July 26, 1940

BSO Conductor Celebrates Birthday at Tanglewood

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1950
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On this day in 1940, Sergei Koussevitzky celebrated his 66th birthday with the first class to graduate from the Berkshire Music Center in Lenox. The school was adjacent to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Russian-born Koussevitzky, the BSO's legendary conductor, was the guiding spirit behind both institutions. He first brought the BSO to Tanglewood in the summer of 1936 and soon after persuaded the trustees to build the now-famous Music Shed. Two years later, he founded the Music Center so that gifted young people such as Leonard Bernstein could learn from older masters. Nearly 70 years later, Tanglewood is one of the foremost summer music festivals in the world, drawing 350,000 concertgoers a season.

When money and gas ran low during W.W. II, he kept the festival going with his own funds.

Sergei Koussevitzky was born in 1874 in Russia to a family of poor Jewish musicians. As an adolescent, he won a scholarship to study the double bass at the School of the Moscow Philharmonic; by the time he was 20, he was playing for the Bolshoi Opera Theater. In 1905 he married Nataoya Ushkov, the heiress to a tea-trade fortune. Now financially independent, the bass player re-created himself as a conductor.

He began by forming his own orchestra so he could practice conducting. When he felt ready, he hired renowned orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, to perform under his baton. Moscow's music critics found many faults with his technique and claimed that he was using his wealth to buy his way into the profession.

But no one could deny that he was a presence. He was always elegantly dressed, favoring capes and white gloves, and had an aristocratic, magisterial manner on stage and off. More important than his style, however, was his powerful effect on both musicians and audiences.

When the BSO's manager returned from France and was asked to describe Koussevitzky, he replied, "I don't know how to tell you what kind of person he is, but I can tell you that he is somebody."

One violinist later recalled Koussevitzky's uncanny ability to move his players, to instill pride, zeal, and love for whatever piece he was conducting. The public adored him; when he left Russia in 1920 after the Bolshevik Revolution, he found a ready welcome in Paris.

Three years later, the Boston Symphony Orchestra offered Koussevitzky something he had never had — a job as conductor of an established orchestra—and he readily accepted. When the BSO's manager returned from France and was asked to describe Koussevitzky, he replied, "I don't know how to tell you what kind of person he is, but I can tell you that he is somebody." At Koussevitzky's arrival in New York in September of 1924, he was enough of a celebrity that reporters and photographers greeted him at the pier.

Koussevitzky began by ordering a shakeup in the BSO. With his authority established, the new conductor settled down to a 25-year tenure, a record broken only by Seiji Ozawa. Audiences found him magnetic; although the musicians grumbled about his technique, the great majority came to admire the maestro.

"American symphonic music probably owes more to the uninterrupted efforts of Dr. Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra than any other conductor or orchestra."

One of Koussevitzky's most lasting legacies was introducing audiences to the work of contemporary composers. Between the publishing house he founded, his insistence on including new pieces in BSO programs, and the commissions he gave to young composers, Koussevitzky showed his faith in the creative geniuses of his own time. One musicologist commented in 1946 that "American symphonic music probably owes more to the uninterrupted efforts of Dr. Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra than any other conductor or orchestra."

His other legacy began to take shape in 1935 when he accepted an invitation for the BSO to play at a music festival in the fashionable Berkshire town of Lenox. Koussevitzky decided that the BSO should make Tanglewood, the beautiful estate where the 1935 festival was held, its permanent summer home.

In 1937 the Tappan family donated 210 acres to the BSO; two years later Koussevitzky persuaded the trustees to build a fan-shaped "shed" that would seat 5,000. An additional 18,000 people could buy inexpensive tickets to sit on the lawn surrounding the open-air stage. In 1940 Koussevitzky opened the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, where 300 of the country's most promising young players spent the summer studying with BSO musicians.

"It is my child, it is my creation. It is my blood and tears. I will never give it up."

Koussevitzky was deeply attached to Tanglewood. When money and gas ran low during W.W. II, he kept the festival going with his own funds. The conductor once told a radio interviewer, "It is my child, it is my creation. It is my blood and tears. I will never give it up."

Koussevitzky retired in 1949 and died in 1951. In 1988, the Shed was rededicated in his honor as the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed. More than a half century later, his spirit lives on among the musicians, students, and audiences who flock to Tanglewood every summer.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall, by Joseph Horowitz (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005).

"Sergei Koussevitzky Discovers America," by Colin Eatock in Discourses in Music: Vol. 4, No 2 (Spring 2003)

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