Leon Botstein
Stanford Humanities Center

Leon Botstein


Leon Botstein. Photo by Steve J. Sherman.
Used by permission of Bard College.

“A Citizen Soldier”

In a 2004 interview Leon Botstein reflected on his long career as a college president: “I am not a professional administrator,” he remarked. “I never trained for this job. I operate upon my intuition and my experience....  I never went to West Point. I got drafted. I am a citizen soldier — not a professional soldier.”[1]  Indeed, Botstein was just twenty-three years old — scarcely three years out of college — when he was recruited as president of Franconia College, a small and struggling school in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When he received this appointment The New York Times summarized his academic accomplishments to date:

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of Polish immigrants, who are both physicians, Mr. Botstein grew up in the Bronx and graduated in 1963 from the High School of Music and Art, where he studied violin and viola. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree with special honors from the University of Chicago in 1967 and a master’s degree in history from Harvard in 1968.

Botstein told the Times reporter that he expected to leave college administration before he turned 30, at which point he would “start from the bottom somewhere else.”[2]

In 1975, however, he was appointed to his current post as president of Bard College, a small liberal arts institution located in the picturesque Hudson Valley town of Annandale, New York. Under Botstein’s leadership the college has grown from an enrollment of 600 students to one with 2,200 undergraduate and graduate students scattered in several locations. Botstein has bolstered the college’s endowment and attracted an impressive array of scholars and cultural figures to its faculty. The school has built upon its historic strengths as a center for the performing arts and enhanced its reputation as a strong liberal arts college. In addition it offers interdisciplinary M.A. and Ph.D. programs for academic specialists and museum curators through the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, in New York City.

During his tenure at Bard, Botstein has developed a comprehensive critique of the American educational system. In his book Jefferson’s Children (1997) he advocated that high school conclude after tenth grade, with students continuing to early college-level studies.[3]  (Bard runs combined high school/early college programs through New York City’s public school system and at Simon’s Rock, a residential school in Massachusetts.) On more than one occasion he has expressed his disapproval of the “teach-to-the-test” approach that has become so prevalent in elementary and secondary education.[4] He is equally critical regarding training programs for future teachers: “Our universities and colleges have relegated the training of teachers to second-class enclaves in which the industry of education has flourished. We should disband the education schools and integrate teacher education into the core of the university.”[5] And he does not hide his disdain for the “enormous intellectual uniformity” of the present-day American university — a uniformity that he characterizes as “structural”: “The graduate schools look more or less identical.”  In his view, freestanding liberal arts colleges like Bard are “not hampered by the enormous and overwhelming investment in the graduate research enterprise,” and this permits them to respond in innovative ways to the changing interests of undergraduates.[6]

Conductor and Impresario

For all of Botstein’s accomplishments as president of Bard — and they are considerable — there is ample reason to accept at face value his protestations that he is not a professional administrator. His abiding commitments reside elsewhere: with music history, music theory, and music performance. These represent the defining elements of his academic and professional career.

As a freshman in Chicago Botstein won a conducting competition and at Franconia he founded the White Mountain Music and Art Festival. After arriving at Bard in 1975, however, he put down the conductor’s baton for several years. A personal tragedy — the loss of a young daughter who was hit by a motorist in 1981 — served as the catalyst for his decision to return to conducting. “She was a very gifted violinist and gifted girl,” he recalled. “And when I was trying to figure out what to do while I was trying to recover, get my bearings, the idea came up of doing a benefit concert to raise some money for a fund at the public school where she was a student. One of my friends said, ‘Why don’t you conduct this concert?’  And I did, and I realized that this was really my ambition.”[7]  (One of the pieces performed at that concert was Franz Josef Haydn’s “ Farewell Symphony,” in which the musicians leave the stage one by one.[8])  The following year Botstein became the conductor of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, a post that he held for over a decade.

Mastering the techniques of conducting required a sustained effort. “The art of controlling one’s physical equipment, so to speak, one’s eyes, one’s hands, the space, is something that took me a long time to learn,” Botstein once remarked. “[It took] years of intensive study with [composer and conductor] Harold Farberman, to whom I really credit the technical — hard won, I would say — understanding of the art of conducting.”[9]  In 1992 Botstein was invited to serve as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, in New York City — a post that he holds to this day. Founded in 1962 by the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski, the ASO is based at Carnegie Hall, its ranks comprising a corps of excellent freelance musicians, with tickets offered to the public at a reasonable price ($25, in 2011).

Under Botstein’s directorship the orchestra has developed a reputation for rescuing lesser-known works from undeserved obscurity — pieces that are largely absent from the repertory of the New York Philharmonic, a few blocks uptown. At his very first ASO concert, for example, Botstein conducted “Thunderbolt P-47,” by the twentieth-century Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, as well as the world premiere of “Trains Bound for Glory,” by the German-born émigré composer Kurt Weill.[10]  This tradition continues; in the winter and spring of 2011, for example, the ASO is presenting programs devoted to the Spanish Civil War; the music of the American composer Walter Piston; and “Passover in Exile,” featuring a choral work by the German Jewish composer Paul Dessau.

In addition to its Carnegie Hall venue, the ASO performs its “Classics Declassified” concert series at New York’s Symphony Space.  Each concert is preceded by a lecture by Botstein and following the performance the audience is invited to participate in a Q&A session. During the 2010-2011 season, as part of this series, the ASO is concluding a two-year exploration of Beethoven’s symphonies. The ASO is the orchestra in residence at a third venue as well — the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College.

Front view of Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College,
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Architect: Frank Gehry. Photograph by Daniel Case, 2008. (cc)

The Fisher Center, which opened in 2003, serves as the home for the Bard Music Festival (founded by Botstein) and Bard Summerscape, offering theater, dance, opera, operetta, cabaret, and other musical performances. The Fisher Center — which has been dubbed “Bilbao on the Hudson”[11] — is one of three striking concert halls designed by the architect Frank Gehry (the others being Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles [2003], and the New World Symphony campus, in Miami Beach [2011]).

As noted on its website,

The Bard Music Festival was founded in 1990 to promote new ways of understanding and presenting the history of music to a contemporary audience. Each year, a single composer is chosen as the main subject. The biography of the composer, the influences and consequences of that composer’s achievement, and all aspects of the musical culture surrounding the time and place of the composer’s life are explored. Perhaps the most important dimensions of the festival are the ways in which it links music to the worlds of literature, painting, theater, philosophy, and politics and brings two kinds of audience together: those with a long history of interest in concert life and first-time listeners, who find the festival an ideal place to learn about and enjoy the riches of our musical past.[12]

The 2011 festival is dedicated to the Finnish composer Jan Sibelius. Recent festivals have focused on such composers as Richard Wagner, Sergei Prokofiev, Edward Elgar, Franz Liszt, Aaron Copland, and Dmitri Shostakovich.[13]  The Princeton University Press publishes a volume of essays, translations, and correspondence deriving from each season’s festival.[14]

In 2003 Leon Botstein took on yet another assignment: as Music Director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.  The JSO operates under the aegis of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and has faced serious financial constraints due to threatened cutbacks. Under Botstein’s leadership the orchestra has managed to overcome these challenges and during the 2010-2011 season he is conducting a series of concerts under the rubric of “Four Musical Cities” — the four cities being Vienna, Paris, St. Petersburg… and Jerusalem.

In addition to his live performances Botstein has an impressive number of recordings to his credit. Many of them feature the “unusual repertoire” (as he describes it) that he champions in his live performances with the ASO, but the roster also includes recordings of more standard compositions (such as Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, recorded in 1998 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra[15]). In 2006 his recording of Gavriil Popov’s Symphony No. 1 and Shostakovich’s Tasso Theme and Variations (also with the London Philharmonic) was nominated for a Grammy Award.

The Power of Music

Botstein had been a college president for a quarter of a century by 1985, when he was awarded his doctorate in History from Harvard University. His massive, five-volume dissertation bears the title Music and Its Public: Habits of Listening and the Crisis of Musical Modernism in Vienna, 1870-1914. In it Botstein offers a tour d’horizon of musical culture in the Central European metropolis during a pivotal era in the evolution of musical literacy and music appreciation. The themes that he raises in this opus are ones that recur constantly in his music writing and in his writing on artistic culture in general.

“There’s no modernism like Viennese modernism, that amazingly fraught, conflicted efflorescence of art and thought that flared up around the turn of the twentieth century,” the art critic Roberta Smith has observed.[16] Vienna’s central position in the emergence and development of cultural modernism suffered an irreparable breach during the second third of the twentieth century, with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and the subsequent persecution of those artists and intellectuals — many of them Jews – who were associated with these trends.[17] The more fortunate ones managed to escape Europe before World War II; a large number of those who remained (together with much of their audience) met their fates in concentration and extermination camps. These artists’ and intellectuals’ experiences are paralleled in Botstein’s own family history; his parents arrived in Switzerland from Łódź, Poland, in the late 1930s to study medicine. They survived the war years in that precariously neutral country and emigrated to the United States in 1949, when their son Leon was three years old. Most of their relatives perished at the hands of the Nazis.[18]

To a considerable extent the Botstein family’s experiences during and after World War II inform his own efforts to ensure that nearly forgotten composers and artists not be consigned to oblivion. As Botstein has observed:

For the victims lucky enough to escape Europe before 1939 fleeing involved leaving jobs, possessions, and acquaintances behind and oftentimes switching languages, despite the vitality of émigré language communities well into the 1960s in places such as the United States, England, Brazil, and Israel. What occurred was an abrupt erasure of their lives. That erasure was made more powerful by the relative, if not complete, absence of contemporaries in new surroundings who might bear witness to their previous histories.[19]

In 1992, the same year that he received his appointment with the American Symphony Orchestra, Botstein was named editor of The Musical Quarterly, a prestigious journal established in 1915 and now published by the Oxford University Press.[20]  For close to two decades this has placed him at the heart of musicological and music-historical scholarship and has also offered him a prominent platform to present his own thoughts on subjects near and dear to him. (Excerpts from some of his Musical Quarterly editorials accompany this essay.)

Ultimately, though, it is the power  — and not the study — of music that motivates and moves Botstein. His maternal grandfather, he recollects, was an avid music lover: he spent his mornings listening to records and the radio well into his nineties. He had been in the Warsaw ghetto and ultimately ended up in a German labor camp. He recounted that the only time during the war years that he remembered crying was in the barracks of the labor camp when another prisoner, for no apparent reason, began to sing a song by Schubert.[21]

Like his grandfather, Botstein is profoundly affected by many of the compositions that he has listened to and performed. “When my children were young, they used to like to go to concerts with me because they loved to see their father cry,” he once remarked. “There are passages that I worry about conducting because I myself am overcome by the music.”[22]

In his Presidential Lecture, “Music between Nature and Architecture,” Botstein addresses the intersections of — and synergies between — intellect and emotion. The affinities between his chosen topic and his personal experiences as administrator (in spite of himself), scholar, master builder, conductor, and impresario are striking indeed.

[1] Jacob M. Appel, “Leon Botstein: The Maestro of Annandale,” Education Update Online, January 2004 (College President’s Series):

[2] Andrew H. Malcolm, “College Names 23-Year-Old President,” The New York Times, June 26, 1970.

[3] Leon Botstein, Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1997. See also his article “Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood,” The New York Times, May 17, 1999.

[4] See for example these articles by Leon Botstein: “Education Should Drop the Guise of Being a Science: New Book Attacking SATs Has Right Message, Wrong Tone” [review of None of the Above: Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude, by David Owen], Christian Science Monitor, July 5, 1985; “A Tyranny of Standardized Tests,” The New York Times, May 28, 2000.

[5] “Making the Teaching Profession Respectable Again,” The New York Times, July 26, 1999.

[6] Appel, “Leon Botstein: The Maestro of Annandale.”

[7] Thor Eckert, “Professor Botstein in the Promised Land,” The New York Times, March 12, 2006.

[8] Anthony DePalma, “The Most Happy College President: Leon Botstein of Bard,” The New York Times, October 4, 1992.

[9] Eckert, “Professor Botstein in the Promised Land.”

[10] DePalma, “The Most Happy College President.”

[11] Tracie Rozhon, “From Gehry, a Bilbao on the Hudson,” The New York Times, August 20, 1998.

[12] See, accessed March 2011.

[13] See, accessed March 2011.

[14] See, accessed March 2011. Stanford Music Professor Thomas S. Grey edited Richard Wagner and His World in conjunction with the 2009 Bard Music Festival.

[15] However, the Head of Stanford’s Music Library, Jerry McBride, points out that Botstein’s recording of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony relies upon the Schalk 1894 edition, which is rarely played nowadays. In addition, some attentive listeners to his live performances of the Fifth have remarked upon their relatively fast, “Schubertian” tempi — which in effect highlight the debt that this late Romantic-era composer owed to the Classical tradition. Compare this sample of Botstein’s rendering of the first movement of Bruckner’s Fifth:

(London Philharmonic Orchestra, Telarc CD-80509) with, say, this performance by the Berlin Radio Symphony, conducted by Heinz Rogner (Berlin Classics 0030112BC; available to the Stanford community from the Naxos Music Library).

[16] Roberta Smith, “Fin-de-Siècle Hothouse, Plush and Neurotic,” The New York Times, February 25, 2011.

[17] Botstein addressed the role of Jews in German and Austrian culture in his book Judentum und Modernität: Essays zur Rolle der Juden in der Deutschen und Österreichischen Kultur 1848-1948 (Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1991). See also Vienna: Jews and the City of Music, 1870-1938, Leon Botstein and Werner Hanak, eds. (Vienna: Wolke Verlag, 2004).

[18] J. J. Goldberg, “Leon Botstein Passes the Baton — To Himself,” The Jerusalem Report, May 21, 1992, p. 42.

[19] Leon Botstein, “Reinventing Life and Career: The Perils of Emigration,” Musical Quarterly (2007) 90(3-4): 309-318.

[20] (full text available to the Stanford community and other subscribers only).

[21] Leon Botstein, “On the Power of Music,” Musical Quarterly (Summer 2005) 88(2): 163-166.  Available to the Stanford community and other subscribers at

[22] Barrymore Laurence Scherer, “The Conductor as Musical Explorer,” The Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2006.

Text by Zachary M. Baker, Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections
& Assistant University Librarian for Collection Development - Humanities & Social Sciences.

Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2011


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