Robert Craft and Anton Webern

First, I must apologize for putting this essay under the category of Famous Dead People.  The conductor and writer Robert Craft is not now nor has he ever been dead.  On the other hand, the Viennese composer Anton Webern is very much dead and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.  Both, however, are cultural heroes to me.

Now that we’ve got that clear…

I first encountered Robert Craft in the 1980s when I purchased a re-issued rarity, the box set of the first ever Complete Music of Anton Webern (give or take an arrangement or three of his own and other people’s works.)  The recordings had been made by Craft and a bunch of fanatical New Music devotees in 1954-6, roughly a decade after Webern’s death.

Back then Webern had been otherwise pretty much eclipsed.  That weird sounding stuff?  Forget it!  But while Webern may have been forgotten, Craft was hot.  At the time he was an adorable young upstart in starched white shirts and bookish glasses who as a Julliard student had upset musical academia by bagging the legendary Igor Stravinsky to conduct, for free, on the same bill with him at Town Hall.  (Eventually, Craft became Stravinksy’s personal companion, biographer and musical confidant.)

Since then, Craft has devoted much of his career, both literary and musical, to promoting and recording works by 20th century composers.  (Apart from a handful of recordings of Bach, Monteverdi and Brahms, as well as the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo, the eccentric Italian prince, double murderer and composer who inspired Stravinsky to dub him the “crank of chromaticism.”)  Happily, Craft is currently re-recording the entire outputs of Webern, Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg for the Naxos label.

If fame were parsed out according to talent and service to the arts instead of name recognition and service to the artist, then Robert Craft would be renowned and someone like Madonna not at all.  Webern would stay pretty much as he is: highly emulated and much revered—at least in the music world.  (The resurrection of Webern’s reputation in the last half-century is very much due to people like Craft and pianist Glenn Gould, who singled him out as unduly neglected until he no longer is.)

By all accounts, Craft seems to have taken to the 20th century sonic world like a duck to water.  His repertoire includes the works of Webern, Stravinksy, Schönberg, Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse, among others.  None of this is exactly cocktail party background.  Still, there’s a disarming quality to his early Webern recordings, as though his choice of soprano Marni Nixon (the voice of Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, Natalie Wood’s Maria in West Side Story, and many others) were a perfectly natural fit for some of the most far-out music ever written.  Nixon’s voice flits ably like a small bird from one difficult interval to another, some more than two octaves apart.  (If music were Olympics gymnastics, Webern singers would all be gold medalists!)

At the time he made the Webern recordings, the odd thing about Craft (who could easily have made it as one of the Beach Boys on looks) was his position as resident conductor for a Hollywood prom series of “Monday Evening Concerts.”  Except that it wasn’t odd at all.  While Webern’s works were neglected, his musical idiom was then being imitated by the best composers of the day, many of whom worked in Hollywood.  Through them, film music had veered in the same dark, intense direction.  Listen to the scores from noir films, or the overture to Kazan’s East of Eden in 1954, and then to Webern’s opus 1 from 1908, Passacaglia, or his opus 6 (revised, 1928), Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, and you’ll have a good idea where that sound came from.

We know Stravinsky disparaged the expression of feeling through music.  Webern, on the other hand, seems to have been exploring new frontiers of emotion.  After all, we’re talking about the man who split the atom, musically.  (Tellingly, most of Webern’s published works were completed between both world wars.  He finished almost nothing during wartime, and was killed by an American soldier in 1945, just after the war, when he stepped outside his son-in-law’s house for a cigarette.)

But back to Hollywood.  The proof of how Hollywood Webern’s sound became is that if you scored any film noir scene with his pieces today you’d probably roll your eyes and say, “Oh, how clichéd.”  The actual works aside, if the pervasiveness of the innovation of his language is any way to measure things, it would be fair to say Webern was easily the single most influential composer of the 20th century.

Every Webern work is parsimonious and ultra-logical.  In that, he is very German: stringent, intellectually rigorous and intense.  His music has been described as “bits of glowing sound in a starry void.”  That description is quite apt.  Webern reputedly was sensitive to noise; thus his sound universe is quiet and concentrated.  His 31 published pieces fit on the eight LP sides of Craft’s original recordings, or three CDs in Pierre Boulez’s 1980 version.  His entire output takes less than four hours to perform.

In some of those old recordings, the works seem naïve at times, like chain letters or string art.  The sound is almost obsessively anti-romantic, like an adolescent trying too hard not to imitate his parents.  On the other hand, what could be more romantic than those intense upsurges of emotion in the Passacaglia?

All those 20th century composers who strove constantly to free themselves from the grip of Romanticism—and Webern chief among them—probably wouldn’t have given a gosh darn about Romanticism if it hadn’t been such a dead weight on their backs, a black hole of artistic raison d’etre sucking them all the way back to Beethoven’s grave.  They feared it and struggled to escape it because it owned their souls and, rightly, they wanted them back.

Schoenberg may be better known today and Stravinsky more frequently played, but Webern went farthest to outstrip romanticism, while still holding onto the 500-year tradition of western music.  In face, he didn’t depart from it so much as he concluded it.  (And, really, how can you fault a guy for finishing something that someone else started?)

Compared to Webern, Stravinsky was an arch-conservative in radical clothing.  Apart from his strident rhythms, Stravinsky seems downright tuneful once you strip away the trappings.  Webern, on the other hand, never wrote a hummable melody in his life.  Even Schoenberg was a moderate by comparison, and not the revolutionary he was made out to be.  (His famous prophecy that there are still works to be written in the key of C seems to have come full circle with some of the current minimalists, though probably they weren’t quite what he had in mind.)

Once the shock of Stravinsky’s primitivism wears off, you realize it’s just music, after all, and not the end of the world.  Like Mozart, he was a product of his age, emphasizing form over feeling and ornament over content.  (In that sense, if Stravinsky's approach is akin to shock rocker Marilyn Manson’s, say, then Mozart would be Diana Krall: pretty and lulling, but seldom exciting.)

Until recently Webern’s music was more discussed in theory than it was actually played.  Happily, that’s changing.  Craft’s initial volume of Webern’s re-recorded output, as well as another recent Naxos release (Webern: Orchestral Music, conducted by Takuo Yuasa with the Ulster Orchestra), have vindicated those who have long believed that Webern’s music belongs very much in the standard musical repertoire.

On Craft’s new CD, the Symphony (opus 21) almost literally glows into being.  The notes shimmer with colour and intensity as the work’s architecture unfolds.  (At 1003”, this is the first version recorded at the tempo specified by Webern.  Other versions—including Craft’s earlier one—are considerably faster, as though speed were necessary to prevent the disparate strands of music from falling apart.  Thankfully, that is not so here.)   The Six Pieces for Large Orchestra is nothing short of extraordinary, revealing a breath-taking sound world.  And the song sets, opp. 16, 17 and 18, actually sound sing-able, even playful, despite the frequent seriousness of their subjects.

Listening to these recordings is almost like hearing the music for the first time.  It’s quite simply beautiful music, beautifully played, and probably much as Webern first conceived it nearly a century ago.  It’s taken all this time to get to the point where it can be properly performed.  And for that we’re greatly indebted to Robert Craft.


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