During my long career in music, I never met Robert Craft, who died last November at age 92—yet he played no small role in shaping my musical consciousness. As a conductor, Craft recorded the craggiest works of the 20th century, including almost the entire oeuvres of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Edgard Varèse. As a writer and public intellectual, he weighed in trenchantly not just on musical issues, but on literature, film, and painting as well.
To this résumé must be added the vocation of alter ego, because from 1948 to 1971, Craft was inseparable from the music and household of Igor Stravinsky. The exact workings of their partnership, however, remain a matter of controversy. Not exactly an amanuensis, Craft was a constant companion, artistic consultant, coauthor, coconductor, ghostwriter (for both the composer and his wife), and, after Stravinsky’s death, keeper of the flame. To some extent, he was also a cocomposer, or so he claimed. As early as 1952, he persuaded Stravinsky to rescore a movement of his Cantata—no small matter, considering that Stravinsky is generally considered one of the greatest masters of orchestration. The Cantata also marked Stravinsky’s first move in the direction of serial composition, a change for which Craft took full credit.
Perhaps because we have fetishized the idea of genius, it is hard to picture the exact workings of conjoined creativity, even though the Craft-Stravinsky partnership was not unique. When an interviewer asked Billy Strayhorn to describe his similarly contested collaboration with Duke Ellington, Strayhorn pondered the question, repeated it, then replied, half-ironically, with another: “What would you say I do?” By contrast, Craft responded to questions about his connection to Stravinsky with a mountain of books that extended their collaboration semi-posthumously for another 44 years, and are replete with variously restated accounts of their working and personal relationships that will require an army of musicologists to sort out, parse, and verify.
Here’s a small sample of the challenge. In Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, published in 1994, Craft rejected the usual notion that he was Stravinsky’s Boswell, arguing instead for a much grander partnership in the spirit of the journal-keeping Goncourt brothers: “I would lean over his shoulder as he wrote, each of us acting as the other’s intercessory.” Craft similarly claimed in Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life (1992) that the series of conversations between him and the composer, which began to appear in book form in 1958, were “the only published writings attributed to Stravinsky that were largely by him.” Yet Craft also stated in Glimpses that Stravinsky’s English wasn’t fluent enough for a sustained dialogue—an astounding admission, because the Conversation volumes present the composer as a contemporary Dr. Johnson with a masterful command of English, an Oxbridge don’s breadth of cultural reference, and a curmudgeon’s zero tolerance for fools, critics, and most other conductors. In short, “largely by him” was a fiction; the actual words were Craft’s. If you read the articles, letters to the editor, and testy rejoinders that Craft wrote for The New York Review of Books long after Stravinsky died, you’ll find that their style is indistinguishable from the distinctive, combative one that Craft says was entirely Stravinsky’s own.