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Down a Path of Wonder: Memoirs of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and other cultural figures
Robert Craft
pub. 2006, 544 pp
NAXOS BOOKS ISBN 0 84379-217-8 (hardcover)


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.
 
Anne Ozorio
 
see also Paul Shoemaker's review of Stephen Walsh's recent "Stravinsky, the Second Exile, France and America."
 

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Footnote
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.

 

 



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