Music, Autocracy, and Exile

By Leon Botstein

What makes music so compelling as a means of human expression? Why were composers and audiences in the 20th century still drawn to the symphony and the concerto, musical forms that require neither words nor images and that occupy an extended duration of time? Why did composers seek to prove wrong Richard Wagner’s prediction that the traditions of instrumental music—music thinking pursued autonomously on its own terms—were incompatible with the presumed progress of history? The answers to these recurrent and familiar questions inevitably touch on how music is capable of escaping the limits of language, particularly with regard to the expression of human emotions and the evocation of human experience.

The circumstances of a composer’s life readily offer clues to understanding the unique character and appeal of vehicles of musical communication independent of linguistic and pictorial narration. The factors that influence the choices that composers make are not always psychological and personal, strictly speaking; interior struggles that lend themselves readily to confessional narratives in music of the sort are audible in several of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, or descriptive “realistic” musical evocations in symphonic form (consider Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, for example). Tonight’s concert highlights the significance of the political conditions under which composers lived. Politics framed the role, cultural significance, and limits faced by composers. And politics inevitably triggered a spectrum of psychological responses.

Two of the composers on this program worked within the post-World War II Soviet-dominated space. The communist regimes in post-World War II Europe privileged the practice and pursuit of classical music. During this time frame, composers behind the Iron Curtain were important personages, and prestigious and celebrated figures in a manner unfamiliar to their counterparts in the “free world.” Grażyna Bacewicz was perhaps Poland’s finest post-war compositional talent after Witold Lutosławski, but she is far less known. Indeed, her music has been largely overlooked in the West. Whatever reputation she developed remains tied to the fact that she started out as a performer. By all accounts she was a fantastic violinist. Her career as a performer, however, was cut short by injuries sustained in an automobile accident. I was introduced to her music by my teacher Roman Totenberg, the great Polish Jewish violinist and pedagogue. He, like Bacewicz, studied with Carl Flesch, and was also his assistant. He knew that my parents were Polish speaking Jews who, like him, immigrated to the United States, albeit a decade and a half later, after World War II. This shared biographical connection to Poland led him to surmise that her music for the violin, including the concertos, would appeal to me.

That Bacewicz’s music is not celebrated is an egregious oversight. Her output was extensive: seven concertos for violin as well as several for other instruments, four symphonies (part of a varied orchestral output), dramatic works, incidental music, choral music, and chamber music, including quartets. The list is rich and varied. Like so many composers of her generation, she studied with Nadia Boulanger. She was the recipient of awards in both Europe and the United States. She is credited as the woman who opened the way in Poland for other female composers, and during her lifetime commanded the respect of her colleagues and the public. Why she remains overlooked is inexplicable.

Bacewicz was in no obvious way a dissident. But she made ample use of the relative freedom of and sympathy towards aesthetic modernism in Communist Poland. Musical inspiration, as in her case, was able to flourish in a condition of un-freedom precisely because of the fact that music was a communicative medium whose precise meaning could not be decoded and translated into language or images. Therefore instrumental concert music, as opposed to prose and painting, suffered less at the hands of Communist ideologues and censors.

The second composer on today’s program to come of age under Soviet rule was Alfred Schnittke. More than Bacewicz, he rebelled openly against the strictures of ideological control over art maintained by the state. He was an innovator whose career, particularly in the late 1970s and 1980s, was stifled by the authorities. He finally emigrated out of the Soviet Union, already debilitated by a stroke, in 1990, eight years before his death. He happened to be in New York in the 1990s when the ASO performed his Faust Cantata. One of most memorable phone conversations I have had was when he called to discuss a possible change to the ending of the work and suggest a few dramatic flourishes in the choreography of the music, particularly the entrance of the lead role from the back of the hall.

The political context of Bohuslav Martinů was defined by his fate as an exile. Martinů, through the craftsmanship and variety of his output, earned the status as the heir to the remarkable 19th century legacy of Czech music. Martinů was the finest Czech composer after Janáček. In scale and scope, Martinů was the 20th century’s equivalent of Dvořák. And he was also an ardent patriot.

But he was destined to live outside of his homeland. He experienced the principled necessity of exile, much like his contemporaries, the conductor Rafael Kubelík and the pianist Rudolf Firkušný, a close friend. First came the German annexation and invasion in the late 1930s. Then came the era of communist control of Czechoslovakia after World War II. Exile in the United States was not a particularly happy experience for Martinů. His music from the war years, and the 1950s during the Cold War, reveals the composer’s predicament. Martinů experienced bouts of depression; the struggle with political displacement deepened them. But it was in exile that Martinů, who died in 1959 in Switzerland, turned his attention to the orchestra as a medium, particularly the symphonic form. He struggled against the comparatively marginal status he had in America, both as a composer and a foreigner, despite considerable efforts to help him. In response he produced a series of large-scale works that have, over time, earned him his rightful place as one of the finest symphonists of the 20th century. The orchestra, and therefore instrumental music as a major public experience, one with more of a cultural and political impact, became the vehicle through which the isolation of exile, nostalgia, and a sense of homelessness could be contended with.

The works on today’s program by these three composers illuminate the extent to which instrumental music in the grand tradition flourished as a medium of communication with the public in a manner adequate to the circumstances of tyranny, autocracy, and displacement that prevailed during the mid-20th century.

Written for


Triumph of Art