Author: Leon Botstein

Stravinsky Outside Russia

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Matt Dine (courtesy Sacks & Co.)

[Ed. Note: The following is a slightly modified version of an essay, reprinted with permission, that will appear as the program note for an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein this Friday, January 20, 2012, at Carnegie Hall. The program will include two rarely performed compositions written during Stravinsky’s final three decades in Southern California: Canticum Sacrum and Requiem Canticles. Botstein will additionally lead a performance of Stravinsky’s most famous work The Rite of Spring, written long before he arrived in the United States, as part of the ASO’s Classics Declassified series at Symphony Space in New York City on February 26, 2012.—FJO]

It has become all too commonplace to negotiate the complex and tangled fabric of artistic life in history by constructing an artificial hierarchy—lists of the “best” or “most famous” personages—as if painting, writing, or composing were Olympic contests, adequately judged by a single objective criterion. In reality, at any given time there are many inspired and imposing figures who, despite their ambitions, jealousies, and rivalries, themselves never worried about any top ten or top fifty rankings. And the nature of art-making resists such blunt instruments of evaluation. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century (if there were indeed to be a contender for the status of the “greatest” 20th-century composer) the honor, as a matter of public perception both in the general public and among professional musicians, would most likely have fallen on Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, who, unlike Paul Dukas or Felix Mendelssohn, seems not to have suffered from modesty, self-doubt, or excessive generosity to others, would have been only too pleased. Perhaps the best way to think of Stravinsky’s standing during his lifetime and for several decades after his death in 1971 is to compare him to the place his contemporary, Pablo Picasso, came to occupy in the visual arts as emblematic of the 20th century.

Stravinsky on Porch

Igor Stravinsky on his porch in Southern California. (Photo © Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., reprinted with permission)

The reasons for Stravinsky’s prominence and dominance are many. First and foremost are the range and quality of Stravinsky’s output, sustained over a very long and productive life. Second, Stravinsky was a shrewd and effective promoter of his own music and career. Third is the variety of styles and genres in which the composer worked, from the stage to small chamber music works. Fourth—and perhaps most intriguing—are the prominence and influence he managed to achieve in three very disparate and discrete public spheres and contexts. The first was his native pre-revolutionary Russia, into which he was born in 1882. The second was French-speaking Europe, in France and Switzerland, where the composer lived and worked for nearly three decades before World War II. Stravinsky started his career outside of Russia as a Russian working abroad, and then as an exile. But he ended up as an exponent of contemporary “French” music. Stravinsky spent his final three decades (from 1939 on) based in the United States, where he was regarded initially as partially Russian, but equally French as an exile. Ultimately, by the early 1960s, he came to represent American music, at home in the United States and abroad.

Stravinsky’s career began in Russia, where he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and where he formed a deep and lifelong artistic and spiritual attachment to Russian folk traditions, the Orthodox religion, the Russian language, and the Russian cultural heritage in music, the visual arts, and literature. The “Volga Boatmen” arrangement for Chaliapin gives evidence of this. In Paris, where he befriended Claude Debussy, Stravinsky exploited the rage for presumed exoticism of all things Russian, and rose to international fame through the success and notoriety of his ballet scores written for the Ballets Russes.

One single date has come to serve as an historic marker for the explosion of modernism onto the cultural scene—a moment in time that seemed to bring the 19th century to a close and usher in the 20th: the May 29, 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. In his years in France, Stravinsky came to dominate the musical and cultural scene, taking his place alongside Valery, Gide, and Cocteau (forgetting Coco Chanel in this context) as a luminary. Through Nadia Boulanger, arguably the most important single teacher of a younger generation of composers, many of them Americans, Stravinsky influenced the course of American concert music. In his American years, Stravinsky’s fame and reputation continued to grow, not as an outsider (the way other émigrés, such as Schoenberg, saw themselves), but as an insider in the American scene. In part through his association with Robert Craft, who would become his chronicler and assistant, in his last years Stravinsky was astonishingly productive, writing in a new way, adapting modernist techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern.

From Stravinsky Requiem Canticles

A passage from the score of Requiem Canticles which demonstrates Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic adaptation of techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern.
Requiem Canticles by Igor Stravinsky
© Copyright 1967 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd.
Reprinted by Permission.
All in all, therefore, one can locate roughly three distinct stylistic periods in Stravinsky’s career. The first was an unmistakable “Russian” phase; Russian influences are obviously audible in the Firebird, for example. This gave way to a form of self-consciously international neo-classicism, not dissimilar from a parallel development in architecture, particularly the work of Le Corbusier. The high point of that period was reached during the late 1920s and early 1930s in Paris. In the years of transition from Russia, great works that mirror the trajectories forwards and backwards in time were written, such as Les Noces (1914/1917) and The Soldier’s Tale (1918). The legacy of neo-classicism formed the basis for the third period (the most audibly modernist period, that of the 1950s and 1960s) when the composer was in the United States, where he wrote among other things, together with W.H. Auden, his operatic masterpiece The Rake’s Progress (1951) and an opera for television, The Flood (1962).

At the same time, just as in the case of Picasso, the shifting stylistic surfaces in each period never masked a consistent distinctive character and quality to Stravinsky’s music. A set of proverbial fingerprints, revealing a unique musical imagination and personality, can be located in all of Stravinsky’s music. Central to Stravinsky’s aesthetic was the belief that in the end music was separate from language, and demanded a formal economy, a structure, and rigorous logic all its own. At the same time, Stravinsky understood his audience and the public. He had an uncanny sense of the theatrical in music and an elegant sense of humor and irony. There was a clarity, transparency, and lightness to his music reflecting a deeply felt aversion to Wagnerian grandiosity and Mahlerian metaphysical pomposity. A lucid rhythmic originality, vitality, and complexity inhabit many of his scores, but the asymmetries and surprises all seem seamless and natural. The discipline of writing for dance taught the composer that the overarching architecture of a work, its musical flow and narrative, could not be obscure. Stravinsky used musical time with uncanny effectiveness, rarely if ever wearing out his welcome with his audience or his fellow musicians. His command of instrumental and vocal sonorities was equally impressive, as was his capacity to make his material memorable. Stravinsky’s extensive output was startling in its consistency in terms of rigor, invention, and quality.

Yet, like Picasso, although Stravinsky’s name and reputation remain in tact, the interest of the public has shifted away from much of his work. The three great ballet scores, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/47), and The Rite of Spring, are cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire. Many later scores are still heard, but far fewer than one might think or wish. This is especially the case with Stravinsky’s later works. Indeed, many of his mid-career and later works survive on the public stage as a result of his friend Balanchine’s choreography, including pieces not intended for dance, such as the Violin Concerto (1931).

If there is tendency to simplify how we approach the history of music by constructing lists of the “top ten,” there is a parallel allure to the idea that there is some “essential” identity to each composer in terms of his historical roots, so to speak. Bartók becomes quintessentially “Hungarian,” Copland “American,” Debussy and Ravel “French,” and Sibelius “Finnish.” As a result, we turn to Americans for the “best” performances of Copland, Hungarians for Bartók, the French for Debussy and Ravel, and the Finns for Sibelius. This makes marketing easy and lends some hint of authenticity to our experience as listeners, as if there might be some secret spiritual or national bond, framed by blood, language, and soil, between a composer and his music, requiring decoding by someone who shares that bond.


Igor Stravinsky in his study. (Photo © Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., reprinted with permission)

Even when this might plausibly apply to a composer (e.g. Musorgsky as Russian or Smetana as Czech), it assumes some fixed generalized category—Russianness and Czechness that seem to transcend historical change. But what do we make of Stravinsky? Despite his evident identity as a Russian émigré after 1917, this reductive assessment violates not only his own views about the nature of music, but the facts of his career and the range and variety of his compositions. Recourse to the notion of exile, in the case of Stravinsky, only complicates the problem. Rachmaninov was also an exile after 1917. For him the experience of being separated from his homeland was traumatic. He sought to insulate himself in an environment marked by nostalgia. He tried to recreate the atmosphere of his native land when he was in America, England, and Switzerland. Prokofiev, who like Stravinsky found himself abroad when the October Revolution happened, and like Stravinsky sought to make a career in America and France, in part because he felt always in Stravinsky’s shadow, returned to Russia in the mid 1930s. But Prokofiev, unlike Stravinsky, had no spiritual ties to the Orthodox Church and was never a virulent anti-Communist. Stravinsky fit in, in France and America, as a leading and successful participant at the center of musical and cultural life, and never at its margins.

Vladimir Nabokov reinvented himself and became one of the greatest writers in English and one of the most trenchant observers of post-War America. Stravinsky managed to reinvent himself too, not once, but twice: first in France and then in America. Like Nabokov, he used the position of exile to forge a synthesis with his new circumstances and reach in new ways various new publics. The link to the past was never hidden or disavowed (as Kurt Weill attempted). Stravinsky, fortunately for him, unsuccessfully tried to keep his music in circulation in Germany after 1933. Displacement and the necessity to adjust may have been unwelcome but they could still be understood as acts of practicality, not fear or conscience. Exile provided Stravinsky with new remarkable sources of inspiration.

Stravinsky was, above all else, a composer’s composer, for whom music can function in the world in a manner that resists facile typecasting, and whose character reflects a dialogue with the composer’s immediate environment. His ambitions, craft, and influence were international and his identity shifted, at different phases in his career, to transfigure distinct milieus and contexts.

Rediscovering Henry Cowell

[Ed. Note: The following article has been excerpted from an essay by Leon Botstein written for the program book for An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell, the upcoming American Symphony Orchestra concert he will conduct at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on January 29, 2010. The issues Botstein raises go well beyond their pertinence to that particular event and even beyond the music of any individual composer and therefore seemed particularly appropriate to present on these pages. – FJO]

Henry Cowell
Photo courtesy G. Schirmer / Associated Music Publishers

There was no more distinctly American composer in the first half of the 20th century than Henry Cowell. Cowell was twenty years old when the United States entered the First World War. His career coincided with a time in history in which the America of his day was the China of today. The United States was growing rapidly and was at the cutting edge of industrial competitiveness. It had outstripped Europe and was on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world. During Cowell’s lifetime it would take its place as the most powerful nation on earth. For Europeans, Americans represented industriousness, competition, innovation; America was the future. While earlier generations of European intellectuals found ways to see the United States as backward and provincial, by the time World War I ended, America was no longer a plausible object of derision. Rather it became an object of fascination and emulation, and for that very reason, also a focus of anxiety. In the interwar period, the distinguished German critic and theorist Siegfried Krackauer pointed to the Radio City Rockettes to exemplify the dangers of spiritual mechanization of the human that powered America’s economic and political domination. Through music and film, America became a leading exporter of culture. Given the devastation that took place in Europe, European artists flocked to the United States for patronage and audiences.

It is therefore not surprising that while all this was going on, an optimistic spirit of innovation flourished in the arts in the United States. Insofar as music in American life before 1917 seemed to be derivative in its indebtedness to European models, the challenge facing young American artists in the 1920s was the creation of something distinctly and uniquely American. Now that America, though still young, seemed fully realized as a nation, it demanded that its own distinctive voice be heard. The character of that voice would have to match the industrial spirit of America. It had to be marked by a self-conscious modernity and a faith in innovation.

Cowell’s career coincides with the advent of American modernism in painting, sculpture, and architecture. He was an experimentalist and a pluralist. True to America’s identity as an immigrant nation, he embraced influences from numerous sources. He broke the boundaries that had been erected between types and genres of music. He invented new sounds. He introduced the work of composers from all over the world to American audiences. No individual was more responsible than Cowell for bringing America’s first truly original master of composition, Charles Ives, to the public’s attention. Ives reciprocated with support for Cowell and his activities. Cowell’s interests encompassed not only experimental and avant-garde modernism, but that which we today awkwardly call world music. And while his energy and productivity are themselves a source of amazement, so too is the list of those indebted to Cowell for his role as mentor and advocate.

This impressive record of achievement thus begs the question: why is it that more than three quarters of the devoted audience for classical and concert music today might not recognize even the name Henry Cowell, much less his music? A search of programs by American orchestras and ensembles will reveal that very little if any of Cowell’s music is played. Is the answer to the question that Cowell was simply a great organizer, teacher, and thinker whose music isn’t worth performing? That would be the most commonplace answer.

Its apparent plausibility rests in the mistaken but recalcitrant idea that first, the standard repertory today reflects the collective and legitimate aesthetic judgment of history and therefore a quasi-Darwinian process of objective selection, and second, that music is an art that demands competitive comparison, that only works befitting the attribute “masterpiece” deserve the time and effort to be heard and played in concert. By this standard, not a single work by Henry Cowell has survived. Indeed, from the perspective of the self-styled arbiters of taste who pronounce summary judgment based on criteria worthy of a beauty contest or quiz show, music such as his deserves to be met with skepticism before the performance, and afterwards dismissed with the comment that these works do not compare with the major works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Bartók, or Stravinsky.

But the judgment of history does not constitute an objective test. Consider the fate of Henry Cowell. The scandal surrounding his imprisonment for homosexuality, and the easy association in many circles between aesthetic radicalism and left-wing politics damaged his reputation and career during his lifetime and posthumously. For all of America’s celebration of its own love of invention and innovation, there has been a dark side to American cultural life: an enormous pressure to conform, the rule of a marketplace that is intolerant of genuine individuality and dissent, and a risk-averse anti-intellectualism derived from mistrust, isolationism, and commercial interest. Henry Cowell’s career and music have consistently tripped the wires of all of these negative attitudes. As a result, for the last fifty years, his music was deprived of the hearing it deserved except in a small community of devoted advocates. More exposure is necessary to permit a reasonable assessment of the worth of his many compositions. Only after repeated performances can we as performers and listeners decide which works we prefer and which seem more persuasive than others. Even within the output of the most famous composers there are hierarchies of taste. In Cowell’s case, exposure denied by the musical establishment at large for extraneous and specious reasons has prevented most listeners from exercising any sort of judgment.

For some odd reason, changing inherited impressions has become much harder in music than it has in either painting or literature. In music, the unremitting standard of the “masterpiece” is more of an excluding factor than it is in any other art. Why does listening to a piece of concert music require a judgment to determine it is not something else—perhaps by Stravinsky, Mozart, Mahler, or Copland? We do not read books this way, and we do not view paintings this way. We do not furnish our homes with paintings and prints and objects that way. No one could argue with the idea that Botticelli’s paintings or Shakespeare’s plays are daunting and overwhelming examples of the triumph of human imagination. But the greatest Botticelli or Shakespeare need not diminish our appreciation of other paintings and plays. We do not reject plays and paintings old or new in our theaters and museums because they are not Botticelli and Shakespeare. We do not demand that the only things performed or displayed are by Botticelli and Shakespeare. We profess a wider and more eclectic range of appreciation for unquestionably excellent examples of human expression in painting and writing. Yet in music, a dominant snobbery apparent in writers, performers, and listeners would shut down the exercise of curiosity. Young performers and conductors learn and offer almost exactly the same historical repertoire that their counterparts did thirty and fifty years ago. Concert promoters encourage this. But as Cowell understood, music is an experience of life in the world. There is a wide range of music that inspires, ennobles and delights audiences who have the insight to listen to a work in relation to their personal preferences or opinions, not in relation to what they have learned are the narrow group of the “best” composers and compositions.

Performing unfamiliar repertoire is not about searching for lost treasures. Our only standard is that it is music that deserves to be enjoyed and experienced. The music must have the inspiration and craftsmanship to capture the attention of those who love to play and listen. We should not be on some sort of Antiques Roadshow, trying to assess rare work by some pre-existing standard of comparative values. We should not be in the business of being musical truffle hounds. Performing Henry Cowell’s music shows not rarity but the unexpected vastness, quality, and depth of musical expression that is available to be heard within the history of music. Not every work will take its place alongside an acknowledged masterpiece, but it doesn’t have to.

As in other arts, all kinds of music contribute to an unimaginably large and varied experience, in which anyone will eventually find something they like. For those who restricted their capacity for the joy of music to a few famous works (an unreasonable fragment of cultural history), they may find that repetition of those works will ultimately eviscerate their power to move the listener by eroding the essential reactions of surprise and engagement those works inspire.

In the course of history, generations reverse themselves. The great work of the past can fade and be replaced by a reversal of judgment. In the end what appeals to the audience is determined by criteria the audience brings to their experience, shaped by the historical circumstances around them. That is what lies beneath the legendary observation of Leonard Bernstein regarding Gustav Mahler’s assertion that “my time will come”: it did. Mahler’s music did not change, but the way it was perceived and interpreted underwent a radical reevaluation. Henry Cowell may be due for such a reevaluation.


Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra
Photo by Richard Termine; courtesy 21C Media Group

Leon Botstein has had a multifaceted career as a conductor, musicologist, and administrator. Music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) since 1992 and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Israel Broadcasting Authority since 2003, he is also the Editor of The Musical Quarterly (since 1992) and has served as the President of New York’s Bard College since 1975 where he is additionally the Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities and the co-director of the Bard Music Festival. At the age of 23, Botstein became the youngest college president in the history of the country, heading Franconia College in New Hampshire from 1970 to 1975. He is the author of Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture (Doubleday, 1997); Judentum und Modernität: Essays zur Rolle der Juden in der Deutschen und Österreichischen Kultur, 1848–1938 (Böhlau Verlag, 1991); The History of Listening: How Music Creates Meaning (forthcoming, Basic Books); and Music and Modernism (forthcoming, Yale University Press), and has additionally written articles on a variety of topics for the Christian Science Monitor, Chronicle of Higher Education, Gramophone, Harper’s, New Republic, New York Times, 19th-Century Music, Partisan Review, Psychoanalytic Psychology, Salmagundi, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. Botstein’s extensive discography, both with ASO and other orchestras, includes premiere recordings of works by Max Bruch, Ernö Dohnányi, Johh Foulds, George Perle, Roger Sessions, Bruno Walter, and Richard Wilson, among others. Upcoming concert performances, in addition to the ASO’s all-Cowell program, include a program devoted to late 20th century Russian orchestral works, also with ASO, a program devoted to rarely heard works by Dvorak with the Jerusalem Symphony (March 2010), and appearances at the 2010 Bard Music Festival, Alban Berg and his World (August 13-22).