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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Henry Swoboda

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By William A. Weber

As Henry Swoboda, the new conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, greets you, he shoots out his baton hand with disarming speed. The gesture lacks the pointless effusiveness one so often encounters. Swoboda is disarming in other ways as well. After launching into a musical idea with open feeling, he immediately backtracks by demanding "Do you see what I mean?"

Swoboda refuses to be polemical about his ideas. "I am not for a system as a system," he says regarding contemporary music. Swoboda thinks that the exact direction modern music is now following is a very open question. Another example of his undogmatic approach is his feeling that American music's private enterprise "system" may work out its future comfortably without the (excellent) European subsidy "system".

Swoboda grew up in Czechoslavakia, and as Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite's presence on his first program indicates, he feels part of old Austria's heritage. After attending the Music Conservatory in Prague, he took a Ph.D. at the University there and became assistant conductor at the Prague Opera. He then became conductor and program director for the Prague broadcasting station. Guest conducting took him to Edinburgh, Berlin, Dresden, and Vienna.

Swoboda came to the United States in 1939. Although he became a U.S. citizen in the mid-'40's, Swoboda has appeared primarily in Europe, with tours of many continental orchestras. He also toured South and Central America, but did not appear in this country until he conducted at the Empire State Music Festival in 1960. Since then he has led the Symphony of the Air in New York and made recordings with them for Decca.

Concert management has enormous complexities in this country, and this hurdle indeed helped delay Swoboda's appearance here. But he subscribes to no program for changing the system. He remarks that the dangers which the whimsy of society patrons raise are the same as those brought on by government subsidy, where a failure to make selection rigorous could mean "any congressman's niece could get on stage." European state sponsorship has worked well because it has generally fixed strict standards for its grants, but Swoboda feels that American antagonism to active government has enough power to prevent state intervention. And in the end he feels "it is really hard to say which 'system' is better."

Swoboda feels himself a member of an older generation, but one who is trying to span the gap with the new one--"I have been a revolutionary all my life--always for the avant-garde." But if he has respect for the "abstract feelings" of modern twelve-tone music and for its distance from the "material world," this sympathy has its limits. Swoboda feels that "every system is in the end based on tonality," and ridicules the break with traditional training in composition of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

He maintains, on one hand, that there are masters whose classic discipline is essential to composition, and on the other, that in the end "all these things have nothing to do with logic," that is, that composition must not be tied to intellect.

When Swoboda says that "music is not a sideline for me...it is my life," the statement is not just a sentimental wandering. For he goes on to point out that people's absorption with a particular art changes often. He speculates that "the modern man is maybe more functional" and so requires the physical presence of painting and architecture. But for many others music is the most compelling art because it is more a human companion than a functional one. He observes further that today both painting and music have become abstract and act as one's continual surroundings, be it material or spiritual. Thus, the question whether music is integral to you "is a question whether you choose to live with music or not--or whether music chooses to live with you or not."

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