferable, but he is very interesting. The Stravinskys are very fortunate to have him. He is a precious presence for them, young and intelligent, he distracts, informs, and stimulates them; without Bob they would have become gâteux [doddering]. Can you imagine Igor cut off from the world, lost there in the backwoods of Hollywood?"

To the charge that he kept Stravinsky too much to himself, Craft in his book pleads guilty, although he implies that the composer wanted this relationship and was unwilling to let it drop. Clearly, though, it put Craft in a difficult position in some respects. When the aged Stravinsky conducted a concert, Craft was the supporting act or sometimes the surrogate. This was not always welcome: when Craft conducted first halves, he writes, "I was obliged to walk out on stage and be received by a dim flurry of applause, a buzz of inter- audience questioning, and once something like a groan."

So this sense of Craft as a presence whenever one wanted to see Stravinsky goes back a long way, and the controversy over Craft's written accounts of the composer's conversations is also an old one. More recently, Stephen Walsh has published a two-volume biography of Stravinsky, which Craft claims owes a large "unacknowledged" debt to Craft while simultaneously attacking him. On this matter, I haven't any view as to the rights and wrongs, not having read Walsh.

But among the writers at the Ritz tea there was one who had not only read Walsh's biography, he had read it with admiration. And, in the most respectful way, but also rather firmly, this gentleman was prepared to tell Craft that he thought the work was brilliant. Craft's response to this was not to explode, or to flounder around, but to concede a point here and there, while attempting to restate his case - a clearly large and complex case that would take a long time, and much patience, to set out. This was, after all, a matter of several lives' works - Stravinsky's life, those of his family, and Craft's too.

And the friendships, enmities, collaborations and rivalries involved stretched back beyond most of our births. Craft has an amazing memory and also, quite clearly, a remarkable archive. Detailed rebuttals of facts are a speciality. It is impressive to see him in action, but one feels also that fate has been rather cruel to leave him with so much explaining to do. Perhaps, though, one shouldn't feel this. After all, the music to which he chose to devote himself was controversial when he began, and it would be a bad sign if the controversy had simply evaporated. One felt half inclined to cheer him on, to urge him back into the ring for another bout. The other feeling was to say, as Hamlet says to the ghost, "Rest, perturbed spirit."

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