Touching the music

Paul Driver

  • Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship by Robert Craft
    Vanderbilt, 588 pp, £35.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 8265 1258 5

Extracts, or pericopes – to borrow his typically ornate term – from Robert Craft’s diary of his years with Stravinsky first appeared in the famous series of their conversation books issued throughout the Sixties. In 1972, after the composer’s death, a far bigger selection was published as Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, 1948-1971. But this volume left its author dissatisfied from the start. ‘Hastily put together’ to coincide with a Stravinsky ballet festival in New York, it omitted the year 1954, was exiguous with five others, failed to lay proper emphasis on what he now sees as the crucial years of 1951 and 1956 or to supply an adequate context for the Sixties; and Craft did not want it reprinted. Now he has gone to the trouble of remedying the defects with a revised edition that extends the original length by over a third. Each year of the stated period gets a decent amount of coverage; a solid 1994 postscript has been added to each except the last, which is followed by a chapter-length Postlude. Letters to Craft from Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard are newly included. Letters (also to Craft) from Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, Glenn Gould and other musical luminaries are also published for the first time; and most of the illustrations are new. Gone are the itineraries that laboriously prefaced each chapter-year in the original edition and the interpolated 12-page ‘Afterword’ which Craft wrote for a book of Arnold Newman’s Stravinsky photographs. The new edition of the Chronicle is virtually a new book.

The effect is often disconcerting. Craft and his editor have scarcely let a sentence alone; the rephrasings and sometimes reckless textual transpositions, understandable in the name of style, give the comparative reader an eerie sense that what happened is an infinitely malleable substance. Thus Craft’s claim to have been with Stravinsky at the moment of his death – ‘I run to him in a half-stupor and see him die – a simple cessation, without struggle’ (a claim stridently disputed by the composer’s then press secretary Lillian Libman) – has been finessed into ‘I go to him, find the oxygen mask still in place, touch his feverish, perspiring forehead and face. His eyes are open and life is in them, but a moment later Dr Berger stethoscopes the chest, says he hears nothing, and ... removes the intravenous tube.’ Almost but not quite the same thing.

While Stravinsky’s reputation has risen since his death, Craft has regularly found himself harried and maligned for his relationship with the composer. Reviewing his years with Stravinsky on Radio 3 a few months ago he sounded like a man whose nerves had been permanently shattered, fully justified in his complaint, in the Preface to the first Chronicle, that ‘recorders of the sayings of the eminent are a hapless breed, more abused than thanked for their labours, which in any case seldom live by their own merits, or even die peacefully for the lack of them.’ The personal perils of his role were clear to Craft from the start.

‘Put not your trust in the intellectual princes of your age; form no connections too close with any who live only in the atmosphere of admiration and praise,’ warned De Quincey, bruised by a long association with Wordsworth. Early in the Chronicle (both versions) Craft cites the comparable observation by Chamfort that ‘a philosopher attached to the train of a great man finds it necessary to conceal his true feelings.’ The book is an ambiguous monument to such rueful circumspection. Ambiguous because in recording the need to conceal his feelings he does, of course, evoke them; they colour everything he writes. But unlike most diaries, this one sounds a personal note only surreptitiously; the author’s anxieties as both man and musician are slipped in as a very subsidiary theme in the immense polyphony which is his portrait of Stravinsky and the intellectual princes of the age. It is when the great composer isn’t, as it were, looking, that the amanuensis ruminates on his psycho-sexual plight, reassures himself with the bits of praise he has himself received in the form of those letters from Dallapiccola or Gould, and all but calculates the human price he might be paying for his extraordinary way of life.

If there were any great 20th-century artists, musicians, writers or philosophers with whom Craft, accompanying Stravinsky, did not at some point between 1948 and 1971 break bread (or any distinguished museums they did not inspect), I am unable to think of them. Craft was ostensibly present as Stravinsky’s musical assistant, a conductor who could ease the old composer’s burden as he toured the world conducting half-programmes of his own music; but he was really present, it turns out, as a writer of enormous ability, perhaps the most brilliantly efficient vacuumer and toucher-up of table-talk in modern times. He mentions in the Preface to this edition that he was led by Cyril Connolly to take down the small talk of the great, but was essentially writing ‘to put a fence around my experience. In doing so I discovered an alter ego of which I am not especially fond but which, being opposed to capital punishment, I could not put to death.’ It is a cryptic remark hinting at the doubleness of personality – the masterful servility, the diffident arrogance – of a chronicler like Craft (or Boswell). His insecurity as a ‘provincial’ American, socially unvarnished and basically monolingual (whatever his other talents), set permanently in the midst of the polyglot, European and often aristocratic Stravinsky circle, was marvellously translated into aplomb.

Unfortunately, Craft appears to dislike the self that mastered awkward situations as much as the self that originally endured them. The personal strand of the book is indeed preoccupied with self-loathing. June 1966 – Craft is 43:

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