Measure by Measure

The Maestro as Engineer

Ernest Ansermet and Arthur Honegger’s speeding train

By Sudip Bose | November 29, 2018
Flickr/Tony Armstrong-Sly

Tomorrow evening, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the famed ensemble based in Geneva, marks the 100th anniversary of its first concert. The celebrations have been going on all week, with the OSR playing a concert each night, performing some of the repertoire with which it has become synonymous over the years—symphonies by Beethoven and Arthur Honegger, for example, and the Firebird by Stravinsky.

The orchestra was founded by Ernest Ansermet, a conductor who dreamed of bringing regular and frequent symphonic music to Francophone Switzerland. To have attempted such a thing in the immediate aftermath of the First World War might now seem daringly, even foolishly ambitious, yet Ansermet had the backing of many wealthy patrons, particularly Paul Lachenal, a politician interested in both philanthropy and the arts. The orchestra’s name reflected the rise, in the war’s early days, of the term Suisse RomandeSuisse meaning Switzerland and Romande referring to Romandy, the French-speaking areas in the west of the country. So there were political implications, however subtle they may appear to the outsider, in this grand artistic enterprise.

Ansermet (1883–1969) started his professional life as a professor of mathematics teaching at the University of Lausanne. Abandoning this career to pursue the great love of his life, he made his conducting debut in 1910 and later came to the attention of Stravinsky, an exile in Switzerland at the time. With Stravinsky’s recommendation, Ansermet accepted a post with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1915, a job that allowed him to perform plenty of early-20th-century music, including works by Stravinsky, de Falla, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, and Satie. He also had the fortune of knowing three of these composers—Debussy and Ravel, in addition to Stravinsky—and consulted with them on technical and artistic matters pertaining to their scores.

When the OSR’s first concert took place on November 30, 1918, at Geneva’s Victoria Hall, Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B flat and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade were on the program, as were pieces by Mozart and the Swiss composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. Swiss music would form an important part of the orchestra’s repertoire, with Ansermet championing the likes of Honegger and Frank Martin. The week after the initial performance, the orchestra played a concert consisting only of Debussy, another of Ansermet’s core composers—a memorial occasion of sorts, the French master having died from cancer earlier that year.

Serving as the OSR’s music director until 1967 and touring extensively throughout Europe and abroad, Ansermet worked wonders with an ensemble that, to be fair, never had the polish or finesse of more storied orchestras. And yet, listen to almost any of the 300-plus recordings that Ansermet and the OSR made for Decca Records—beginning with an impressive reading of Debussy’s La mer in the late 1940s, the first of four accounts of that masterpiece—and you will hear intelligence, clarity, vividly rendered colors, and rhythmic fidelity, even if the performances are occasionally marred by technical flaws. The musicians excelled in French music, but also in Haydn and Beethoven, Stravinsky and de Falla (especially vivid is the 1961 version of The Three-Cornered Hat, a work Ansermet premiered at the Ballets Russes). Ansermet was particularly convincing in the showpiece repertoire, for example, Scheherezade and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which he treated with utmost seriousness. For him, these were no mere entertainments, but works as potentially profound as Brahms.

Ansermet was that rare artist who could interpret the music of his own time with as much interest as that of the past. He did not, however, embrace all of 20th-century music, and it is here that we encounter a distinctly sordid side of the conductor. Ansermet’s abhorrence of Arnold Schoenberg wasn’t simply a rejection of a musical idiom he did not appreciate. Indeed, his dismissal of 12-tone music as a “Jewish idea,” a notion expressed in a book published in 1961, was just one of the many reprehensible opinions he expressed about Jewish musicians. In an essay published on his website, Daniel Barenboim notes that Ansermet “once wrote in an article about Artur Schnabel that he may have been a great pianist and a wonderful musician, but that one always had the impression from his style of playing that he belonged to the Jewish people because he manipulated music the way Jews manipulated money.” What are we to make of that as we peruse the liner notes of The Three-Cornered Hat? I have written before about the moral quandary inherent in listening to musicians whose politics are, at the very least, problematic. Ansermet doesn’t seem to inhabit some nebulous middle ground—his writings are, without a doubt, contemptible. His recordings, however, afford me considerable pleasure, and this is a paradox I can’t easily resolve.

One of those superlative recordings is of Honegger’s brief symphonic poem Pacific 231, composed in 1923 and commonly thought to depict the motion of a steam locomotive. After the work’s premiere, Honegger started insisting that Pacific 231 was not in fact program music, that it was instead an abstract exercise in counterpoint. After all, it initially bore a far more prosaic title: Mouvement Symphonique. Still, it’s hard not to hear in the score the thrust and churn of a massive train, the squeak of metal and the billowing of steam. “I have always been passionately fond of locomotives,” Honegger said in 1924. “For me they are living beings, and I love them as others love women or horses.” Once you know that, it’s even harder to ignore certain elements in the score, namely how the composer personifies this titanic machine, imbuing it with raw sexual energy.

At any rate, Ansermet’s 1963 recording of the piece is rightfully praised: in a little over six breathtaking minutes, many of his (and the OSR’s) finest qualities are on display. Those first notes—the percussive pizzicatos and the haunting string harmonics—suggest the locomotive’s waking to life, with the subsequent accented quarter notes impelling the train onward. The strings attack with energy, without ever losing any clarity, though as incisive as the violins are, the OSR’s brass section is every bit as commanding and powerful. There’s a feeling of menace in the way the music gathers momentum, leading to the Stravinsky-like trumpet lines (reminiscent of The Rite of Spring) and the passages of almost unimaginable power and fury. The frenzied conclusion is a swirling chaos of sound—the tempo slackens, yet the energy keeps building in bewildering fashion—before the locomotive slows down, avoiding, as I always imagine it, some terrifying, shattering collision.

This is a performance to raise the dead. And it shows off what Ansermet and L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, with power and imagination, could accomplish on their very best day.


Listen to Ernest Ansermet conduct L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231:

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