Robert Craft: Me and the maestros

From Stravinsky to Auden and Eliot, Robert Craft, an unknown conductor, made it his business to know the cultural élite. Now he's written about his life. Alice Jones reports
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes, it seems, all you have to do is ask. In 1947, Robert Craft, only 24 and still studying at New York's Juilliard School, wrote to Igor Stravinsky, asking to borrow the score for his Symphonies of Wind Instruments for a concert. His timing couldn't have been better; Stravinsky received Craft's letter on the same day as he was starting to prepare a new version of the work and, seeing it as a good omen, he offered to conduct his latest score at the concert himself. When Craft sheepishly admitted that he wouldn't be able to pay him, Stravinsky waived his fee.

The generous gesture was the beginning of an extraordinary friendship between the young conductor and the eminent composer, 41 years his senior, which lasted 24 years until Stravinsky's death in 1971. Now 83, Craft is revisiting his life with Stravinsky (he has already published several volumes of letters and a biography) in a new book, Down a Path of Wonder.

Part literary criticism, part musicology and part memoir, it paints an extraordinary picture of the post-Second World War cultural elite to which Craft, as Stravinsky's constant companion, gained access. Over the 23 years he spent living with the Stravs (as he affectionately calls them), Craft dined with Evelyn Waugh and Auden, went to opening nights with Christopher Isherwood, took tea with TS Eliot and formed close friendships with Aldous Huxley and the conductor Otto Klemperer. "Writers, musicians and artists should know a little more about each other's activities," says Craft of his book, which draws on his seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes. "I do things very slowly and quite thoroughly. With me, it's never adding, it's cutting. I have to learn to cut."

After their first joint concert in 1948, Craft became Stravinsky's right-hand man, helping him to transcribe his compositions from piano to stave and advising the Russian- and French-speaking composer on English libretto. Between The Rake's Progress in 1951 and the end of the composer's career in 1968, Craft acted as artistic collaborator on perhaps 25 pieces.

Craft compares Stravinsky to an "exposed nerve" when in the throes of creative fervour, but at all times the composer was hugely protective of his acolyte. "If some critic wrote something nasty about me," says Craft proudly, "he would be sure to get a letter from Stravinsky."

In turn, Craft has taken on the role of unofficial protector of the composer's memory - both in his books and, practically, by tending his grave in Venice. Craft bought a plot on the San Michele cemetery island (resting place of Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound, among others) after Stravinsky's death, but he has since gone off the idea of lying near the composer in death, having been frequently criticised for keeping the composer "too much to himself" in life.

Craft also carved out a successful conducting career in his own right, specialising in Anton Webern and Schoenberg, enjoying a close and fruitful relationship with the latter. A few months before his death, Schoenberg wrote a letter stating: "My young friend Mr Craft is slowly working himself into my music by performing my music a lot and finally he will succeed. I should like to see all of my friends encourage such people as Craft."

For many years, Craft acted as a bridge between his two friends, supposedly rivals. Although he did succeed in "bringing Stravinsky round to Schoenberg's side", he regrets never effecting a meeting. "No normal person could be in a room for very long with Schoenberg. The whole room would take on his personality, his intensity. And his eyes - you couldn't look into those for very long." Professional idiosyncrasies aside, says Craft: "One of the greatest things in my life is that I felt these two men had an affection for me. Schoenberg was kinder to me than he'd ever been to anybody."

Buoyed by the patronage of these composers, Craft gives no impression of being daunted by the lofty company in which he frequently found himself, preferring to sum up his acquaintances with a pithy epigram. George Balanchine apparently "snorted like a cocaine addict", while Waugh was "ruddy, pudgy, smooth-skinned and surprisingly short... [with] an icy exterior and an inner intellectual heat".

Of Christopher Isherwood he writes drily: "In view of his crowded sexual agenda, Christopher's literary productivity is astonishing." Craft also knew Auden from attending his lectures during his student days. "I've been asked by people, 'Did Auden really speak that way?' Fast, bright remarks, always witty. Yes, he did," Craft says. "He was considered a charmer and the girls all loved him, but it wasn't mutual. He liked to surround himself with adoring young men. Everybody would be splitting their sides at his remarks, always so beautifully phrased, one following the other."

Of all the literary reminiscences, it is Craft's 14-year friendship with the "gangly" Huxley that is most affecting. Craft proof-read for the author (who was practically blind), drove him to and from his meetings and took long walks with him. Among such recherché skills as the ability to recite chunks of The Canterbury Tales with apparently authentic Chaucerian pronunciation, Huxley possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, penning 75 articles on the subject for the Westminster Gazette. Craft and the author also shared in less erudite pursuits, including a visit to San Diego zoo, where Huxley treated Craft to a cage-by-cage running commentary of the sexual proclivities of various animals, and sneaky visits to the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard and the Beverly Hills Delhaven for calorific banana splits.

Completing the pantheon of great authors, Craft tells of a budding friendship between Stravinsky and Eliot, who bonded over a love of detective stories (Inspector Maigret and Perry Mason were particular favourites). While Stravinsky described Eliot as "if not the most exuberant man I have ever known, he may be the purest", Craft seemed less convinced, writing: "T.S.E seems to think of himself as a hoary ancient with little time left."

In any case, the composer's wife Vera de Bosset was on hand to keep any airs and graces in check. After an evening at the Pavillon restaurant in New York, Craft writes: "Stravinsky and Eliot walk arm-in-arm to the vestiaire, where the maître d'hôtel remarks very audibly to the attendant, 'There you see together the greatest living poet and the greatest living musician.' Since the statement has been overheard, Vera shields the two men from embarrassment by saying in exactly the right tone, 'Well, they do their best.'"

'Down a Path of Wonder' by Robert Craft is published on 16 October (£19.99, Naxos Books,