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Koussevitzky Recordings Society

Excerpts from Serge Koussevitzky's Writings on Music

Tom Godell

"What Is America's Musical Future?", Musical America, February 1944
(Reprinted in the BSO program book for the concerts of April 21 & 22, 1944; as told to Alice Berezowsky)

Koussevitzky realized that artists could not count on government support: "Throughout past history we can see that not a single democratic government ever busied itself to do something real in art for the people." Instead, he suggests, "The organized people must give themselves what they want." He suggests, as one option, that each union worker contribute a dollar per year in support of the arts. "The result would be democratic in the highest sense, because art would be supported by the people and controlled by the artists, who could thus give to their fellow members of society the most precious thing in life next to bread: nourishment for the spirit." It is unfortunate that no union leader – not even the formidable head of the Musician's Union, James Petrillo – took up the conductor's challenge.

In a theme that he would sound again in his Life Magazine article, Koussevitzky passionately and wisely called for arts education for all: "If we want to develop musical art in America and produce perhaps as great a genius as Beethoven, we have to give the great body of people the same elements of musical education, the ABC of music that the professionals acquire… Not every child who learns to read and write will become a dramatist or poet. Not every child who learns arithmetic will become a banker: nor every child who studies geography a world traveler or explorer. But the elements of reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography are necessary to their living. So, too, are the elements of music for their spiritual living!"

Koussevitzky also confronts an issue that plagues the musical scene in America to this very day – our cultural inferiority complex: "Many musical Americans ask me to tell them what is lacking in our musical scheme of things and what harmful practices I would eliminate if I could. I will tell you what is lacking: confidence in our own artists. We in America must have confidence in our composers and performers. The audience must stop thinking that the best artists come from the outside world."

Koussevitzky then recapitulates a theme which he first introduced in "Poetry and Music", though it is stated more concisely and powerfully here: "The greatest mistake made by musical authorities, and through them, the public, is the use of that meaningless phrase 'Let the music speak for itself'. This is a harmful idea and paves the way for mediocrity. It is entirely wrong because the performing artist, no matter how near he is to the composer's heart and soul, cannot present music otherwise than through the medium of his own temperament and understanding." Amen!

Koussevitzky the prophet emerges toward the end of the article, as he attempts to predict what will happen in music following the end of the war: "I believe that the center of music will be in two countries: Russia and the United States. The fresh young desire for better and greater things and the rich possibilities for their realization are only in those two countries. They will dominate all cultural life."

"American Composers" from Life Magazine, April 24, 1944

In this article (as told to Alice Berezowsky who "put Dr. Koussevitzky's words in consistent English"), he describes the state of classical music when he came to America – "Its pulse was very, very weak" – and how he endeavored to change that situation through his championship native of composers such as Edward Burlingame Hill, George Gershwin, and Walter Piston. Koussevitzky was surprised to learn that the latter had composed only one orchestral work. "I asked him why he hadn't composed another. 'Why should I?' he replied. 'Nobody would play it.' 'I would,' I said. Four months later Piston brought me a suite for orchestra. Not all of it was good, but the second movement was extraordinarily fine. I performed it. A year later he wrote another new work, a much better one in every way. We played that one, too. Piston wrote a third work, a concerto for orchestra. With that concerto he established his name as one of the leading composers in America." It was a pattern Koussevitzky would repeat again and again with Roy Harris, William Schuman, and especially Aaron Copland. In spite of occasional carping by critics and subscribers, Koussevitzky could state proudly: "I stuck to my policy always to build my programs like a sandwich – at least two pieces of bread with something new in between."

Koussevitzky freely acknowledged that some listeners found all of this new American music difficult to comprehend: "Nearly always when I play American works, people come to me and say: 'Yes, the composer has a fine command of orchestral technique, but he has nothing to say. His music doesn't touch my emotions as Mozart's or Beethoven's or Tchaikovsky's.' The composer of today reveals in us different emotions than the composer of yesterday. Americans have tremendous energy, extraordinary gaiety, a passionate love for freedom of thought and activity. The American composer must express new facets of the fundamental emotions."

Koussevitzky was very distressed to learn that composers in this country could not always support themselves with their creative work. Consider his pointed remarks about David Diamond: "Now he earns his living playing in the Lucky Strike All Time Hit Parade Orchestra. I say this is an outrage. Such a gifted American composer should not have to earn his livelihood in this way. America should not permit it!" Diamond, however, didn't share the conductor's low opinion of his position. Indeed, he welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with great popular singers like Frank Sinatra. In the interview with Diamond that appeared in Vol III, No. 1 of this Journal he retorted, "I'm sorry that Koussevitzky felt it was demeaning. His was a 19th century, Romantic attitude that the composer was up there in Valhalla with the gods, so that's not what you were supposed to do."

Still, Koussevitzky used Diamond's situation as an opportunity to insist that the time had come to find a better way to support our composers: "We must take measures to insure that coming generations will not in turn blush for our failure to accord justice to our creative artists. A far-reaching and wise plan must be worked out to establish a permanent composers' fund which will cover the essential and immediate needs of the living American composer." To this he added: "Each of them is bringing something to the art of music. Sometimes a single man has one single word to say in all his life and that one word may be as vital as all the lifework of a genius. We need that word!" (Koussevitzky used almost the identical words in his Musical America article, above.)

Koussevitzky brought the discussion to a close with an issue very dear to his heart: "The principal question in music is how best to bring it closer to the people. The artificial barriers between the initiated and the uninitiated must be broken down. The truly spiritual essence of music which stands high above the level of amusement and diversion must be brought to the general consciousness."

"Interpreting Music", Atlantic Monthly, August 1948

Parts 1 & 2 are taken verbatim from an earlier article titled "Poetry and Music". Only the final section is new. In it Koussevitzky traces the evolution in the standing of the musician over the past two centuries from entertainer and servant, to the romantic era "when the musician finds himself wrapped in a cloak of exclusiveness and adorned with a halo of the privileged", up to the present, where we find that the greatest artists are also great men. As examples, he cites Paderewski, "the musician-patriot, statesman, and aristocrat of the spirit" and Albert Schweitzer, "the musician philosopher, scientist, and humanitarian". He continues: "The advent of such men announces a new era in music, an era where outer perfection, brought to a definite point of attainment, does not suffice; where a new dimension is sought – the infinite fourth dimension which rests with and within us."

The wise conductor offers sage advice to young musicians. Today's crop of mindless virtuosos would do well to heed his words: "When a student decides to become a musician, let him first take counsel with himself. Does he possess the true gift and qualifications that give him a right to step upon the stage where thousands of eyes watch him and thousands of hearts beat in anticipation of the message he is to bring through music and his art? Will he, indeed, open the gates of heaven and let the people experience ecstasy – were it for an infinitesimal moment; or will the gates stay closed and heaven remain a promise unfulfilled?"

To those musicians who are driven by ego and avarice alone, the conductor's final statement in print should serve as a powerful wake-up call: "As one chosen by destiny and richly endowed by nature, the artist must have a sense of obligation toward those who are denied these riches. It is for him to repay nature and to offer his gifts to humanity, in all humility of heart, as an act of gratitude for the grace bestowed upon him."