Double Bass Concerto (1905)

By Gary Karr

Written for the concert The Composter’s Advocate: Serge Koussevitzky, performed on March 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In a letter dated April 9, 1970, Leopold Stokowski, the founder of the American Symphony Orchestra, invited me to appear with him in concert with a solo for doublebass and orchestra of my choice. Sadly for me, this never happened, but I cannot help enjoying the irony of finally playing with this orchestra a Concerto written by one of Stokowski’s unyielding adversaries.

Early in his international career as a solo doublebassist, Koussevitzky diligently worked toward increasing his repertoire. He transcribed numerous works for doublebass with orchestra (including Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto) and he composed several charming salon-type pieces. Surprisingly, he did not encourage the prominent composers of the time to write for his instrument. Nevertheless, later, as conductor of the Boston Symphony, he commissioned many of the most important orchestral compositions of the first half of this century. Perhaps his passionate interest in new music and his distinctive programming hearkens back to the days as a doublebass soloist when he had to grapple with the paucity of repertoire available to him.

In 1902, Koussevitzky composed his Concerto in F Sharp Minor, which he dedicated to Mlle. Natalie Ouchkoff, whom he married in 1905, the year in which the work was first performed with the Moscow Philharmonic. Koussevitzky conceived the Concerto as a one-movement statement divided into three sections…A-B-A’. It is written in a turn of the century Russian bel canto style.

There has been a considerable debate, mostly among doublebassists, as to whether or not Koussevitzky wrote the Concerto himself. It is unlikely that anyone but a doublebassist could have written a work so perfectly suited to the instrument. Olga Koussevitzky, his widow, was positively adamant that he wrote the Concerto without the aid of any other musicians. The work reflects his search for the yet unrevealed dimension of the doublebass, for as Mme. Koussevitzky wrote in the Saturday Review of July, 1954, “he likened the inner voice of the sound of the strings to cords of the natural instrument–the human voice. Listening to the great singers of his day, trying to imitate their vocal art, he was not merely playing on a string instrument, he was singing through the voice of the doublebass.”

Philip Hale, reviewing Koussevitzky’s performance of his Concerto in Boston in 1927 wrote that, “Koussevitzky’s Concerto is not a mere show piece for vain display: it is thoughtfully conceived, carefully written, without trivial details.” Anne Lauber, a prominent Canadian composer, referred to the concerto as “an amazingly honest musical reflection of a passion that speaks directly from the heart.”

It is evident in listening to his music that Koussevitzky was influenced by his heroes: Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Glière, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. Faubion Bowers wrote of the Concerto that “it belongs very much to the era and the country in which it was written. Yet there is a timeless universality in the melodrama of its passion and the soaring beauty of its tunes. After all, it is here that Koussevitzky speaks to us in his own language…as if from the grave.”

In 1962, the morning after I played my debut recital in Town Hall, I received a surprise call from Mme. Koussevitzky. When I heard this strange, soft-spoken, aristocratic Russian accent, I thought that it was a friend playing a practical joke on me. She said, “This is Olga Koussevitzky calling,” and, without hesitation, I replied, “Yeh baby, I’ll bet!” Undaunted by my insolence, she kindly invited me to her apartment. Upon arriving, the first thing that I noticed was her husband’s famous Amati doublebass made in 1611. She then said, “After having heard you play last night, I felt that you were the one to carry on my husband’s legacy. Therefore I have decided to offer you my husband’s doublebass as a gift.” She told me that his Amati was his “constant companion” and that he practiced on it “everyday of his life.” I later discovered that she had been invited to my recital by Jennie Tourel, the great mezzo soprano whom I consider to be my musical mentor. She told Mme. Tourel that, during my concert, she had seen the ghost of her husband with his arms around both my doublebass and me in approval. It was that vision which convinced her that his Amati, which I am playing tonight, should be in my hands. During many of my performances in the past few decades, several parapsychologists have told me that they too had seen the apparition, always wearing the same long frock and white gloves. Now, even as a dapper ghost, the figure of the great Serge Koussevitzky still haunts the concert stage.