The audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was spoiling for a fight. Gathered to hear the much-anticipated Paris premiere of music by Igor Stravinsky, many were determined to stop the performance with a noisy demonstration of their opposition. Shortly after the music began, catcalls and shouts rained down on the performers. The shouts turned into whistles. Someone pounded so loudly with a hammer that the performance broke down completely, and the orchestra had to start again. It’s unlikely that anyone heard much of the controversial music that evening, but scandal-hungry Parisian newspapers still managed to vent their outrage in articles with headlines like “Enough of Stravinsky.”
But the story is not as familiar as it sounds. For the year is 1945–not 1913, when the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with its jaggedly displaced accents and eerily inhuman melodies, famously provoked a riot. And the work in question, far from hailing the shock of the new, was an amiable piece of orchestral fluff titled Four Norwegian Moods. Naturally, the protesters were different too. Instead of a bourgeois subscription audience horrified at a musical and visual spectacle, the 1945 protesters were conservatory students incensed at what they considered the reactionary hegemony of Stravinsky. It had been a long thirty years: Igor Stravinsky, once the enfant terrible of the musical world, was now démodé.
The terrifying apparition of artistic obsolescence hovered like a vulture over the last half of Stravinsky’s life. On at least one occasion it reduced him to creative paralysis and tears. One famous tale has Stravinsky weeping in a car driven through the Mojave Desert in 1952, confessing that he had lost the inspiration to compose. As his wife, Vera, gently soothed him, Stravinsky turned to the other occupant of the car, his inseparable assistant, Robert Craft. Perhaps, he hinted to Craft, a solution might be found in the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Despite having spent the past few decades ignoring Schoenberg’s radical attacks on tonality, Stravinsky admitted that he had recently been deeply impressed by the music of the late Viennese master. (Schoenberg had died the previous year in Los Angeles, though the two composing giants haughtily ignored each other whenever they crossed paths, as they often did at concerts.) “When he said that he wanted to learn more [about Schoenberg],” Craft wrote, “I knew that the crisis was over; so far from being defeated, Stravinsky would emerge a new composer.”
Chronicling the emergence of this “new” Stravinsky has been a challenge for biographers–though not for want of material. In countless books, articles, interviews and films, Stravinsky meticulously recounted his life and creative philosophy. Craft’s own diaries and elegantly composed “conversation books” with Stravinsky remain vivid and essential resources. But the sheer volume of this material is rivaled only by its shameless mendacity. Ten years ago, Richard Taruskin’s monumental Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions hacked through the tangled undergrowth of self-serving deceptions planted by the composer and revealed a completely unrecognizable young Stravinsky–a Russian. Though the glittering surface of this famously cosmopolitan composer’s music seemed to change with every passing cloud, his “morphology, his basic manner of self-expression, and something that goes far deeper than style,” Taruskin wrote, remained unalterably Russian.
But if Stravinsky was wary about revealing the sources of his musical inspiration, he was positively hostile to exposing details of his personal life. Even Craft has admitted that Stravinsky would have wanted nothing to do with a biography. “I often saw him read and burn old correspondence,” Craft has claimed. “Clearly he wished to preserve nothing personal in his so-called archives, and, if the occasion had arisen, he would have made an auto-da-fé of them. So far from condoning any personal biography, if Stravinsky had allowed himself to think about it, he would have specified in his will that none be written.”
Not for the first time should we be thankful that Stravinsky’s wishes have been tossed aside. With the second and final volume of his massive survey of Stravinsky’s life, Stephen Walsh has completed what is by far the most thorough, judicious and illuminating biographical study of the composer yet published. Walsh disobeys, disbelieves and generally debunks Stravinsky’s claims, while remarkably managing to maintain a tone that is consistently respectful–even affectionate–toward the composer himself. This, it turns out, is both a strength and a weakness.
Continental Europe’s cultural elite followed a well-beaten path to the United States in the 1930s. Stravinsky, as always, found his own way. While many artists, musicians and writers fled the twin threats of Fascism and Nazism, Stravinsky had a long and shameful history of lauding the former and quietly tolerating the latter. “I have an overpowering urge to render homage to your Duce,” he assured an Italian music critic in 1933. “He is the saviour of Italy and–let us hope–of Europe.”
As for the Nazis, Stravinsky’s only known complaint about them was that they seemed unaccountably hostile to his music. He seemed particularly enraged that German newspaper reports in the 1930s persisted in referring to him as a Jew. Shortly after Hitler’s accession to power, he provided his German publisher with a detailed genealogy of his Polish noble roots, and declared himself fundamentally in line with the Nazi loathing of “all communism, all Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster,” as well as “all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc.” As late as 1938, he traveled to Berlin to record his most recent ballet, Jeu de cartes, with the Berlin Philharmonic. When, despite his best efforts, his music was still denounced in the 1938 “Degenerate Music” exhibition in Düsseldorf, he desperately entreated Nazi authorities to retract his inclusion. A few months later his German publisher reassured him that his “position in Germany is apparently completely reestablished.” Telefunken, which had recorded Jeu de cartes, was now hoping to entice Stravinsky to record his first three ballets.
Walsh admits that Stravinsky’s behavior does appear, “with all allowances made…grotesque,” but here and elsewhere, his criticisms of Stravinsky’s behavior seem bizarrely reluctant and often strikingly irrelevant. He seems most troubled not by the transparent content of Stravinsky’s political statements but by the possibility that the composer–“so subtle and intelligent”–might have “abase[d]” himself before Nazi authorities.
However we judge the Stravinsky of the 1930s, the fact remains that America changed him. When the composer sailed into New York Harbor in September 1939, few could have anticipated this transformation. Fresh from a triple family tragedy–his elder daughter, wife and mother had all died within the past year–he had come to America to deliver the Norton Lectures at Harvard. Within a couple of years he married his longstanding mistress, Vera Sudeykin, and purchased a home in West Hollywood. Colleagues from his earlier days noticed that he smiled more and seemed more relaxed. He was soon hobnobbing with celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Edward G. Robinson and Cecil B. De Mille and occupying himself with a busy conducting schedule. His politics changed to reflect this new American identity, and he now transferred his political allegiances from Fascist strongmen to New Deal Democrats. “As far as I am concerned,” he told his friend the composer Nicolas Nabokov, “they can have their generalissimos and Fuhrers. Leave me Mr. Truman and I’m quite satisfied.”
In terms of actual music-making, though, Stravinsky’s situation was far less encouraging. Despite his best efforts and the support of friends, he seemed incapable of breaking into the lucrative business of movie music that his Hollywood friends had been urging on him. Four Norwegian Moods, it should be remembered, was just one of several failed attempts at composing for the silver screen, and clear evidence that Stravinsky, for perhaps the only time in his life, was unable to master the demands imposed by a particular creative form. The few other works composed during these early years in America seemed for the most part minor, inconsequential, and elicited barely a shrug from the world’s musical elite. “The battles we have fought for Stravinsky, and how dazzled we were by each work of his,” wrote one nostalgic critic as early as 1935. Stravinsky’s latest music “will please some, irritate or sadden others, but the time of furies and enthusiasms is alas well and truly past.” And so, it appeared, was the creative career of Igor Stravinsky.
Into this void stepped a young Juilliard conducting student named Robert Craft. In 1944, when he was just 20, Craft began writing to Stravinsky. He wooed the 61-year-old composer as a “lover-from-afar,” in Walsh’s words, “shadowing his idol from the stage door to his car, hanging around at rehearsals, hoping for some miraculous introduction, but not daring to put himself forward or declare himself in any way.” The romantic imagery is entirely appropriate. Craft himself describes a 1947 rehearsal of Perséphone where he managed to watch Stravinsky “change his shirt and undershirt, at which time I caught a glimpse of his naked torso.” He lingers over the image of Stravinsky drying his back with a towel “like a shoe-shine boy’s polishing” and dousing himself with eau de cologne.
But it was, finally, a combination of flattery and usefulness, rather than erotic attraction, that wore down Stravinsky’s defenses. When they met in 1948, while Stravinsky was in the middle of working on his opera The Rake’s Progress, Craft immediately proved his worth, aiding the Russian composer’s efforts at understanding the nuances of a language with which he was still far from comfortable.
Craft, though a mere assistant, was an overpowering figure in so many ways. Virtually unknown in 1948, he was almost instantly welcomed into the Stravinsky household and all but adopted by Igor and Vera. Press accounts had a difficult time describing this relationship–one Canadian documentary from the 1960s refers to Craft as Stravinsky’s “protégé,” a description that gets things almost precisely backward. Craft not only tutored Stravinsky in the finer points of the English language, he stocked Stravinsky’s library and even, most famously, explained the music of Arnold Schoenberg to him. It seems almost incredible now, but until the 1950s Stravinsky had never seriously acquainted himself with Schoenberg’s infamous system of composition based on twelve-tone rows, or “serial” music.
Craft presents many thorny problems for any Stravinsky biographer, not the least of which is that he is such a gifted writer. His firsthand reflections about Stravinsky, at times contradictory, are masterpieces of evocative writing, vividly conjuring up the spiritual and physical reality of the composer. Walsh’s prose pales in comparison. He typically shuns the telling anecdote, and chides Craft repeatedly for his accounts of Stravinsky’s meetings with other great artists and writers. “It was evidently another of those occasions when great men meet and talk,” he sighs at one point, “because, like Virgil and Dante, great men must meet and talk, or be reported as having talked, in quotable utterances.” There is some truth to this complaint, but in choosing to avoid these accounts, Walsh renders Stravinsky’s intensely social life unnecessarily claustrophobic and hermetic.
What he struggles heroically–and almost successfully–to do is to disentangle Stravinsky from Craft. The conversation books, as Walsh demonstrates, become increasingly unreliable and clotted with Craft’s own literary constructions as Stravinsky’s health declines. Themes and Episodes, from 1967, “probably contains nothing written by Stravinsky himself, and possibly not much that he ever actually said.” Craft, for his part, was never shy about claiming credit for Stravinsky’s creative achievements. A 1962 photograph appearing on the back cover of Craft’s Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life (1992) has Craft looming over the shoulder of a seated Stravinsky, who appears to be notating a musical score. Look more closely, though, and you see that it is Craft’s hand wielding the pencil as he reaches over the composer’s shoulder. “I can only repeat,” Craft has written, “that without me Stravinsky would not have taken the path he did after The Rake’s Progress. Those music lovers preferring another opera, more pas de deux, and some additional concertos, will feel that they have been cheated; others, admirers of Abraham and Isaac, of The Flood and Requiem Canticles, will thank me.”
Walsh, for his part, clearly thanks Craft. But he serves up this gratitude with immense helpings of insult and moral outrage. Most of his anger stems from an ugly and protracted legal battle having its roots in Stravinsky’s final years, pitting the composer’s children from his first marriage against Vera and Craft. All the elements of an ugly dispute are there: a stepmother, an “adopted” son, an extended family… and an immense fortune. The struggle was as predictable in its general course as it was murky in its details. Few people behave well under such circumstances, but Walsh reserves his strongest condemnations–indeed, the strongest abuse in his entire biography–for Craft alone. In publishing unflattering details of Stravinsky’s children, Craft is circulating charges that are “so monstrous, so damaging and selective, at times so fallacious, and withal so private, that it seems astonishing today that it was ever dignified with publication.” In questioning their affection for a father they rarely saw in his final years, Craft is behaving with “unbelievable vulgarity.” One need only compare this invective with the mild language Walsh uses to criticize Stravinsky’s philo-Fascism (“distasteful”) and crude anti-Semitism (“almost entirely generalized, and surfaced only rarely in a personal context”) to see that Craft is not the only one whose close identification with Stravinsky has become a little unhealthy.
Although Walsh’s invaluable biography exposes the many and various picayune details that Craft gets wrong, Craft’s larger portrait of the composer remains intact. So let us return to that highway through the Mojave Desert, which Craft describes as though it were Stravinsky’s personal Road to Damascus. Until quite recently, it was commonplace to assert that twelve-tone composition represented the very destiny of musical history–Stravinsky was just a little late in getting there. When composer Charles Wuorinen reissued the textbook Simple Composition in 1994, he left unaltered his pivotal claim that the tonal system “is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream. It has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.” Or as Pierre Boulez–one of the noisy protesters at the Four Norwegian Moods concert–put it, “Every musician who has not felt…the necessity of the serial language is USELESS.”
But did Stravinsky really need Craft–or Schoenberg–to become USEFUL again? Forgive my skepticism. Listening to the music of Stravinsky’s final years, with its fresh experiments in instrumental color and ghostly echoes of Renaissance dances and madrigals, one is seldom even remotely aware of the music’s “system,” so beloved of academic musicologists. Stravinsky almost never seemed to trouble himself with such analysis, and was famously contemptuous of explaining music in technical terms. Once, while performing part of his In Memoriam Dylan Thomas on the piano, he suddenly stopped and turned to his listener, Lawrence Morton. “Here I cheated the row,” he whispered conspiratorially, “I did not like the harmony.” For Stravinsky, as for all great composers, the music’s magic lay in the cheating, not the row.