In this volume, Robert Craft continues to
share his memories of a lifetime in music. "Down a Path
of Wonder" is
an apt title, because for him, life is a path to be explored,
and "wonder" is the reason why. He is not the kind
of person who would blank out the experience of music in
its widest sense. On the contrary, for him, understanding
the background and human side of music enhances understanding.
Don't be daunted by the formidable 544 pages. The font is
huge, easily a third larger than most books, and there's
a lot of blank space at the margins. It may use up a lot
of paper, but that's probably a boon for those who find large
print formats easier on the eye. Moreover, there probably
is a large market for books that look impressive on the shelf,
whatever their actual content. This is a book that is a lot
less formidable than it looks, so don't be deterred. It's
an easy and pleasant read. Craft's writing style is straightforward.
Perhaps one day, Naxos will lead the field in publishing
CD-ROMs of books like this, for in many ways, this is a volume
to be listened to. Its essential character would come over
better as speech rather than in print. Moreover, although
Craft doesn't quote musical examples, it would be nice to "hear" what
he's talking about. Since Naxos aims for multimedia marketing,
it would be an excellent venture.
This book isn't a narrative, but a series of jottings. Craft
can list names, great and small, so a reader really should
have an accurate knowledge of twentieth century music beforehand.
That's also important because this is very much a personal
memoir of experiences from his unique vantage point. Naturally,
the first chapter recounts his meetings with Schoenberg 1950/1
and how he urged his following to "encourage Craft".
Craft himself describes Schoenberg's notorious tendency to
manipulate people such as in the case of Alban Berg.
It would also have been useful if the source of each chapter
were given, so it can be understood in context. It's pleasant
reading this book as a series of vignettes, but its persuasiveness
would be enhanced if the comments were placed in context.
Craft's comments on Dika Newlin, for example, come across
as extreme, so it would be useful to know what the background
was. After all, Newlin was only in her teens when she wrote
her diary about her years with Schoenberg and would go on
to become an original music writer. There's a long review
of Richard Taruskin's books on Stravinsky, and one of Stephen
Walsh's. This latter "begins with a salvo aimed at me",
says Craft. Obviously, Craft's role in Stravinsky's life
gives him unique significance, and whatever he says about
the composer is valuable source material. Historians often
quip that what we "know" in history is only the
victor's account, since the loser's angle is obliterated.
Sadly, time doesn't really tell. Whoever holds the higher
ground gets to affect the story as it will be told, so it's
no wonder that feelings run high. Everyone reading this book
will value it for its first person insight, because it is
valuable. Indeed, it's authoritative in many ways - the chapters
on Petroushka are fascinating, for example. But as with all
historic source material it is part of an ever-evolving body
of evidence. By and large, most readers aren't historians
or specialists in 20th century music, so a bit of background
would serve them - and Craft himself - better.
Craft's personal approach comes vividly into play when he
describes simple human events, such as in his touching memoir
to Helen Jones Carter, a woman much loved by many. He's also
interesting when writing about Vivienne and T S Eliot, and
about Isherwood and Auden. The last short section of the
book covers Craft's travels, in Cambodia, Seville and Italy.
The Cambodian episode is particularly worth reading, given
that so little is understood in the west about that unique,
historic kingdom and its bloodthirsty past. One really can't
expect the intense insight or knowledge of, say, Robert Fisk
on Lebanon, or Bernard Fall on Vietnam, but it's good to
read anything that advances awareness about a country that's
almost a paradigm for human suffering.
This book matters because it's Craft's personal take on events,
and as source material, it's unique. However, it's something
that really would benefit being packaged other than in book
form per se. Naxos doesn't need to compete with the
serious academic press, so the market for this book is the
more casual, general reader, who probably would enjoy the
material in it more if it reinforced the charming, anecdotal
character of the writing. If ever a book cried out for a
new approach, beyond conventional "publishing",
this is it. I hope Naxos will follow up, not with more massive
tomes designed to look good on the shelf, but with cutting
edge multi-media experiments that get the message across
to the general listener, and potential buyers of Craft's
recordings. This would be a ground-breaking and best-selling
DVD or CD-ROM, if it were sensitively filmed, edited and
enhanced by music and visuals.
see also Paul Shoemaker's review of
Stephen Walsh's recent "Stravinsky, the Second Exile,
France and America."
With each Life & Music biography comes access to a dedicated
website for that composer, containing hours of extra music
to listen to. The works featured on the CDs may be enjoyed
in full on the website (so in the case of Mahler, there are
seven symphonies and four major vocal works!) plus many pieces
by contemporaries of the composer. There is also a substantial
timeline showing the composer’s life beside concurrent
events in arts, literature and history.
These websites, together with the book and CDs, make for an
unrivalled multimedia approach the biographical format and
a uniquely rounded portrait of each composer.