Sunday, July 06, 2008

How Is It That Even An Exceptional Artist Can Remain Unknown?
Jerry Harkins

In the spring of 2004, my friend and former father-in-law, Louis Aiello, died at the age of 92. Lou was an outstanding artist who had produced hundreds of paintings and sculptures, primarily abstract. In the nearly forty years I knew him, he and his work remained almost completely unknown even though he showed and sold it regularly, occasionally in major New York galleries. It may be that anonymity was what he wanted but I always wondered why the world failed to make a beaten path to his door. Eventually, I came to realize that Ralph Waldo Emerson was wrong. It is never enough to build a better mousetrap, especially if you live far off the beaten path. You need also grit, determination, good marketing and a little bit of luck.

Lou had been one of the young people who had congregated in New York in the 1930’s to advance the frontiers of modern art. It was an exciting time, a time of intense theoretical discussion and passionate experimentation. These were the artists who sowed the seeds of what would become the New York School after World War II. Many of them would go on to have distinguished careers in painting and some two dozen of them would ultimately become canonical. They knew each other; they constituted a real community devoted to developing a new art that would go beyond the cubism and surrealism they had inherited. They felt, among other things, that art had to respond to the insights of Freud and Jung and to the radical weirdness being taught by Einstein, Heisenberg, and the other physicists. The overriding idea was to develop a new language in order to depict their own emotional lives. For some of the Americans among them, there was a parochial subtext. They set out to create a specifically American idiom, redeeming Emerson’s hundred year old assertion that, “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.”

Lou Aiello was one of the youngest members of this community. He was still learning to draw from life at the Art Students League and to sculpt as a student of the cubist William Zorach. Like many of his older friends, he did not break finally from representation until later in his career. But he absorbed the revolution that surrounded him in all the arts as practiced in Greenwich Village and Provincetown. His career followed a trajectory that closely paralleled those of many of the first generation: a solid foundation in the basics, a faltering, hesitant break with tradition and a sudden emergence of the abstraction he had been working toward for years. Like others of this school, he was prolific both in completed work and in pieces rejected at various stages.

Eighty odd years later, his obscurity is, in part, the result of choices he made. In part also it is due to the enduring conceit of critics and curators that nothing important happens outside their ken. Of course, for much of history, anonymity was the default condition for painters, sculptors and other artists—think of the stone masons who decorated the Gothic cathedrals or the monks who copied and illuminated the sacred texts. During the Renaissance, artists became more prominent but it was still the fate of most painters and sculptors (and writers, poets, and musicians) to remain unknown outside a small circle of friends, patrons and acquaintances. Before the great museums were formed in the Nineteenth Century, the audience for most artists could be numbered in the hundreds. Even when their works were exposed to public view, their names were not. It is instructive that we know almost nothing about someone as important as Giotto. Artists might sign their work as a nod to posterity but Leonardo never did and Michelangelo signed only the Pietà, and that only after the young sculptor overheard it being attributed to someone else. The otherwise flamboyant Caravaggio signed only his masterpiece, The Beheading of Saint John.

Some artists did strive for recognition and acclaim only to be disappointed. Some were entirely innocent of any ambition other than food and shelter. Whole classes of artists—women and people of color—were routinely ignored. Others actually courted or at least accepted anonymity. A few of the unknowns, Vermeer and Van Gogh for example, did become posthumously prominent.

Examples could be multiplied and explanations sought but the conclusion must be that even genius does not always out. It may be hard to believe that there is or was an unrecognized Beethoven or Shakespeare but it is certain that a great deal of human talent has been born to “waste its sweetness on the desert air.” As Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” The question is not so much why talent goes unrecognized. There are many reasons all of them obvious enough. Rather we need to understand how the work of some comes to public attention and how fewer still manage to achieve a degree of broader recognition and even celebrity. Talent is a given. A lack of talent may be no barrier to temporary notoriety in a celebrity obsessed culture, and fashions are fickle but enduring fame is rooted in extraordinary artistry. Such talent is not uncommon but, by itself, it is not sufficient. My friend Lou had talent to spare. But there are at least four other conditions that need to be met if an artist wants to become prominent, and, to one degree or another Lou did not meet any of them.

First, you need to be driven. Art is not a casual undertaking. Creativity is difficult to evoke and nearly impossible to sustain. The next idea is often more difficult than the last one. What the artist wants to express is elusive and this can make execution more frustrating than rewarding. The whole process requires courage and persistence. The art must come first even, if necessary, before putting food on the table. Lou had different priorities. He often said, “You do not live to work but work to live.”

Second, as they say on Wall Street, “You gotta be there.” If you want to be hit by lightening, you are well advised to place yourself in the middle of a golf course during a thunder storm. In the case of the abstractionists, “there” was New York in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. The city was home to the important museums, galleries, connoisseurs, collectors, critics and, most importantly, other emerging abstractionists. New York was the world capital of art and virtually all the first generation abstractionists were there. Lou abandoned the city just at the moment modernism was entering the mainstream. Others—Pollock and de Kooning among them—moved out physically but never spiritually. Lou rarely returned. He was like Thoreau. He traveled widely in rural Killingworth, Connecticut, the small town to which he had decamped with his wife and four children.

Third you must be PR-friendly. You need to be a story and to sell yourself and your work to people some of whom you do not like or respect and most of whom have no idea what it feels like to translate an idea into paint on canvas. Many artists venturing out of the studio become strangers in a strange land. Some thrive on self-promotion and even sensationalism. Others, like Lou, are too private, too reticent, too independent and sometimes too arrogant to subject themselves to the marketplace.

Finally, there is the price of even modest fame. In addition to suffering fools gladly, the artist must constantly make the transition from a deeply private pursuit to a life in which there is no privacy and little security. Dealing with a judgmental world is not easy for anyone in the public arena. The artist is especially vulnerable to the fear of failure because art requires exposing one’s innermost self. It is not surprising that people tend to think of artists as psychologically fragile. Among the first generation, depression and its variants were endemic and it got worse as they became better known and more accepted. Lou enjoyed a reputation as an eccentric but usually seemed too busy to be depressed. Then there is the element of luck but luck is nothing more than the remorseless working of probability which is indifferent to everything but itself. There is little of substance to distinguish between, say, pop art and comic books except that the former hangs on museum walls and the latter is displayed on newsstands. The difference in their reception is rooted in the complex interactions of many known and unknowable variables.

Lou was different. For one thing, he created very little art after he left New York until he established a modicum of economic stability in the mid-50’s. Until then, I suspect he might have said he was an artist meaning he had certain talents and skills with which he might earn a living. During the Depression, he had carved memorial busts for gravesites. During the war he had a job making molds for aircraft components and he and his wife designed fine jewelry and tchotchkes. As a master mold maker, he was able to design and produce rubber hands for store mannequins as his principal source of income for thirty years. All these involved his artistic skills but were not art. His notebooks suggest he never lost interest in art but little was produced between 1940 and 1955.

Neither his artist friends nor the dominant theoreticians of the abstract movement shared his utilitarianism. The critic Clement Greenberg wrote, “…artists can, and have, and do, work in disregard more or less of all the larger events and circumstances and conditions of their time. In many cases they can, and have, and do, proceed in disregard of personal circumstances.” This is the conventional stereotype of the artist as monomaniac. Lou’s great teacher, the sculptor William Zorach, had an even loftier view that nonetheless amounted to much the same thing. He wrote, “Art is the expression of mankind, a universal and cosmic expression of the soul of man, an expression of the realness of the universe and life. Art is the soul of man, ever striving, ever straining toward some fulfillment, some consciousness of itself and life.” This is the artist as high priest. Abstract Expressionism was, at its core, a self-consciously intellectual movement. Lou was an intellectual but of a different sort. As a teenager, he had been attracted to both the idealism of Alfred North Whitehead and the empiricism of William James. Like Gertrude Stein, another of his intellectual mentors, he saw no contradiction between them and he could be comfortable even with James’ operational mysticism. To him, art was not a grand pilgrimage. It was a natural and essential part of life but no more esoteric than other aspects of the examined life. For many years, it was a job, a way to make one’s way in the world. (Willem de Kooning believed much the same thing, adding only that the pay was lousy.) When he did return to it, he pursued it the same way he pursued everything else.

The late social activist, John W. Gardner, spoke about the equal importance to society of excellence in plumbing and philosophy. Lou lived that idea. He sought perfection in everything even while he knew that a man’s reach exceeds (and should exceed) his grasp. Whether making spaghetti sauce or building a stone studio, his commitment never changed. He ground many of his own pigments and spent years developing a translucent cobalt blue in a shade as deep as ultramarine. He worked hard to create an intense cadmium yellow, which ultimately he used only to add color to epoxy resins. At one point, he built the ideal bomb shelter for a family of seven. The rubber hands he cast were elegant and so was his process for making them. Over the years, he mastered the chemistry of latex, the porosity of plaster, and the calculus of expansion and contraction at different temperatures.

To me, Lou was a sweet and gentle soul. I was not unaware, however, that he was by no means a saint. As husband and father, he could be self-absorbed and sometimes quite remote from the lives of people around him. He had a well cultivated sense of the absurd and an acerbic wit that sometimes seemed excessively cynical. Still, if anyone had asked him, I think he would have laid claim to a happy life and his family and friends were happy to know him. Part of this was the fact that everyone who encountered his work liked it and respected him. So in a sense it is not important that fame and acclaim eluded him. He might have welcomed a wider audience if only the costs had not seemed so high. Periodically, he would travel to Manhattan to see what was in the museums and galleries. Invariably he liked what he saw and knew whereof he spoke. For a working artist, he was a pretty good art historian. Once, at a Guggenheim show of minimalists, he explained how the Russian non-objectivist, Olga Rozanova, was the “mother of us all.” At the end of these trips, he might be melancholic but nonetheless convinced that he had made the right decision. He seemed to be reminding himself that the brass ring of celebrity was, in fact, made of brass.

Does the obscurity of a single artist mean anything? Probably not a great deal. But the certainty that obscurity is the natural condition of artists speaks to the supply and demand for art and thus illuminates our value system. College and professional sports teams field thousands of scouts who search the remotest hamlets for promising talent. Corporations sponsor science fairs for similar reasons, and there is an entire industry devoted to discovering the next generation of fashion models. But in America at least it is hard for painters and sculptors to have their work shown, for poets to be published, for musicians to be heard. It seems unfair and wasteful.

Even with an audience, an artist can remain obscure. A case in point is Frederick Hart, unquestionably a genius and the finest figurative sculptor of the last half of the Twentieth Century. He made a very good living as an artist and his work is placed in prominent, prestigious places where it is seen by millions. Yet he was virtually unknown until he became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He had won the commission to “add” a figurative element to Maya Lin’s stark minimalism. Before a compromise was reached, the rhetoric on both sides soared. Ms. Lin accused Hart of “drawing mustaches on other people’s portraits.” And the veterans who were opposing Lin’s design, in what may be one of history’s worst artistic judgments, claimed the names on a long black wall drained the war of all emotion. After his death, Hart became once again an obscure artist, largely ignored by critics, curators and the art media. He still has supporters and opponents but their disagreements are not about his art but about the alleged conflict between abstract and representational sensibilities, an esoteric and bootless war of words. Hart himself remains what Tom Wolfe called him, The Invisible Artist.

And then there is the Piccirilli family. Giuseppe, a sculptor and stone mason, and his family immigrated to the Bronx from Carrara, Italy in the 1880’s. He set up a studio which quickly became the largest such business in America. By 1910, it was being run by Attilio and his five brothers. They were master carvers to the most important American sculptors of the era. They carved Daniel Chester French’s Seated Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, George Grey Barnard’s pediments and Edward Clark Potter’s lions for the New York Public Library, and John Quincy Adams Ward’s pediment of the New York Stock Exchange. Several of the brothers, most notably Attilio, were important sculptors in their own right. Attilio did the Maine Monument on Columbus Circle, the Firemen’s Memorial on Riverside Drive and the Marconi Memorial in Washington, D.C. They were as well known as all but the most famous artists of their time and were part of a circle of friends that included Fiorello LaGuardia and Enrico Caruso. Various of the brothers still have works in major museums and private collections. During their lives, they were well known within the world of working artists but then as now they were unknown to everyone else. Even the family grave is marked by Atillio’s marvelous Fortitude but is otherwise unmarked with so much as a name. The paths of glory…

Even the most celebrated artists are not household names. There are no living artists as widely known as, say, Paris Hilton. Possibly the only artist in all history in the same league as Ms. Hilton was Andy Warhol who knew a thing or two about the vicissitudes of fame. Among the twelve men who constituted the Famous Artists School, the only familiar name is that of Norman Rockwell. Yet, to be invited to participate, an artist had to have an annual income of at least $50,000 in 1948, the equivalent of $436,000 in 2006.

Is our obsession with celebrity a symptom of cultural decline? Not at all. Celebrity happens because, as a society, we need both fifteen minute mass obsessions and enduring paragons of our values, both the Paris Hiltons and the Abraham Lincolns. Both help define us as a community by giving us a common history. Only rarely does it happen to someone who does not court it. The suitor must then encounter the star-making industries that are indispensable to both momentary and lasting fame. In fact, it is rare for the simple reason that if it were commonplace it would not work for either the celebrity or the society. We do our best to make celebrities in smaller and smaller ponds: celebrity journalists, celebrity cosmetic surgeons, celebrity hair stylists and, of course, the celebrity artists who are important to those who care about art. For every Andy Warhol, though, there may be a hundred Frederick Harts, a thousand Attilio Piccirillis and an unknowable number of Lou Aiellos. An artist falls into one of these categories not because of his or her value as an artist but for his or her value as a celebrity. It matters little as long as we bear in mind that achievement is no guarantee of celebrity and that it is the former that ultimately defines and writes the history of culture. A tree that falls in a forest where there is no one to hear it nonetheless makes a noise and troubles the universe. Ars longa, indeed, and vita brevis.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Jerry Harkins

Don’t you just hate it when somebody reads something you wrote and says, “Yes, but are you aware of [something any idiot should have been aware of]?" I once wrote a term paper about Alexander Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard without knowing that they had been real, not to say famous, lovers. Fortunately, the professor was so upset that any student of his could think Pope ever wrote anything but doggerel that he didn’t realize that said student literally didn’t know what he was talking about.

Some years after I wrote “Assassination by Niggling: The Curious Case of Moses Smith vs. Serge Koussevitzky,” I came across “The Koussevitzky Case,” by the brilliant American composer and critic Virgil Thomson. [1] It is embarrassing to report that Thomson’s take on Smith’s biography of Koussevitzky is pretty much the dead opposite of my own. Given our respective credentials, readers will be forgiven for preferring his version.

And yet.

I knew, of course, that everyone who had known him liked Moses Smith and respected his work. Indeed, the point of my essay was to wonder how such a person could write such a nasty book. “By any reasonable standard,” I wrote, “the book is a hatchet job, an early example of a now familiar genre, the attack biography.” Like Thomson, I believe Koussevitzky was one of the great musicians of the twentieth century, and that he was ill-advised to file a bootless lawsuit against Smith. Unlike Thomson, however, I do not agree that Smith’s “niggles” were common knowledge (and by implication, true). Nor do I agree that, “Mr. Smith’s book makes Koussevitzky out to be a very great man indeed, but also makes him human.” Koussevitzky thought and I think he comes off looking like an ogre and a charlatan whose musical talent is very limited. Well, I’ve made that case elsewhere and see no reason to change my mind now.

But why did such a knowledgeable person as Virgil Thomson think Smith’s book was the fair, objective and positive (!) product of a scholarly mind? What am I missing? Or could it be that Thomson was simply defending a kindred spirit? Like Smith, he often damned his targets with faint praise. Consider this discussion of Porgy and Bess:

“Porgy is none the less an interesting example of what can be done by talent in spite of a bad set-up. With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that has some power and importance.” [2]

Indeed. Thomson was well known for using his column in the New York Herald Tribune to settle scores with those he thought had somehow “dissed” him. The website admits, “He was a bull in a China shop, not geared for making friends. He deflated Toscanini and Jascha Heifetz ("silk-underwear music").” It goes on to report on his problem with Gershwin:

“The Gershwin problem was more obvious. His natural genius was undeniable, he exuberantly and effortlessly exuded music like Schubert. But he had no formal training… and his music lacked structure and form, was not professional. Gershwin's Piano Concerto (1926) was a loose cannon next to Aaron Copland's (1927)…yet the Gershwin composition had the audacity to become an American classic, appreciated by millions, while the Copland, fine as it is, a period piece.”

To the extent this is accurate, it is a perfect example of the priestly rhetoric of music critics. Natural genius simply cannot compete with the holy writ of the standard music curriculum. With a few minor changes, Moses Smith could have written the same thing about Koussevitzky. In fact, he did write that Koussevitzky’s "...lack of a solid foundation cannot be concealed beneath the most ingenious patchwork of talents and random training." [3] Critics generally believe that their discipline is somehow intellectually if not morally superior to its subject. Nicolas Slonimsky, a conductor and critic in his own right (and incidentally one of Smith’s anonymous sources) compiled an extensive history of critical abuse. [4] Thomson was not the only critic who loathed George Gershwin. Here is Lawrence Gilman of the New York Times on Rhapsody in Blue: “trite…feeble…sentimental and vapid…fussy and futile. Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!” On Porgy and Bess, he found the songs “sure-fire rubbish.” His colleague Herbert Peyser of the Telegram wrote that American in Paris “…is nauseous claptrap, so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane…” Oscar Thompson of the Evening Post called it “musical buffoonery…blunt banality…ballyhoo vulgarity.” Elsewhere I have proposed a law requiring a five-day waiting period before a critic can purchase a thesaurus.

So there remains the possibility that Thomson was wrong (and wrongheaded) and I am right. (By the way, I was surely right about Eloisa to Abelard. It is a great poem even if Pope didn’t make the story up. And Pope was right in his Essay on Criticism when he wrote about critics, “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.”)


1. Reprinted in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Virgil Thomson: A Reader, Routledge, 2002, pp. 132-135.

2. Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, W.W. Norton, 11997, p. 302.

3. Moses Smith, Koussevitzky, Allen, Towne & Heath, 1947, p. 35.

4. Lexicon of Musical Invective, University of Washington Press, 1963.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Curious Case of Moses Smith vs. Serge Koussevitzky

Jerry Harkins [1]

Anyone familiar with the life of Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky (1874-1951) knows two big things. First, although now largely forgotten, he was probably the most broadly influential classical musician of the Twentieth Century and the godfather of many seminal works of modern music. Second, more than fifty years after his death he still lacks a serious biography. Three attempts were made during his lifetime. Two are frankly hagiographic.[2, 3] The third is a vicious attack on his competence and integrity by the critic Moses Smith.[4]

The story of the Smith opus and the lawsuit it sparked [5] have been well documented elsewhere. By any reasonable standard, the book is a hatchet job, an early example of a now familiar genre, the attack biography. When the court ruled that its “…many depreciatory statements [are] invariably followed by ameliorative observations of unreserved praise,” it displayed not only a penchant for circumlocution but also an appalling insensitivity to rhetoric. It seemed to miss Smith’s subtle sarcasm and his skill at damning with faint praise. He employs innuendo, indirection and “niggling” or nitpicking [6] to paint a portrait that is both personally and professionally venomous. A few examples will illustrate these practices:

- On Page 35, Smith says that, as a student, Koussevitzky “…made rapid progress in the art of conducting, and his mastery grew steadily through the years.” However, “…the lack of a solid foundation cannot be concealed beneath the most ingenious patchwork of talents and random training.” The missing foundation included musical theory and composition. The idea that the Moscow Philharmonic Conservatory provided something that might be called “random training” is nonsense. Worse, on Page 13, Smith had already questioned whether Koussevitzky had been awarded the diploma of a Free Artist.

- On Pages 343 and 344, Smith characterizes the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky as having “…superlative tone, often too beautiful, too intensely expressive at times that require simplicity.” Moreover, “…at the slightest suggestion of lyricism, [its] rhythm is likely to fall apart.”

- Throughout his career, Koussevitzky was widely regarded as the definitive interpreter of the Russian masters, especially Tchaikovsky.  Smith, however, has a very different view.  “The music degenerates into a nonsensical series of animal-like spasms.” Then, in practically the same breath, he refers to Koussevitzky as, “…one of the great conductors of our time. His interpretations have such varied qualities as poetry, sweep, originality and enkindling imagination.” However, when he arrived in Boston, “…he lacked the resourcefulness and technical agility without which no conductor in a third-rate Continental opera house could hope to hold his job. He does not quite have them today when he is past 70.” After thirty-five years of conducting, “…his beats and cues are often deceptive.”

This goes on and on: Koussevitzky was 17, when he left home, not 14 as he often claimed. His memory for scores was terrible. He was a poor accompanist and an inadequate musician.  Then, “Such reservations, however, are perhaps niggling in light of Koussevitzky’s positive achievement…[that] has set him in a class by himself.” It is little wonder that Koussevitzky felt put upon. In his suit, he complained that the book, “…describes me as generally incompetent as a conductor of orchestras, brutal to the musicians in my orchestra, incompetent as an instructor of conducting, and a poseur, deficient in musical education and training.” It did indeed even if it was not libelous.

Libel or not, Koussevitzky is, by default, the most important classical musician of the twentieth century. Thus the question: who was Moses Smith? Why did he dislike Koussevitzky? And, irresistibly, who were his sources?

Smith seems to have been born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on March 4, 1901, one of the five children of Fred and Rebecca Haifetz. There is no record of his birth and no record of a name change but he was Moses Smith by the time he entered Harvard with the class of 1921. The lack of documentation is not uncommon for the time and place. It is consistent, indeed, with other evidence hinting at a poor but hard working Jewish family seeking to cope with discrimination and better its lot. In any event, he graduated with an A.B. in music and subsequently spent two years at Harvard Law School. In time, he married Ethel Singer Robinson and they had two daughters. He became a wholesale shoe salesman and supplemented his income by writing freelance music reviews for the Boston American. In 1934, he succeeded the well known critic HTP (Henry T. Parker) at the prestigious Boston Evening Transcript where his reviews of Koussevitzky’s concerts were generally favorable. He left Boston in 1939 to take a position in New York as Music Director of Columbia Phonograph Company a year after it had been acquired by William S. Paley for CBS. In that capacity, he tried unsuccessfully to recruit Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony away from archrival RCA Victor. In 1942, he became general manager of the Music Press. By that time, he had become afflicted with multiple sclerosis. He retired before the end of the war and devoted himself to completing Koussevitzky and writing a handful of freelance articles. He died in Roxbury, Massachusetts on July 27, 1964, the day after what would have been Koussevitzky’s ninetieth birthday.

Thirty-one years after his death, I placed an Author’s Query about Smith in The New York Times Book Review and received replies from six people who had known and worked with him after 1939. All spoke highly of him, using such descriptors as kindly, scholarly, courageous, compassionate, erudite and delightful. Together their letters make a persuasive case even if his book is deficient in all these traits. The inescapable conclusion is that we are dealing with a work that is out-of-character, a “pen breathing revenge” wielded by a sorely aggrieved human being. Koussevitzky had no doubt deeply offended him, something he was eminently capable of doing.

In his acknowledgments, Smith tells us that most of his sources “…must remain anonymous for obvious reasons.” However, it is not difficult to draw up a short list of suspects. We are looking for at least two people [7] who had access to information and a reason for disparaging Koussevitzky. Moreover, as late as 1947, they seem to have had some reason to fear exposure. The prime suspects I believe are Nicholas Slonimsky and Fabien Sevitzky.

Slonimsky, a man who gave new meaning to the word “polymath,” left what amounts to a confession, albeit an unsatisfying one. “To my horror, Smith intended to use some rather juicy tales about Koussevitzky that could have come only from me. Yes, the facts were there, but I told Smith that he would betray our friendship by reporting them.” Smith replied, “Nicolas, you cannot censor history.” [8] Unfortunately, he does not tell us which tales were his. He only regales us with the one story he was most worried about, the only one he persuaded Smith to withdraw. He fails to tell us why he was so worried about that particular morsel and it is not clear why he still feared Koussevitzky.

The complex relationship between Koussevitzky and Slonimsky is beyond the scope of this essay but it lasted little more than five years from late 1921 to the spring of 1927. Thus, anything said by Slonimsky about Koussevitzky’s life before or after that would have been hearsay filtered through two decades of memory and animus. [9] This might not have deterred Slonimsky who loved gossip and was a world class raconteur, but I suspect that Smith would have drawn the line at repeating it whole cloth. For the more intimate “niggles,” he probably relied on someone closer to the family either Sevitzky or his wife, the Polish soprano Maria Dormont Sevitzky.

Fabien Sevitzky was by no means the lout described by Slonimsky [10] and Maria was no shrew. Both were accomplished musicians, well thought of in their communities. Both had distinguished students. Both, too, were closer to their modest roots than Koussevitzky who had wholeheartedly adopted the manners and mores of his aristocratic in-laws. Over the years, the relationship between uncle and nephew deteriorated until, ultimately, the latter unsuccessfully went to court to challenge the former’s will.

The Sevitzkys arrived in the United States the year before Serge and Natalie, and Fabien seems to have come with a burden of family bitterness far heavier than the usual cause ascribed to it. Serge’s insistence, in 1908 or thereabout, that Fabien shorten his last name may have been inconvenient but it was not entirely unreasonable. Fabien’s father (Adolf I think), seems to have resented Serge’s departure and later success and probably was the original source of the bad-mouthing that was repeated to Smith. Many of the stories are the kind of family mythology that all biographers are familiar with: real grievances multiplied over time by misfortune and repetition. Oral histories compiled by Soviet musicologists tend to support Koussevitzky’s versions of disputed matters.

One can easily forgive Slonimsky who no doubt took a lot of guff from the haughty maestro, and one can readily understand the family foibles that might lie at the heart of Sevitzky’s stories. It is more difficult to understand Moses Smith, gentleman and scholar. Whatever the provocations, he must have realized that his sources were tainted and it must have offended his sense of history to pass on distortions and fabrications. Moreover, he added some mudslinging of his own. He is critical of Koussevitzky for “forgetting” his Jewish origins until the rise of Hitler. There is, however, no evidence that Smith himself was any more mindful of his heritage before or after 1933. (In contrast, one of Smith’s brothers served as President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a forerunner of the United Jewish Appeal.)

We are left trying to imagine the psychology that shaped Smith’s hostility, a response so strong that it overcame the habits and values of a lifetime, We are left, too, with Koussevitzky who could be charming but did not always choose to be. He seems to have been driven by his own devils not the least of which was a morbid fear of being judged incompetent. When Koussevitzky’s insecurities came together with Smith’s, the result was a book that serves the memory of both poorly.


1. Jerry Harkins is a writer living in New York City. This essay was published in a slightly different form in the Journal of the Koussevitzky Recordings Society, Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring 1996.
2. Lourie, Arthur, Serge Koussevitzky and His Epoch (translated from the Russian by S. W. Pring) Knopf, 1931.
3. Leichtentritt, Hugo, Serge Koussevitzky: The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New American Music, Harvard University Press, 1946.
4. Smith, Moses, Koussevitkzy, Allen, Towne and Heath, 1947.
5. Koussevitzky vs. Allen, Towne and Heath, Inc. et al. 68 N.Y.S.2d779 (March 4, 1947)
6. Smith himself characterizes at least some of his “reservations” as “perhaps niggling” (Smith, op. cit. p. 339).
7. There must have been more than one because there does not seem to have been any single person whose relationship with Koussevitzky extended from his youth through the 1940’s except his third wife, Olga, who left her own unpublished memoirs.
8. Slonimsky, Nicolas, Perfect Pitch: A Life Story, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 106.
9. Slonimsky is not always reliable when it comes to basic facts about Koussevitzky. For example, he says the maestro was buried at Serenak, his Tanglewood estate, and that his suit against Smith netted him one dollar in “moral damages.” He refers to Olga as his second wife. Koussevitzky lost the suit outright and there is no such thing as “moral damages.” He was and remains buried in the graveyard of The Church on the Hill (Congregational) in Lenox, Massachusetts. Olga who was Natalie's niece was Koussevitzky's third wife. It should also be noted that as Editor of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (8th Edition, Schirmer, 1994), Slonimsky was nothing but laudatory in his entry about Koussevitzky.
10. In an interview with Tom Godell (Journal of the Koussevitzky Recordings Society, I:1, 1987, pp. 6-13), Slonimsky characterizes Sevitzky as the stupidest conductor and “…the greatest damn fool I ever met.” This is simply not credible. Sevitzky built several fine orchestras including that of Indianapolis, and enjoyed a better reputation among his musicians than his uncle.