René Leibowitz (French: [ʁəne lɛbɔwits]; 17 February 1913 – 29 August 1972) was a Polish, later naturalised French, composer, conductor, music theorist and teacher. He was historically significant in promoting the music of the Second Viennese School in Paris after the Second World War, and teaching a new generation of serialist composers.
Leibowitz remained firmly committed to the musical aesthetic of Arnold Schoenberg, and was to some extent sidelined among the French avant-garde in the 1950s, when, under the influence of Leibowitz's former student, Pierre Boulez and others, the music of Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern was adopted as the orthodox model by younger composers.
The facts about Leibowitz's early years are problematical, complicated by his practice of reinventing his history,[n 1] but it is known that he was born in Warsaw, Poland. According to his pupil and translator, Jan Maguire, who wrote two studies of him for Tempo magazine in the late 1970s, Leibowitz was of Russian Jewish parentage; his father was an art historian. During the First World War the family was obliged to move from Warsaw to Berlin, where, Maguire writes, Leibowitz began a career as a concert violinist at the age of ten. That career was interrupted when the family moved to Paris three years later. By Maguire's account Leibowitz taught himself "the fundamentals of harmony, counterpoint and score-reading" while in high school, and took his Baccalauréat when he was seventeen. At this point, his history becomes unclear. By his own account, credited by Maguire and others, he then went to Vienna to study with Anton Webern. By other accounts he studied with Arnold Schoenberg. Neither is now believed to be correct: Sabine Meine wrote in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in 2001, "Leibowitz’s claims of having met Schoenberg and studied with Webern in the early 1930s remain unsubstantiated", and in 2012 Nicole Gagné wrote in the Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music, "despite his claims to the contrary, he never studied with Arnold Schoenberg or Anton Webern". Other claims about Leibowitz's teachers – that he studied composition with Maurice Ravel and conducting with Pierre Monteux – have been discounted by some writers in the present century, although as recently as 2010 in a study mainly focused on American composers Deborah Fillerup Weagel repeated the statement that Leibowitz was a pupil of Webern and Ravel. There is no mention of Leibowitz in the biographies of Ravel by Arbie Orenstein (1991) and Roger Nichols (2011) or of Monteux by John Canarina (2003).
In Paris, according to Maguire, Leibowitz earned his living as a jazz pianist and composed constantly. In his early twenties he married an artist from an illustrious French family and settled down in Paris, eventually taking French nationality. During the early 1930s he was introduced to Schoenberg's twelve-note technique by the German pianist and composer Erich Itor Kahn. Maguire writes that Leibowitz easily fitted into "the ebullient intellectual and artistic climate of Paris in the pre-war years". His aesthetic interests were not confined to music, and he became friendly with leading figures from the world of modern art, notably André Masson and Pablo Picasso, and with literary figures including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. For Leibowitz, according to Maguire, composing was his most regular activity, and the one he thought most important, although he was known more for his commentaries, his critical and analytical writings, his conducting, and his teaching, all of which he considered secondary.
When the Germans invaded France in the Second World War, Leibowitz was interned as an alien for a time. He did not succeed in emigrating, but, as the musicologist Reinhardt Kapp puts it, "managed to survive somehow, partly hidden by [Georges] Bataille in Paris, at other times with his family in the Unoccupied Zone". While in wartime Paris he clandestinely taught students from the Paris Conservatoire. In 1944, just before the liberation of Paris, there was a party at the Left Bank apartment of the Swiss artist Balthus attended by artistic opponents of the Nazis, such as Picasso and others; Leibowitz provided the music.
After the liberation Leibowitz resumed his interrupted career, teaching, conducting and writing, drawing on the extensive material he had produced during his enforced wartime seclusion. In 1947–48 and again in 1950 he visited Los Angeles to meet Schoenberg, whose cantataA Survivor from Warsaw he transcribed into full score. Many of the works of the Second Viennese School were first heard in France at the International Festival of Chamber Music established by Leibowitz in Paris in 1947. Leibowitz was highly influential in promoting the reputation of the School, both through teaching in Paris after the war and through his book Schoenberg et son école, published in 1947 and translated by Dika Newlin as Schoenberg and his School (US and UK editions 1949). The book was among the earliest theoretical treatises on Schoenberg's twelve-tone method of composition; Leibowitz (like Humphrey Searle) was among the first theorists to promulgate the term "serialism". The book attracted hostile criticism from composers on various points of the modernist continuum. Aaron Copland condemned its "dogmatic and fanatical" tone, and Milton Babbitt felt that its musical discussions were superficial, with misleading analogies between tonal and dodecaphonic music, but it was well received by the musical public.
Leibowitz's advocacy of the Schoenberg school was taken further by two of his pupils, Pierre Boulez and Jacques-Louis Monod, each taking different paths in promoting the music of Schoenberg, Webern and the development of serialism. Meine writes in Grove that during the 1950s Leibowitz's writings came under attack from some of the younger generation: Boulez and others accused him of "dogmatic orthodoxy and academicism". In the view of another pupil, Maguire, Boulez, having learned the twelve-tone technique from Leibowitz, "proceeded to apply it indiscriminately to every musical element, disregarding the most fundamental qualities, the essence of music". Leibowitz warned his former student, "But the public has not yet assimilated Schoenberg", and tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid a rancorous falling out.
Although Leibowitz composed continually, he seldom pressed to have his works performed. When he died, leaving an oeuvre of nearly a hundred pieces, the magazine Esprit commented, "Modest, perhaps too modest, he never spoke of his works, unless obliged to do so, doing nothing to get them played. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that at least three quarters of his scores have never been heard." Since his death a representative sample of his works have been recorded. A 2013 CD set from the Divox label contains recordings of 22 of Leibowitz's works: 6 Mélodies, Op. 6; Flute Sonata, Op. 12b; Explanation of Metaphors, Op. 15; Duo for Cello and Piano, Op. 23; 5 Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 29; Sérénade, Op. 38; 3 Poèmes, Op. 46; Violin Concerto, Op. 50; Marijuana variations non sérieuses, Op. 54; Toccata, Op. 62; 3 Caprices, Op. 70; 2 Settings, Op. 71; 3 Poèmes, Op. 73; Motifs, Op. 74; Petite suite, Op. 75; 2 poèmes, Op. 76a; Chanson dada, Op. 76b; Suite, Op. 81; 4 Lieder, Op. 86; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 87; Laboratoire central, Op. 88; and 3 Poèmes, Op. 92.
Although Leibowitz was receptive to a wide range of musical styles, he could not bear the music of Sibelius, and published a pamphlet about him under the title of Sibelius: the Worst Composer in the World; he also severely criticised Bartók for writing music that was too accessible: Leibowitz felt that by failing to adopt dodecaphony in his later works Bartók was pandering to popular taste rather than helping to move music away from tonality in accordance with Leibowitz's notions of historical inevitability and composers' duty. For Leibowitz, to write a popular work like Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra was a betrayal of modernism.
one long splendid moment in his life, stretching from Paris in 1944 through Darmstadt in 1948, devoted to the promulgation of Schoenbergian ideas. When, in the late 40s and early 50s, Webern displaced Schoenberg as the venerated man and composers applied the serial idea beyond pitch, Leibowitz's time had passed. He refused to follow that path.
Leibowitz's obituarist in Esprit dismissed this as simplistic:
Let us rise above the very "Parisian" (but untrue) cliché of a René Leibowitz, abandoned by his brilliant pupils, and fallen into oblivion after the 1950s. There were breaks, especially with Boulez, but that did not prevent later generations from coming to lean on him: the generation of Puig, Globokar, etc. It is also true that many myths were circulated about him, both by the academicians who did not forgive him for having introduced the virus of the atonal and by the avant-gardists who found him too conformist.
Leibowitz died suddenly in Paris on 29 August 1972, at the age of 59.
In 1961 Leibowitz conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a set of Beethoven's symphonies made by Decca for Reader's Digest; it was among the first to attempt to follow Beethoven's metronome markings, following the pioneering set made in Vienna three years earlier, conducted by Hermann Scherchen. Reviewers observed that although Scherchen had achieved tempos more closely approaching the composer's markings, Leibowitz, at speeds not much slower, had secured better ensemble than the earlier set achieved. Initially the set was poorly received. The Stereo Record Guide called the performances "slack", "perfunctory" and "insensitive"; on its reissue in the 1980s a Gramphone reviewer thought much of the set "light-weight" and "lacking in gravitas", although he found the performance of the Seventh Symphony "magnificent". In 1995 Richard Taruskin, analysing a selection of Beethoven recordings, concluded that Leibowitz, like Scherchen, delivered performances that were musically and musicologically superior to more recent attempts by "authentic" conductors such as Christopher Hogwood. By the 21st century the performances had come to seem old-fashioned, in the view of a critic in Fanfare, who found them more akin to those by Herbert von Karajan than to those by specialist authenticists such as Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner.
With the Decca team, Leibowitz recorded eleven more albums between 1959 and 1962. They included large-scale works such as The Rite of Spring, symphonies by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and concertos by Grieg, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, as well as short pieces by more than thirty composers ranging from Bach to Gershwin, from Wagner to Sullivan, Puccini and Johann Strauss.
Piano Sonata op.1 (1939)
10 Canons for wind trio op.2 (1939)
String Quartet no.1 op.3 (1940)
Symphony op.4 (1941)
Double concerto for violin, piano and 17 instruments op.5 (1942)
6 Songs for bass and piano op.6 (1942)
Tourist Death, concert aria for soprano and chamber orchestra (T: Archibald MacLeish) op.7 (1943)
Bach-Leibowitz Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor BWV 582
Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C, D944 "Great"
Offenbach-Leibowitz La vie parisienne
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Musorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition
Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture Op. 21
Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Op. 20: Scherzo
Mussorgsky Night on the Bare Mountain
Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a
Wagner Die Meistersinger: Prelude to Act I
Hyman Bress (violin)
Earl Wild (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 64
Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16
Beethoven Egmont Op. 84: Overture
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Weber Der Freischütz J277: Overture
Schumann Manfred Op. 115: Overture
Leonard Pennario (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat S124
Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A S125
Publications by Leibowitz
1947 Schoenberg et son école: l'étape contemporaine du langage musical. [Paris]: J.B. Janin. (English edition, as Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage in the Language of Music. Translated by Dika Newlin. New York: Philosophocal Library, 1949).
1948. Qu’est-ce que la musique de douze sons? Le Concerto pour neuf instruments, op. 24, d’Anton Webern. Liège: Éditions Dynamo.
1949. Introduction à la musique de douze sons. Les variations pour orchestre op. 31, d'Arnold Schoenberg. Paris: L'Arche.
1950. L'artiste et sa conscience: esquisse d'une dialectique de la conscience artistique. Préf. de Jean-Paul Sartre. Paris: L'Arche.
1950. Scènes de la vie musicale américaine. Liège: Éditions Dynamo.
1950. Arnold Schoenberg ou Sisyphe dans la musique contemporaine. Liège: Éditions Dynamo.
1951. L'évolution de la musique, de Bach à Schoenberg. Paris: Éditions Corrêa.
1957. Histoire de l'opéra. Paris: Buchet Chastel.
1969. Schoenberg. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
1971. Le compositeur et son double: essais sur l'interprétation musicale. Paris: Gallimard. (Ed. augm., version définitive. Paris: Gallimard, 1986.)
1972. Les fantômes de l'opéra: essais sur le théâtre lyrique. Paris: Gallimard.
Notes, references and sources
^The musicologist Reinhard Kapp commented in 1988, "Trustworthy biographical data are almost impossible to find; instead there is a jumble of contradictions, assumptions, myths, and ill-considered conjectures."