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:

Walking in the rue St-Honoré this morning, I am accosted by a display of recordings in a shop-window and in the next instant recognise them as mine, whereupon I feel ill. Why does the sight of my name in print, of a photograph of myself, of any kind of publicity concerning myself, even the sound of my voice on a playback or in an echo chamber during a long-distance telephone call, upset me so much? I put the question to I.S. later, but instead of explaining the neurosis, he adds to its documentation, saying that I neglected to sign the first letter he received from me, because of which he had to trace me through Nicolas Nabokov.

Elsewhere he defines his character as ‘feckless, irresolute, physically and mentally indolent, yet impulsive’. He is as critical of his own musical performances as of other people’s. He communicates the sense of living in an existential quagmire, and is keenly aware of the difference between a ‘life of purity’, such as he found exemplified by the poet David Jones when visiting him in a Harrow lodging-house with Stephen Spender, and the ‘many lives of pastiche’. But he is aware of the origin of his woes. From 4 October 1953: ‘My deepest problem. I have changed families and at a terrible cost substituted my ideal for my real one’ – an admission of 1994 which doubtless accounts for the numerous references in the new text to communicions from ‘my marvellous mother’, ‘my never-forgetting mother’, ‘my inimitable mother’. Craft’s fastidious, virtuoso prose style with its witty banter, metaphorical gusto, dazzling vocabulary and sheer erudition may be seen as a heroic attempt to pull himself out of the quagmire by turning all that happens to or around him into fineness. He is a pathological enhancer, whether of his own gaucheries and existential contingencies, other people’s table-talk or Stravinsky’s English (as controversially recorded in the conversation books). But he is still left with an alter ego he would quite like to murder.

That need not worry us, however. Our problem is only to accept the exaggerations and selective detail of a style based teasingly on caricature and reminiscent of De Quincey’s in his recollections of the Wordsworth circle; nothing could be easier. What luck for the Stravinsky circle, after all, to have had a memoirist like Craft! Auden, for example, is nowhere more alive than on these pages. He is the leading secondary character, popping in and out of the narrative, usually when there is eating and drinking to be done, table-talking like a true Augustan. He provides the new, as the old, Chronicle with its unforgettable opening tableau in March 1948:

Washington D.C. Arriving at the Raleigh Hotel for my appointment with Stravinsky this morning, I find Auden pacing the lobby – in the same suit he wore in a photograph taken a decade ago in China. ‘The night train from Pittsburgh was late,’ he says, ‘and the Stravs aren’t receiving yet.’ In that case, I ask, would he join me in a second breakfast? But no, he wouldn’t, because ‘there are no hard rolls in America.’ He drinks two glasses of beer instead, and lay-analyses ‘the old boy, in whose case, obviously, the mother figure is money.’ Suddenly remembering The Rake’s Progress, he delves into a battered briefcase and brings forth a copy of the libretto wrapped in the New York Times. Evidently counting on only a short wait, he opens the typescript to the final scene and hands it over to me saying, ‘This might interest you.’ While I read, he turns to the Times obits, at which he registers disappointment, then to the book page, which provokes a groan ... When I say that I think the Bedlam scene contains some of the most beautiful lines ever intended for an opera, he grants me ten additional minutes for the rest of the text, or approximately the time it would take him to read it. I have hardly finished Scene One when he jumps up exclaiming, ‘Surely the old boy must be ready by now,’ and fire-chases back to ring the apartment.

After this one is always looking forward to the next of Auden’s appearances, apt to bring insight and hilarity in equal measure (though he does harp on about opera). We find him in Venice for the premiere of The Rake in 1951, absurdly in tears because the hotel room he has been given is much inferior to that of the Stravinskys. A ‘mad’ female admirer follows him there and is still in hot pursuit some eighteen months later in New York, when she finally has ‘to be taken to the coop’. At around this time Craft and the Stravinskys visited Auden’s apartment for a meal:

Going to the lavatory and finding shaving utensils and other matter sloshing in the sink, a glass containing a set of Auden’s ‘snappers’ (store teeth), a mirror in which it would be impossible even to recognise oneself, a towel that would require the user to wash again, and on the floor a basin of dirty fluid, she unthinkingly empties the basin and fills it with fresh water. Not until dessert time do we discover, with mixed emotions, that she has flushed Chester’s chocolate pudding down the drain.

The Chronicle is wryly observant of Auden’s fads. On 19 January 1962: ‘Lunch at Perse’s with Auden, who is wearing not merely dark but black glasses, like a blind beggar’; 16 January 1966: ‘After confounding the room-service waiters by ordering mushrooms as a savoury ... and using “quite” for “yes” – “More wine, sir?” “Quite” – he expatiates on anti-opera.’ And of his changing physique: ‘His face now hangs in loose folds, like an elephant’s behind.’ The bons mots are reeled off. Byron is ‘a master not of language but of speed’. Nicolas Nabokov is ‘a composer who will never realise his talent because he cannot bear to be long enough alone’. ‘The steadiest business in the world would be a pharmacy next door to Stravinsky.’

Not only Auden but dozens of the great are delineated for posterity by the Chronicle. Balanchine, Ingmar Bergman, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Giacometti, Graves, Isherwood, Heard, Huxley, St-John Perse, Gilbert Ryle, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh. Some, including Eliot and Huxley, are evoked at length; others come to rest in a marvellous single image. Edith Sitwell’s eyes are ‘heavily underpencilled in blue, like the woad dye of an early Briton warrior’. Isherwood and Don Bachardy, beaming mutual affection, ‘are a perfect match, as if they had bought each other out of a catalogue’. The ‘tartared teeth’ of Giacometti, a year before his death, are alternating ‘yellow, black, and absentees, like the keyboard of a broken harpsichord’. Of the 82-year-old Forster, visited at King’s, Craft writes: ‘One naturally regards the man as a judge. Even the weather is a subject of adjudication: when I wonder aloud whether the rain has stopped, he settles silver-rimmed spectacles on his nose, goes to the window, says, “I will try to decide.” ’ Long ago the question was asked, did Stravinsky, and hence Craft, ever mix with ordinary people? It seems unlikely. Taking a (new) page from the Chronicle at random – it comprises entries from 9-14 February 1953, the week of the American premiere of The Rake’s Progress – one finds that the boon-companions were Peter Bartok, Edmund Wilson, Fritz Reiner, Rudolph Bing, Alma Mahler-Werfel, Paco Lagerstrom, Auden, Kallman, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Stravinsky was, however, saddled at this time as on several occasions with the chaotic if aristocratic poet Edward James (whose laugh Craft compares to ‘a hornbill in the jungle’). Ordinary people only really crop up as mad admirers of Auden or vague conquests – ‘the pretty blonde [a 1994 recollection] on the Cristoforo Colombo ... with an annoying Eskimostyle nose-rubbing kiss’ – of Craft’s and never merit an entry in the (already untrustworthy) index. Stravinsky, if not a little of a glamour-seeker, was a creature authentically set apart from the ordinary, and Craft, for the sake of the Stravinsky legend, seems to have been willing to suppress evidence to the contrary, even at the risk of condemning himself to a ‘life of pastiche’.

Thanks to Craft, Stravinsky’s American years were not only socially and musically facilitated (there is no doubt that Craft’s conductor’s interest in Gesualdo Schoenberg and Webern influenced Stravinsky’s late style) but recorded in a degree of detail unprecedented for a composer since Cosima Wagner’s diaries gave us a quotidian Richard. Stravinsky may well have reckoned on this in forging the intimate relationship (‘dearest Bobsky’) with Craft but he cannot have known just how acute and gifted an observer he would prove, how naturally sensitive a Stravinskologist. In describing the composer’s domestic life and working habits (‘when composing ... he holes up in his studio, shutting the outer doors of the foyer and the double doors of his soundproof room, quite literally sealing himself in’), or in framing vignettes of him on their travels, or evaluating his impromptu remarks, pinpointing his faiblesses, and generally marshalling the evidence of a personality in which the childlike is hard to distinguish from the imperious – superstition hopelessly mixed up with wilful anti-sentimentalism – he always seems to convey the characteristic thing, in terms that could never be mistaken for a generic picture of a ‘great composer’.

It is a depiction ‘rounded’ enough to meet any Forsterian edict on the novel; copious, to be sure, beyond summary, but it has a comic bias:

A half hour before dinner, I.S. drinks a Scotch, or a tumbler of straight Bols gin from a terracotta bottle, and eats a piece of Gruyère or prosciutto. Depending on the quality of the day’s work, he will drink to the point of inebriation. As Drummond of Hawthornden observed of Ben Jonson, drink is ‘one of the elements in which he liveth’. Dinner is washed down with a bottle of Burgundy, a bottle of claret – I.S. is a carnivore – and, at the end, a bottle of champagne.

This 1949 impression (from the 1994 edition) of the composer required little amendment over the years: one thinks of Stravinsky’s response when asked how he felt after a White House dinner with the Kennedys: ‘Quite drunk, thank you, Mr President.’ (His comment in the car afterwards: ‘Nice kids.’) The Chronicle’s sweeping panorama of the modern tradition is also a survey of mid-20th century bibulousness, and it is all the more remarkable that Craft retained such keen observer’s faculties. But he is nothing if not sharp. He notices, for instance, what Aldous Huxley doesn’t: that knowledge of a factual, musicological kind has no interest for Stravinsky and that the latter’s ‘stock of prejudices might be narrow and cranky because of creative preoccupations ... How long, I wonder, will it take Mr H to discover that I.S.’s genius is wrapped – for protection from musical data – in a vacuum?’ He usefully discusses the extent to which Stravinsky is and is not ‘intellectual’ and is clear from the start – an expanded 1949 chapter newly full of compelling minutiae about Stravinsky’s routine – on the main issue: ‘He is the most tactile man I have ever known. He likes to touch wood, wrap packages, to feel: one of his favourite expressions is: “I have to touch the music” (i.e. through the piano).’ Stravinsky’s bons mots are nearly always like that. They do not have a spin on them like Auden’s, but attest a concrete personal truth and often go deep. ‘There is no creative process for me, only the pleasure.’ ‘I am always surprised by the suddenness with which my material comes to an end. I feel like a satisfied animal then.’ ‘I am always happy when I am awakened and it is the same with composing.’ But not always so deep: ‘I despise mountains; they tell me nothing,’ he pronounces on a drive through the ‘Wagnerian scenery’ of Glacier National Park in 1952.

Because Craft fully understood this cast of mind he was able at once to appreciate, when others could not, the staggering originality of the masterpieces which Stravinsky put forth during their years together: the Cantata, Canticum Sacrum, the ballet Agon, Threni, Movements for piano and orchestra etc. (Some etcetera!) In his postscript to the year 1955 he reminds us that the Canticum Sacrum was ‘new in every way’, Stravinsky’s first exploration of ‘the world of twelve-pitch serial music’ as well as a daring embodiment of ‘musico-theological-architectural concepts’: the five-movement structure is analogous to the domes of St Mark’s, Venice, under which the work was first performed. Of the ballet’s composition, partly in that city, he offers a superb vignette in September 1956, wholly typical of the book:

I.S. works on Agon all morning at the pink piano in the hotel nightclub, undeterred by ghosts of dance music and the stale odours of half-smoked cigars, but he complains of the difficulty ‘in composing my dry music in this humidity: to live in Venice is to live in a glass of water.’ Emerging for lunch, he remarks that ‘a series is a facet and serial music is a crystallising, a way of presenting several sides of the same idea.’ Enantiomorphs?

Craft captures an image from the same trip of the Stravinskys, having docked in the Giudecca canal, counting ‘their 30 bags over and over, like rosary beads’; and notes that, on an outing to Torcello, the superstitious composer refused ‘even to put his foot’ on the cemetery island of San Michele at which the boat was stopping en route, and where he lies today.

His journey to San Michele had begun in earnest nonetheless: ‘1956 was the crisis year of Stravinsky’s later life,’ Craft tells us in one of those postscripts affording him the luxuries of hindsight. ‘Until his death 15 years later, Stravinsky’s health was international news.’ These long sustained ‘declining’ years were relentlessly productive and included four of strenuous globe-trotting: tours of Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Africa, and the celebrated return to the USSR in 1962, when the composer spoke with Khrushchev. But medical priorities gradually replaced creative ones, and though Stravinsky’s ability to rise from hospital beds was astounding, the last third of the Chronicle forever brings us back to the bedside – and to a vocabulary fancier even than Craft has hitherto been able to get away with. On 18 March 1971:

I.S. is unwell. His pulse is labile, his coughing spells are deep and prolonged. Pulmonary edema, Dr Lax says, and within an hour I.S. is litter-borne and on the way not only to the scene of last year’s crimes, but also to the very same room ... He is processed like a product on an assembly line, chest clamped with cathodes, trachea scoured by a vacuum cleaner, nostrils invaded with plastic oxygen tubes, right inner elbow embrocated to expose a vein that a Draculess then punctures to draw a remarkably copious ‘specimen’. The left arm, meanwhile, is strangled by a sphygmomanometric pump, implanted with a tube for intravenous feeding (a rivulet of diuretics to flush the fluid from the lungs), and bandaged to a small ironing-board splint. Last and worst, he is catheterised, the deed done by the head of the Urology Department who, apologising for the discomfort, says afterward, ‘Maestro, I hope we are still friends.’ But me maestro angrily demolishes the assumption that they ever were.

The entries of this period can subtly seem to position the two friends on divergent trajectories, for Stravinsky’s dying coincided with the call to sexual liberation of the Sixties which Craft was cautiously answering. A critique of the nude show Oh! Calcutta! is poignantly followed by an entry in which I.S. is connected to an oxygen cylinder. Too much closeness to death will drive the healthy to sex: soon after Stravinsky died Craft got married – to Stravinsky’s young nurse, an event that is just about noted (in a 1994 postscript). But the book leaves one in no doubt that Craft’s feelings for both Igor and Vera Stravinsky were of painfully acute filial love. ‘They are the most marvellous people in the world ... a whole continent in themselves,’ he writes on seeing them again after only a short separation; and later the same year he reflects that ‘Gorky’s remark about his great predecessor [Tolstoy] ... exactly describes my own feelings about I.S.: “I am not an orphan on the earth as long as this man lives on it.” ’

With the arrangement in May 1968 of two songs by Hugo Wolf Stravinsky virtually ceased any kind of composing. Craft encouraged him to continue writing, ‘even two notes’; and received the utterly characteristic reply: ‘But they must be the right two.’ In any case, as he had told his nurse: ‘I never try, I compose or I don’t compose.’ A few weeks before his death he did resume his composing sessions, for two successive mornings; but with no issue. Nor was the thought of his previous incomparable output any consolation. ‘All my life,’ he complained to Craft, ‘I have been pursued by “my works”, but I don’t care about my works. I care only about composing. And that is finished.’ But these were not his last words. Providing a discreet emotional climax for the volume, Craft records a beautifully romantic incident that happened four days before the end: ‘I.S. writes a short note in Russian, but forgets and signs his name in Latin letters. V. asks him to do the signature over in Russian, whereupon he takes the pen, and, aware that she is watching him, writes not his name, but “Oh, how I love you!” ’

The 1972 Chronicle finished with an account of Stravinsky’s spectacular funeral in Venice and Craft’s subsequent days of bereaved jettings about with Vera, but here the added Postlude (parts of which are familiar from diary excerpts in Present Perspectives) takes us gently and briefly up to Vera’s death in 1982. As for Craft himself, he assuredly paid the price for his full-scale enactment of Freud’s ‘family romance’, not least in terms of the damage sustained by his conducting career once his fantasy father, ‘I.S.’, was no longer around. But the career has, I believe, picked up of late: he has been recording ambitious CD sets both of Stravinsky’s music and Schoenberg’s. In any case his best achievement is to have given us in the Chronicle a work quite impervious to fashion.