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SERGEI KOUSSEVITZKY by Victor Yuzefovich

Volume 1: The Russian Years

Chapter 6 - A Change of Direction

Departure to Germany – Berlin as a musical Mecca – musical and extra-musical impressions – European tours as a double bassist – the Koussevitzky house in Berlin – new encounters with Rachmaninoff, Chaliapin and Sobinov – first steps in supporting Russian composers – early stages in friendship and collaboration with Scriabin.

"Oh Lord, how happy I would be if only I could play the double bass! Had Koussevitzky not mastered this instrument he would never have succeeded in achieving such sonorities from the strings of his orchestra.". ~Wilhelm Fürtwängler[1]

Sergei and Natalie spent the summer of 1905 abroad. On August 20th/September 2nd news came from Moscow that Koussevitzky's application to be released from the Bolshoi Theatre had been successful, with retention of his status as a soloist of the Imperial Theatres. On August 26th/September 9th (her name-day) Sergei and Natalie celebrated their marriage in Dresden. The usually hospitable Natalie did not want a large gathering on this occasion, perhaps because of the compromised position of Sergei, whose divorce from Nadezhda Galat had been granted a mere month beforehand.

1905 was a fateful year for Russia, spanning the events of 'Bloody Sunday' on January 9th (old style), the destruction of the Russian Fleet off Tsushima in May, the humiliation of which hung over the eventual peace accord with Japan in August, and the October Manifesto 'On the Improvement of State Order' proclaiming citizens' rights and the convocation of a State Duma empowered to approve legislation.[2] Such were the embryonic stirrings of Russian parliamentarianism, the start of the pressure that would culminate in the armed rebellion against Tsarism in December. 'The 9th January and Tsushima were shocks that haunted us for the rest of our lives,' wrote Anna Akhmatova, her words reflecting the feelings of the whole of Russian society.[3] Life would not return to anything approaching normality until 1907, after the elections to the Third Duma and the ascent to power of the president of the Council of Ministers of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin.

Koussevitzky decided to remain in Germany. Rumours that he had been 'forced to flee Russia for fear of being arrested by the myrmidons of the Tsar' were clearly exaggerated, for during his stay abroad he several times visited Moscow and St. Petersburg. The true reason for his absence was his determination to study conducting. Assertions that 'his first year in Berlin was artistically passive' are equally unfounded.[4] All artists need periods of 'recoil' which can be just as active as periods of 'charge', and are filled with energy, impressions, emotions and, in the final analysis, accumulation of experience. Koussevitzky chose to be in Berlin for good reasons. He had no doubt about the man with whom he should study conducting: it could be none other than the celebrated Arthur Nikisch. Berlin, moreover, was at that time an international magnet for young musicians, actors, producers and all those connected with the world of the theatre. It was as great a Mecca as Paris would be after the First World War.

The sheer quantity of concerts and opera productions in Berlin was such as to threaten to engulf Koussevitzky, avid as he was to experience all kinds of music, and to leave little time for study. But he was always exceptionally disciplined in the way he organised his time and in his ability to quarry from his attendance at concerts and opera performances precisely the artistic experience he needed. He heard practically all the famous musicians of the day, saw the Berlin premiere performances of Richard Strauss's Salome and Elektra as well as the first Berlin production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades mounted by Leo Blech. Of particular interest to him were rehearsals and performances of Scriabin's Third Symphony conducted by Oscar Fried, and concerts by Fritz Kreisler.

Once again, Koussevitzky plunged headfirst into the elemental force of Wagner's music. This time The Ring of the Nibelungs affected him more profoundly than it had done in Bayreuth in 1902. 'We were passionately aroused by the cycle of Wagner's operas,' wrote Natalie Koussevitzky.[5] The Busoni Concerts offered a wealth of music new to Koussevitzky, as well as the opportunity to meet the composer, pianist and conductor in person.

Koussevitzky had frequent opportunities to attend rehearsals and concerts by the greatest German orchestras of the day: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, both – as they had been since his debut in Germany – under the direction of Nikisch. Koussevitzky also heard performances conducted by Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner, Felix Mottl and Ernst Schuch. He noted the enormous differences exhibited by these musicians, their varying approaches to the interpretation of classical music, their different conducting styles, the language of their gestures. Most striking of all was their contrasting relationship with their musicians: Mahler commandingly bending the orchestra to his iron will; Nikisch continually striving to convince the players that his conception of the score was the only possible one. It did not take long for Sergei to understand that his own nature was much more closely attuned the Nikisch approach.

In Germany, as formerly in Moscow, Koussevitzky's range of interests was by no means confined to music. The art galleries of Dresden were on hand to satisfy his passion for classical Italian painting while in Berlin and Leipzig Dürer and Grünewald, Cranach and Holbein offered new revelations in the music of Bach. Koussevitzky encountered Arnold Böcklin's painting The Isle of the Dead, which around the same time was inspiring Rachmaninov to the composition of the similarly entitled symphonic poem. The wide democratic appeal of Berlin's Schiller Theatre was an attraction, the creative instincts of its founder and director Raphael Löwenfeld so clearly at one with the ideas of the Moscow Art Theatre.


Living in Germany brought Koussevitzky into contact with the double-bass players in the leading German orchestras. In Leipzig he attended the Conservatoire class of Oswald Schwabe, who for 35 years led the bass section of the Gewandhaus orchestra and taught in the Conservatoire for a quarter of a century. Koussevitzky's instrumental capabilities received a tremendous boost. As well as solo and chamber music performances, he appeared as soloist with the finest European orchestras. His performance with the Dresden Staatskapelle conducted by Ernst Schuch scored a notable success. And he caused a sensation among Leipzig music-lovers when one of his programmes with an invited orchestra included a performance of the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto on the double bass. The Berlin correspondent of the American Musical Courier, Arthur Abell, described Koussevitzky at the end of 1906 as 'a genuinely great artist, the undisputed king of double bassists.'[6] In February 1908 he appeared as soloist with the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne conducted by Edouard Colonne.

The schedule in the latter half of the 1906/07 season was exceptionally crowded with double-bass engagements for Koussevitzky: on February 1st he was on stage in Vienna, on 5th in Leipzig, on 10th in Budapest, on 12th once more in Vienna and on 14th in Munich. In April, on the 13th of the month, he gave the first of a series of five concerts in Paris, followed by three more in London between 21st May and 15th June. The debut appearance in Vienna included concerti by Handel and by Koussevitzky himself (the first occasion on which his own work had been heard outside Russia) and several miniatures, among them Bottesini's Tarantella. The second Viennese concert, in which he was joined by the gifted pianist Georg Bertram, included a sonata by Handel, a concerto by Eduard Stein, the Humoresque by Paul Juon and Koussevitzky's own Andante. According to the reviewer, 'This performer has the ability, even when playing the most difficult passages, to give free rein to the temperament with which he is so generously endowed, and this attracts especial attention.'[7]

Koussevitzky made his London debut on May 22nd 1907 in the prestigious concert series at Bechstein Hall. In the first of his three programmes he played his own Concerto for Double bass, accompanied on the piano by Fritz Lindemann. The second included, inter alia, a sonata by Borga for double bass and viola d'amore in which Koussevitzky was joined by Henri Casadesus. The three concerts attracted the close attention of English audiences and critics, performances by a solo double bassist being as rare an event in London as they were in Russia and Germany. Critical notices were uniformly laudatory, often drawing comparison with the London debut of Dragonetti.

On October 16th/29th 1907 in Berlin's Beethoven-Saal Koussevitzky was joined by the composer and pianist Nikolai Medtner for an ensemble evening. He played Bottesini's Fantasia on La Sonnambula, his own arrangement of Mozart's Bassoon Concerto and Bruch's Kol Nidrei and, once again in concert with Henri Casadesus, the Borga Sonata. A month later, on November 16th 1907 in Leipzig and again on November 20th in Berlin, his partner was the pianist Alexander Goldenweiser. On this occasion the repertoire included, in addition to his own Concerto and smaller pieces, a Handel Concerto and works by Bottesini and Glière.[8] Goldenweiser was subsequently to make several appearances as soloist in the Koussevitzky Concerts seasons in Moscow and Petrograd.

Koussevitzky's peregrinations as a solo double bass player extended over Austria, England, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, Belgium, Holland and Italy. Reviews of his concerts run into many hundreds. Koussevitzky would cut them from newspapers and journals and meticulously glue them into albums which survive to this day in his archive. Over and over again critics compare his playing to that of Dragonetti, Bottesini and Gustav Láska. His name is one of the triumvirate of 'Great K's' in virtuoso string players along with Fritz Kreisler and Pablo Casals.[9] Koussevitzky was described as possessing 'an individuality unique in the world of music.'[10]


To the casual observer, Koussevitzky's career may appear as one uninterrupted string of triumphs. Behind them, however, lie the constant stress of a musician's working life, and this particular musician's exceptional determination to achieve his goals. As an example we may take the history of his appearance with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in January 1908. The invitation came in the first instance from Arthur Nikisch, who had heard him play in Russia. Even the authority of the celebrated maestro was, however, apparently not sufficient to secure the engagement. The orchestra's management also had to be convinced, and they were reluctant to invite a double bass soloist to join their concert roster. To his considerable embarrassment Nikisch was forced to withdraw the invitation.

Faced with such a situation, nine out of ten young musicians would have given up, regarding the obstacle as insurmountable. Koussevitzky did not do so. Persuading his own management to arrange two solo concerts for him in Leipzig, he sent tickets round to the members of the Gewandhaus's board of directors. The success of the recitals was so unequivocal that after the first of them Koussevitzky received an invitation to appear under Nikisch's baton on January 29th and 30th 1908.

Nikisch opened the programme with Haydn's Symphony No. 12 in B flat and Beethoven's Leonore No. 2 Overture, after which Koussevitzky came to the platform to perform his transcriptions of Mozart's Bassoon Concerto and Bruch's Kol Nidrei. As the critics remarked, the Mozart concerto was played with a technical brilliance that in Mozart's time could have been expected only from the violin, while the notion of transcribing the work for the double bass would have been completely unimaginable. Koussevitzky, on the other hand, emphasised in an interview he gave at the time, that while working on the transcription he was governed by the same high demands on both instrument and instrumentalist as Mozart would have insisted upon. He went on to point out that during the composer's lifetime no bass player had dared to attempt his one composition for the solo instrument: the Aria for bass voice and double bass with orchestra.[11] 'The sound of the double bass is by nature too veiled to penetrate the sonority of the orchestra,' wrote one critic, 'yet in this transcription most passages are played on the topmost string, while Nikisch accompanied with such sensitivity that not a single phrase of the soloist was lost.'[12] Arthur Abell, who was also present, remembered the success of Koussevitzky's performance for many years afterwards.[13]

Koussevitzky would appear again under Nikisch's baton, in 1911 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. There was a repeat of the Mozart concerto and, in concert with Henri Casadesus (whom we shall later have cause to meet again) a concert duet for double bass and viola d'amore by Lorenzetti. In 1942 Koussevitzky received a letter from Robert Robitschek, who three decades earlier had been director of the Kleinworth-Scharwenka Conservatoire in Berlin. He had been present on this evening at the Philharmonie and clearly remembered the young Russian whose playing had astonished and transfixed all of musical Berlin.

Koussevitzky's concert calendar, intensive though it was, could by no means accommodate all the invitations he received. Many years later, a press-release issued on the occasion of his first appearance as a solo double-bass player in America explained: 'He was overwhelmed by flattering invitations from German music-lovers. But as a wealthy Russian landowner, the possessor of valuable holdings including besides his estates a collection of pictures and a fabulous library, his chief desire was to get home to them, to enjoy the freedom he could only experience at home.'[14]

This explanation, although no doubt promulgated with Koussevitzky's knowledge, does read somewhat strangely, to say the least. The true reasons why he was turning down engagements from promoters were quite other. One of them was the constant pain he was suffering in his hands. Another, perhaps the most significant, was the growing realisation of the limitations of the performing repertoire of the double bass. As he began to devote more and more time to conducting Koussevitzky was by no means disenchanted with his bass: his solo appearances continued for many years both in Russia and abroad. But now he was heart and soul committed to achieving mastery as a conductor: it was for this that as a youth he had left the family home and taken himself to Moscow. And now it was why he had come to Berlin. He longed passionately to master the orchestra as the most perfect of all musical instruments, to immerse himself in the inexhaustible riches of the symphonic repertoire. He needed to satisfy his inherent inclination to leadership. Above all, he wanted to become a conductor in order to bring Great Music to the widest possible constituency of listeners.


The Koussevitzkys rented an imposing detached house on Drakestrasse in a prestigious quarter of Berlin near the Tiergarten. Press reports harped on the residence of the 'multimillionaire Russian musician, the wealthiest performer of our day'.[15] They did not omit to put a figure on the Koussevitzkys' wealth, which at that time amounted to 38 million Russian roubles.

During his years of touring in Russia and abroad Koussevitzky had had frequent occasion to be in the homes of rich people, both as a guest and as an invited performer. Now, in Berlin, he experienced for the first time the sensation of being himself the owner of surroundings of the utmost luxury. It was a new and unfamiliar feeling to a man who had been born and grown up in an entirely different milieu and through the whim of fate become the possessor of vast properties. However, Natalie's sensitivity and tact was such that he was never made to feel the awkward status of a poor relation that had so alarmed him on their first meeting.

It was not long before the Koussevitzkys' home in Berlin became the 'in place' for the artistic intelligentsia to meet, both German and foreign, for Berlin in those years was full of cultural luminaries, a magnet for music publishers, directors of important artist agencies, critics of leading newspapers and journals. People such as Raphael Löwenfeld, Friedrich Gaase – one of the German stage's most admired actors, who had in the 1860s been a member of the German theatre company of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg – and the celebrated actor and singer Ludwig Wüllner were regular guests at musical soirées and receptions.

Inevitably, however, the majority of the Koussevitzkys' guests were musicians. The roster of those who, over the four years of their residence, visited their house includes everyone of note living in or passing through Berlin: conductors Arthur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner, composer and professor at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik Engelbert Humperdinck, composer and pianist Ferrucio Busoni, pianists Leopold Godowsky and Osip Gabrilowitsch, violinists Jacques Thibaud, Fritz Kreisler and Albert Spalding, the superb Hungarian soprano Etelka Gerster, who had in her day captivated Verdi with her rendition of the role of Violetta in La Traviata and was now in retirement teaching in Berlin. The house resounded to lively discussions of the current cultural life of the capital, sharing of concert plans, music-making, improvised concerts in which as often as not Koussevitzky himself would take part. On one evening of music he played Bottesini's Gran Duo Concertante for violin and double bass, with Jacques Thibaud sight-reading the violin part and Fritz Kreisler taking the piano part.

Another group of frequent visitors was that of Russian musicians in Berlin. Some of them – Taneyev, Scriabin, Goldenweiser – stayed with the Koussevitzkys on their travels from Russia. Others, living in the city, were in and out of the house: Chaliapin, Sobinov, the wonderful tenor Dmitri Smirnov whom Koussevitzky had known at the Bolshoi Theatre as an incomparable Lensky, Herman and Pretender. The hospitable environment recalled the friendliness and good cheer of gatherings round the table in Moscow. 'Everything was lavishly abundant, down to the champagne and fruit from France,' wrote Sobinov, 'and undoubtedly cost a heap of money'[16]


As before, time spent with Rachmaninoff, Chaliapin and Sobinov was a special source of pleasure to Koussevitzky. Rachmaninov had left Moscow at approximately the same time as Koussevitzky and between 1906 and 1909 lived in Dresden. In contrast to Koussevitzky's thirst for experience on the podium, Rachmaninov kept aloof from the life of a performer, whether as pianist or as conductor. The centre of his ambitions lay in composition, and he had come to realise that only away from Russia, where he was perpetually inundated with requests to perform, could he concentrate on writing music. Even though he did not succeed entirely in eschewing the concert platform, these years abroad nevertheless saw the composition of the Second Symphony and the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead.

In Germany the Rachmaninoffs lived a reclusive life; only rarely did Sergei Vasilievich tear himself away from the cloistered seclusion he found conducive to composition in order to attend the concerts of Nikisch, whom he venerated as a conductor. His circle of friends was similarly restricted. It included Nikolai Struve, who would some years later become Director of Russian Musical Editions, the publishing firm founded by Koussevitzky. Another intimate was the artist and professor at the Dresden Academy of Art Robert Sterl, who lived in Wehlen, near Dresden. Struve had introduced Rachmaninov to the artist, and he later performed the same service for Koussevitzky.

The Robert Sterl-Haus in Naundorf, near Dresden is now a museum housing many memorabilia including portraits and sketches of Rachmaninoff, Nikisch, Koussevitzky and several members of the latter's orchestra in Moscow. The Rachmaninov portrait was commissioned by Koussevitzky in 1909, and was later to be reproduced and issued as a postcard by Russian Musical Editions.

Rachmaninoff and Koussevitzky were present together in Paris in 1909 at the season of 'Russian Historical Concerts' presented by Sergei Diaghilev, one of which featured Rachmaninov in three guises: as composer, pianist and conductor. He performed his Second Piano Concerto under the baton of Camille Chevillard and in the same programme conducted his cantata Spring, with Chaliapin as the bass soloist. Koussevitzky attended four other concerts during the season. He heard the sopranos Félia Litvinne and Yevgenia Zbrueva, also Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov conducting their own works. In Nikisch's programme he was overwhelmed by Scriabin's Second Symphony, a work that had impressed him as early as 1903 when he heard its Moscow premiere, and the Piano Concerto performed by Josef Hofmann. In the home of Camille Saint-Saëns, Koussevitzky and the other Russian musicians attended a party given to mark the end of the season. A photograph of the assembled company survives.

Even though they actually met no more frequently than they had in the past, the presence of Rachmaninov is detectable at some of the most momentous points of Koussevitzky's career. Rachmaninov was to perform his Second Piano Concerto at the conductor's debut appearances in both Berlin and London, and played an active part in discussions about the projected music publishing company as well as in the early stages of the firm's activities.

Chaliapin and Sobinov triumphed together at Berlin's Royal Opera in the spring of 1907. On March 23rd/April 5th Koussevitzky went backstage to congratulate his old friends after the premiere of Boito's Mefistofele, crowning each of them with a wreath. Two days later they would not have been able to penetrate so easily into the wings of the theatre as the Prussian Emperor Wilhelm II was in the theatre and had gone during the interval to thank the performers in person. Koussevitzky was aware that for some years Sobinov had been forced to stay out of Russia. Following a concert he had given in aid of Jewish victims of the Gomel pogrom in 1903, he had suffered the unwelcome attentions of the Tsarist secret police Third Department. Between the two performances there had been a lunch chez Koussevitzky which went on until the evening. 'A car was sent for us,' wrote Sobinov later, 'and at two o'clock Fyodor, his wife and I set off in grand style. A multitude of guests was already assembled, including the conductor of the Royal Opera, someone from the Wolff agency, and just about every important figure in Berlin. The Koussevitzkys have a magnificent apartment, and the lunch that was served was glorious.'[17]

Profiting from the presence of so many celebrities from the world of music and the theatre, the Berlin press fired off a series of photographs, some serious and some not so serious, which found their way into many newspapers and magazines. One of them illustrates an improvised concert in which Chaliapin is playing the bass, Sobinov the piano, Glière, Leo Blech, Koussevitzky, Löwenfeld and Godovsky are singing, and Arthur Abell is conducting.


Koussevitzky had met Hermann Wolff, founder and long-time director of Konzertdirektion Hermann Wolff, at the Bayreuth Festival in 1902. Now he became acquainted with his widow Louisa, who was continuing with considerable acumen the business of her late husband. With her help Koussevitzky organised concerts of music by Glière and Taneyev in the 1907-08 season. Reinhold Moritsevich Glière had first come to Berlin in the winter of 1905. The Koussevitzkys knew him and his wife Maria Robertovna (née Renquist) well, having spent one summer holiday with them in Switzerland and another in Biarritz. Now they were helping them in their search for an apartment in Berlin. Koussevitzky had a high opinion of Glière's abilities as a composer and clearly wished to maintain close links with him. He took composition lessons with Glière, which soon developed into lessons on theory and harmony. Conscious of the gaps in his education long before they began to be pointed out by critics, he was in turn ready to do whatever he could to help the composer. 'You promised you would tell me if at any time you were in need of filthy lucre' he wrote to Glière. 'I beg you to let me know the moment this is the case, and I will immediately make it available to you.'[18]

The two concerts of Glière's chamber music in Berlin's Beethoven-Saal in February and March 1907 were a great success with both critics and the public. They included the first two of his quartets, the third sextet, some solo piano pieces (played by Leopold Godowsky) and songs in which the composer accompanied a singer invited from Paris.

For the two concerts of Taneyev's music Koussevitzky invited the Czech Quartet to appear with the composer. This famous ensemble had close links with Russian musical culture in general and with Taneyev in particular. In 1897 the Czechs, as they were known, had performed his Second String Quartet with spectacular brilliance, causing the composer two years later to dedicate his Fourth Quartet to them. Towards the end of his life Taneyev several times collaborated with the quartet in performances of the greatest of his chamber works, the Piano Quintet No. 2. The first of his concerts took place on 9th December 1908 in Berlin, the second two days later in Vienna, the quartet itself organising a further appearance in Prague on 14th December. The programme consisting of his Piano Trio in D, Op. 22, the String Quartet No. 6 in B flat, Op. 19 and the E major Piano Quartet, Op. 20, aroused great interest in the West, where concert-goers had hitherto had little exposure to Taneyev's music. 'I congratulate you with all my heart on the enormous success you have had here,' wrote Koussevitzky to the composer. 'Despite the great number of concerts in Berlin your evening has remained in the memory of musical circles here. I send you herewith the reviews of the Berlin critics which you will see are unanimous in their praise – a very rare event here.'[19]


Koussevitzky's first encounter with Scriabin, and the start of their friendship, date from 1908. In his student years he had heard several performances by Scriabin as a pianist, and had been at the premieres of his First (1902) and Second (1903) symphonies conducted by Safonov. Like many of his contemporaries he had fallen under the spell of the composer, but did not meet him personally either then or during Diaghilev's 1907 season of Russian Historical Concerts in Paris.

In April Koussevitzky received a letter from Olga Monighetti, a friend of Scriabin's youth. The letter described the miserable material circumstances in which the composer was living and asked for help in publishing his works. Koussevitzky immediately telegraphed his response to Scriabin in Lausanne: 'Prolong stay in Lausanne until early June. I must see you on urgent business.'[20] At the beginning of June he made a special trip to Lausanne in order to meet with Scriabin. He found the composer, who had recently completed Le poème de l'extase and the Fifth Piano Sonata, at a veritable crisis point in his life. His situation had radically changed for the worse with the death, at the start of the year 1904, of Mitrofan Belyayev. He it was who had undertaken the publication of Scriabin's works, and not only that, but had provided systematic and regular financial support as well as organising his foreign tours. Disguised under the name of 'A Secret Russian Music-Lover' he had seen to the award of Glinka Prizes to the composer almost every year. But since his death the Publishing Committee of the M.P. Belaieff publishing house had stopped the monthly payments of 200 roubles to Scriabin, informing him for good measure that the fees paid for publication rights to his future works would henceforth be reduced by half.

Declaring that he would no longer have dealings with the Belaieff firm, Scriabin now found himself on the edge of financial ruin. He had sent some works to the firm of Zimmermann, but the letter in reply stated that although the professors in Leipzig[21] had pronounced unfavourably on the merits of his music, the firm 'would be happy to print his tuneful waltzes for a payment of 25 roubles each.'[22] Scriabin even contemplated self-publishing his works, but soon realised that he lacked even the smallest notion of how to go about the business.

This was precisely the moment in the composer's life when Koussevitzky offered a helping hand. 'I must say,' remembered Monighetti, 'that greatly to Sergei Alexandrovich's credit he fulfilled my request with rare delicacy and conscientiousness, and literally succeeded in rescuing Alexander Nikolayevich from the toils of his desperate situation.'[23] Leonid Sabaneyev would later write that Koussevitzky '… arrived on the scene like a prince of legend, as in his time the emissary from Ludwig II of Bavaria had arrived on the doorstep of the impoverished and exiled Wagner.'[24]

Scriabin's domestic circumstances certainly struck Koussevitzky as Spartan. He was living in a cheap, unfurnished rented apartment and was in debt to his landlord for food. The room he worked in was bare of furniture except for a piano, a table and a single chair. Offering the latter to his guest, Scriabin perched himself on the window-sill, and thus proceeded their first discussion. Copies of the just-engraved Fifth Piano Sonata lay in piles all about: the composer did not know what to do with them.

Koussevitzky told Scriabin of the deep impression his Second Symphony had had made on him in Paris, and asked what he was presently working on, taking the opportunity to pass on his own gloomy reflections on the sad state of affairs with Russian composers. 'Scriabin told me,' Koussevitzky later related, 'that he had long been thinking of a mighty musical conception, the Mysterium, on which he had already made a start. His present circumstances, however, prevented him from devoting the concentrated attention needed for a major work, forcing him to turn out trifles. If he could be enabled to spend several years of calm, uninterrupted work, he would be able to complete Mysterium within five years at the most. He therefore asked for a five-year annual subvention from Russian Musical Editions of 5,000 roubles, in return for which he offered his smaller pieces as well as, when it was completed, Mysterium. To all this I immediately consented.'[25]

The meeting produced a joyous impression on both musicians. For the first time in many years Scriabin could feel secure in his material situation, with the attendant promise of optimal conditions for his creative work. Koussevitzky's undertaking of an allowance of 5,000 roubles a year (with a value at the time of approximately $2,500) was more than double the extent to which he had previously been supported by his benefactress Margarita Kirillovna Morozova, while the sums he had been receiving from M.P. Beliaeff had never amounted to as much as half as much. Koussevitzky, for his part, was sure that he had discerned in Scriabin a figure who would, both as pianist and composer, soon be seen as an icon of Russian culture.

On leaving Lausanne, Koussevitzky wrote to Scriabin. 'We were very sorry not to have been able to spend many more hours in your company, and particularly regret that there was not more time to discuss fully what we could do to improve your domestic circumstances. We console ourselves with the hope that you will give us the pleasure of coming to stay with us in Biarritz, at which time we shall discuss everything under the sun.'[26]

At the outset of his relationship with Koussevitzky Scriabin was also experiencing upheavals in his personal life. He had been living for some years with Tatyana Fyodorovna Schloezer but his first wife, Vera Ivanovna Isakovich, refused to give him a divorce. This made it impossible for him to return to Moscow. Similarly abroad, and in 1907 particularly in America, he suffered from numerous disagreeable consequences of his irregular relationship with Schloezer. It all brought back to Koussevitzky sharp reminders of his own tortuous divorce from Nadezhda Galat. Offering Scriabin sanctuary in his house in Biarritz, Koussevitzky was flying in the face of the unspoken traditions of Russian society of the time. Neither Koussevitzky nor Natalie, however, was in any way discomfited by the lack of an officially sanctioned union between spouses.

The Koussevitzkys loved Biarritz, that seaside town in southwestern France not far from the Spanish border. This summer holiday was the third they had spent there, never feeling better than when they could every day go down to the beach, Koussevitzky to swim for hours in the warm waters of the Bay of Biscay, Natalie hunting for shrimps. She had to call a halt to this pastime, however, after slipping one day on a rock – fortunately not a very high one – and falling into the water.

In June, in Lausanne, Koussevitzky and Scriabin had spent a little over two hours together. Now, in Biarritz in August, Scriabin and Tatyana Schloezer spent the best part of a month as guests of the Koussevitzkys. The closer the musicians drew to one another, so did the friendship deepen between their wives. The Scriabins were enchanted by the welcome they received: the Koussevitzky hospitality in Paris and Biarritz was as lavish as it had always been in Moscow. Scriabin's letter from Biarritz to Margarita Morozova speaks of 'the delightfully warm welcome extended to us by our friends, who touchingly surround us with every sign of loving care for our needs.'[27] 'We have spent four weeks in Biarritz with the adorable Koussevitzkys. We like both Sergei Alexandrovich and Natalya Konstantinovna very much indeed, and feel so wonderful in this atmosphere of warmth and friendship that our stay in Biarritz will long remain in our memory,' echoed Tatyana Schloezer.[28]

Frequent guests of the Koussevitzkys that summer were Georgy Conius, Scriabin's first musical mentor, and the Russian sculptor Serafim Sudbinin, both of whom were holidaying in the town. Koussevitzky knew Conius from the Philharmonic Institute, where he had taught and for some years served as Director. Koussevitzky it was who had introduced him to his second wife, Alexandra Georgievna: her mother having died when she was still young, she had been brought up alongside Natalie by the Ushkov family. Konstantin Ushkov was a long-standing friend of her father, Samara-born and thus a native of the Volga region. Sudbinin Koussevitzky had known from the time of his youthful passion for the theatre. Sudbinin's unusual biography fully accorded with his name.[29] Born in Nizhny Novgorod he arrived in Moscow, according to Sergei, penniless but firmly resolved to devote himself to art. He began his artistic career as an actor, for six years a member of the Arts Theatre company. Despite playing such roles as Pyotr in Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness and even alternating with Stanislavsky himself as Satin in Gorky's The Lower Depths, the theatre's founder had a low opinion of his acting talents. 'He is a splendid fellow and draws extremely well, but he is not particularly bright and as an actor he is hopeless for me.'[30] Having always excelled as an artist, Sudbinin next took up sculpture. His figurines of the ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, and of Stanislavsky in the role of Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, brought him great renown, and the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in St. Petersburg later commissioned commercial editions of them. In 1904 he left the theatre company and was granted a stipend by Savva Mamontov which he used to go abroad to study with Auguste Rodin, eventually becoming his assistant. The Russian critical fraternity, following his progress, agreed that while markedly influenced by Rodin, Sudbinin had succeeded in preserving his creative individuality.

Koussevitzky had come across Sudbinin in Paris and Berlin. The sculptor had already created busts of Chaliapin and Sobinov and now in Biarritz, commissioned by Koussevitzky, added to them a bust of Scriabin sculpted in three sessions, throwing in for good measure a pencil cartoon of the composer. Later in life, having emigrated to Paris, Sudbinin would become founder and inaugural president of the Society of Russian Artists, whose membership eventually numbered over 130.

Soon Sobinov also arrived in Biarritz. 'Our life here proceeds along the familiar path you know so well,' Conius wrote later to him. 'Natalya Konstantinovna subjects us to every gastronomic test and continues to spoil us in every way. Serafim and I modestly beg to be served beer in the evenings, rather than champagne which, as you know, is the beverage of choice for celebrities.'[31]

Was Scriabin, in seeking closer acquaintance with Koussevitzky, motivated solely by material considerations? Assuredly not. An association with one of the most gifted of young Russian conductors held the promise of discovering a creative soulmate, a partner in his ideas of 'magical influence on the psyche, of the incantatory principles of art.'[32]

The close correspondence of their outlook on music manifested itself in their views on the symphony orchestra. Emerging from the cradle of the piano, growing up with it and immeasurably enriching its repertoire, inside himself Scriabin was nevertheless drawn towards 'the macrocosm of the orchestra'. There he sensed 'the incarnation of the idea of "collective performance", […] the concatenation of individual creative performers.' As Sabaneyev noted, 'he saw the characteristic properties of the orchestra as consisting of a struggle between these individual makers of music, a struggle and at the same time a reconciliation hypnotically brought about by the creative will of the conductor.'[33] The composer hoped that with Koussevitzky's help he would be enabled to realise his ideas, and these hopes were only strengthened with Koussevitzky's formation of his own concert series.

Although he regarded himself as a committed Theosophist, Scriabin was not an adherent of Helena Blavatsky, any more than he was an initiate of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy's brand of moral philosophy, or the socialist doctrines of Georgy Plekhanov – or for that matter of any given philosophical theory. His philosophy was a complex fusion, the result of an attempt to synthesise the writings of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling and Blavatsky, and its chief value was to provide a theoretical basis for an artistic conception whose apotheosis was to be the birth, in mankind as in the world at large, of the spiritual as an expression of the divine. In the words of Engel, '… citing Blavatsky or H. S. Olcott, Scriabin himself often preached a quite different message.'[34]

In Biarritz, over tea in the evening, philosophical discussions were a regular event. Scriabin shared with Koussevitzky his ideas of regenerating and fusing all forms of art into a synthesis, the aim of which was nothing less than the transformation of life itself. The visionary, ground-breaking Mysterium was to be the means to this end. All Scriabin's earlier compositions, including the Third Symphony and the Poème de l'extase, were for the composer steps along the way to the projected Mysterium.

Scriabin tried hard to persuade Koussevitzky, Sudbinin and Conius to his way of thinking, but met with incomprehension from them. As Conius expressed it, '… offended in his deepest (theosophical) feelings, Scriabin found us incapable of becoming initiates in the new faith, and abruptly broke off our discussions.'[35]

On 2nd/15th August, the Koussevitzkys, took a motor trip with Scriabin and Conius into Spain, to San Sebastian. It was a glorious journey, the bright sunshine caressing and warming the body. The road wound its way along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, now disappearing in the foothills of the Pyrenees, now emerging once more to a view of the sea. Arriving in San Sebastian, the pilgrims wandered happily round the ancient streets of the Spanish port, visited the splendidly preserved 11th- and 12th-Century churches, and whiled away the time drinking coffee in little seaside cafés. Like any tourists they paid homage to the local traditions of the bullfight. Despite the overt theatricality of the event, the ring, the colourful mix of spectators with Spanish and visitors of every hue, could not but make an impression. The actual bullfight was not to the taste of Koussevitzky, nor his companions. 'We watched a bullfight and were all to a greater or lesser extent depressed by the spectacle,' wrote Conius.[36]

One evening back in Biarritz, Koussevitzky imparted to Scriabin his plan to establish a music publishing house operating on entirely new principles. Scriabin was immensely taken with the plan, and promised his utmost support in its realisation. At the end of the evening Koussevitzky and Sudbinin drank a 'bruderschaft' toast to Scriabin and moved from the formal to the intimate form of address.[37] Koussevitzky, however, was not feeling well and did not want to drink wine, so filled his glass with water. Glasses of water are not clinked; once again, as on the occasion of the engagement ring at his wedding to Nadezhda Galat, life was destined to give Koussevitzky cause to believe in the magical power of ill omens ….

The Koussevitzkys left Biarritz to return to Paris by train on August 18th, together with the Scriabins, Sudbinin and Conius. They travelled in two adjacent compartments in the sleeping car, separated by a washroom which Sudbinin turned into a buffet. 'He had brought with him all needful provisions, and installed himself in the buffet, fulfilling the role of waiter to his companions. Neither did he did forget to serve himself, especially in the matter of the red wine. He was especially punctilious when pronouncing an 'Alaverdi'[38] to Seryozha and pouring him out a serious beakerfull of Saint Eustèphe. We were altogether a very warm and jolly family of travelling companions.'[39]

The Koussevitzkys stayed in Paris only a few days, but managed to fit in a visit to Sudbinin's studio, where the artist was feverishly preparing for the annual Salon, before going on to Berlin. Parting with Scriabin, Koussevitzky made it clear that he regarded the promised transfer of money to the composer as a somewhat unorthodox advance which would be repaid over time by the acquisition of rights to publish his new works. It was already clear that the projected publishing house would be in no position to offer similar terms to any other of its clients. In one of his letters to Scriabin, Koussevitzky asked him '… should you be at any time writing to Rachmaninoff, please do not divulge to him the conditions on which you are making your compositions available to us for the next five years, in order that such discussions do not arise among other composers. I believe it will be best if the whole question of your fees over the first five years remain a private matter between us.'[40]


The decision to become a conductor did not entail Koussevitzky's abandoning the double bass. It was not so easy for the 'King of Bassists', as he was often called, to lay down his crown. His solo performances on the instrument would continue for many years, both in Russia and abroad. Nevertheless, in parallel with this feeling was a growing realisation of the narrowness of the repertoire; this was the main reason why he rejected so many concert engagements. All his ambitions were now centred on conducting, as they had been since as a youth had left the parental home to go to Moscow, and had now come to Berlin. He longed to master the orchestra as the most perfect of musical instruments, and to immerse himself in the inexhaustible riches of the symphonic repertoire. No less was he impelled to satisfy the demands inherent in his character to be a leader. In becoming a conductor he longed to bestow the gift of Great Music on the widest possible corpus of listeners.

Russian Musical Editions was as yet a still unrealised project, and Koussevitzky had not yet made his debut as a conductor. But he had already embarked on the task of championing the work of contemporary Russian composers. By inviting Rachmaninoff, Sobinov and Chaliapin to participate in his Berlin concerts, by organising the appearances of Glière and Taneyev, and by entering on his collaboration with Scriabin, he was beginning to have a sense of himself as impresario, presenting audiences with new Russian music and performances by the best of Russian executants. This mission was for many years to dominate all aspects of his artistic activities. The lack of any written conditions governing the arrangement with Scriabin was, however, destined to have unfortunate consequences in constituting a lasting barrier to ending the conflict that was to arise between the two musicians.

[1] Quoted in G. Piatigorsky Cellist, Doubleday, Garden City New York 1965 p109.
[2] But not to initiate it.
[3] A. Akhmatova 'Autobiographical Prose' in Works vol 2, Prose and Translations, Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, Moscow 1987 p 253.
[4] M. Smith Koussevitzky, Allen, Towne and Heath, Inc., New York 1947, pp 28, 30.
[5] Undated letter to M. Glière from Berlin (marked received Moscow 03.26.1906).
[6] Musical Courier, 1906, vol LIII, No. 243, p 14.
[7] Musical Courier, 1907, vol LIV, No. 11, p 17.
[8] Goldenweiser's additional solo performances were of Schumann's F sharp minor sonata, his own Prelude, Rachmaninoff's Barcarolle and Liszt's Mephisto Waltz.
[9] The Russian alphabet has no hard C, so Casals's name is spelt with a K in Russian.
[10] National Zeitung, Berlin, 3 December 1903, quoted in Musical Courier, 1907, vol LIV, No. 16 p 17.
[11]'Per questa bella mano', aria for bass, double bass & orchestra, K. 612.
[12] E.E. Simpson 'Leipzig' in Musical Courier, 1908, vol LXI, No. 7 p 26.
[13] A. M. Abell, 'Days in Berlin', Boston Transcript, April 7 1928.
[14] Press release, Boston, 1928: 'Koussevitzky, Conductor Of Boston Symphony, To Give Double bass Benefit Recital For Needy Russian Students.' (KA-LC).
[15] Musical Courier, 1907, vol LIV, No. 1 p 5.
[16] Letter from L. Sobinov to Ye. Sadovskaya, February 21/March 5 1908 from Berlin, in Leonid Vitalievich Sobinov. Letters ed N. Kirilenko vol 1, Isskustvo, Moscow 1970 p 149.
[17] Ibid, p 140.
[18] S. Koussevitzky to R.M. Glière (postmarked July 8/21 1906, Biarritz). RGALI fond 2085 (R M Glière, opis. 1, yed. khr. 747.
[19] S. Koussevitzky to Sergei Taneyev, January 7 1909, Berlin. RGALI fond 880 (S I Taneyev), opis 1, yed. Khr. 297.
[20] S. Koussevitzky to A.N. Scriabin, April 17th/30th 1908, Paris, GTsMMK, fond 31 (A N Scriabin No. 579.
[21] Where Belyayev had set up his publishing company, deliberately outside the borders of Russia for copyright reasons.
[22] Quoted in M. Meichik A.N. Scriabin, Musgiz, Moscow 1935 p 21.
[23] O. Monighetti, 'Reminiscences: Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin in our Family Circle', in A. N. Skryabin, Chelovek, Khudozhnik, Myslitel', Gosudarstvennyi Memorial'nyi Muzyei A. N. Skryabina, Moscow, 1994 p 34.
[24] L. Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Skrybanye (Memories of Scriabin), Klassika-XXI, Moscow 2000 p 99.
[25] Quoted in Yu. Engel', 'A. N. Skryabin, Biographicheskii Ocherk', Muzykal'nyi Sovremennik, 1916 No. 4-5, p71.
[26] S. Koussevitzky to A.N. Scriabin, May 27th/June 9th 1908, Paris, GTsMMK, fond 3 (A N Scriabin), No. 694.
[27] A.N. Scriabin to M. Morozova, August 12th/25th 1908, Biarritz. In Skryabin, Aleksandr, Pis'ma, compiled, ed and annotated A. Kashperov, Muzyka, Moscow 2003, p511.
[28] T. Schloezer-Scriabina to M. Nemenova-Lunts, 8 September 1908, Biarritz, GTsMMK, No. 531.
[29] Sud'ba in Russian means 'fate'.
[30] K. Stanislavsky to V. Nemirovich-Danchenko, June 26th 1898, Moscow. In K. S. Stanislavsky, Collected Works in 8 vols, vol 7 Letters, Isskusstvo, Moscow 1960, p 132.
[31] G. Conius to L. Sobinov, August 5th/18th 1908, Biarritz. In Sobinov Op. cit. vol 2, Stat'i, rechi, vyskazyvaniya, pis'ma k L. V. Sobinovu, vospominaniya, p 104.
[32] L. Sabaneyev, Skryabin, Scorpion, Moscow 1916, p 229.
[33] Ibid, pp 210-11.
[34] Yu. Engel Op. cit. p72.
[35] G. Conius to L. Sobinov, August 21/September 3 1908, Berlin, in Sobinov, Op. cit., vol 2 p105.
[36] G. Conius to L. Sobinov, 5/18 August 1908, in Sobinov Op. cit. p104.
[37] The Russian ritual of drinking a specific toast to celebrate an acknowledged close relationship, after which the parties will address one another in the intimate second person singular reserved for family and close friends (and inferiors) rather than the more usual second person plural (cf. French tutoyer or German dutzen). Strictly speaking this relationship cannot exist until the 'bruderschaft' ritual has been observed.
[38] A drinking ritual in the countries of the Caucasus in which the onus of responding to a toast is passed to another guest. The word is formed from the Arabic 'Allah' and the Turkic 'verdi', which means 'give', so 'God give'.
[39]G. Conius to L. Sobinov, August 21/September 31908, in Sobinov Op. cit. p106.
[40]S. Koussevitzky to A.N. Scriabin, between May 27/June 9 and July 10/231908, Biarritz, GTsMMK No. 150.

Copyright © 2004, 2015, Victor Yuzefovich - Translation by Anthony Phillips