Composer, Conductor, Confrontation


Serge Koussevitzky had studied conducting with the great Arthur Nikisch, founded his own orchestra in Moscow in 1909, and published the music of several prominent composers of the day, so he had reason to feel that he had some control over the way the music was performed.

One of the composers whose music he had published was Alexander Scriabin, who invested his works with an intensity verging on religion, so it was inevitable that the two would clash.

An omen of future discord came in 1911, during rehearsals of Scriabin’s symphonic poem Prometheus. Scriabin’s original idea was to accompany the performance with a light show activated from a color-coded keyboard, a plan that had to be abandoned for technical reasons, but the music was complicated enough as it was.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

A percussion player who had an important stroke on the tam-tam at a key point in the performance was afraid of missing his cue from the conductor amid the complex fury of the music, so he asked the player next to him for an extra signal, a preliminary nod of the head followed, after the appropriate number of beats, by a decisive downbeat of his arm. In the excitement of the first public rehearsal, the tam-tam player became confused and slammed his hammer down not on the tam-tam but on his neighbor’s head, resulting not in the prescribed percussion, but a piercing scream.

Although the March 15 debut of Prometheus was a boon to the reputations of both Koussevitzky and Scriabin, the two soon fell into a series of personality clashes and a public quarrel over the amount Koussevitzky paid to publish Scriabin’s music.

Another bone of contention was probably Koussevitzky’s assumption that he had the right to interpret and modify Scriabin’s music as he saw fit, while the composer believed that the intentions of the creator trumped everything else.

Despite the falling out and Scriabin’s defection to another publisher, Koussevitzky continued to conduct and champion his music for upwards of twenty years.

Related Stories