June 06, 2013


Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories. By Robert Craft. Naxos Books. $34.98.

     The title of this review encompasses not only the actual arc of Robert Craft’s latest book about Igor Stravinsky but also, metaphorically, the wide-ranging nature of Craft’s writing – here and elsewhere – and of Stravinsky’s own life. Be prepared to span the world, and not just the musical world, with Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories.

     A book like this is, by definition, for a limited audience, a subset within the subset of people interested in classical music and classical composers. Yet for that audience, this is an enormously rich work, filled – like so much of Craft’s writing – with a mixture of erudition, humor, reminiscence and first-person knowledge of the people and events discussed. The cover of this Naxos Books volume shows Craft and Stravinsky walking together in Italy, on a walkway behind which ancient ruins stand in picturesque grandeur, looking down at their feet to avoid the lizards along the path. By the book’s conclusion – a fascinating section filled with short, pointed discussions of Stravinsky’s relationships with people from Puccini to Mussolini – Craft is writing about physicist Edwin Hubble, the eponymous telescope, and the findings of the Large Hadron Collider.

     But it is not just the future as it relates to Stravinsky that fascinates Craft. It is also the past, both the musical past and Craft’s own past multi-decade relationship with the composer. For example, in discussing Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, which Stravinsky secretly orchestrated and whose original manuscript he then inscribed to Craft in 1960, Craft segues from the music into information on the life of the notorious 16th-century murderer and far-ahead-of-his-time composer: “He married his beautiful twenty-year-old cousin Maria d’Avalos, whose notorious infidelities soon compelled Don Carlo to commit uxoricide in order to restore his honor. …As these were crimes of honour, the cuckold was not prosecuted. …[Later, his second wife, Leonora] discovered that his castle was also the residence of his favourite concubine, who seems to have been a witch. The elixir she prepared for the prince was a mix of her own menses and his semen (a less digestible cocktail, one supposes, than Donizetti’s in L’elisir d’amore). Leonora also became aware that the genius composer she had married was an algolagniac…”  This is a fair sample of the way Craft drifts effortlessly into and out of musical references and historical ones, not shrinking from matters that some would deem tasteless – and in what is ostensibly a book about classical music, no less – and seamlessly showing his own erudition as if in passing (“algolagniac” rather than “sadomasochist”).

     When Craft does delve into the specifics of Stravinsky’s life and music, he does so forthrightly and with rather less hagiography than might be expected – although certainly with some: “In spite of his late start as a composer, the speed and extent of Stravinsky’s development from age twenty-seven to twenty-nine, from The Firebird to The Rite of Spring, are without precedent or succession in the history of music.” Craft’s volubility, the clear joy he takes in being a raconteur, emerges everywhere in Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories, a book that includes very-well-known episodes in the composer’s life as well as less-familiar ones. In the former category is his spirited defense of Tchaikovsky in 1924: “Tchaikovsky’s music is very easy, for which reason he has been considered vulgar. In reality he is the most Russian of Russian composers.” In the latter are parts of a chapter called “Amorous Augmentations,” which starts with Craft writing, “An exploration of this subject is long overdue. …It will come as a surprise to most people that in the early Diaghilev period Stravinsky was exclusively in an ambisexual phase…” Actually, Stravinsky’s sexual proclivities are not particularly shrouded in mystery, and some of his affairs, such as the one with Coco Chanel, are quite well known. They are also quite irrelevant to his music, except incidentally: artistic voyeurs will enjoy learning which pieces were dedicated or given to or written for which lover at what time and under what circumstances. Craft obviously enjoys telling these stories, but he keeps them moderate in tone and thoroughly non-titillating.

     Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories is filled with fascinating tidbits of information, and not just in the narrative. The 32 pages of photographs are thoroughly fascinating, showing Stravinsky and members of his family, Ravel, Nijinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Balanchine, Charles Chaplin and many others. A Picasso sketch made for Craft, and Stravinsky’s own sketch of his first wife – on music paper, of course – are among the highlights. A CD bound into the book’s back cover, containing a Craft performance from 2007 of The Rite of Spring, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is an apt and excellent bonus. And Craft’s footnotes are often marvelous, managing to encapsulate in a few lines material that could fill a book on its own, such as his brief discussion of Lucia Davidova, translator into English of Stravinsky’s widow’s diaries and “one of the first women to fly the Atlantic solo in Lindbergh’s path, having been taught aviation in Connecticut by Igor Sikorsky.” There is more in Craft’s passing comments than in many other authors’ entire tomes.

     Craft has written a great deal about Stravinsky already, and re-covers certain territory in Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories, albeit not in quite the same way he has handled matters before. He appears to have a nearly inexhaustible well of information on the composer, his music and his times, and an unfailing ability to enliven the biographical information without ever cheapening or sensationalizing it (which, given Stravinsky’s life and reputation, would be easy enough to do). Yes, Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories is a book for a limited audience, but it is one that will delight that audience on all levels while transporting it to a time of considerable musical and intellectual ferment and fascination, in the company of an expert and fervent narrator whose personal observations add a great deal to what is already a thoroughly remarkable story.

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