Manuscripts/Mixed Material Letter from Aaron Copland to Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, 1931.
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Chers amis ---
Here is the promised letter. I have heard Stokowski conduct Oedipus Rex and Le Pas d'Acier and my 'Dance Symphony' and I have learned a great deal more about Stokowski as conductor. Of the three works I think he plays Le Pas d'Acier best. You will soon understand why. He has certain qualities which are undeniable -- he can make the orchestra sound extremely brilliant, or very sensuous, or mystic. At the same time he has great personal energy and a very finished technique so he commands respect. But as far as I can see he has no depth of feeling whatever and practically no sense of style. That makes almost everything he does imperfect from any artistic standpoint. At any moment you are liable to be shocked by his superficiality of feeling or some detail which is completely out of style with the rest. (The public of course doesn't understand this because everything he does sounds so effective -- thus his Bach playing is absolutely false to the spirit of Bach but the public loves it because it makes Bach sound so sensuous and so brilliant.) This morning I heard him conduct Wagner and it seemed to me all wrong in spirit. This surprised me because I thought that Stokowski's sensuous touch would go well with Wagner's chromaticism but I realized when I heard it that it was the wrong kind of sensuousness -- not full-blown enough, not rich enough, not German enough; too parfumée, too much of the boudoir. Then again, the spirit was wrong, because he seemed to be driving the music with a whip in a peculiarly modern and hectic way instead of allowing it to se deployer in all its fullness of emotion:
I've taken the trouble to make these general remarks because they apply to the three works I have heard here. For instance, Oedipus Rex was done in an 'effective' manner but the style was completely false. There is one quality you must have in order to give a good performance of Oedipus and that is le sens tragique de la vie. This Stokowski simply has not got, -- instead he has le sens mystique de la vie which is something quite different. So that Oedipus as he does it turns out to be a mystic drama with dark green lights on the stage throughout. The sum total effect of this production is of an oratorio with incidental puppets rather than a stage work. The puppets are not as objectionable as you might think because they are so big and even more because they hardly move, but they are practically negligible. The work is better as music than Stokowski makes it sound. In the first place he performs it entirely without any pause between the first and second acts -- so that it becomes too long and tires the audience and the performers. Then he has a very bad habit of keeping the orchestra terribly subdued whenever a singer is singing. He is so very afraid of covering the singer[']s voice that he makes the orchestra sound emasculated. This happened almost continually. (He did the same thing in Wozzeck.) Matzenauer did not seem to be in very good voice when I heard her, altho the interpretation she gave was pretty much the same as when she sang it with you. (I heard the story that she was very annoyed with Stokowski because he would not let her stand up when she sang her aria.) I have wondered what Stravinsky would say, also, if he knew that Stokowski doesn't begin Oedipus as he wrote it but adds a few trumpet measures (from the second act) before the speaker appears and thereby ruins that first wonderful impact of the work. I could go on with more details but this letter is getting long.
You can see from what I said that he would do justice to Prokofieff's work, as music that is. What goes on on the stage is just silly.
He seems well pleased with the Dance Symphony and says he will repeat it at his regular concerts next season. It was very interesting for me to hear a work I had written so long ago. I like it very much in parts but not as a whole.
I am sailing on Friday and hope to see you in Paris.