The Composer’s Advocate: Serge Koussevitzky

By Leon Botstein

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

Tonight’s concert pays tribute to a legendary and charismatic figure. Among Serge Koussevitzky’s formidable talents was his capacity to use his distinctive personality and dashing style as a source of inspiration for others. He left an indelible impression on Leonard Bernstein and several generations of students and protegés at Tanglewood. No conductor in the history of the Boston Symphony has ever been so beloved by his audience. Few would dispute that under Koussevitzky’s watch the Boston Symphony developed it own unique sound with a Russian-French patina, an elegance, fluidity and transparency decidedly different from the Germanic power of the Chicago Symphony tradition or the luscious sensuality and brilliance of Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra. Koussevitzky by all accounts gave great performances of many works in the standard repertory. However, he is best remembered as a patron of new music, both during his lifetime and through the tradition sustained posthumously by the Koussevitzky Foundation. Although Leopold Stokowski was undeniably adventuresome in his programming, no one could rival Koussevitzky in his support of new music through the act of commissioning new works. Stravinsky, Martin, Bartók, Dutilleux, and Copland, just to name a few, saw many of their finest works come into being as a result of Koussevitzky’s request for new works.

Despite all of this, there is a strange undercurrent in the posthumous legacy of Koussevitzky. One can detect it even in the program notes to this concert. Gary Karr alludes to the rumor that Koussevitzky did not write his own concerto. Bernard Jacobson quotes Stravinsky’s sardonic observation that Koussevitzky seemed unaware of massive errors in the parts and score he was using. The result was a catastrophic set of performances of the Ode on today’s program. There is in addition the testimony of Nicholas Slonimsky, who loved to tell of how he had to teach Koussevitzky The Rite of Spring, and even rebar it for him. And then there are the stories of how the members of the Boston Symphony knew when to come in at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: they watched Richard Burgin, the concertmaster, who in turn observed when Koussevitzky’s hand went below a certain button on his jacket. The implication was that Koussevitzky was somehow deficient in conducting technique and basic musical skills. This seems quite implausible. For reasons that are not entirely self-evident, Koussevitzky is not remembered with the reverence accorded to other past masters, the way Toscanini, Szell, Furtwängler, Reiner, or now Karajan and Bernstein are. Stokowski was accused periodically of having been a charlatan, and Koussevitzky came in for his own share of critical snobbery, but in the massive output of CD reissues, Stokowski has still done better than Koussevitzky. Yet Koussevitzky was an international star with a prodigious role in twentieth-century music history and a devoted following among the greatest musicians of his day.

Born in Russia in 1874, Koussevitzky made his conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1908, after gaining a substantial reputation throughout Europe as a double-bass soloist. He quickly acquired stature as a conductor notably through numerous guest engagements with the London Symphony. In 1924 he became music director of the Boston Symphony, a post he held for 25 years. With the BSO, he commissioned such works as Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Ravel’s Piano Concerto, and Hindemith’s Konzertmusik, among numerous other works. But it was with the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, which he established in 1942, that the conductor ushered into music history some of the finest works of the twentieth century, including Britten’s Peter Grimes, Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard, Copland’s Symphony No. 3, Milhaud’s Symphony No. 2, Villa-Lobos’s Madona, Blitzstein’s Regina, Malipiero’s Sinfonia No. 4, Piston’s Symphony No. 3, Harris’s Symphony No. 7, Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, Honegger’s Symphony No. 5, Fine’s String Quartet, Thomson’s Lord Byron, Dallapiccola’s Tartiniana, and Bernstein’s Serenade. After his death in 1951, the Foundation carried on with works by almost every major composer of the century, including Bloch, Chavez, Riegger, Carter, Schuman, Sessions, Toch, Foss, Tippet, Blackwood, Ginastera, Walton, Cowell, Poulenc, Berio, Henze, Krenek, Babbitt, Crumb, Cage, Del Tredici, Penderecki, and Birtwistle.

Perhaps it was Koussevitzky’s charm, success as an organizer, and his personal access to wealth that made him the source of envy. But the fact remains that he was a great conductor, an inspiring presence on the podium, a virtuoso of note, a competent composer, and a suave but canny observer of contemporary music. He managed to make the Boston Symphony an utterly crucial part of the cultural and civic life of that city and all of New England. He founded a school and festival which has remained a model for the entire world, through which practically every major composer, conductor, and musician has passed at some point in his or her career. After settling in Boston, Koussevitzky did not do much guest conducting and traveled reluctantly. His discography is only now slowly being made available in digital format. Tonight’s concert should inspire us to reflect on what a difference a magnetic, full-time, non-jet-setting music director of an orchestra can achieve in a city; how an orchestra can function in the culture as more than the instrument of subscription concerts; how it can generate new music and not simply be a museum intent on conservation. Koussevitzky showed how a great orchestra can play an educational role in the community, and how magnetism, elegance, generosity of spirit, and a vision can legitimately be considered an integral part of being a music director and conductor. The overwhelming fact is that no conductor in the twentieth century, not Toscanini and not Furtwängler, left such a decisive imprint on the character and direction of twentieth-century music as did Serge Koussevitzky. Through the commissions he gave and the institutions he created, Koussevitzky changed the course of history and brought into being icons of twentieth-century culture such as Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

For Koussevitzky, conducting was not the act of making a highly personalized case about an existing canon. Conducting was not merely an act of interpretation. For Koussevitzky, conducting was an act of advocacy not of dead composers but of contemporaries who needed to be prodded and supported in order to write the next new work for orchestra, so that the canon of twentieth-century music would eventually rival that of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. From the Edition Russes de Musique (a publishing house he founded in 1909) to the last commission, 48 years after his death and at the end of the twentieth century, we can observe with confidence that the legacy of twentieth-century orchestral music does indeed rival the historical body of work upon which Furtwängler and Toscanini expended most of their efforts. That this is the case is in no small measure due to Koussevitzky. The American Symphony Orchestra is particularly pleased to remind us all that the Koussevitzky tradition of support for new music continues as the Koussevitzky Foundation proceeds to commission works for the concert stage.

Symphony No. 7 (1958)

By Bernard Jacobson

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

Call a boy “Amadeus,” and you lay on him the burden of rather high expectations. From the vantage-point of the late 1990s, it is hard to remember how well the German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) seemed, around forty years ago when this symphony was written, to have lived up to the luster of his middle name. The generally held view in this writer’s native England, and probably elsewhere around the musical world, was that the two great hopes of post-World-War-II German music were Hartmann and his younger compatriot Giselher Klebe. To the average music-lover of 1999, however, Klebe is little more than a name, if that; Hartmann, who died a few years later at the age of 58, is accorded few performances, at least outside his native country; and Hans Werner Henze, who was born in 1926 and had only just hit his creative stride at the time we are looking back on, has–even while living most of his life in Italy–assumed the mantle of German musical leadership, along with Karlheinz Stockhausen (two years his junior), who enjoys the favor of the more avant-gardistically inclined.

Yet it is a mistake to underrate Hartmann’s gifts or to ignore his achievement. In the generation between Hindemith and Henze, no other German composer rivaled him in terms of artistic seriousness, communicative intensity, and technical mastery. As Josef Häusler justly observes in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, his is “a personally expressive music, growing from natural passion, capable of both meditative depth and vital exuberance,” and “it is in his revitalization of the Austro-German symphonic tradition that Hartmann’s significance rests.” To achieve this was a challenge that cost Hartmann years of experimentation. Among the first six of his eight symphonies, all but one–Symphony No. 2 (Adagio for orchestra) of 1946–went through several forms before attaining their definitive versions. No. 1, the Essay for a Requiem (including settings for alto voice of Whitman texts), and Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 reached this final stage between 1947 and 1953, but all of them incorporated recompositions of music from earlier works, in some cases dating back as far as 1932.

By the time he was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress to write a symphony in memory of the Russian-born conductor and his wife Natalie, Hartmann seems to have entered on a more confident phase in his handling of the symphonic medium. He was still not a facile worker. But the Seventh Symphony, which resulted from this commission, was composed between November 1956 and the end of 1958, and does not drawn in any obvious way from his previous works, and the same is true of No. 8, which followed between 1960 and 1962. Like Nos. 3, 6, and 8, Symphony No. 7 is laid out broadly in two main sections. Part I is headed Introduction and Ricercare, and Part II comprises an expansive Adagio mesto slow movement and a Finale: Scherzoso virtuoso.

To a large degree the Seventh Symphony may be regarded as a summation and synthesis of the various strands in Hartmann’s musical language and style. The “meditative depth and vital exuberance” instanced by Häusler are both found here in a highly developed form. In technical terms, moreover, the work brings to a new level of equilibrium the composer’s fruitful blend of classical developmental techniques with baroque thematic and textural elements and with a profundity and intensity of expression that have their roots in the complementary if widely contrasted emotional worlds of Bruckner and Mahler.

For American listeners, the symphonies of William Schuman may well suggest themselves as a parallel that is at once akin to Hartmann’s work and instructively different. Superficially, at least, a symphony like Schuman’s Third, with its organization into “Part I: Passacaglia and Fugue” and “Part II: Chorale and Toccata” presents an obvious affinity with Hartmann’s predilections and methods. On the other hand, the individual movements in a Schuman symphony are laid out internally in a way that contrasts illuminatingly with Hartmann’s forms.

Generalization is such matters is dangerous. But whereas the typical European symphonist’s inward-trained emotional vision seems to be manifested in the European tendency to segregate contrasting tempos within their own separate movements, the American approach is more aggressive and more outward-looking. Americans–as their politicians are always learning to their cost–are reluctant to acknowledge a firm distinction between the private and the public man; and American composers, analogously, are apt in the midst of the most intense self-communings to break out in boisterous episodes of physical activity. Schuman rarely wrote a slow movement that did not incorporate expanses of decidedly quicker music. Hartmann, for all the breadth of contrast that lends expressive perspective to the three main movement of the Seventh Symphony, was content to confine each movement within a shifting but essentially unified range of tempos and pulses.

While it is possible, then, to extract from the score of Part I a long list of the sections that make up the Ricercare, proceeding from Fugato (I) by way of Concerto (I), Finale per tutti (I), Coda (I), Fugato (II), Concerto (II), and Finale per tutti (II) to Coda (II), all of these sections are essentially fast. Similarly, though the Adagio mesto accelerates at various points in the course of its spacious lyrical explorations, the faster sections are heard as changing facets of a fundamental pulse, not as radical dislocations of that pulse. Throughout the symphony, this relatively clear delineation of boundaries between slow and fast enhances the sheer cumulative effect of the music. Thus the richly impassioned romantic rhetoric of the Adagio mesto succeeds in subjecting the expressive vein of the Fourth Symphony’s outer slow movements to a new refinement and discipline of structure; on each side of this emotional core, the exhilarating, skittering counterpoint of the Ricercare, and the even more vertiginous élan of the Scherzoso virtuoso conclusion, correspondingly extend the reach of ideas from the more extrovert moments of Hartmann’s earlier symphonies; and the resultant whole constitutes perhaps the most impressive and coherent cross-fertilization he ever achieved between the meditative and the exuberant sides of his artistic personality, between depth and vitality.

Double Bass Concerto (1905)

By Gary Karr

Written for the concert The Composer’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.

Ode for Orchestra (1943)

By Bernard Jacobson

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

To a composer of Stravinsky’s tastes and creative habits, the 1943 commission to write a piece in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky must have been irresistible. All through his career, Stravinsky was in the habit of commemorating recent and more distant deaths in his music, distributing his commemorative favors more or less impartially among composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Gesualdo), practitioners of the other arts (Dylan Thomas, Raoul Dufy, Aldous Huxley, and T.S. Eliot), one performer (Alphonse Onnou), and public figures and patrons (President Kennedy, Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg, and Helen Buchanan Seeger). He had, moreover, already dedicated one work–the 1924 Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments–to Madame Koussevitzky in her lifetime.

For his tribute upon her death, he pressed into service a movement he had already composed for an abortive Orson Welles project, a film version of Jane Eyre. Written for a hunting scene, this lively music became the central Eclogue of the Ode’s three movements, framed by a Eulogy and a concluding Epitaph. The lively 6/8 bustle of the middle movement may seem inappropriate for a memorial work, but one of the classical functions of the pastoral eclogue was to pay respect to a shepherd after his death, and in any case it was a fundamental aspect of much ancient Greek art to celebrate life even while memorializing death. The result certainly makes for a satisfying and well-balanced 11-minute whole, the propulsive rhythms and fluent counterpoint of the Eclogue nicely complementing the graver tones of the outer movements. A prevailing emphasis on wind and brass sonorities, from the austere fanfare on horns and trumpets that opens the Eulogy to the tranquilly flowing chordal writing for woodwinds and horns toward the end of the Epitaph, recalls the spirit and manner of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which Stravinsky had composed 23 years earlier in memory of Debussy.

In his indispensable monograph on Stravinsky and his music, Eric Walter White notes the curious circumstance that “the first performances of both these memorial works . . . were conducted by Koussevitzky, and in each case the result was unsatisfactory.” The premiere of the Ode seems, indeed, to have been a disaster. One of the trumpet players failed to transpose his part, and so played all his notes in the wrong key; and two systems of score on the last page had been mistakenly copied as one. As Stravinsky wryly commented some time afterward, “They were played in that way too, and my simple triadic piece concluded in a cacophony that would now win me new esteem at Darmstadt. This sudden change in harmonic style did not excite Koussevitzky’s suspicion, however, and some years later he actually confided to me that he preferred ‘the original version’.”

Triple Concerto

By Richard Wilson

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

Though a Beethoven fan, I have always hated his Triple Concerto. Now having written my own, I have re-listened to his and found that it has improved considerably since my last hearing of it. All those scales and arpeggios that I used to find aimless now make a certain sense; and the anonymous harmonic changes are all of a sudden endearing. (But there is still only one memorable theme–luckily in the last movement). The improvement in my opinion of his piece is counter-balanced by a deterioration in confidence in my own effort. Was it wise for me to replace his piano/violin/cello solo group with horn/bass-clarinet/marimba? Will those instruments spring forth like The Three Musketeers? Or resemble instead The Three Stooges. The Three Tenors? Or Three Blind Mice. The Trinity? Or The Three Bears.

I chose this combination of soloists because I thought they would blend well, because I especially admired the playing of three members of the American Symphony Orchestra specializing in these instruments, and because–to my knowledge–no composer had previously thought to feature them in combination. As a witty friend–trying to be helpful–said, “I climbed the mountain because it wasn’t there.” What is that supposed to mean?

Beethoven’s work falls into the Sinfonia Concertante tradition. He must have loved–who doesn’t–Mozart’s two contributions to that genre (assuming that Mozart did write the one for winds). And prior to that there are the Brandenburg Concertos, the second of which is just about the first piece of classical music that I fell in love with. It of course features four solo instruments–violin, flute, oboe and trumpet–representing different timbral worlds: string, wind without reed, wind with double reed, and brass. Because of its spectacular high register, the trumpet always emerges as the heroic member of that featured quartet.

Indeed, one generally thinks of the concerto as a heroic genre. My soloists are not, however, heroes in the gladiator mold. I think of them rather as underprivileged but greatly accomplished individuals finally given a chance to assert themselves. Of course the horn has numerous concertos already written for it–think of Mozart and Strauss, to say nothing of Knussen and Lieberson–but it is usually treated more gingerly than I have done. In my piece, the athletic capacities of marimba and bass clarinet prod the horn into behaving more dangerously than is usual. I’d like to think that no one of my three soloists upstages the others.

Although its four movements do bear the subtitles “Gatherings,” “Linkages,” “Pathways” and “Arrivals,” my Triple Concerto is really an abstract work. There is no hidden narrative; no literary angle. Leon Botstein wanted there to be; and he has suggested to me at one time or another Frankenstein, Madame Bovary and Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe. Maybe someday…but not yet.

In the daily music reviews one reads that new music intended to assault the ears is a refreshing change from cloying efforts to please. (Not so long ago, listener-friendly music was deemed a refreshing change from the sea of impenetrable serialism.) I find that such considerations mean very little to me. I write music that I want to hear and hope to like. If I do like it, there is a chance that others with the same predisposition to Western classical music will also like it. But if those listeners happen to hate Wozzeck, are bored by Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, and are baffled by Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra, then they probably won’t love my piece. I hope they will continue to attend my pre-concert talks anyway. Schoenberg once worried that his tennis partners would shun him if they ever heard his music. Suddenly, I understand his concern.

This work was commissioned jointly by The Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, with the approval of the Librarian of Congress, and The Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Inc., and by the American Symphony Orchestra. It is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.