Why Serge Koussevitzky Still Matters

The European maestro who championed America.
By Colin Eatock



On September 12, 1924, the Aquitania arrived in New York Harbor. Among the three thousand passengers was a Russian man, who, like many others who walked down the gangplank that day, had never seen America before.

But Americans had heard of him, and a throng of journalists was on hand to report on his arrival. He was the celebrated conductor Serge Koussevitzky, already famous for his concerts in Russia and France. Just past his fiftieth birthday, he had accepted the position of music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a job he would hold until 1949.

Koussevitzky departed from his native land in 1920, walking out on a complex and sometimes stormy relationship with the newly installed Soviet regime. With one hand the Bolsheviks confiscated Koussevitzky's personal fortune, while with the other they gave him a plum job: conductor of the State Symphony Orchestra in Petrograd. Eventually, his simmering frustration with the government came to a boil, and he threatened to withdraw his services unless he was granted an exit visa. With this document in hand he left the U.S.S.R., never to return.

Settling in Paris, he established and guest-conducted the Concerts Koussevitzky, performing a mixture of French and Russian music. And when, in 1923, he was offered the music director's post in Boston - with an annual salary of fifty thousand dollars - he readily accepted. When the BSO's manager returned to the U.S. with a signed contract in hand, he was asked what Bostonians could expect of their new maestro. Cryptically, he replied, "I don't quite know how to tell you what kind of person he is, but I can tell you that he is somebody."

Koussevitzky was unimposing in height, yet handsome and stylish. He was adventurous and mercurial, and had forward-looking tastes in music. He was charming, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, fluent in several languages. He was resourceful, with a healthy ego and keen sense of his own public image.

For his first program at Symphony Hall, the newly installed conductor began with familiar classics: works by Berlioz, Brahms and Vivaldi. Then he turned to contemporary music: Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231 and Alexander Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Olin Downes of the New York Times reported that the new conductor "swept his audience from its feet." With this debut, Koussevitzky began his twenty-five-year reign on the podium of the Boston Symphony.

If Boston quickly fell in love with its exotic new maestro, Koussevitzky was less enamored with the Boston Symphony. In 1925, informing the board of directors that he couldn't lead "an orchestra of old men," he dismissed about twenty musicians and left the remaining players with no doubt as to who was in charge.

For the next quarter of a century, "Koussy" (as he came to be known) devoted himself to the Boston Symphony. He rarely hired guest conductors for his orchestra, or accepted guest-conducting engagements elsewhere. His constant presence on the podium at Symphony Hall made him a star in Boston, and his concerts were well attended by an adoring public. Recordings and broadcasts made him nationally famous, and he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1938. And the BSO's board of directors supported him to the hilt: following his initial three-year engagement with the orchestra, he was placed on an indefinite contract - he could be the Boston Symphony's music director for as long as he wanted to be.

But there were weaknesses in Koussevitzky's musical abilities. Following his mass dismissal of players in 1925, it was whispered that these players had made the mistake of noticing Koussevitzky's technical limitations as a conductor. And it was no secret that the great maestro had difficulty learning new scores, and sometimes couldn't master them without the help of a paid assistant. If his performances were flexible and dramatic at their best, at their worst they were erratic and unstable.

Looking back on Koussevitzky's years in Boston, it's tempting to view him as just one of many European conductors - such as Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Monteux, Dmitri Mitropoulos and Artur Rodzinski - who led America's orchestras in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet while all these maestros did well in the United States, Koussevitzky and America seemed made for each other. He was an ambitious man in an ambitious nation. He gave the United States what it wanted from a conductor - prestige, stirring performances and a direct link to the musical life of Europe - and America gave him the means to achieve what he wished to achieve.

Perhaps his greatest influence was as a champion of new music - especially American new music. He respectfully programmed the works of the established American composers of the day, such as Arthur Foote, Charles Loeffler, George Chadwick and Edward MacDowell. But he was especially interested in fostering a new generation. In his first season in Boston, he performed the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra of the twenty-four-year-old Aaron Copland - the first of many Copland works he would program. Soon, more young Americans found their way onto BSO programs: Roy Harris, Roger Sessions and Walter Piston, among others.

Koussevitzky brought an international luster to Boston by commissioning music from some of the world's foremost composers. Igor Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G and Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra are just three of the many works written for the BSO in the 1930s and '40s. To this day, the Koussevitzky Foundation continues to commission new works.

The conductor's influence on American musical life took physical form in the Tanglewood Music Center, a two-hundred-ten-acre park in the hills of western Massachusetts. Strictly speaking, Koussevitzky wasn't the summer festival's founder - it opened in 1934 as the Berkshire Music Festival, with performances by musicians from the New York Philharmonic. Two years later, however, the Boston Symphony played at the festival, and when Mary Aspinwall Tappan donated her family's Tanglewood Estate to the BSO in 1938 and built the Shed (rededicated as the Serge Koussevitsky Music Shed in 1988), the orchestra found itself in possession of a summer home.

As the first large-scale outdoor orchestral festival in America, Tanglewood was a new kind of venue, which continued to be invented and defined with the passing summers. For Koussevitzky, it was a retreat, a playground and a laboratory. A theater, a recital hall and several small studios were soon added to the grounds, expanding the range of repertoire that could be presented to include opera and chamber music. And especially dear to Koussevitzky's heart was the on-site Berkshire Music Center (later renamed the Tanglewood Music Center), a summer school for advanced music students.

Koussevitzky's work as a teacher had a lasting impact. Himself a student of the great Arthur Nikisch, he considered the education of young musicians to be a sacred trust. His most famous protégé, Leonard Bernstein, arrived at Tanglewood in 1940 at the age of twenty-two. Koussevitzky gave the aspiring maestro an "A" in conducting (the only time he ever awarded so high a mark) - and also some unheeded advice. Warning him that anti-Semitism might be a professional obstacle, Koussevitzky suggested that the young man should change his surname to something less Jewish-sounding. "You will never see the name 'Leonard Bernstein' on the marquee of Carnegie Hall!" he declared.

Koussevitzky's long tenure at the Boston Symphony Orchestra came to a close when he retired in 1949 at the age of seventy-five. It was rumored that he had thoughts of relocating to Australia, but except for a few guest engagements overseas, he remained in Boston and died in 1951.

A musical performance is, by its nature, an ephemeral thing - here one moment, gone the next. For this reason, even the best conductors may have little influence beyond their own time. But in Koussevitzky's case, his legacy remains a palpable force in the world today. America would be musically poorer without him.

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