Arts Commentary: Reviving Memories of BSO Superstar Conductor Serge Koussevitzky

In a straw poll I have been conducting in and around Boston, I have discovered that hardly any of the under-60s can tell you who Serge Koussevitzky was or what his legacy consists of.

Sketch by Mickael Johnson

A sketch by Michael Johnson of Serge Koussevitzky.

By Michael Johnson

A Sudbury lady of my acquaintance — and she is no idiot — expressed doubt recently when I explained the origin of the Koussevitzky Music Shed, the concert hall at Tanglewood. Koussevitzky was once a person, I told her, not just a thing. “Oh rilly?” she said, genuinely surprised.

Her reaction was depressingly typical. In a straw poll I have been conducting in and around Boston, I have discovered that hardly any of the under-60s can tell you who Serge Koussevitzky was or what his legacy consists of. All of the players who suffered under his autocratic baton have died, and most others who knew him personally are in their 90s. I found this lapse of history disturbing, for Koussevitzky, with all his flaws, deserves to be remembered by us all, even 65 years after his death.

He was responsible for what we now know as Tanglewood, and his sharp eye for the music of young, untried composers brought dozens of major talents to today’s concert halls worldwide. He commissioned or premiered works by Copland, Bartok, Harris, Cowell, Gershwin, Schuman, Piston, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Sessions, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Busoni, Britten, Barber, Hindemith, Ravel, Messiaen, Martinu and many others.

It was a golden era of classical composition, unmatched before or since, and much of this music might have been lost without Koussevitzky’s generous attention.

Ironically, his choices were called “new music” of the era, and many were controversial with the conservative Boston public. He was once heard to mutter “Idiot publikum” under his breath after a cool reception to his premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. He drew the line, however, at “uncongenial” atonal works such as those of Arnold Schoenberg. John Cage and Morton Feldman would have driven him right up the wall.

Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231, a paean to a steam locomotive of the same name, “turned out,” according to one biographer from the 1940s, “to be as wild as Bostonians of that day could endure.” A sample of Arthur Honegger’s showpiece is nevertheless still performed regularly, including by Kent Nagano’s Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Here it is, in all its noisy glory, played by the Orchestre de la Folia de Lille:

The lasting impact of Koussevitzky’s musical discoveries seemed less guaranteed during his era, however, and many of his premieres never got a second hearing. Among the exceptions – despite public consternation — was Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony, which was “clapped and hissed,” wrote one critic after its premiere. Another complained of “pages that are noise, not sound; of acid harmonies that have not the saving grace of exciting surprise, that leave the hearer indifferent or bored.” Still another felt “a sense of riot, of fury.” But Copland survived, and his symphony is now part of the standard repertoire.

In his lifetime, Koussevitzky was better known for the disciplined orchestral performances of Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky classics, and the subtle, velvety sound he drew from the BSO. Those who attended his memorable concerts recall that sound, originating in the lower strings and rising upward through the violins, the reeds, and brass, a distinctive quality still recognizable today in remastered CDs. Many of these qualities were lost, however, when he was succeeded by Charles Munch, who had his own ways. Still, recordings and memories have not lost the magic.

In his prime, Koussevitzky was a superstar conductor in New England and beyond. Biographer Hugo Leichententritt credits him with national influence. “American symphonic music probably owes more to the uninterrupted efforts of Dr. Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra than to any other conductor and orchestra group,” he wrote. Specifically, Koussevitzky “awakened prominent orchestras from their indifference toward American works.”

During Koussevitzky’s reign (there is no other word), eager Bostonians scanned the newspaper obituaries, hoping to obtain subscription tickets liberated by the grave. Even Andris Nelsons and James Levine could not claim such an effect on ticket sales.

Koussevitzky was a Russian immigrant with a sixth sense for musical trends, and a ruthless taskmaster in whipping the Boston Symphony Orchestra into becoming an even better organization than he inherited. The BSO had already been polished to a fine sheen by Arthur Nikisch, Karl Muck, Pierre Monteux, and others. One instrumentalist told British critic and author Norman Lebrecht that playing in concert for Koussevitzky was a “thrill” although rehearsing under him was a “nightmare.”

He came to town in 1924, hand-picked by the BOS trustees, after prominent careers in Russia and France, at age 50 – a bit over the hill, some critics wrote. His starting salary, never published, was estimated at $50,000, in today’s money more than $1 million.

Koussevitzky’s elegant style in dress, charm and performance made an immediate impact but he still had to prove himself to the demanding Boston audience.

His most ardent critic, Moses Smith, wrote in his book Koussevitzky that it was only after arriving in Boston hat “he really began to learn how to conduct, to learn things about music that a conservatory student is expected to know at eighteen.”

Composer and critic Virgil Thomson --

Composer and critic Virgil Thomson. He was an early admirer of Koussevitzky and he believed his enthusiasm for the conductor contributed to his hiring by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Newspapers criticized him for lack of academic music training, poor sight-reading skills and even bad stick technique. No one said he didn’t work hard. Prominent American classical music critic Virgil Thomson paid the conductor a bizarre backhanded compliment: The BSO was “overtrained,” wrote Thomson. “Its form is perfect but it does not communicate. The music it plays never seems to be about anything, except how beautifully the Boston Symphony Orchestra can play…”

Koussevitzky and his second wife Natalya installed themselves in a comfortable rented home on 122 Pond Street, Jamaica Plain. Their gracious European traditions attracted Boston’s elite, many of whom could communicate with the exotic new couple in French. Later the Koussevitzkys moved to 39 Lochstead Avenue, then on to Druce Street in the more comfortable Chestnut Hill area. Finally he purchased a summer home near what is now Tanglewood.

Former players have spoken frankly of the ups and downs of playing for Koussevitzky, praising the end result of his sometimes prodding style, speaking less fondly of his harsh manner in rehearsal. The lasting impression from their comments is, however, almost always positive. The best of these reminiscences can be found at Classical Net, where Koussevitzky emerges as the kind of legendary figure that we see no more in the concert hall.

Koussevitzky left a rich legacy of new music from his era as well as one of the nation’s most important summer music festivals. On his deathbed, he asked that his memory be linked to Tanglewood.

An expanded version of the Koussevitzky story appears in this month’s edition of Open Letters Monthly.

Michael Johnson is a Franco-American music writer and failed pianist. He has contributed articles on music to International Piano, the International New York Times, The Washington Times, Clavier Companion,, and Facts & He divides his time between Brookline and Bordeaux.

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