Ernest Ansermet 1883-1969

18 February 2008
Ernest Ansermet 1883-1969

Ernest Ansermet, Vevey, Stravinsky, Orchestre Romand, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR),

If you listen to classical music on the radio, you will hear the name of Ansermet, the conductor, mentioned almost as many times as Stravinsky, the composer. The name of Ansermet is also inseparable from that of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

A modest, upright, uncompromising, and stubborn man, Ernest Ansermet hated celebrity. Nevertheless, he became one of the most famous conductors of the twentieth century. There is a style of orchestral performance typical of Ansermet.

Ernest Ansermet was born in 1883 at Vevey, Switzerland, into a family of amateur musicians. At a young age he was already able to play the violin, piano and all of the instruments found in a brass band. Nevertheless, he concentrated on the study of mathematics and graduated from the University of Lausanne in 1903 with a degree in the physical sciences and mathematics. Until 1906 he taught mathematics at a school in Lausanne, but then decided to enrol in the Sorbonne University. At the same time, he was studying musical composition and conducting at the Paris Conservatory with Francesco de Lacerda, a Portuguese conductor and pianist. Here he met Maurice Ravel, Manuel de Falla and Claude Debussy, whose piano work Les Epigraphes Antiques was orchestrated by Ansermet. At the age of 27 he decided to devote himself entirely to conducting. In the first concert that he conducted, on 15 March 1910 at the Maison du Peuple in Lausanne, Ansermet included in the programme Debussy’s Pr?lude ? l’Apr?s-midi d’un Faune.

In 1912 he was appointed to conduct the Montreux Casino Orchestra, taking over from his mentor de Lacerda. However, in 1915 he moved to the "Subscription Concert" Orchestra of Geneva and, through his friend Ramuz, met Stravinsky, who was living in Clarens, a village lying between Vevey and Montreux on the Lake of Geneva. This was a decisive event. He was associated with the first production of several of Stravinsky’s works (The Firebird, The Rites of Spring, Petroushka, The Soldier’s Tale, The Song of the Nightingale, Pulcinella). He was also responsible for the spread of modern musical ideas, particularly in 1920 when he conducted a concert in London entirely devoted to Stravinsky.

Through Stravinsky, he met Diaghilev who asked him to conduct the Orchestra of the Ballets Russes. In December 1915 he conducted the Ballets Russes at a gala for the Red Cross in a first performance of Soleil de nuit, with music by Rimsky-Korsakov and choreography by Massine. A grand tour of the United States followed in 1916 where Ansermet discovered jazz, and particularly the music of Sidney Bechet, whom Ansermet considered a genius. Other tours followed-Madrid, Rome, Paris, South America, London. He conducted Copland, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chopin, Schumann, Satie, de Falla, Prokofiev and, of course, Stravinsky.

In 1918 Ansermet created the Orchestre Romand, which would eventually evolve into the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR), and of which he was both the musical director and administrator. At the same time as conducting the OSR and the Ballet Russes, he founded the Argentine National Orchestra in Buenos Aires.
Between 1923 and 1928, Ansermet’s reputation became established. His growing fame led to some tempting offers from several of the world’s orchestras. But Ansermet tirelessly pursued his objective of providing western Switzerland with a musical culture worthy of a major city. However, after 1929 financial and political problems undermined these successes and by 1935 the OSR seemed doomed. Nevertheless, he was convinced that Geneva needed an orchestra, if only for the Grand Th??tre and for radio broadcasts. Finally, in 1938 the creation of an influential and active Committee of Friends of the OSR ensured its long-term survival. In 1940 the OSR adopted its present name and would continue to be directed by Ansermet until 1967-a period of almost fifty years. Apart from conducting the orchestra himself, he invited numerous prominent conductors to take the rostrum.

In 1948, Ansermet was called to La Scala in Milan to direct yet another premiere, that of the Mass by Stravinsky. In spite of the fact that relations between Ansermet and Stravinsky had cooled (see box), he accepted to conduct the new work.

At the beginning of the 1950s, Ansermet’s career took on an international dimension and he was often invited abroad. In 1951, he conducted twenty-one concerts at the head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, replacing an ailing Charles Munch. Honours, successes, invitations and recording contracts followed. Ansermet was preoccupied by the new trends in contemporary music and throughout his life contributed articles to various musical reviews. Wishing to clarify his thoughts, he spent fifteen years completing his vast philosophical reflection, The Foundations of Music in the Human Conscious (1961), a book which opened up wide perspectives but proved to be heavy going for its potential readers.

During the 1960s, Ernest Ansermet turned his attention to the classics. He recorded the nine symphonies of Beethoven, as well as those of Brahms. Although he was well known throughout the world for his interpretations of twentieth-century music, his approach to Beethoven and Brahms did not enjoy the same public enthusiasm.

Ansermet, who continued conducting until the age of 84, was most well known for his authoritative interpretations of French and Russian composers-Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Prokofiev, Stravinsky-and for his keen intellectual approach to modern musical aesthetics. He was a particular advocate of the Swiss composers Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin. Ansermet was also responsible for the first performances of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia (1946), with Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears, and Cantata misericordium (1963). Combin ing classical works with modern compositions, he introduced audiences to Sch?nberg and Hindemith as well.

His last concert was on 18 December 1968 at the Victoria Hall in Geneva, where he conducted a mixture of classics and modern music: Bach, Bartok, Debussy and Honegger. He died two months later on 18 February 1969. His life’s work having added considerably to the prestige of Geneva, in 1953 he was granted honorary citizenship of the city. The road that runs down the right bank of the Arve and past the Maison de la Radio in Geneva was renamed in his honour.



As young men, Ernest Ansermet and Igor Stravinsky had worked together enthusiastically and made each other famous. For twenty-five years, Ansermet had been the most fervent interpreter of Stravinsky’s compositions. More than anybody else, he had scrutinized Stravinsky’s music and had drawn the composer’s attention to numerous oversights and errors. But, eventually, they fell out. Ansermet proposed to make certain cuts in Stravinsky’s composition Jeu de Cartes during a performance that was to take place in Paris on 27 October 1937. In a letter to Ansermet dated 14 October, Stravinsky forbade the projected changes, stating that they might distort the work and that it would be "better not to play it at all". A few days later, Stravinsky refused Ansermet’s second request to make "one small cut in the March". Stravinsky argued that even this humble alteration would "cripple my little March". In conclusion, Stravinsky wrote: "I would like to say: ’But you’re not in your own house, my dear fellow’; I never told you: ’Here, take my score and do whatever you please with it’." After all he had done to promote Stravinsky, Ansermet was deeply hurt and there was a rupture in their relations lasting twenty-eight years! In the summer of 1965, they agreed to a reconciliation in New York-although it was not really a settlement of their differences. Despite expressions of mutual esteem and respect, Ansermet said of it afterwards: "It is neither a peace nor an understanding" for the two great old men had grown apart in other-more musical-ways.