Volume 9, September 2017
Koussevitzky's Double Bass Repertoire: A Reassessment

by Andrew Kohn, Ph.D.


10. Larger Implications

Of course this study provides biographical detail from the life of that fascinating figure, Koussevitzky. But it is also a study of repertoire. One primary task of musicology is the positivist goal of making music available. At that level, this project is its own justification. However, other points can also be drawn from the information presented here. For example, this survey gives an interesting window into the resources available to a bassist of a century ago. Even major original works for bass such as Mozart's "Per Questa Bella Mano" might only be available for performance in a manuscript edition. Indeed, much of Koussevitzky's repertoire was in manuscript. This highlights by contrast the significance of Simandl's publication series, both the Hohe Schule and the other works published under his aegis. Indeed, apart from Simandl's efforts, Gliére's op. 8, and his own salon pieces, the only published material composed for bass that Koussevitzky used was by Bottesini, and even there, he used a manuscript copy of the Tarantella. One imagines Koussevitzky — or indeed, any bassist of his time with ambitions as a soloist — seizing upon any publication whatsoever of music for the solo double bass. Of those works, we see Koussevitzky's general gravitation toward works by famous composers — not an uncommon preference.

Most intriguing is the slenderness of Koussevitzky's repertoire. He repeatedly played six pieces — by Bruch, Casadesus, Handel, himself/Glière, Mozart, Stein — with orchestra (with piano when necessary); on one occasion he played the Saint-SaĆ«ns Cello Concerto no. 1 with orchestra and on another, a Bottesini double concerto with piano. He played three chamber works: by Casadesus, Mozart, and Schubert. Of those three, he only performed the Mozart and the Schubert one time, and at the end of his career. He played three baroque sonatas and one baroque slow movement. He played about a dozen other small pieces, some of which are unconfirmed: by Bach, Beethoven, Bottesini, Glière, himself, Láska, Scriabin, and Tchaikovsky. By current standards, this is not much for a major career, even a brief and intermittent one. Admittedly, this list is cautious. We know that we have lost performance material for music that we know he performed, such as the Stein Concertstück. It is quite possible that the performance material for some of his other repertoire has gone the same way. One imagines him pressing the lost transcription of the Strauss Sonata into the hands of a younger colleague — "Here, you must try this" — and never receiving it back.83 Indeed, it is possible that some of Koussevitzky's personal performance library still lies in other private hands, awaiting rediscovery.

This aspect of Koussevitzky's career can be clarified by the negative space surrounding it. He played little of the previous repertoire available at the time. For example, of the core repertory of 51 items in Simandl's Hohe Schule, we can be certain Koussevitzky played a couple of them: Lvovsky, Handel. He was the dedicatee of substantial works by composers he championed in his programming as a conductor — Glière, Konius, Loeffler — yet he never performed them. He had a transcription prepared by another of his favorites, Scriabin, but there is no evidence he performed it.

This is a polar opposite to his choices as a conductor. On the podium he was known as a champion of new music, with a voracious appetite for premieres.84 This appetite is clear from his first performance as a conductor, with its premiere of Glière's Second Symphony, and continued through his career.

Koussevitzky's conservatism as a bassist extended beyond the size of his repertoire. He relied heavily on repertoire that would raise no eyebrows among audience members. Where was the questing spirit that would perform a work composed by an unknown 24-year-old Aaron Copland? He also seemingly accepted quick answers to questions of transposition, such as changing a clef or minimally transposing a piece by a step. This bifurcation of personality, with the bassist playing it safe and conservative, while the conductor constantly expanded the envelope of the orchestral repertoire, is most remarkable.

Even from this scant repertoire, certain items from Koussevitzky's repertoire are due for a revival. In the case of the Casadesus Sinfonia Concertante, this has already begun. In the case of other works, perhaps a new dawn is approaching. In this day of mash-ups, audiences are, hopefully, more accepting of such pieces that combine elements of different eras, especially if full disclosure is provided. Similarly, the exploration of Koussevitzky's repertoire makes possible a larger place for programs featuring forgotten or even somewhat speculative items. We have become more tolerant of a performance of an edition of Tchaikovsky's "Andante Cantabile" that just might be the one that Koussevitzky played with Tchaikovsky himself than we might have been fifty years ago.

Finally, others of these pieces can now make their initial forays onto the concert stage. Indeed, some of Koussevitzky's repertoire, including both works that he performed and works that he did not, have been revived the past few years. In addition to others' performances of the Casadesus Sinfonia Concertante, the author has performed the works by Chardon, Galliard, Gallignani, Konius, le Flem, Loeffler, Roussel (original version), Rychlik, and Stein. The double bass repertoire is poor in fine original works. The interesting historical circumstances that gave rise to these pieces can only add to their luster.

Origins can be even more important when contemplating transcriptions. This can be illustrated in reverse. A solo bass CD recently added to my library, while brilliantly played, suffers from the inclusion of a transcription with liner notes that can be paraphrased as, "I pulled this piece out of my University library's stacks almost at random. It sounded good to me, so I figured that if the composer knew what I had done, he would have approved." Another, better approach is available: perform transcriptions of historical significance, and let the audience know the circumstances that gave rise to this version. If they hate the playing, at least they can think about Koussevitzky. The author has performed the transcription of Bach, Handel (the Largo) and Scriabin in this light. One might think of this as moving the art of transcription from a hunter-gatherer culture, consuming whatever comes to hand and relentlessly searching for something new, to one of conservationists, seeking out what is in danger of being lost or undervalued, bringing it to public attention, and preserving it for the future.