Arthur Lourié on Berlin as musical capital

Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch

by Arthur Lourié
trans. S.W. Pring (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931).

Here are a few excerpts about Berlin at the beginning of the twentieth century from the book Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch by Arthur Lourié (1892-1966). The author of the second biography of Koussevitzky described this book in his preface: “There was available an earlier biography of Koussevitzky by his friend Arthur Lourié. The value of this source was unfortunately lessened greatly by its numerous errors, by the author’s excessively worshipful attitude toward his subject, and by the book’s inadequate factual content, particularly as to omissions of important matter about Koussevitzky’s origins and early life.” (Moses Smith, Koussevitzky (New York, 1947)) Despite these issues, I think it is safe to read these passages.

Berlin, not Paris

“In those days Berlin was beyond question the official centre of music, not only of Europe, but of the world. It was the focus of the world’s musical culture, attracting to itself all that was best and most valuable at the time. It was the source from which the musical streams flowed in all directions. It is true that there were also two other centers, but their spheres of influence were far more restricted than Berlin’s. In relation to world-music they might be regarded as provincial centers: Paris, for young Latin Europe; and St. Petersburg and Moscow, for Eastern Europe. At that time everything that was created in Paris was manifestly opposed to and aimed directly at Germany. Musical impressionism started in Paris, as a revolt against the hegemony of the German musical culture, against its musical scholasticism, its classicism, and above all against the post-romantic heritage left by Wagner. The main ideas of French impressionism were not of a musical order, but were derived from and nourished by French Impressionist painting. In this we have simultaneously the strength and the weakness of the movement.
In Russia there was no opposition to Berlin. The official Russian musical culture of the time voluntarily and without question recognized itself to be a province under the sway of the German musical centre, with which it considered itself organically connected. Hardly a voice of protest or independence was raised against this subjection. If any such were occasionally heard, it was too feeble and isolated to constitute any serious danger to the existing state of things. Thus, officially, Berlin was the centre of the musical ’empire.'1Pp. 61-63.

Conductors and composers

“In Berlin Koussevitzky became acquainted with all the leading composers and artists. One might meet in his hospitable home all the members of Berlin’s select artistic circle.” (57) Part of Koussevitzky’s conducting education involved conducting the Hochschule orchestra, which Joachim put at his disposal beginning in 1906. (49) Of the conductors and ensembles that Koussevitsky studied in Berlin, first of all was “the Philharmonic orchestral concerts under the direction of Nikisch, which for that period were the supreme examples of the technique of conducting and the mastery of symphonic interpretation….Amongst conductors Nikisch was the favorite and recognized leader of romanticism and the post-romantic school.” (63)
Also important were Felix Weingartner and the opera orchestra, as well as “the monumental choral concerts, the performances under Siegfried Ochs at the Opera.” Lourié remembers in particular the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, conducted by Leo Blech. (64-65)

Of the composers favored in Berlin, “Richard Strauss undoubtedly occupied the first place.” (65) Then there was “the fertile-semi-romantic, semi-scholastic Max Reger, in whom Russia was also greatly interested.” And “in academic circles, there was the cult of Brahms,” although “this period also witnessed the awakening of a serious interest in Bruckner, whose pure and austere music Berlin had hitherto been unable to understand.” (66)

The beginning of the end

“In the course of these years the development of Berlin’s musical life reached its culminating point. After this it began to decline, mainly owing to the expansion of French musical impressionism on the one hand and to the ‘anarchy’ brought about by Schönberg on the other. French impressionism dealt a blow from without at the supports of German musical culture, which had seemed to be almost proof against shock; whilst the atonal anarchy, for which Schönberg was responsible, loosened them from within.” (67)


Really? The city of Berlin and German musical culture lost supremacy because they could not withstand the external and internal musical attacks of Debussy and Schoenberg? This is the history of music as the history of works and composers reacting to each other. Perhaps that did seem plausible when Lourié wrote it in 1931 (since he had been promoting Stravinsky for years at that point).
What I’ve learned from dwelling on 1907 is that Debussy and Schoenberg did seem threatening to some Berlin critics. However, practically every aspect of musical life continued to grow regardless, until the end of 1914. It’s clear from statistics and reports that after that everything had to downsize with so many musicians leaving to go to war or to go back to their home countries. The sheer lack of numbers made it hard to perform Wagner operas and Strauss tone poems. This continued for four more years of musical life operating on a contingency basis. By the time musical institutions could start to rebuild, the pre-1914 state of music probably seemed as remote as the time of Haydn and Mozart.
I’ve read countless predictions that our musical life will never be the same again after only four months. Just imagine four years!

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