Robert Craft, an orchestral conductor, scholar and writer who was called an elegant Boswell by his supporters and a calculating Svengali by his detractors for his long professional association with Igor Stravinsky, died on Tuesday at his home in Gulf Stream, Fla. He was 92.
His wife, Alva, confirmed his death.
Mr. Craft spent nearly a quarter-century as Stravinsky’s amanuensis, rehearsal conductor, musical adviser, globe-trotting traveling companion and surrogate son. After Stravinsky’s death in 1971, at 88, he was a writer, lecturer, conductor, public intellectual and keeper of the Stravinskian flame.
He was the author of many books about Stravinsky; the co-author of a series of book-length dialogues with him, including “Conversations With Igor Stravinsky” (1959), “Memories and Commentaries” (1960) and “Retrospectives and Conclusion” (1969); and the editor of several volumes of Stravinsky’s correspondence.
As a conductor, Mr. Craft led some of the world’s foremost orchestras, among them the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic of London.
He conducted the United States premieres of Stravinsky’s choral piece “Threni” in 1959 and Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu” in 1963, and the world premiere of Edgard Varèse’s vocal work “Nocturnal” in 1961. Mr. Craft’s recording of the complete works of Anton Webern remains widely admired.
Reviews of Mr. Craft’s conducting were divided, however. While some critics praised his impeccable fidelity to composers’ scores as brilliant, others condemned the resulting interpretations as stiff and bloodless.
But he was almost uniformly lauded for his profound knowledge of music and his vast general erudition: His published essays, many of which originated in The New York Review of Books, encompassed music, art, dance, film and television. He was also commended for his work as a vigorous champion not only of 20th-century compositions but also of little-known early music.
Continue reading the main story
Writing in The New York Times in 1999, the composer David Schiff said that Mr. Craft, “along with Leonard Bernstein and John Cage, has been one of the main shapers of American musical taste in the second half of the 20th century.”
Mr. Craft was admired by many in the classical music world for giving renewed artistic vigor to Stravinsky — who was long esteemed as one of the world’s foremost composers, but whose powers appeared to be waning when the two men joined forces in 1948.
He was directly responsible for introducing Stravinsky, a staunch neoclassicist, to the art of 12-tone music, an avant-garde compositional technique whose best-known avatar was Arnold Schoenberg. The technique, also known as serialism, entails using all 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale in rigidly equal proportion throughout a composition.
Many of Stravinsky’s celebrated later compositions are written in this style. Among them are the ballet “Agon” (1957) and “Abraham and Isaac” (1964), a sacred work for baritone and chamber orchestra, both given their world premieres by Mr. Craft.
“Without me Stravinsky would not have taken the path he did,” Mr. Craft wrote in his 1993 biography, “Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life.”
But his collaboration with Stravinsky could engender public discord. Toward the end of Stravinsky’s life, when the composer had become too infirm, or too uninterested, to produce much work, Mr. Craft, his critics charged, was regularly serving as his literary, and even musical, puppeteer.
Robert Lawson Craft was born on Oct. 20, 1923, in Kingston, N.Y. A sensitive, intellectual boy who played the trumpet, he was sent away at 11 to military school, an experience he later said he deplored. His studies at the Juilliard School were interrupted by World War II, when he was drafted into the Army Medical Corps.
As Mr. Craft recounted in his memoir “An Improbable Life” (2002), he found the brutality of basic training unendurable, attempted suicide and later went AWOL. Deemed unfit for service, he was honorably discharged.
He returned to Juilliard, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in composition and conducting; he also studied at Columbia, Tanglewood and privately with the conductor Pierre Monteux. Shortly after graduating from Juilliard, he founded the Chamber Art Society, a New York ensemble devoted to performing contemporary music, including that of Stravinsky.
In 1947, Mr. Craft wrote a letter to Stravinsky that would set the course of his professional life. Wanting to conduct the composer’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” but unable to find a score, he wrote to ask if he might borrow one. Stravinsky, who was just then working on a new version of the piece, replied that he would like to conduct its premiere at Mr. Craft’s concert the next year. Nonplused, Mr. Craft assented.
The two men met for the first time in 1948, and before long Mr. Craft had moved into Stravinsky’s Los Angeles home. By all accounts beloved by the composer and his second, wife, Vera, Mr. Craft remained a member of the household for the next 23 years.
Much of Mr. Craft’s writing about Stravinsky was well received. Discussing his book “Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, 1948-1971” in The New Republic in 1972, the composer Ned Rorem called him “the most readable and intelligent living writer on music.”
But over time, accusations began to percolate that several books attributed jointly to Mr. Craft and Stravinsky, and billed as dialogues between them, were more Craft than Stravinsky. Some detractors also asserted that Mr. Craft, who was not a trained historian, had let factual errors creep into his biographical writings about the composer.
In 1972, a front-page article in The New York Times reported on allegations in a forthcoming memoir by Lillian Libman, a former personal assistant to Stravinsky.
In her book, “And Music at the Close,” published later that year, Ms. Libman contended that Mr. Craft was responsible for at least some of the lines attributed to Stravinsky in their published dialogues. (Stravinsky, whose first language was Russian, had uncertain English; Mr. Craft had no Russian.)
She also maintained that two recordings billed as conducted or “supervised” by Stravinsky had actually been conducted by Mr. Craft.
In a related article in the same issue of The Times, Mr. Craft said of Stravinsky: “He had opinions, and I took them down. Not the wording, of course. Stravinsky spoke and I put the words together. I don’t say they were his words.” He also acknowledged having conducted in Stravinsky’s stead on one recording.
Mr. Craft was again the subject of highly public accusations in 2006, with the publication of a biography, “Stravinsky. The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971,” by the musicologist Stephen Walsh. Mr. Walsh wrote that Mr. Craft’s work was “riddled with bias, error, supposition and falsehood.”
In a letter to The Times Book Review, which had quoted that description in its appraisal of Mr. Walsh’s book, Mr. Craft responded, “I maintain that these terms apply more aptly to Walsh’s work.”
Mr. Craft came to renewed attention in 2013, after he published an essay in The Times of London Literary Supplement asserting that Stravinsky had been bisexual. His argument, which he said was based on a close reading of the composer’s letters, met with skepticism from a number of prominent musicologists.
Shortly after Stravinsky’s death, Mr. Craft married the composer’s longtime nurse, Rita Christiansen, though the marriage did not endure. His survivors include a son from that marriage, Alexander; a sister, Phyllis Crawford; his second wife, the former Alva Celauro Minoff, a singer and actress; two stepchildren, Edward Minoff and Melissa Minoff; and four grandchildren.
Among Mr. Craft’s other books are the essay collections “Prejudices in Disguise” (1974), “Current Convictions” (1977) and “Small Craft Advisories” (1989); “Places: A Travel Companion for Music and Art Lovers” (2000); and, with Vera Stravinsky, “Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents” (1978).
His recordings also include works by Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez and Paul Hindemith.
Mr. Craft, who also had a home in Manhattan, was alert throughout his career to accusations that as a young unknown, he had exploited Stravinsky. If anything, he told The New York Times in 1972, it was quite the other way round.
“Stravinsky saw what I could do for him,” he said. “He even exploited me to some extent. He was a complex man.” Mr. Craft continued:
“Was I an influence on him? Of course I was. I introduced him to certain music he otherwise might not have heard. But if he didn’t want me, he would have thrown me out.”
On Friday, Alva Craft said that she hoped to have her husband buried at San Michele, the cemetery island in Venice. Mr. Craft had bought a plot for himself there long ago, after Stravinsky was interred on the island.
PLEASE NOTE: IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE ON THIS MAILING LIST PLEASE RESPOND WITH ‘REMOVE’ IN THE SUBJECT LINE. IF YOU ARE RECEIVING DUPLICATE EMAILS OUR APOLOGIES, JAZZ PROMO SERVICES ANNOUNCEMENT LIST IS GROWING LARGER EVERY DAY…..PLEASE LET US KNOW AND WE WILL FIX IT IMMEDIATELY!
Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out about Tuesday’s presentation with Nate Chinen and Steve Smith. We had 115 attendees, which is the most ever! We ended up moving the event to the sanctuary. They did a great job.