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SERGEI KOUSSEVITZKY by Victor Yuzefovich

Volume 2: The Paris Years

Introduction - Between Russia and America

"In the sphere of music, at least, there can be no doubt about the possibility of a Franco-Russian alliance, […] Debussy would not have been Debussy had it not been for Musorgsky, nor without Debussy and Ravel would Stravinsky have composed The Firebird or Petrushka."


The present volume on the life and work of the outstanding Russian musician Sergei Koussevitzky deals with the period following his emigration from Soviet Russia, upon which he settled in Paris. For those readers unfamiliar with the first volume[2], some words of explanation are necessary.

Sergei Alexandrovich Koussevitzky (1874-1951) was born in the Russian countryside to a family far removed from the cultural level found in the higher echelons of the intelligentsia. Nevertheless, as a cultural figure he ascended to the peak of eminence in his times and became one of the era's most distinguished and creative musicians. He lived through three Russian Revolutions and two world wars, had honours bestowed on him by Tsar Nicholas II, was made a Chevalier of the French Légion d'honneur, and was the recipient of a host of honorary titles in America. He performed by invitation before Tchaikovsky and Lev Tolstoy. Counted among his close friends were Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, Chaliapin and Stanislavsky, Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Copland and Barber.

Celebrated as a matchless solo performer on the double-bass whose concerts were universally recognised as events of unexampled significance, Koussevitzky subsequently mastered the art of conducting in Germany under the tutelage of Arthur Nikisch. Although his first forays into his new profession were greeted with success in European capitals, he preferred to return to Russia with the firm intention of devoting himself to the service of musical enlightenment. This Russian period of Koussevitzky's creative life coincided with the 'Silver Age' of Russian culture – to which many today refer, not without reason, as a Golden Age – and he became an indispensable element of it. His establishment in 1909 of the Russian Musical Editions music publishing house and the coterminous formation in Moscow and St. Petersburg of the S. Koussevitzky Concert seasons, as well as the creation of the Koussevitzky Orchestra in 1911, together represented a powerful injection into the body of Russian culture.

As with the first volume of this three-part biography, the present volume and the still-in-progress third and final volume (to be entitled Sergei Koussevitzky: A Quarter of a Century in America) is based on material drawn from a multitude of previously unexplored archives in Russia, France and the USA.

Koussevitzky's decision to leave Russia has given rise to many, and variously slanted, speculations as to its underlying reasons. Usually these speculations fail to take into account several mutually contradictory motivations. The Soviet regime nationalised Russian Musical Editions and the A. Gutheil publishing company, both of which belonged to Koussevitzky, as well as his mansion on Glazovsky Pereulok which contained a priceless music library and collection of pictures. Further, Koussevitzky had every reason to appeal to the authorities on health grounds, both of his wife Natalie (Natalya), with her hereditary history of tuberculosis, and his own chronic arthritis which plagued him with pains in his arms and shoulders. The couple were forced to spend the cold winter of 1920 in a damp semi-underground apartment. Rachmaninoff's cousin Sofia Alexandrovna Satina remembers visiting them there and find them 'shivering with cold and huddled together for warmth in this unhealthy abode …'[3]

Yet in deciding to leave Koussevitzky was not thinking only of his own well-being. For many years all his powers, all his talent, and the millions of Natalya Koussevitzky's fortune, had been put at the service of Russian culture. The urge to survive, to preserve himself as an individual and continue working for the development of musical enlightenment, was for Koussevitzky no less powerful a motivation.

As early as 22 November 1917 the conductor wrote an open letter to the press declaring his unwillingness to submit to the direction of 'People's Commissars' (I have maintained the author's ironic quotation marks). It was one of the first documented social and political protests from a leading figure in Russian culture, published almost contemporaneously with Vasily Rozanov's 'Apocalypse in Our Time' and the philosophical collection From the Depths, and seven years before Ivan Bunin's famous speech 'The Mission of the Russian Emigration' (1924).[4]

For two more years Koussevitzky would continue to labour on behalf of the people, even though subject to the dictates of an authority he did not accept. In common with many members of the Russian intelligentsia his understanding of the Revolution was first and foremost seen through the prism of the culture, and the cultural politics, of the state. The sloganising banners of the Soviets promoting the democratisation of art and calling for its increased accessibility to the people were fully in tune with his own ambitions. As a result he embarked on an intensive range of activities, playing an enthusiastic part in the socio-musical programmes of the Music Section of the Enlightenment Commissariat, and becoming a member of the Bolshoi Theatre Council.

Time, however, gradually cleared the mirage from Koussevitzky's consciousness. The shooting in Petersburg in January 1918 of peaceful demonstrators in support of the Constituent Assembly and the new regime's policy of eliminating the intelligentsia – at first morally but eventually physically – were unmistakeable signs that that the life of the artist in the country of the Soviets was in the very near future to be shattered. 'The intransigents we will deport, and the others we will buy off,' declared one of Lenin's closest associates Lev Kamenev.[5] This remark was made on the eve of 1920; by the end of the year Alexander Blok was no more and Nikolai Gumilyov had been shot. Before another year had passed a large group of outstanding philosophers, writers and scholars – the most brilliant minds in Russia – had been forcibly ejected from the country.[6]

Is it any wonder that hundreds of thousands of Russians fled Russia at this time? Or that the Russian intelligentsia formed a significant element in this emigration? Parting from the homeland, painful as it was, was still to be preferred to losing the freedom to create. Among the many who anticipated Koussevitzky's decision to leave were the writers Leonid Andreyev, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Kuprin, Aleksei Tolstoy, the composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Sergei Prokofiev, the violinists Leopold Auer and Jascha Heifetz, the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, the theatre director Fyodor Kommisarzhevsky, the silent film star, director and screenwriter Ivan Mozzhukhin[7], the artists Nikolai Roerich and Boris Grigoriev, the philosopher Vladimir Ilyin, and the aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky.

Other departures from Russia during the single year 1920, along with Koussevitzky, included the philosopher Lev Shestov, the historian Georgy Vernadsky, the writer Ivan Bunin, poets Konstantin Balmont, Zinaïda Gippius and Sasha Chorny,[8] artists Savely Sorin, Sergei Sudeikin and Vasily Shukhaev, the film director Yakov Protazanov, artists Richard Boleslavsky and Olga Gzovskaya, the pianist Alexander Borovsky, singers Dmitri Smirnov, Nadezhda Plevitskaya and Alexander Vertinsky, the founder of the Don Cossack Choir Sergei Zharov, the musicologist, publisher and co-founder of the Eurasianist movement Pyotr Suvchinsky,[9] and the linguistic and literary theorist Roman Jakobson. For none of these people, any more than for Koussevitzky, was emigration purely a matter of personal choice. It represented the only possible way of confirming and extending into the future the tradition of Russian culture, even if it had to be abroad. In leaving Russia they were preserving Russian culture.

Two years earlier, in the spring of 1918, Sergei Prokofiev had left Russia relatively painlessly, having told the Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky that ' …I've worked for a year and now want to get some fresh air.'[10] Now Koussevitzky's request to travel abroad for treatment was denied. Visits to Lunacharsky and to the Commissar of Foreign Affairs Georgy Chicherin yielded no definitive answer. An approach to Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, a member of the Presidium of the Cheka, did, however, produce an answer.[11] No longer dissembling his desire to quit Bolshevist Russia, Koussevitzky informed Menzhinsky that if he was not given immediate permission to leave the country not another note would be heard from his bow or his baton. Two weeks later he received his exit permit.

Koussevitzky left Russia enriched by substantial and extensive professional experience, a wide-ranging circle of contacts with composers, conductors and solo instrumentalists. The years spent in Russia had formed the root characteristics of the Koussevitzky musical personality, chief among them a clear and direct commitment – or, as he himself referred to it, the broad central highway of his creative life: support across the board for living composers.

Koussevitzky's service to Russian culture by no means ceased with his departure from the country. Living and working for more than a quarter of a century beyond its borders, he was to acquire and develop greater maturity as a musician. His abilities as a conductor gained greater mastery. His musical adherences would undergo significant changes. Yet his loyalty to his chosen 'central highway' of promoting the work of living composers never wavered. He achieved his aim of fully realising himself as a man and as a musician. He transferred to Paris the operations of his publishing firm Russian Musical Editions and the Koussevitzky Concerts. Again, although they might be no longer his personal property, he would stand on the podium in front of 'his' orchestras, first in Paris and later in Boston. Fulfilling a long-held dream he would create a great music centre at Tanglewood in the Berkshires, where every year he would lead the Music Festival. Support for contemporary composers would continue unabated through the creation of the Sergei and Natalya Koussevitzky Foundation, eventually to become an International Music Foundation. Progress in all these fields of endeavour will be detailed in the second and third volumes of this biography.

Koussevitzky never returned to the country of his birth after leaving Russia in 1920. In the early years, as was the case for most émigrés, meetings and even correspondence with those left behind were limited, and eventually became virtually impossible. After taking the reins of the Boston Symphony in 1924, Koussevitzky continued (until 1928) his regular seasons of concerts in Paris, toured to London (1933-35), and until 1939 spent every summer in Europe. Not for a moment did he abandon his encounters and extensive correspondence with musicians living in Europe, whether Russian or foreign.

The break between the French and American periods of Koussevitzky's life and work was not nearly as abrupt or categorical as the division between the Russian and French periods. For this reason the account of his creative relationship with Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Chaliapin, and of his performances of works by Debussy and Ravel, will necessarily give rise to conflations of chronology and location.


All documents in this book are quoted in contemporary orthography,[12] and punctuation marks have been employed according to today's usage. However, grammatical errors in original documents have been corrected. Events taking place after 1st February 1918 are dated in New Style.[13] Dates omitted from quoted documents, likewise words or parts of words omitted, are indicated in the text between square brackets. Abbreviated and omitted passages are indicated by three dots between square brackets.

Sources of documents cited or referred to in the text are indicated by the following abbreviations:

BNF - Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

BPL - Boston Public Library, Boston, Mass

BSO - Archive Archive of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston

GTsMMK - Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture (in Russian Gosudarstvennyi Tsentral'nyi Muzei Muzykal'noi Kul'tury imeni M.I. Glinki, but now called All-Russia Association of Museums of Musical Culture named after M.I. Glinka), Moscow

KA-LC - Koussevitzky Archive, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

LC - Library of Congress, Washington, DC

RGALI - Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (in Russian Rossiiskii, Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Literatury i Isskustva), Moscow

It is my pleasant duty to thank those individuals and organisations, their directors and members of staff, without whose help the writing of this book would have been inconceivable: in Moscow the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI, Directors Natalia Borisovna Volkova and Tatiana Mikhailovna Goryacheva, Deputy Director Galina Raufovna Zlobina); the Glinka All-Russia Association of Museums of Musical Culture (GTsMMK, Deputy Director Irina Andreyevna Medvedeva, Academic Secretary Marina Pavlovna Rakhmanova); the Bakhrushin State Theatre Museum Archive; the Manuscripts Department of the Russian State Library (formerly the Lenin State Library); the Taneyev Academic Library of the Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatoire of Music; in Klin, near Moscow, the Archive of the Tchaikovsky House-Museum (Polina Efimovna Vaidman); in St. Petersburg the Library and Manuscripts Office of the Russian History of Art Institute (RIII, Olga Lvovna Dansker and Galina Viktorovna Kopytova); the Manuscripts Department of the Russian National Library (RNB, formerly the Saltykov-Shchedrin Public Library); the Library of the St. Petersburg Philharmonia (Galina Leonidovna Retrovskaya); in Vyshnii Volochek the Museum of Local History (Galina Georgievna Monakhova), local historian, publisher and collector Yevgenii Ivanovich Stupkin; in New York the New York Public Library (John Shepard), the Morgan Library (Rigby Rerner), the Bakhmetiev Archive of Columbia University (Helen Skaruffi); in Boston the Boston Public Library (Dayan Ota), the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Daniel Gastin) and its Archive (Bridget Carr), Harvard University Library, Boston University Library; in Tanglewood the Sergei Koussevitzky Memorial House ('Serenak'); and in New Haven, Yale University Music Library (Harold Samuel).

Reverting to the time spent working on the Koussevitzky Archive, I must express my gratitude to all those without whose efforts this enormous collection of material would not exist today. That it does, is due first and foremost to Olga Koussevitzky, who preserved the Archive and donated it to the Library of Congress and its Director, James Billington. The process of bringing order to the Archive's material raised hundreds upon hundreds of queries, the answers to which could not have been provided without the selfless assistance offered by the Directors of the Library's Performing Arts Division James Pruett and Jon Newsom, together with the Division's staff members Kate Rivers and Kevin LeVine, and their colleague in the European Division Harold Leich.

Particular thanks are due to the late maestro Mstislav Rostropovich, who kindly undertook to appear as my idiosyncratic interlocutor in my final lecture on the subject of Koussevitzky to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1993. Also to Mr. Richard Benson, member of the Archive Committee of the Boston Symphony, who has provided long-standing material and moral support to the project, to the 'Symfonia' Foundation for its award of a research grant, and to the Russian Humanitarian Foundation whose grant-in-aid has made the publication of this volume possible. Finally I must thank my wife Lyudmila Borisovna Shenker, my daughter Oksana and my son Igor, whose help in the preparation of this publication and the illustrations therein has been truly invaluable.

[1] Alexis Roland-Manuel, 'La Quinzaine musicale' in L'Eclair, 9 May 1921.
[2] Victor Yuzefovich, Sergei Koussevitzky, vol 1 Russkye Gody (The Russian Years), Yazyki Slavyanskoy Kul'tury (YSK), Moscow, 2004.
[3] See Diana Cavallo, Triple Memoir: A Documentary Memoir of Three 20th Century Live, Koussevitzkys and Naumoffs, unpublished typescript, p 340 – AK-BK.
[4] By the end of his life the mystic philosopher and writer of lyrical prose Vasily Rozanov had effectively abandoned the attempt to construct a systematic account of his own idiosyncratic existential, religious and political views. The Apocalypse of our Times is a collection of epigrammatic aphorisms which collectively reveal Rozanov's despair at the collapse of Russian thought and culture heralded by the Revolution. From the Depths (Iz glubiny) was the title of the concluding article, written by S.L Frank, in the eponymous collection edited by the philosopher and editor P.B Struve which appeared in 1918, only to be immediately banned and all remaining copies destroyed. It was conceived as the final volume in a trilogy of reflections by leading thinkers published by the journal Russkaya Mysl' (Russian Thought), which had by that time itself been closed down. The first two collections were Problemy Idealizma (Problems of Idealism), 1902, and Vekhi (Landmarks), 1909. The third collection also contained articles by such eminent philosophers and writers as Vyacheslav Ivanov, Nikolai Berdyayev, Sergei Kotlaryevsky and P. B. Struve himself. Bunin delivered his address to a meeting of Russian émigrés in Paris in February 1924, calling for the old Russian ways, culture and values to be preserved against the day, however distant, when the hated Soviet regime would disappear and Russia would be reclaimed.
[5] The Cheka was the first Soviet secret police organisation, established by Lenin almost immediately after the October Revolution, universally known – and feared, as were its operatives, the Chekisty – by the acronym derived from its official name Chrezvychaynaya Kommissiya po bor'be s kontrrevolyutsiyei i sabotazhem (Emergency Committee for the Struggle against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage). Already by June 1919 the Cheka had taken the decision to institute 'work camps' for people considered undesirable by the regime (later they would be called 'wrong-thinking', as if to think along stereotypical lines was the great privilege of homo sapiens!). When in 1992 a copy of the Cheka document was displayed at a Library of Congress exhibition in Washington DC 'Revelations from the Russian Archives', Americans were stunned to learn that the era of the Gulag had begun much earlier than the second half of the 1930s, as was hitherto generally believed.
[6] At the end of September and the beginning of October 1922, two ships, the Oberbürgermeister Haken and the Preussen, sailed from Petrograd bound for Stettin. On board the Philosophy Steamers, as the transport came to be known, were 150 or so victims and their families, hand-picked by Lenin, of a process of 'deliberate negative selection' of an intelligentsia that was 'erudite, professional and cosmopolitan as never before. […] What Leninism stripped out of the Russian fabric was what those ships carried away, in terms of cultural decency and intellectual independence.' (Lesley Chamberlain, The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, Atlantic Books, London 2006.
[7] Better known in France, where his career flourished after emigration, as Ivan Mosjoukine.
[8] Pen name of Alexander Glickberg.
[9] Known later in Paris as Pierre Souvtchinsky.
[10] Sergei Prokofiev, Behind The Mask, Diaries vol 2, tr A. Phillips, Faber & Faber, London 2008 p270.
[11] Menzhinsky was Director of the ominously named Special Department and second in line to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Head of OGPU, whom he succeeded on the latter's death in 1926.
[12] In the summer of 1917 the Provisional Government issued a decree simplifying the Cyrillic alphabet which had been in universal use since its standardisation by the philologist Yakov Grot in 1885, by the omission of three letters and the silent hard sign ъ after final consonants. Because the Bolshevik regime later made adoption of the reforms a point of principle, one of the eliminated letters, the yat' (ѣ), became something of a political football, for some years émigré writers ostentatiously continuing to use it as a symbol of their adherence to the ancien régime.
[13] The date on which the change from the Julian calendar ('Old Style') to the Gregorian calendar ('New Style') was officially recognised. In the 19th century, Russian dates lagged behind Western Gregorian dates by 12 days, while in the 20th century (to be precise, between 29th February 1900 until 1st February 1918) the difference between Old and New Styles was 13 days.

Copyright © 2015, Victor Yuzefovich - Translation by Anthony Phillips