Dishing with Igor

We are reliably informed that classical music is in trouble. Orchestras are folding, opera and ballet companies are struggling, radio stations are either "dumbing down" or giving up on the classics altogether; moreover, musical education, at least in American public schools, is mostly a thing of the past. And yet the good, solid, serious books on music keep coming, and one must assume that they find a public.

Some of these books are classics in themselves. Six volumes of conversations between Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft were issued between 1958 and 1969; now Craft has collected them into a single generous volume entitled Memories and Commentaries: Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft (Faber and Faber, $35). Craft knew the composer as well as anybody -- indeed, he played an increasingly essential role in the last two decades of Stravinsky's life, as friend, champion, exponent and guide.

The conversations combine authoritative musical information (Stravinsky takes us through his pieces one by one) with some of the liveliest and most elevated intellectual gossip ever recorded: Rachmaninoff was a "six and a half foot scowl"; Evelyn Waugh considered music "physical torture." Some of the more ephemeral original material has been deleted -- I miss Stravinsky's admirably cranky replies to his critics and his spirited rubbishing of popular mid-century composers such as Gian Carlo Menotti -- but the essence remains, and it is both extraordinary cultural history and a great deal of fun.


Craft has recently published his autobiography, which is appropriately entitled An Improbable Life (Vanderbilt Univ., $39.95). It is the story of an ambitious, deeply gifted young man from Kingston, N.Y., who became entranced with contemporary music and, by force of will and intellect, ended up making an indelible mark on it. Craft is best known for his association with Stravinsky, but he was also a conductor, and many of us will never be able to thank him sufficiently for those path-breaking, never-to-be-forgotten first recordings of music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and -- especially -- the complete published works of Anton Webern.

It has been said that only a handful of people bought the records of the '60s rock group The Velvet Underground, but that each and every one of them went out and formed a band. Likewise, Craft's Webern set never made any bestseller list, but it changed a lot of lives: Music students of my generation carried it around like holy writ. The story of that recording is told here, and it seems that Columbia Masterworks went ahead with it only at the insistence of Stravinsky, who was one of their most valued artists. (Then, as now, big record companies were hardly known for their sense of adventure.)

Craft ran in charmed circles -- there are vivid sketches here of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and George Balanchine, as well as musicians ranging from Glenn Gould to Pierre Boulez. I wish somebody had given the book a thorough proofreading, however, as there are numerous small but nevertheless distracting factual errors throughout. I find the first part of An Improbable Life most detailed, organic and persuasive; the later years are more diaristic and sometimes read like a succession of holiday letters ("In mid-April, we were in London. . ."). Still, anybody with an interest in 20th-century music and how it came into being should read An Improbable Life.

Viennese Finger Exercises

Me of All People: Alfred Brendel in Conversation with Martin Meyer (Cornell Univ., $29.95) is rather what one might expect from a talk with this pianist -- it is erudite, wide-ranging and a little dry. Brendel recreates the musical scene in Vienna after World War II; the stories of his early recording sessions are particularly vivid. He offers his views on various pianists he has heard -- he admires Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Kempff and has decidedly mixed feelings about Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould. He discusses the piano repertory in learned detail, with some idiosyncratic likes and dislikes (plaudits for Franz Liszt, brickbats for Rachmaninoff and only tempered enthusiasm for Chopin). While parts of the book may be a little technical for non-musicians, the force of Brendel's intellect is a welcome change from the usual pabulum dished up in interviews with "star" performers.

Bohemians and Boris

Oxford University Press has expanded its valuable series "The Master Musicians" with two new biographical studies. Julian Budden brings a scholar's authority and an operamane's passion to Puccini: His Life and Works ($40). Not surprisingly, Budden esteems the composer highly -- indeed, he ranks "La Boheme" with "Figaro." I find him most persuasive in his analyses of some of the lesser-known operas: "La Rondine," for example, or "La fanciulla del West," which he considers a neglected masterpiece -- like "Tosca," an "opera of action" but "built on a far larger scale, richer in incident and faster moving." He makes one hungry to hear the operas once again and reconsider one's own response -- what can be higher praise for music criticism?

David Brown's similarly titled Mussorgsky: His Life and Works ($35) is no less substantial, although the differences between the smoothly professional Puccini and the disheveled, alcoholic Mussorgsky could not be more pronounced. Any biography of Mussorgsky is bound to be somewhat depressing -- the story is largely one of steady human deterioration -- and Brown never shrinks from his grim duty. Yet there is glory, too. Perhaps the most poorly trained of all the great composers, Mussorgsky effectively willed his masterpiece, "Boris Godunov," into existence, against all odds. Call it blatant, call it crude, but the opera is brilliantly alive (just try to forget the Coronation scene), and all subsequent efforts to tidy up Mussorgsky's genius have only made his powerful originality that much more apparent. *

Tim Page is the music critic of The Washington Post.

Jean Cocteau's drawing of Stravinsky performing "The Rite of Spring"