Words about Music

Hans Keller

My fairly extensive – and, analytically, intensive – writings about Stravinsky confine themselves to his music and the psychology of his creativity – to the products and the nature of his towering genius. About the human being I have never yet written a word: the greater the genius the less there is of a causal connection or correlation between his life and his art – whence Beethoven came to be the communicator of profound, unmixed joy:

On the present occasion, however, it is my duty to tell the potential reader of close on five hundred pages whether Stravinsky the man is worth knowing about. The answer is an unqualified no, unless one is childish enough to enjoy the coincidence, within one and the same mind, of supernormal art and moral subnormality. I only met Stravinsky once – and had never met such a small-minded great mind before. From the words ‘Mr Keller!’, exclaimed with hypocritical enthusiasm, I was being flattered out of existence, in that our subject of conversation, my analyses, had to submit, paradoxically, to a sales talk without an ounce of substance, a string of compliments that immediately reminded me of something I’d never heard – a commercial traveller’s overtures.

There is nothing in Robert Craft’s skilful, conscientious, copiously annotated selection to get me over the shock I then received: on the contrary, there’s plenty to revive it. Boring as many of the composer’s letters are (which, then, have remained unselected?), about one central fact they seem to leave no doubt – that he treated human beings as mere, sheer material. You may say he had to. Why?

Why, for instance, was it necessary – let’s, for once, call a theft a theft – to rob Auden (not a millionaire himself) of his commissioning fee for The Rake? ‘I have not sold La Biennale anything but my conducting and musical supervision of the performance,’ Stravinsky tells him, ‘and most of your problems are off bounds to me.’ Despicable, as Craft’s commendably honest footnote shows: ‘Stravinsky is pretending that the $20,000 for the opera, procured for him from the Italian government by Nicolas Nabokov, was not a commission (which he would have had to share with the librettists) but a fee for conducting the premiere.’

Ineluctably, therefore, one has to wonder what prompted Theodore, Stravinsky’s elder son, to refuse to give Craft the composer’s letters to his first wife, whose own letters are, therefore, the first chapter’s sole material. And the second, entitled ‘Correspondence with Maurice Delage’, is nothing of the sort: its opening Stravinsky letter remains its only one; while conversely, the chapters on Ansermet and Craft himself contain nothing from the addressees. But from Auden, fortunately, there is a lot. I only met Auden once – for many hours, though, discussing music all along. Both as a mind and as a human being, he produced one of my life’s weightiest days – whence I am not surprised to find him as the centre of interest of both books. Why indeed should one be? Books are made of words, which many musicians aren’t happy with: Auden’s conceptual thought is more natural, and hence more interesting than Stravinsky’s. There are choice quotes in Griffiths’s second chapter, on ‘The Makers and their Work’, such as ‘No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.’

Ironically, even Auden’s musical observations in Craft’s volume can, upon occasion, be more reliable than Stravinsky’s. The composer will describe Carl Ebert as ‘an experienced musician’, just because he wants this current personage to produce The Rake, whereas Auden, far more of ‘an experienced musician’ in the extra-professional sense, is ‘a bit worried about the prospect of Ebert directing. We [he and Chester Kallman] saw his Cosi fan tutte and thought it was much too refined and “miniaturised”.’ A more musical and alert diagnosis of Ebert’s Cosi fan tutte, praised at the time by all the misleading critics, can hardly be imagined.

In a later letter about the star producer of the age, moreover, Auden continues to be absolutely on the musical dot: ‘Ebert has asked too much money for the direction etc, etc. As to the latter, it sounds rather conceited to say so, I know, but I believe that I and Kallman could do an adequate job; at least we shouldn’t sacrifice the music to the action, as most modern opera directors do, in my opinion.’ Thereby, the diagnosis is both widened and deepened: Auden’s ‘opinion’ was sheer musical fact.

For the professional musician, Paul Griffiths himself is a problem – which is meant as a relative compliment, since most music critics on the contemporary scene are sub-problematic. The new chief music critic of the Times emerges as a conscientious, musical and knowledgeable observer; what does not emerge is musicianship proper. In fact, he doesn’t know the difference between description and analysis, and describes where he thinks he analyses, while evincing, at times, highly articulate incomprehension when reacting to other people’s analytic thought.

In the circumstances, it saddens one to hear him speak with the authority he doesn’t possess: is it too patronising to suggest that in view of his position, Mr Griffiths might consider an unconventional personal course of action – to master one or two disciplines of the art of music itself? Meanwhile, his (or the publisher’s?) description of the book’s authorship makes a dishonest impression Paul Griffiths does not deserve. ‘With Igor Stravinsky’? The composer’s contribution is confined to an exceptionally vapid ‘programme note’ of less than seven hundred words, and a more substantial ‘tribute’ to Auden of less than four hundred words – whose history and purpose would be utterly obscure without the explanation Robert Craft provides in his own volume:

On June 28 1965, Christopher Burstall, a BBC Television producer, wrote to Stravinsky asking him to participate in a documentary program about Auden, ‘answering an unseen questioner’. Stravinsky wrote back ... that he would be ‘pleased to contribute to the program’ but that the filming would have to be done in his Hollywood home. He asked for a ‘question from Mr Auden himself. I would then compose an answer of ca. two minutes duration and read it from ... “idiot cards”.’

Robert Craft, in his turn, prints Auden’s letter of gratitude, but not the tribute itself, whose proper place would have been in his book, not Paul Griffiths’s, which alleges the composer’s collaboration. What does Stravinsky’s unintentional contribution amount it? Two republications totalling a wordage of just over two-thirds of the present review.

The rest of this ‘handbook’ for ‘the serious opera-goer or record-collector as well as the student or scholar’ is, I am happy to report, immeasurably more honest: the other two collaborators have each contributed a chapter. Josipovici’s is ‘Some thoughts on the libretto’, which arrive at the shattering conclusion that The Rake ‘is the piano tuner’s answer to the train driver’, whatever that may mean: Stravinsky’s brothers ‘used to call him “the piano tuner” because of his obsessions with and constant repetition of notes that he liked’, and the train driver is Wagner or Berg or Schoenberg or suchlike.

Robert Craft’s ‘note on the sketches and the two versions of the libretto’ is what I would describe as the musician’s contribution to a book which will undoubtedly serve its purpose, so long as this purpose is not meant to include strictly musical enlightenment. Not that the main author’s contribution is musically flawed – but from a genuinely musical point of view, its musical information is, realistically speaking, superfluous, in that it does not go beyond what the musical opera-goer or record-collector can find out for himself, on the basis of his own experience of the work.

My God’s-eye view of what, after all, is a well-intentioned, serious effort will seem unfairly niggling unless I throw it into a perspective which, itself, is in urgent need of rational examination. For the fact is that most ‘good’ books about music, or the few books about music which can be described as ‘good’, in that they don’t misinform and don’t mislead, are subject to the same criticism as is Paul Griffiths’s: they are, strictly musically speaking, superfluous – their factual and historical and biographical information apart. And inasmuch as they are superfluous, they are musically harmful, for they threaten to replace what should happen, or should have happened, in the listener’s own mind with a surrogate which he comes to depend on and which, at the same time, remains meaningless so long as it isn’t supported by his own musical experience. Once it is thus supported, however, it merely tautologises: all description of music, as distinct from its analysis, is, in this sense, pleonastic.

Yes, I am calling on musicographers of the world: words about music, which centuries of climactic musical development were able to do without, need justification and must not, in any circumstances, run the risk of replacing musical understanding. They have increased in proportion as music has become either a problem or, at the very least, a subject. Natural art and its experience are neither, and words about music are only justifiable if they promote, rather than inhibit or indeed replace, the development of natural artistic understanding. For a start, if all descriptions of what the reader has hardly heard yet yielded to analyses of what he has heard, instinctively understood, and so recognises in the analysis as a verbal articulation of his own understanding, a major step would be taken towards once again making musical experience – musical.