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Just Arrived on the Shelves

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“Robert Craft: The Complete Columbia Album Collection,” a handsomely produced set of 44 CDs issued by Sony Classical, includes a 123-page accompanying booklet beginning with my six-page essay, “A Tireless Worker for the Music of Our Time,” along with photographs and a comprehensive listing of performers and recording data. You can get the whole thing HERE for $5.45 per disc.

Much of this set brings back to an eager audience a recorded legacy of historic importance. It reissues on remastered CDs what many of us have still treasured in our collections of vinyl LPs for many decades, beginning with the pathbreaking four-LP set of the complete works of Anton Webern, opp. 1-31. Many of these pieces were known for years, but previously unrecorded, and in some cases unpublished in score. The legend is that all of Webern’s works for orchestra, from the Passacaglia, op. 1, through the Six Pieces, op. 6, to the final Cantatas opp. 29 and 31, were recorded in just two hours of leftover time from Stravinsky recording sessions. Webern’s many songs (opp. 3, 4, 8, 12-19, 23, and 25) were divvied up by sopranos Grace-Lynne Martin and Marni Nixon* (suppressed as and later famous as the singing voices of Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, Jeanne Crain and Marilyn Monroe), whose pitch accuracy Craft once described as “better than violin.” Another essential part of the Webern legend is that Craft’s four-LP set was the best-selling multiple-disc classical album ever, though it hardly seemed credible even in the early 1960s, when I heard the story from Milton Babbitt.

Craft is well remembered as the assistant and sidekick, like a faithful son, to Igor Stravinsky between their first meeting, in 1948, and the composer’s death in 1971 (at age 88). Four discs in the set represent works by Stravinsky that the composer himself did not conduct for recording, or conducted or supervised in part after Craft rehearsed them — these are chiefly works of Stravinsky’s last years (Abraham and Isaac, Huxley Variations, The Flood, Requiem Canticles). But the bulk of the set features the Second Viennese School, especially works of Schoenberg, which Craft began to record in 1962 in two-disc sets that included large-scale items never recorded before — Die glückliche Hand, the Orchestral Songs op. 22, the opera Von Heute auf Morgen, Cello Concerto, Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor). There was also a two-disc set of Alban Berg that included the Seven Early Songs (unforgettably sung by Bethany Beardslee, who also sang the Altenberg Lieder on another disc in the set), the Lulu Symphonie, and the Three Movements from the Lyric Suite for string orchestra.

Craft recorded most of the major works of Edgard Varèse on two discs (I wish he had included Amériques, but he did manage to do Arcana), including Déserts with electronic interludes. I still remember how in summer 1959 at Tanglewood, everyone talked about Craft’s amazing job on Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Stockhausen’s Zeitmaße for five woodwinds that had just appeared, using a number of the most expert Hollywood studio musicians. Four years later I played chamber music with Donald Leake, a physician who was English horn player on that recording; was it true, I asked him, that the 13-minute Zeitmaße had required 300 hours of rehearsal? “More like five hundred,” he said — a measure of the dedication to what is still a controversial production of a very new composition. In 1962 Craft also recorded Debussy’s then recently rediscovered Incidental Music for Pierre Louys’s Chansons de Bilitis (not the songs, but the version with two flutes, two harps, celesta, and reciter) and Hindemith’s Hérodiade with Vera Zorina as récitante. Each disc reproduces the artwork of the original LP sleeve, with back-cover notes in faithful miniature reprint.

Though principally dedicated to recording music of the 20th century, Craft often went back to earlier music, and in this set you will find Mozart (Piano Concerto K. 491 with Glenn Gould; Serenade K. 361), Schubert (German Dances orchestrated by Webern), Bach (Cantatas 131 and 198), Schütz motets, Monteverdi Vespers, and three discs of the accursed prince Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), including Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo conducted by Stravinsky, who added parts to Gesualdo’s partly lost scores.

What one won’t find in this otherwise richly organized set are the original large program booklets that came, full of well-chosen artwork, photographs, and Craft’s own detailed program notes, with the two-disc Schoenberg albums 1, 2, and 3 and the Webern; there was no space to include them, but the Robert Craft Igor Stravinsky Foundation, as part of a project to reassemble Craft’s analytical writings, is hoping that most of these may eventually be made available on a website. (Full disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of that foundation.)

Craft’s own passionate propagation of a large selection from among the most important and often little-known legacy of 20th-century music radiates from this valuable set of CDs. Its warhorses are few, its monuments many. You won’t find Stravinsky’s Firebird, but the set does include Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (string orchestra version), Erwartung, and Pelleas und Melisande.

*Anton Webern’s vocal music has long been overshadowed by the aphoristic miniatures and rigorously organized twelve-tone works—both largely instrumental genres—for which the composer is best known. Yet over half of Webern’s output consists of vocal works. During the 1950s, as composers and intellectuals celebrated the “instrumental” Webern, an alternative view of the composer was emerging through the performances of three soprano soloists. Bethany Beardslee gave posthumous premieres of three of Webern’s works in New York and recorded his Four Songs op. 12 for Dial Records. On the other side of the country, Grace-Lynne Martin and Marni Nixon performed works by Webern at the Evenings on the Roof in Los Angeles, and collaborated with Robert Craft on Columbia Records’ Anton Webern: The Complete Music. Beardslee, Martin, and Nixon adopted a variety of approaches to learning Webern’s famously difficult works, and their work paid off: all three sopranos earned praise for weathering the extreme technical challenges of Webern’s soprano lines while also delivering musically satisfying performances. Yet these performances have been largely forgotten in the decades since, as a consequence of changing attitudes toward postwar performance practices as well as the sometimes sexist views of male music critics. Nevertheless, the performances of these sopranos constituted a crucial step toward perspectives on Webern that are now current among contemporary performers and scholars, and understanding their contributions is essential to understanding the vocal side of Webern.    Abstract from David H. Miller, “Singing Webern, Sounding Webern: Bethany Beardslee, Grace-Lynne Martin, and Marni Nixon, 1950-1957,” JAMS 75/1 (spring 2022), 81-127

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Excellent. Thank you.

    Comment by G .M. — September 16, 2023 at 6:16 pm

  2. one small mistake, Mark: Gould and Walter Susskind recorded Mozart’s K. 491 concerto. You’re actually referring to the Schoenberg piano concerto that Craft recorded with GG.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — September 25, 2023 at 8:41 pm

  3. Thanks for that correction, Don — it did escape me. The print is small in the program booklet!

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — September 30, 2023 at 9:29 am

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