Stravinsky's letters reveal neither man nor music, but business sense
Stravinsky: Selected Correspondence, Vol. III, edited with commentaries by Robert Craft. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 543 pp. $35. One place the reader should never look for hints about Igor Stravinsky the musician is in the composer's own writings. With some other composers, yes, that is possible to do; but in Stravinsky's case, he always seemed to make good on Robert Schumann's ``the best discourse upon music is silence.'' Stravinsky was most untrustworthy when it came to writing reliable prose about his music or his aesthetics. His opinions flitted back and forth from one decade to the next like the modernist birds in Marc Chaga ll's fantastic canvases.
As a modernist from the word ``go,'' in common with Picasso and others, Stravinsky must have held changeability in high regard. Choral conductor Hugh Ross, who knew Stravinsky well, referred to him as a faeur -- forever with a pose, a front, a stylized shield of some kind.
As with last year's ``Selected Correspondence, Vol. II'' (also from Knopf), there is frankly little that is especially gripping or eye-opening about the letters to and from such figures as composers Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie, poet and playwright Paul Claudel, or even novelist Andr'e Gide. Several choice items do turn up, such as composer Francis Poulenc's congratulating him on being as misunderstood at 60 as at 30, and Stravinsky's comment on music critics to a junior staffer at his publisher, Boosey
& Hawkes: ``Do you really believe in the importance of such platonic rewards as that of the Music Critics Circle, who did not even advise me directly. . . . When you are a little older you will get rid of all this juvenile enthusiasm.'' And the section devoted to C. F. Ramuz, librettist for the 1918 ``Histoire du Soldat,'' is of some interest, as a human look at a struggling man of letters in post-modern Europe.
But for the most part, these letters are not the most satisfying or instructive compilation on Stravinsky the man or the musician. This is said out of an abiding suspicion that there are things missing that might have made a difference.
Stravinsky kept immaculate files. They seem to have survived from war to war, country to country, continent to continent. One concludes that everyone else's did not fare so well, since we have so little from him in these volumes of letters. The exception to that is the large chunk (over half) of this book devoted to correspondence with music publishers. And the mystery in that exception is why we are given none of their epistles to which he was sometimes so flavorfully riposting. What we
do learn from the hefty publishers' section, however, is still more of Stravinsky the consummate 20th-century musical businessman -- scrupulous to a fault in taking good care of himself in the fine European artistic game of survival.
Robert Craft does emerge as a fairly dominant figure throughout the copiously annotated ``Correspondences.'' From the 1940s until Stravinsky's passing in 1971, Craft functioned as the maestro's conducting assistant, traveling companion, sometime alter ego, usual spokesman, and ultimate curator of the phenomenon that this unique Russian artist was.
A major contribution of Craft's has been his careful sleuthing of errors and ambiguities extant in a number of Stravinsky's published compositions -- taking up the slack, presumably, from his mentor's economically beleaguered publishers. The documentary appendixes round out the histories of works and planned works.
Whatever may be Robert Craft's reputation to date as the source of much one-sided propaganda about the composer, his musicological effort is undeniable and no small help in guiding us to a more accurate assessment of the master's music.
The letters, for all they constitute of the ephemera of Stravinsky's legacy, at least turn our thoughts to the need for such a vine-tending, and it is to Robert Craft's considerable credit that he provides it.
David Owens is a composer and free-lance writer living in Boston.