Saturday, January 9, 2016

Robert Craft Remembered

by Mark De Voto

Craft with Stravinsky, 1964. Image credit: New York Times
I’d like to put in a word or two of remembrance of Robert Craft, who died on November 10 at the age of 92.   We weren’t close friends, but we had cordial and always stimulating professional intersections for over fifty years.  All his life he was a busy musician and writer, endlessly curious and searching, and constantly involved in music and every kind of intellectual life, even when, as he drolly put it in later years, he could feel his craft ebbing.  His catalytic friendship with Stravinsky is known to everyone, and was of immeasurable value to music because of what Stravinsky gained and learned and then created; but it went far beyond that.  While still in his twenties Bob had a personal association with Schoenberg, and during the 1960s conducted a series of recordings that brought major works of Schoenberg to public attention for the first time, including Die glückliche Hand and the Orchestral Songs op. 22.   Before that, he had made his four-disc LP set of Webern’s complete works one of the all-time best-selling classical recordings; all of the orchestral music in that set was recorded in just two hours of left-over recording time donated by Stravinsky.   In 1959, with Hollywood studio musicians, Bob recorded Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse for five woodwinds paired with Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, with the Stockhausen work requiring upwards of 500 hours of ensemble rehearsal – unthinkable today.  

Bob also conducted the American premiere of Lulu at Santa Fe in 1963, and of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder in New York in 1959, the latter on the same concert when Stravinsky conducted the premiere of Threni in New York.  The next day there was a recording session for Threni, with a half hour of paid time remaining after the wrap; Bob and Bethany Beardslee seized the moment to record the Altenberg Lieder with the Columbia Symphony in the first commercial recording ever of that great work, which appeared in 1960.  The Altenberg Lieder were still unpublished in score in 1963, and when I chose them as the subject of my doctoral essay, I wrote to Bob for assistance.   Soon I received the first of a generous series of postcards full of helpful suggestions, ideas, and questions.  We continued to write back and forth, occasionally exchanging scores, and came up with a plan to privately publish my two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Zvyezdoliki; that failed to work out because of issues with the copyright, which Stravinsky didn’t control.  

In 1966 I hung around the Portland (OR) Symphony when Bob rehearsed Schoenberg’s Five Pieces op. 16 and Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.   At that time, he and I were somewhat look-alikes, and I was several times asked if I were his brother – though he was an inch or two taller.    I had a particularly good chance to watch his conducting and his rehearsal technique, both of which I thought were amazingly effective, especially for one who never had a regular position with his own orchestra.  Bob’s recording projects for Naxos are still appearing, including a very impressive Gurrelieder, and a complete Firebird with scary offstage trumpets and tubas.  

His dozen or so books give ample testimony to what a fine writer and wide-ranging thinker he was.  The six volumes of Stravinsky-Craft conversations and commentary have been often criticized because of Bob’s admitted reshaping of Stravinsky’s words and ideas, most often with Stravinsky’s approval, express or implied.  I’m sure that Bob was willing to rewrite Stravinsky for the sake of convenience, and for clarity; I am just as sure that Bob never tried to rewrite history.  Nor did he ever gloss over Stravinsky’s less than admirable past behavior, including the often chaotic relationships with his children.  Bob’s last book, Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories, includes a number of fine retrospectives and some startling conclusions, as well as some unresolved problems, such as the dubious idea that Stravinsky and Ravel were lovers.  (Bob quotes Stravinsky as joking, “You will have to ask Ravel.”)

I last saw Bob about eight years ago when he spoke at Harvard about Stravinsky’s numerous revisions of details in The Rite of Spring.  The lecture was wonderfully disorganized, because he kept dodging back and forth between references to the score that he wanted to include and others that he would rather have left out.  The discontinuities didn’t matter much, because almost everyone in the audience knew the score anyway.  We stayed in touch by E-mail after that, especially after his move to Florida, which coincided with his increasing health problems.   I will remember Bob as most of us will remember him, as a comprehensive performing musician and writer who propagated so much in twentieth-century music; but I’ll also remember how he was willing to help younger musicians, myself included.   In my professional life I’ve written more than a dozen letters to orchestral conductors asking serious questions; Robert Craft was the only one who ever replied.

Musicologist and composer Mark DeVoto is an expert in early 20th-century music. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton University (Ph.D., 1967), he is professor emeritus of music at Tufts University. He wrote the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston, and in 1997 edited the Altenberg Lieder, op. 4, for the new edition Alban Berg's complete works. In 2004 he published Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on his Music, and in 2011 Schubert's Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony, both with Pendragon Press. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this eloquent remembrance of a wonderful musician. His music-making and writing are sorely missed!