‘Stravinsky’

Paul Driver

  • Dearest Bubushkin: Selected Letters and Diaries of Vera and Igor Stravinsky edited by Robert Craft
    Thames and Hudson, 239 pp, £25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 500 01368 3
  • Stravinsky: Selected Correspondence Vol. III edited by Robert Craft
    Faber, 543 pp, £35.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13373 8

Stravinsky was a dull correspondent, but at least he was Stravinsky. His wife’s letters to him, which preponderate over his to her in Robert Craft’s new selection of Stravinskyiana, Dearest Bubushkin, have biographical importance but do not all that frequently rise above the level of any wife to any husband. The book, though physically attractive and lavishly illustrated, is a hard read. What is it that keeps one going through a long sequence of letters with their arbitrary reference to time and place and their detailed personal content? Usually their literary value and/or narrative arrangement. Vera Stravinsky’s letters have more of the former than her husband’s, but that isn’t saying much. Craft’s arrangement of the material is chronological (1921 to 1954) but creates little suspense because, by and large, it is the recipient, not the author of the letters who is doing that, away from home on his adventures. Nor can the moderately enlivening format of the Selected Correspondence (of which the third and final volume is now published) be used to parcel up correspondences and themes: for Vera there is only one correspondent, and only one theme – marital solicitude.

Dearest Bubushkin – a coffee-table adornment, successor to Igor and Vera Stravinsky and A Stravinsky Scrapbook – may look attractive, but its layout in wide double columns with extensive footnotes compounds the difficulty of reading. After certain page-turns one is confronted by four spacious blocks of print, packed with possibly inconsequential matter, and one’s eye demurs. Vera seems to have been an impeccable wife, both common-law and eventually legal. In her communications with Igor, her Dearest Bubushkin, she is tender, vivacious (even when she and those around her are ill – which was all the time), concerned, thinking (and we believe this) only of him. ‘Soon I will be able to start a letter to you, “This will be the last one,” and my heart rejoices at this thought. I am sitting in front of an open window making flowers, and one could think that I represent spring.’ Their relationship was, all evidence suggests, a continuous success. She was certainly spring to him. Her occasional remarks to the effect of ‘You must be seeing many interesting people ... in comparison with you I feel so provincial’ contain no trace of envy.

The few of his letters to her (his ‘Verushkinsky dearest’) which are preserved in the book come as a relief to the reader – here one can theoretically profit from knowledge even of the Master’s minutest circumstances and most casual sayings – but as a surprise too: they are not reciprocally very effusive and usually give the impression that the author would rather not be writing them (he was of course kept busy). Typical are an incipit like ‘Here we are in Lisbon, and you have probably received our cable. I will not describe anything: all will be in person, which is better and more amusing’; or such hearts of the matter as ‘I suffered from dizziness for three days, but it finally stopped today,’ and ‘Here I am, on the bed, feeling nauseous and running to the bathroom. I also swallow a lot of codeine.’ His chief anxiety besides health is money: ‘The swine demand that we pay for the return ticket at the same time, though on the understanding that the money will be reimbursed later.’ In a letter of December 1939 can be traced the beginnings of what would much later become a bitter and pathetic legal fight between Stravinsky and his children: ‘Since you did not forward my letter to Fedya [Theodore Stravinsky], I am momentarily inclined to agree with your advice concerning it. But I feel that he should answer my two questions: why did he draw out the money from the bank secretly, not telling you and Madubo, and why did he take it to Le Mans?’ More sympathetic is this rather odd comment drawn from him by the presence of ‘big shots’ at a reception in Baden-Baden:

Adenauer is also staying at our hotel, going daily to Strasbourg for Atlantic Pact conferences. Are we not lucky with the great ones of the world? Only yesterday at the Hôtel des Bergues, I saw an Arab Emir in full regalia. What beauty! I wonder who and what I will see in London?

Stravinsky is still remembered for his personal charisma and charm, qualities which do not inform his letter-writing but cannot be mistaken in photographs. The generous selection included here (some new) is full of delights: Stravinsky in peaked cap and slightly short trousers standing beside a pony and trap with his back to the Seine valley – he looks like a dandified refugee; Stravinsky debonair in double-breasted suit photographed in Los Angeles by his friend Edward G. Robinson; a merry Stravinsky at a recording session (of The Rake’s Progress), one hand holding a cigarette, the other in conjunction with a whisky bottle. The implacability of the man stays stamped on his photographed features till the end – strongly marked in Richard Avedon’s famous portrait of 1969. Vera passes photographically through the book like royalty, always exuding grace, joy and beauty. Igor’s snapshot of her by a lake in Wiesbaden in 1930 is particularly fetching, with the remote glow of a legend.

The other feature of Dearest Bubushkin is its lengthy sampling of Vera’s, very infrequently Igor’s, private diaries – a means of recovering the missing dates of the letter sequence, and so completing an historical record from 1921 to the composer’s death on 6 April 1971. Robert Craft tells us that Vera’s diaries if published entire would amount to a ‘book or books of great bulk containing a more detailed account of her life than of Stravinsky’s’. Consequently he has limited his extracts to entries directly concerning Stravinsky and has even cut these drastically, on average retaining but a line or two per chosen day. The following is a fairly representative specimen (May 1957 – an uncosmopolitan month for the Stravinskys):

11. Isherwood and Don come for dinner. 15. Dinner with Gerald [Heard]. 16. Lunch with Christopher Isherwood and Don at MGM Studios. 17. Bob [Craft] records Gesualdo 2 to 5. 19. Aaron Copland for dinner. 22. Bob records. 24. For dinner here: Isherwood and Don. 29. Lunch at Bel Air. The whole day with Robert Graff (NBC Television): I am going mad. Bob rehearses for his recording.

Such data extending over many pages are strictly unreadable: one would go mad oneself reading the diaries consecutively and complete. What tends to happen is a darting of the eye immediately down to Craft’s copious footnotes, which throw pencils of light back up to the mass of material. The glosses are more interesting, on the whole, as well as more readable (because more written) than the diaries. What isn’t glossed, one comes to realise, may well be insignificant or just too obscure; moreover, Craft’s acerbity and wit are continually in play down here.

Dearest Bubushkin is another Craft-book, for sure. His intervention in the autobiographical process is as decisive as ever. At least he cannot, either in this volume or in the Selected Correspondence, be accused of putting words into Stravinsky’s mouth. No, but his excision of Vera’s diaries is thorough-going, and the splendidly helpful and sardonic critical apparatus supplied by him to both works illustrates an editorial will-to-power occasionally recalling that of Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote. Privileged and put-down, Craft has had an unlucky cultural role. Famous, esteemed for a diversity of talents, he has necessarily provoked resentment for his domination of a public genius; and there is evidence to assume that he resents it too. ‘Why Stravinsky in my life, and why me in his? The question paralyses me now more than it did when he was alive,’ he wrote in a centenary essay on Stravinsky (reprinted, along with other important pieces on this crucial subject, in Present Perspectives, Craft’s third book of essays). In his diary entry for 4 February 1949 (The Chronicle of a Friendship), describing a meeting between the Stravinskys and the Evelyn Waughs, he had dolefully observed that if Waugh ‘does not brook the literary talk of literary types, he certainly seems to enjoy it from outsiders like (though no one is quite like) the I.S.’s and even from semi-insiders like (there are many like) me ...’ It is a sad spectacle when a man of conspicuous talent allows himself to be personally engulfed by another man’s genius, and often sad for both men. From associates of Stravinsky I’ve heard accounts of his last years which reflect poorly on Craft; a famous composer even opined that Stravinsky ‘died alone’. Since that death, Craft’s role has remained as painfully controversial as before it. The debate over the authenticity of the books of conversation grows more vociferous as the content of those volumes is found to seep into musical history. The truth, I should hazard, is that ‘Stravinsky’s prose’, as singled out for praise by the New York Times (from the blurb of Themes and Conclusions: ‘How beautifully Igor Stravinsky writes ... His sentences are as pungent and as full of character as his music’ etc) and as described by Michael Tanner in the letter pages of this journal as ‘the greatest English prose of our time, I think’ (LRB, 3-16 February 1983), is Craft’s prose.

Craft’s essayistic prose is indistinguishable from what is ostensibly Stravinsky’s in his answers to interview questions or in the various articles attributed to him in Themes and Conclusions. No one who has heard Stravinsky talking on film or disc could credit him with the grasp of English syntax and the virtuoso vocabulary required to produce a written result as coruscating, elaborate, searching, witty, and altogether remarkable (Tanner’s evaluation was not necessarily exaggerated) as that with which we are faced. Only Nabokov, I take it, among émigré Russian writers, would have been thus capable, and I doubt whether even he would have essayed such mannered sentences as: ‘My temperament and Mr Cage’s are hopelessly mis-cage-nated, and his performances are often, to me, the frustration of time itself’ (Expositions and Developments, page 97). Would Stravinsky have been inclined or able to use an expression like ‘alcoholic moistures’ (which ‘affect his performing memory’ in Expositions and Developments, page 47), the same man as was reported by Paul Horgan to have answered a Presidential official’s question – ‘Well, Mr Stravinsky, how does it feel to be in the White House?’ – with ‘It feels very dronk’? Horgan’s book, Encounters with Stravinsky, was endorsed by Vera as the most faithful representation of the composer’s personality and speech. As in ‘ “Ja,” he said, “Bop was vawnderful – he was amazink in Tristan. My God!” ’; and those famous remarks, ‘I don’t know if there is a creative process as such. Only the pleasure. I like to compose much more than the music itself ...’ and ‘I can wait as an insect can wait. I am somebody who is waiting all his life.’ The recording on disc of Stravinsky addressing a student seminar at the University of Texas is plain attestation of what his spoken sentences were like: witty, wonderful, full of pith but thickly accented, unidiomatic and cumbersome – not Craftian at all.

While Stravinsky was presumably pleased to have his language souped up by a stylist like Craft, he was clear from the start that the ‘Conversations’ were essentially Craft’s own writing. In March 1958 he wrote to his agent:

The title of the book is ‘Conversations with Igor Stravinsky by Robert Craft’. It must appear that way in all editions ... This isn’t Bob – who is in fact at fault the other way in not wanting his name on anything – but he did write the book, it is his language, his presentation, his imagination, and his memory, and I am only protecting myself in not wanting it to appear as though I write or talk that way. It’s not a question simply of ghost writing but of somebody who is to a large extent creating me.

It is odd, therefore, that Craft, in his recent discussion of the authenticity question in Present Perspectives, should assert:

Apart from programme notes and ‘open’ letters, the ‘conversations’ books are the only published writings attributed to Stravinsky that are very largely by him. Unlike the entirely ghosted Poétique Musicale and Chroniques de Ma Vie, the pamphlet on Pushkin and the essay on Diaghilev, most of the ‘conversations’ – for which many of the manuscript and typescript drafts survive – were in fact written or dictated by the composer.

Such typescripts as I have examined – those of Conversations and Expositions and Developments in the possession of Donald Mitchell, who edited them for Faber – do not indicate whatever Stravinsky’s contribution might have been; and that ‘very largely’ is just what one would like Craft to explain. The essay infuriatingly leaves open the question of Craft’s stylistic role. I haven’t doubted that the flow of the dialogues, their factual content and angles of vision are very largely determined by the involvement of Stravinsky’s mind. (I am given pause, though, by the reference in the letter just quoted to ‘his memory’.) On the other hand, the patina of the prose, the nuances of literary style, make all the difference in presenting Stravinsky not as he was (cf. the Texas recording), but as a creation of Craft’s. In the preface to his Chronicle of a Friendship, the latter insisted that he lacked ‘the novelist’s talent that can make “ordinary” people interesting’. The extraordinary ones, he went on, ‘take care of themselves, with little help from me’. With a little help from him, Stravinsky, and indeed Auden (superbly evoked throughout Chronicle), have been shaded off into fictional characters. We should be grateful for this.

Who wants authenticity? Achieving it is an interesting experiment and was laudably undertaken by Donald Mitchell in his interview with Benjamin Britten conducted at the time of Owen Wingrave’s composition. Small adjustments even here, I gather, were made. But the tiniest adjustment, strictly speaking, disqualifies a transcript from verbatim status, and obliges the transcriber to form a notion of optimum veracity. This being so, one might decide that the most satisfying interviews are those which are most judiciously ‘worked-up’. The working-up is conscious literary activity. At the opposite pole from the verbatim transcript is a wonderful artefact like Beckett’s Three Dialogues with George Duthuit, in which no note of spontaneity, I hope, can be detected. The influential dialogues of our culture, from Plato’s to David Sylvester’s with Francis Bacon, have been the most conscientiously elaborated, while verbatim reporting essentially belongs to journalism. Robert Craft’s industry, dedication and literary skill not only make more palatable the two books under review, but have elsewhere gone to devise a persona in which Stravinsky could say, in English, the most marvellous and necessary things.