A Gramophone article from 1945 written while the great conductor still headed the Boston Symphony Orchestra
In the July 1945 of The Gramophone, Cpl Jerome J Pastene – who contributed a regular letter from Boston – paid tribute to one of the great figures in the city's, if not the USA's, musical life, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) who was in charge of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949. We revisit that article today, on Koussevitzky's birthday.
I would not be a true son of Boston if I did not sometime set myself upon the subject of Serge Koussevitzky, for no figure in musical Boston is so revered and so beloved. (Bostonians affectionately refer to him as 'Koussy', this apparent irreverence being in fact a demonstration of purest devotion.) And as a Bostonian it is only right that I concern myself with the great Russian conductor's career since he assumed direction of the Boston Symphony Orchestra 21 years ago for it is in this period of time that he has made his greatest contributions to music. For despite the fact that Koussevitzky was, in earlier years, one of the few soloists on the contrabass that music has ever produced, his claims to the furtherance of musical achievement on such a basis are slight. Hazlitt stated that 'a great chess player is not a great man, for he leaves the world as he found it'. The same is applicable to the instrumental soloist – and to the conductor. But Koussevitzky today is more than a conductor; he is a moving force, a power, a teacher, an influence in music. His championing and commissioning of new music by contemporary composers of even the most obscure sort and of all nations has advanced the growth of new great music by leaps and bounds. He has played a large role in the development of a national school of music in America, and with the Berkshire Institute and his Berkshire Festivals he has created not merely a Temple of Music but the greatest centre of living music in America. And all this work, in which Koussevitzky has contributed something more lasting to music than the passing beauty of the soloist and the conductor, has been accomplished since he came to us in Boston.
In 1924, the Boston Symphony Orchestra had fallen upon dark days. Until the entry of the United States into the First World War, it had been the foremost American orchestra, under the brilliant and tyrannical direction of Dr Karl Muck. But in the hysteria of America's first great war experiences, and in the company of many other innocent figures, such as Fritz Kreisler, Muck was accused of espionage (for a supposed refusal to perform the Star Spangled Banner), removed from his post and imprisoned. A bitter man, he quitted the United States for ever, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra went through a succession of far less able conductors. Attempts to unionize the orchestra created further discord. Internal intrigue provoked confusion. Aged players sapped the vitality of the ensemble. In 1919, Pierre Monteux assumed direction, but this genial and able Frenchman was not the man to whip the disorganized orchestra into first-class condition. Monteux resigned the post in 1924, and the directors, viewing the outstanding success of the Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris, invited its then still locally unknown conductor to assume the difficult task of reconstructing the Boston Symphony Orchestra into the great organization which it once had been.
Koussevitzky arrived, possessed of sweeping powers, the only basis on which he would accept the contract. He was ruthless – with the ruthlessness of the practiced surgeon. What was deadwood went, and the aged and inferior players were pensioned off. Be was autocratic – with the cold inflexibility of a military leader. Insubordination and opposing factions were subdued and brought under control. He was a talent-scout – raiding the best French orchestras for his men. (The roster now reads like a Paris directory Jean Bedetti, Georges Fourel, Gaston Dufrésne, Bernard and Alfred Zighera, Roger and René Voisin, George Laurent, Louis Speyer, Georges Moleux – a host of others.) The orchestra grew and flourished, subscriptions poured in, the seasons lengthened and the activities increased. Yet it was an uphill fight all the way. Early in the 1930s, the Musicians' Union began the first of its attacks upon the orchestra, and won the first engagement, barring it successfully from radio broadcasting. This was a double blow, in revenue (commercial broadcasting is profitable) and in reputation. At the beginning of the 1930s, whilst the Boston's finances dwindled and its name remained known only to those who heard it in Symphony Hall, on tour, or on gramophone records, the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York under a sequence of less successful conductors (after Toscanini), playing in a decidedly inferior manner, spread its name throughout the nation by means of its weekly Sunday afternoon concerts. At the same time, the Union forced the Boston Symphony Orchestra out of the recording studios, nor did it return until the recording of Also sprach Zarathustra in the middle of the decade. Another few years of recording, and history repeated itself, nor was the ban against the Boston orchestra lifted until it had signed with the Union. Yet, despite the difficulties which have beset him, Dr Koussevitzky has brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra to a peak where it now excels any other symphonic body and is generally rated the finest in the world today.
However, although Koussevitzky still remains to Boston the one and only conductor, the conductor par excellence, his greatest interest no longer lies in his incredible and perfect orchestra. For with the establishment at the start of this decade of the Berkshire Institute of Music, in conjunction with the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, Koussevitzky has found the complete outlet for his tireless interest in the growth and development of American music and musicians.
In the early part of the last decade, the summer and year-round residents of that section of the Berkshire Hills (in the eastern part of Massachusetts) adjacent to the quiet resort towns of Lenox and Stockbridge conceived the idea of a summer symphonic festival, using an orchestra recruited for the occasion. After two seasons operated in this manner, playing under a canvas shelter to highly appreciative audiences of unexpected size, the directors invited Dr Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to undertake the yearly presentation of these concerts. The first Boston Symphony season was a success despite heavy rains which decimated the size of the audience and made the broadcasting of the concerts almost impossible. (I recall hearing one of these broadcasts – in a downpour; the orchestra sounded as though it were competing with a hail of machine-gun bullets.) But the difficulties were transient, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra unexpectedly received a bequest of the spacious estate of Tanglewood, that idyllic setting which had prompted Hawthorne to write his delightful Tanglewood Tales.
In this superb setting, Dr Koussevitzky has since erected a capacious shed, shaped like the quarter segment of circle, open at sides and rear, the orchestra seated at the point of the wedge. The acoustics of this peculiar concert-hall are superb, and it has catered to audiences exceeding the 13,000 mark. The estate also includes a smaller, inclosed concert-hall, an opera-house, and a small hall for chamber music.
The architecture of all these buildings is purely functional and of the sort one expects from Gropius or Norman Bel Geddes. The audience is equally modern and cosmopolitan – composed in part of the youthful student body, the local citizenry, visitors from as far West as California, and sprinkled with some of the greatest figures in music today.
But the tangible fixtures are not what make Tanglewood unique. Salzburg and Bayreuth had them, and yet these festival towns were somewhat less important. What gives Tanglewood its unusual air is the unorthodox but most successful school — the Berkshire Institute — which Dr Koussevitzky has established there. Some might claim that it is not a school at all. It is open only for two summer months and the informality of the classes and the conduct of the curriculum suggest anything but a musical academy. But it is precisely in this easy-going, untrammelled atmosphere that more is absorbed in two months than can be crammed into eight in any conventional conservatory. And the word 'absorbed' is the keynote, for there is literally music in the air, and the change which overcomes the visitor's outlook and state of mind upon arriving at Stockbridge or Lenox (the two pieds-à-terre of the concert-goers) is indescribable.
To teach his students, Dr Koussevitzkv employs not only his first desk men (as instructors in their individual instruments), but some of the most famous names in contemporary music – Hindemith, Copland, Harris, Stravinsky, Martinů, Deems Taylor, Olin Downes (Music Editor of The New York Times), Leonard Bernstein, and many others.
One of Dr Koussevitzky's great interests has been the creation of an American school of composition and conducting. The students of the first have been under the safe guidance of such American leaders as Copland and Harris, and have profited by the invaluable assistance of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Martinů. The students of the second have benefited by Koussy's own personal care.
The first seasons were introduced with the flourish of Dr Koussevitzky's affirmation that he would produce five great new conductors in as many years. The war, alas, prevented the accomplishment of that plan. And yet it was not entirely defeated. The first seasons had as personal students of Dr Koussevitzky several talented young men: Thor Johnson, Lukas Foss, Richard Korn, Leonard Bernstein. Thor Johnson, today in the Army was, until his induction, responsible for many fine musical productions and performances at the University of Michigan. Lukas Foss, who has shown tendencies towards becoming a prominent disciple of the Roy Harris school of composition. has also bent his hand towards conducting. Lt Richard Korn now conducts the United States Coast Guard Band of Manhattan Beach. While still a civilian, he instituted a popular series of concerts in New York based on the London Proms, and recorded for Victor the Brahms Second Serenade and one of the Mozart Serenades.
By far the outstanding alumnus of Dr Koussevitzky's school, however, is Leonard Bernstein, about whom I wrote at length in my article on American music in the September issue of The Gramophone. This young man is a present-day example of the conductorcomposer as typified by Mahler. There are few of his age in America today who promise so much for the future.
Tanglewood, however, has not limited itself exclusively to orchestral music. Composition and performance of chamber-music have been stressed; I recall, on Sunday mornings before the afternoon's Boston Symphony concert excellent performances, open to the public gratis, of such music as a Brahms Sextet and the first performance of the Martinů Piano Quartet, this last work commissioned by Dr Koussevitzky. These performances were always given by student members of the Institute, and were of superb quality.
Opera studies and performances are under the guidance of Dr Graf of the Metropolitan, and the last season of the Institute (now temporarily suspended for the duration) witnessed an excellent production of Così fan tutte by the students. The performance, accompanied by the Institute Orchestra (composed exclusively of the student body), would have been a credit to a first line opera house.
This last season, before the crescendo of war interrupted further progress, saw one important change. The Berkshire Institute became the Koussevitzky Institute, for Dr Koussevitzky, finding in this school one of the most satisfying experiences of his entire career, bought Tanglewood from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and assumed complete and personal control of the school and all its fixtures. After the war the Boston Symphony Orchestra will undoubtedly retain its connections with the Festival (a Mozart Festival using a Chamber Orchestra drawn from the first-desk players of the Boston Symphony was presented last summer), but the Institute will be Koussevitzky's alone.
Koussevitzky's influence upon the trend of contemporary music, especially as it evolves in America, has consequently been of a far more lasting nature than one normally expects from even the most famous of conductors. So much for Dr Koussevitzky's brilliant accomplishments. What of Koussevitzky, man and artist?
Just as the most commonplace human is not one personality, but a combination of personalities, so is this great musician a blend of complementary and contradictory beings, the more vividly so for his flashing Slavic temperament. He can be, in a chameleon-like manner, alternatively genial, tyrannical, cynical, paternal, caustic, encouraging – the gamut of human emotions.
He must feel music completely to perform it greatly. His performances of the Second, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven are always superb, but his reading of the Third is something less than great, especially in the finale, and his performance of the Fifth always leaves much to be desired. His approach to Bach, Haydn and Handel is classically impeccable, and yet often, inexplicably, the finesse and elegance of Mozart escape him. (Of recent years, however, his readings of this master have grown increasingly satisfying. As an example, compare his early reading of the 40th Symphony with his much later performance of the 29th and 34th Symphonies.) Bostonians (and many others) consider his performance of the works of Tchaikovsky incomparable; I think no other conductor can approach his talent for probing and ennobling the music of that most famous of Russian composers.
But it is in the interpretation of contemporary music that Dr Koussevitzky excels. His ability to make music sing, to locate and emphasize the hidden and obscured, but lovely, inner voice has even succeeded in making some new works seem perhaps even more important than they actually are.
I should like to conclude these paragraphs with a few anecdotes which together illustrate effectively those varied characters which, together, combine to make up the man we know as Serge Kousscvitzky.
One of the most typical, illustrative of his flashing changes of mood, occurred when Bernard Fiedler (uncle of Arthur Fiedler) was in his last year with the orchestra. Mr Fiedler, aging, no longer possessed the tone and dexterity which had once made him a valued member of the orchestra. At one rehearsal he had been particularly unsatisfactory. As the men were about to leave the hail, 'Koussy' called him: 'Benny, gum here!' (I can only attempt to approximate in print Koussevitzky's priceless and inimitable manhandling of the English language.) Diffidently, Mr Fiedler advanced towards the conductor, who was smiling benignly at him. 'Benny,' said the good Doctor, 'ecu all the years you half been blaying for me, I nefer 'card a tone soch as you gafe me today ...' Reassured, Bernard Fiedler straightened up and a smile began to creep broadly across his face. Koussevitzky continued: '...a tone soch as you gafe me today. EET VAS TERREEBLE!!' (This accompanied by a purple, slightly apopletic look and a stamping of the right foot.)
Another time, meaning to reprimand the men humourously for their lack of complete attention and excess of individuality, he said, 'You vant to zail boats – I go buy you leedle boats, you go zail them in the Charles River Lagoon!' Puzzled, it was a week before the musicians finally discovered that he had referred to that old expression 'Paddle your own canoe.'
At the Berkshire one summer, conducting the Institute Orchestra in the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich, he was hurt by some errors in the cello section. Had it been his Boston Symphony, he would have stormed and raged. But mildly, almost tearfully, he turned to his boys and girls and said, 'Kinder, how could you blay like dot?' Their returned devotion to him is blindly complete. One day in the first summer of the school, arriving for a rehearsal, he stepped upon the stand (it was his birthday), made his greeting to them, assumed that pose which automatically evokes complete silence from audience and players alike, raised his stick, brought it down – and was greeted by the strains of Happy Birthday to You.
He can be facetious at rehearsals: 'Blay de nuts vass is written – nefer mind de vly-specks.' He can also rebuke an audience. One warm Saturday morning, the Festival subscribers were in attendance, about 3000 strong, at a final rehearsal (really a play-through, for Koussy hesitates to bare completely his rehearsal problems to the public, and almost whispers his reprimands and corrections on these occasions). The audience, less considerate than it should have been, preferred to gawk and gape at Lily Pons, seated among them, snap action photos of the players, and move from one seat to another. None of these things seemed to bother Koussy. Finishing the rehearsal of one work, he turned to Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. The orchestra came, finally, to the conclusion of the first 'Alborada', just prior to the brass fanfare which follows. In the moment of pause between the two sections, for some mysterious reason (since it had been asked not to interrupt the rehearsals) the audience spontaneously broke into applause. In despair, Koussy waved his hands and shrugged his shoulders at the men, and then turned to his listeners. 'Eef you must glick cameras, and ron about like cheecken midout 'cads, ve gannot re'earse. Eef ve gannot re'earse, ve gannot make moosic. Eef ve gannot make moosic, ve gannot geef a gonecrt. Eef ve gannot geef a goncert ... for vhy haf you gum here?' Abashed, and loving him all the more, the audience subsided into respectful silence.
The night of the last concert in the 1942-43 series, following the performance, I stood (with many others) in the Green Room at Symphony Hall to pay my respects and say 'an revoir' to Dr Koussevitzky. 'When you begin your next season,' I told him, 'I shall be in the Army. It may be that I shall not hear another Boston Symphony Concert until this war is ended. However, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for many wonderful years of music.' The old man took my hand, his eyes filled with tears, and in his face anyone could read the affection he holds for all who are young and in love with music, and he said, "Gum back qveekly. The Boston Symphony veel be vaiting for you."
Such is Koussevitzky. I know him to be a great musician. I think him to be a great man. And, in support of my belief I simply repeat Haslitt: 'A great chess player is not a great man, for he leaves the world as he found it.' But Koussy will not leave the world as he found it. Thanks to him, music today is a richer experience. Thanks to him, America's youth holds a promise of music unequalled elsewhere at any point in history. Thanks to him, many lives have been made fuller, deeper, broader. What more could one ask in evidence of a life's achievement?