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Stravinsky: The Second Exile, France and America, 1934 - 1971 by Stephen Walsh, © 2006. "A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf" New York, 2006. "Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc." ISBN 0-373-40752-9. Hard cover, 572 pages, notes, index, work list 1935-1971, bibliography, 16 pages b/w photographs. USD40.00. Also published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, Ltd., London.


(Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882 - 1934, the first volume in this set, was published in 1999 and is out of print at the publishers but is available in paperback from Amazon.)

Since I had read the Robert Craft books about Stravinsky, I figured I knew quite a bit about the subject, so it didn’t disturb me that this book is the second volume in a set. I assumed I knew enough about the early Stravinsky’s life so that would be no problem. As with the Alan Walker biography of Liszt, I took up the book expecting to skim through it, dipping in here and there, look at the pictures, and finish with it in an afternoon. Instead, as with the Alan Walker biography of Liszt, I began at the beginning, was instantly captivated by the quality and depth of the writing, the fascination of the material, and read carefully every word from start to finish, a process that took about three weeks. And now I look eagerly forward to reading volume 1.

It isn’t just that Stephen Walsh is so fine a writer, or that his subject is so interesting. Walsh writes clear modern British English and in the whole book there are only about three sentences which are indecipherable, and only one misspelling, these days a noteworthy, nay, startling accomplishment. He only sent me running to the OED five times. Walsh has done an astonishing amount of research and is able to convey the fascination a detective feels in unraveling a mystery. Some mysteries remain from Craft’s books which are now seen to be one-sided and incomplete. The questions in my own mind were many: Did Stravinsky really heartlessly abandon his first wife Katya and daughter to die alone while he pursued his career? [no] Were his children just annoying nuisances to him and drains on his income? [no] Did Stravinsky exploit Craft, or Craft, Stravinsky? [yes] Who really conducted the CBS/Sony "composer conducting" recordings of Stravinsky’s music? [a long story*] Did Craft really single-handedly convince Stravinsky to embrace twelve-tone composition? [yes] Who was his second wife Vera and where did she come from? [a Russian artist] Was Craft homosexual, [no] or, on the other possibility, did he have an affair with Vera? [no] How much salary was Craft paid, [$0.00] and did he improperly divert money from Stravinsky’s resources? [no]

In American public mythology the very popular movie "All About Eve" is the story of a seemingly innocent and selfless person who understudies an aging celebrity, slowly gains control, and eventually cunningly and callously exploits the celebrity and all those around her for personal gain. This film was produced long before Craft and Stravinsky ever met. There are other real life stories of much happier circumstances of persons who become personal assistants to celebrities and permit them to extend their creative lives into advanced old age. Carl Jung could hardly have continued to be a major force in psychology to the end of his life without the help of Aniela Jaffé. The prolific output of Johann Sebastian Bach in old age was made possible by the inspired and trained assistance of family, students, and friends as copyists and transcribers. The poet Virgil would never have produced The Aeneid but for the help provided through the friendship of the Emperor Augustus. Frederick Delius continued to compose after becoming totally blind though the selfless assistance of Eric Fenby. Mira Mendelson-Prokofieva, Prokofiev’s second wife, provided much help and support in the composer’s later life, helping catalog his works and collaborating with him on the scenario for The Stone Flower. While Vera Stravinsky was certainly a devoted friend and source of strength to her husband, she was a painter, she wasn’t musical, and was unable to be his collaborator.

It is probably stories like these which have focused public interest on the Craft/Stravinsky friendship. Robert Craft is, of course, still alive and still active in music, still producing authoritative and high quality performances and recordings of the music of Stravinsky and others. He has with great eloquence and at great length, told his side of the story. Walsh has had the benefit of Craft’s personal papers among other sources to accomplish his detective work and offer to us a dispassionate description and analysis of this friendship. The result is by no means a Craft-bashing; Craft comes across as a more human and complex person that he does in his own works, and he is by and large exonerated of the charges laid against him by those who were jealous of his intimacy with the great Stravinsky. Craft has won out over his detractors by outliving them, and for his contribution to the creation and presentation of Stravinsky’s late music deserves our gratitude.

Part of the attractiveness of this book is Walsh’s scholar’s curiosity and determination to understand. In situations where the evidence is lacking or contradictory, Walsh does not wash his scholar’s hands and leave us bewildered, but he makes a lucid common-sense evaluation of the circumstances and we are left with a sense of understanding, if not certainty. As a former resident of Los Angeles I was pleased to see that Walsh took the trouble to get his geography right in describing the spatial relationships of the various suburban communities. This explains why Vera, used to compact European cities, felt so isolated in Los Angeles. Vera literally hated Hollywood and all her later life wanted to move back to Paris. On the other hand Igor, arriving in America with a recently diagnosed but quiescent tuberculosis infection, and observing that Harvard in New England had "two seasons, Winter and the Fourth of July" remained devoted to the dependable warm sunshine of Southern California and spent much of his time traveling in hot countries. The climate that Vera hated allowed Igor to remain active and composing to the age of 89 years.

Fortunately for me a local university library has a circulating copy of the multi-volume CD set of the CBS/Sony Stravinsky conducted recordings of most of the earlier and all of the later works.* I warn you if you get really involved in this and other books on Stravinsky you may find yourself seriously considering buying that very expensive set. It is impossible to resist searching out and hearing a recording after reading the circumstances of it discussed so fascinatingly by Walsh. It would be good business for Sony to donate free copies of these books to every public library in the world.

*At the recording sessions, and at many concerts, after Craft rehearsed and prepared the orchestra, Stravinsky would conduct the final run-throughs. However, the engineers ran a continuous tape and, if necessary, some material from the rehearsal, conducted by Craft, may have found its way into the final edited mix. As all session notes are gone there will never be any way to know for sure. In the early days of this process, most of the result was Stravinsky’s but by 1964 nothing Stravinsky did could be commercially released. In the last days, Stravinsky would drop in at the recording studio and leave promptly, but this would allow CBS to claim that the work was conducted by Craft "in the presence of the composer."

In June of 1961 I saw and heard Stravinsky conduct his Violin Concerto and his Symphony of Psalms and these were the best performances of the works I have ever heard. He achieved subtleties in rhythm and sonic balance that I have otherwise never heard. I think it would have been impossible for the orchestra simply to have played by memory from rehearsals by Robert Craft because this was at the Los Angeles Festival in UCLA’s Royce Hall and the orchestra had each evening for weeks been playing unfamiliar difficult major works by at least three different modern composers.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 



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