‘I was lucky enough to live at an extremely active and productive time’ – Ernest Ansermet.
Ansermet’s words, spoken during an interview, sums up the great conductor’s historical position, while being highly indicative of his humility at the same time. Displaying no vanity over his extraordinary international career and the key role he played in twentieth-century music, he chooses to assign to the chance element of fate something that actually belongs to his genius, to his ability to grasp the music of his time immediately, and transmit it directly to his players and an often-perplexed audience not yet ready to accept new work. In fact, it took a fair amount of courage to impose Debussy in a city as conservative as Lausanne in 1910, when he gave his first concerts, under the radical slogan, ‘Debussy or death!’. The Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was the work with which Ansermet began his conducting career there, near the Swiss town of Vevey where he was born in 1883.
But that is not the real beginning of the story. The young Ansermet had two passions, music and mathematics. From an early age he was immersed in music. His father sang, and his mother, who was descended from a family of peasant musicians, played the piano, like any well-brought-up young girl. His great-grandfather was head of military music at Morges, in which capacity he composed marches, polkas and schottisches according to the taste of the day. The young Ansermet very quickly gained a reasonable skill on wind, and all brass instruments. Further, the mental gymnastics posed by his love of mathematics, chimed well with his thirst for knowledge as well as his analytical frame of mind.
Having graduated in maths and physics, Ansermet went to Paris in 1905, to complete his education intending to write his thesis at the Sorbonne. But he very quickly abandoned his plan when he realised that, on one hand, his training was inadequate, and on the other, that his love of music was greater than his love of mathematics. He returned to Switzerland the following year, got married, and became an arithmetic teacher at the Collège de Lausanne to support himself financially. But he studied music seriously as well, and went to spend a whole year in Berlin, where he attended rehearsals by Arthur Nikisch, Richard Strauss, Felix Mottl and Karl Muck, before going to spend time in Paris. There he met Debussy, with whom he had numerous dealings. Ansermet had the arrogance, it must be said, to dare to suggest to Debussy some alterations in the score of the Nocturnes, in particular. It was a habit that he kept up with all his composer friends, and while it may have stimulated and annoyed Frank Martin in equal measure, in 1937 it provoked a definitive break with Stravinsky, who was furious about the cuts Ansermet wanted to make in his ballet Jeu de cartes. But with Debussy everything went well. Very imprecise in his scoring, he accepted the young conductor’s proposals, advising him to do more or less as he desired.
The composer Ernest Bloch, with whom Ansermet took some composition lessons, also played an important part in his training. He struck up a friendship with Henri Duparc, who, almost blind, dictated the orchestration of some of his songs. But the encounter that had a decisive impact on his life was with Igor Stravinsky, who had come to live on the shores of Lake Geneva to nurse his wife. Ansermet was already conducting a great deal of Russian music, which was then fashionable, and the two men immediately became firm friends. During a rehearsal, Ansermet passed his baton to Stravinsky, and the composer thus made his conducting debut. The two were inseparable, and even did gymnastic exercises together.
In 1916, when Diaghilev found himself deprived of Pierre Monteux (the war was at its height, and Monteux was at the Front, while Ansermet, a Swiss, was exempted for his ‘general weakness’, as his service record states), he turned to Stravinsky to find a conductor able to go on tour to the US with the Ballets Russes. The composer naturally recommended his friend, who packed his bags and set off to conduct 105 performances in 105 days in front of audiences ranging from 4000 to 14,000 spectators. It was during this tour, in New York, that Ansermet recorded his first discs with the Orchestre des Ballets Russes.
Back in Europe, Ansermet became the principal conductor of the famous troupe, which allowed him to consolidate his early reputation. One premiere followed another: Parade (Satie) in 1917, The Three-cornered Hat (Falla) in London in 1919, The Song of the Nightingale (Stravinsky) in Geneva. Then, in 1920 it was Pulcinella (Stravinsky) in Paris, and the following year, again in Paris, Chout (Prokofiev). In 1922 he premiered Stravinsky’s Renard. The premiere of Les Noces (Stravinsky) in 1923 marked his final year with the Ballets Russes, as his career was taking an international turn. He conducted all over the world, giving more and more premieres, and local first performances. He set up one orchestra in Argentina, which he went on to conduct over ten seasons, and another one in Mexico. Capital cities clamoured for him, and he was specifically requested for performances of new music – in Berlin, for example, where on 20 November 1922 in front of an astounded audience that included Furtwängler and Hindemith, he gave the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He was given a triumphant reception.
It seems to me that the term ‘poetry of precision’ could well describe the art of Ansermet, as much as that of Boulez. The same could be said of Ansermet’s sense of colour, his sense of tempo (‘he always has the sense of the “tempo giusto”,’ the conductor Armin Jordan once said to me in conversation). Another similarity between Ansermet and Boulez is the fact that both wrote extensively on music. But it is this very analogy that marks the difference between the two. Ansermet obstinately refused to accept atonal music and Schoenbergian dodecaphony, while Boulez, a young man during the Nazi horrors, threw himself into it with an almost political passion, to forget that tonal music had been taken over entirely by the ideology of the Third Reich. Ansermet spent many later years putting together a manifesto against atonal music. Basing his arguments on philosophy, Husserlian phenomenology, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as well as some totally outmoded thinking, in 1963 he published his Fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine, a book that few read and even fewer understood.
One thing is certain: since the end of World War II, there have been two opposing camps in the world of music and musicians, the ‘for’, and the ‘against’. With the same conviction as in his youth, Ansermet supported new music, but only that which remained within a tonal or polytonal perspective. And while he conducted the first performance of Stravinsky’s Mass in 1948 at La Scala, Milan, he turned his back on all the new music by his former friend, while continuing to conduct his earlier works, in their original versions. The two men spoke only once more, when approaching the end of their lives. Their reconciliation, however, was only by letter: they never met in person again. Ansermet stayed loyal to Honegger, Frank Martin and Britten, whom he rated highly.
Ansermet died in 1969. The most immediate part of his legacy, is course, that preserved on disc. As for his place in history, Ansermet, as we have seen, made a whole series of first recordings, of works by Stravinsky, Bartók and Frank Martin, not to mention Haydn (the first complete recording of the ‘Paris’ symphonies) and Beethoven (the first complete stereo recording of the symphonies). Musicians and music-lovers all over the world will long continue to turn to his interpretations of Stravinsky, Bartók, Falla, Ravel, and, of course, his beloved Debussy, for the stylistic lesson they preserve. Ansermet was a friend of all these composers, and they valued his interpretations: ‘You understand La Valse completely, I have never been able to obtain such rhythmic suppleness in Paris,’ Ravel wrote to him after a concert in Geneva.
Over the course of 52 years, Ansermet made recordings tirelessly, at a rate of two sessions per year, often late into the night, when the OSR had completed its normal working day of rehearsals, concert or opera. He is one of the company of conductors who left a vast recorded legacy: 296 works by 63 different composers from Bach to Frank Martin. Thanks to the famous Decca Sound, we can still, years after the event, hear his conducting perfectly preserved in sound of the finest quality.