Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 2 (Spring 2003)

Serge Koussevitzky Discovers America

By Colin Eatock

"I am an American citizen, but I still love Russia."1 - Serge Koussevitzky

"There is no profession which an impostor could enter more easily."2 - Carl Flesch

THOSE OF FUTURE GENERATIONS with an interest in the musical life of the twentieth century may well view it as a time when the authority of the orchestral conductor reached its zenith. While it could be said that the era of the great conductor began to decline before the century was over, in the middle decades, conductors such as Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski and Sir Thomas Beecham commanded the awe of the public and wielded dictatorial powers over their players. "These conductors were world famous, presiding over particular cities where they had established their kingdoms," wrote a veteran cellist in 1997, recalling several celebrated conductors under whom he performed. "They were musical gurus and they gloried in that role, doing nothing to discourage the cults that deified them."3

Indeed, it is fair to say that some conductors went so far as to actively promote their own cults - probably none more so than Serge Koussevitzky, whose remarkable career culminated in a quarter-century tenure as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In no small measure, the aura of reverence and mystery that surrounded this Russian-born conductor was cultivated by Koussevitzky himself - so that to this day he remains a debatable and debated figure.

The twentieth century will also be remembered as a time when the musical culture of the United States was influenced by the arrival of thousands of European exiles and émigrés - many of whom left their homelands because of repressive political regimes. These musicians did much to change America, and in many cases America changed them also. Again, Koussevitzky figures prominently among such artists, belonging, in a sense, to both categories: he was an exile from Russia in 1920 and an émigré to the USA in 1924. Koussevitzky lived in a politically charged era, and his experiences seem to have had a "politicizing" influence on the conductor. While he often took an expedient approach to political issues, he could also stand by his convictions.

Koussevitzky's impact on the musical life of the United States was powerful, and is still felt in many ways. But to fully assess Koussevitzky's contributions - to determine how his strengths and weaknesses, his ambitions and achievements, and his personal experiences as an exile and émigré influenced music on this side of the Atlantic - we must attempt to penetrate the mythology built up around the man. Ironically, rather than serving to pull Koussevitzky down from his pedestal, such an approach underscores the extraordinary scope of his achievements. Once he ceases to be an Olympian god and becomes a mere mortal, his life's work as a musical patron, publisher and conductor becomes all the more remarkable. To evaluate his influences, we must first take a critical look at his life.

Unfortunately, Koussevitzky was in many ways an obstacle to any such endeavour. On one hand he and those around him attempted to control his public image strictly; on the other, he confused the public with incomplete or even conflicting accounts. Did he enter the School of the Moscow Philharmonic at the age of 14 or 17? Was he or was he not a student of the legendary Arthur Nikistch?4 What led him to divorce his first wife, and remarry almost immediately? When did he convert from Judaism to Christianity, and why? And - what is probably the most frequently asked question - to what extent did he technically master the art of conducting?

While there is no lack of information on Koussevitzky, especially concerning his years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, not all of it can be entirely trusted. The New York Times critic Olin Downes' stamp of approval - he praised the BSO as "a band that Mr. Koussevitzky has brought to unique flexibility, sensitiveness and virtuosity"5 - may have been influenced by his personal friendship with the conductor. Similarly, the composer Aaron Copland's warmth towards Koussevitzky may be based on gratitude for the conductor's performances of his works. However, any suspicions surrounding these sources are eclipsed by the fawning words of Koussevitzky biographer Arthur Vincent Lourié.

Lourié was a composer and cultural commissar who befriended Koussevitzky in the early days of the Soviet Union. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (second edition), he resigned his post and left the USSR in 1921 "under mysterious circumstances,"6 settling in Paris. He moved to the USA in 1941 and died in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1966. In 1931 he wrote, at Koussevitzky's request, Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch, a biography that describes itself as "the objective testament of one musician concerning another."7 Conspicuously absent from this volume is any mention of the conductor's first wife, or his Jewish origins (two biographical details that Koussevitzky may have feared would lead to prejudice against him in the USA). However, we read of Koussevitzky's "brilliant results and unqualified triumph"8 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he raised "to a position higher than it had previously attained at any time."9 There can be no doubt that this statement is free from subjective opinion: Lourié had never heard the orchestra!

Put plainly, Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch is 253 pages of propaganda - and as such, it is tempting to dismiss the book altogether. But to do so would be a mistake, for it is so closely allied with Koussevitzky's ideas - one suspects that whole chapters were heavily influenced by the conductor - that it takes on a quasi-autobiographical significance. For instance, when we read that "fundamentally, the American school of composition is cosmopolitan,"10 it is reasonable to believe that we are reading Koussevitzky's views, not Lourié's. Again, Lourié seems to be saying exactly what Koussevitzky wants him to say. (Years later, the conductor showed his gratitude for Lourié's support with a grant from the Koussevitzky Foundation to write an opera.)

Happily, there are more reliable sources available. The music critic Harold C. Schonberg, the lexicographer Nicholas Slonimsky and others wrote insightfully about Koussevitzky without apparently wishing to win his favour. And there is also Moses Smith's 1947 biography Koussevitzky, which is not uncritical and clearly strives for balance. Koussevitzky tried to suppress publication of this book by means of a lawsuit.11

Let us begin, then, at the beginning, and try to hold to the facts. The future conductor was born Sergei Aleksandrovich Koussevitzky, in 1874, in the Russian town of Vishniy-Volochek, into a family of poor Jewish musicians. He himself excelled at music, and as a teenager won a scholarship to study the double bass at the School of the Moscow Philharmonic. His rapid progress on the instrument led to his appointment to the Bolshoi Opera Theatre in 1894. (It was perhaps at this time that he converted to Christianity.) With the dawning of the twentieth century, he began to make rapid progress, professionally and personally: in 1901 he was appointed principal bass of the Bolshoi; in 1902 he married his first wife, the dancer Nadezhda Galat; and the following year traveled to Berlin to give a successful solo double bass recital.

In 1905 he divorced his first wife, and married his second: Natalya Ushkov, the heiress to a fortune made in the tea-trade. His new-found wealth enabled him to leave the Bolshoi Orchestra - and display an early example of Koussevitzkian dramatic flare. In a letter to the press, he complained that in the Bolshoi Orchestra he was overworked "like an ox, like a slave, like a helot."12 Now financed by his wife's family's fortune, he was free to do as he pleased, and he set about organizing an orchestra for his own conducting practice. (He also hired pianists to help him learn scores - a controversial approach that will be discussed later.) By 1908 he felt sufficiently rehearsed to hire the Berlin Philharmonic for a debut concert. As if his new career as a conductor were not enough, in 1909 he founded the éditions Russes de Musique publishing firm to promote Russian composers, establishing offices in Moscow and Berlin.

In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, Koussevitzky concertized on the double bass, conducted his own orchestras on tours of Russia and published works by Aleksander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninov, among others. He was criticized by the Moscow newspaper Russkoye Slovo for "self-advertising,"13 but his promotional efforts had made him famous. Capitalizing on his celebrity status, in 1911 Koussevitzky ignored a government edict: in a St. Petersburg concert, he chose to commemorate the recent death of Leo Tolstoy with a minute of silence, despite a ban on such gestures. (Tolstoy was, at the time of his death, not in favour with the Orthodox Church or with the Czarist government.)

Little has been written about this incident: Smith calls it "daring,"14 and Lourié commends the conductor for his "courage" - going on to state that "it was expected that Koussevitzky would hardly escape exile"15 for his audacity. However, all that came of the matter was a letter from the Governor of St. Petersburg inquiring about the incident. Arguably, the minute of silence was a "political act," in the sense that it intersected with the politics of the day. But Koussevitzky's message was, in another sense, apolitical: a declaration that art - especially his art - should supercede politics; and this view lay at the core of his beliefs throughout his career. This was the first of many occasions on which Koussevitzky correctly gauged the extent to which he could successfully bend officialdom. It was a skill that served him well.

When the Revolution came, it was impossible for Koussevitzky (or anyone else in Russia) to treat politics as a trifling matter. Whether he wished it or not, his personal fortune and his artistic stature brought him to the attention of the Bolsheviks. Concerning Koussevitzky the millionaire, the new government showed no preferential treatment, seizing his assets and nationalizing his in-laws' tea business.16 But Koussevitzky the artist was dealt with quite differently: in 1917 he was appointed conductor of the newly reorganized State Orchestra of Petrograd, and was allowed to continue his own concerts in Moscow. Yet despite these gestures, Koussevitzky was not comfortable with the Bolsheviks. He made this quite clear in a letter to the press, published in 1917, before the Soviet regime imposed effective press censorship:

In circles closely connected with the State Orchestra and interested in its existence certain persons have spread the report that I, who am in command of the orchestra, am in full accord with the Government of the "People's Commissars." Furthermore the fact that in the present circumstances I continue to give concerts is held by these persons to be a proof of my readiness to come to terms with the "existing state of things" - that is, to recognize it as lawful and normal. All this is entirely false. . . .17
He concluded:
In regard to the concerts, I shall continue to give them, not, of course, to show my approval of the harshest, most despotic and violent regime that has ever reigned over us, but for the sake of those chosen, sensitive representatives of our suffering society to whom music is equivalent to daily bread and who seek in it a respite - though it be only brief - from the hideous element of baseness and brutality which has us in its grasp.
What are we to make of this statement? It is hard to overlook the fact that Koussevitzky's actions at this time were not consistent with his words. No doubt, Koussevitzky genuinely coveted the position of leader of the State Orchestra of Petrograd: it was his first appointment as a conductor, and in accepting it he was indeed displaying a willingness to "come to terms with the existing state of things." Yet even if his words were not supported by his actions, it cannot be denied that his words were brave. Given the political climate and Koussevitzky's complex relationship with the Bolsheviks as both a decadent capitalist and a valued artist, surely his most prudent course of action would have been to say nothing. To make such a statement was, in fact, probably the riskiest thing he did in his life - and once again he demonstrated an uncanny grasp of what would be tolerated by authorities. (One can only wonder how he would have dealt with Joseph Stalin.)

By 1920 Koussevitzky arrived at the conclusion that his best opportunities lay outside his the land of his birth. But before he left the country, he offered financial assistance for Prokofiev's departure - the beginning of his lifelong policy of generosity towards musicians fleeing totalitarian regimes. Concerning his own departure, Lourié reports that only when Koussevitzky threatened to withdraw his services - in effect, to go on strike - was he given permission to leave Russia (by then re-named the Soviet Union). As for the reasons behind his decision to leave, Smith points out:

From the time of his second marriage in 1905 he had been able to pursue his career on his own terms, to be his own manager, to set his own artistic standards, and to determine the conditions under which those standards were to be applied. It was this freedom, "bourgeois" in Soviet language, which Koussevitzky sought to regain by leaving Russia.18
Smith also suggests that the conductor may have been motivated by a "grudge against the Soviets for expropriating his Russian fortune,"19 which would certainly be understandable.

Koussevitzky and his wife went into exile on what was officially a one-year visa, first to Western Europe and eventually to the United States. Although in later years Koussevitzky expressed the desire to take the Boston Symphony Orchestra on tour to his homeland, he never returned. (The BSO, did, however, become the first American orchestra to visit the USSR, in 1956, five years after Koussevitzky's death.)

How did the Russian Revolution affect Koussevitzky's Weltanschauung? It politicized a man who otherwise might not have thought much about "capital P" politics (i.e. formal political parties, movements and institutions). In future years, he was given to utterances in strong terms: The Bolsheviks had made the Russian people "slaves . . . obliged to work for nearly nothing,"20 he remarked to an American reporter in 1930. Smith states that the conductor even wrote an article on the "menace of communism" that was never published.21 However, it should not be forgotten that politics with a "small p" (i.e. social interactions, motivations and allegiances) came as naturally to Koussevitzky as breathing. While he was no doubt sincere in his anti-communism, surely he realized that in the West such statements would be viewed favourably and could possibly aid his career. Outside the public sphere his views were not so straightforward: Ewen claims that Koussevitzky privately expressed "admiration for the wonderful accomplishments made possible by the comprehensive, democratic system of musical education in the Soviet Union."22

Koussevitzky's attitudes towards the USSR became a public matter once again in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Koussevitzky had been an outspoken opponent of Hitler in the 1930s, calling him "the world's gangster number one,"23 and he quickly sprang to the USSR's defence. The conductor presented war relief benefit concerts (in which he helped popularize the music of Dmitri Shostakovich in the USA) and served as chairman of the Music Committee of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.24

According to Lourié, Koussevitzky's departure from the Soviet Union in 1920 brought "a sense of happiness, of relief and tranquility after the violent collectivist turmoil of Soviet Russia."25 Following a brief sojourn in Berlin to assess the state of his publishing business, Koussevitzky moved to Paris. There he established his Concerts Koussevitzky, reverting to his earlier practice of engaging his own orchestra. For these concerts he favoured such Russian composers as Aleksander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, as well as such Parisian talents as Eric Satie, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. He commissioned Maurice Ravel to orchestrate Modeste Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and at this time also made one of his rare forays into the operatic repertoire. He guest conducted in Western Europe and also toured with his double bass - encountering a totalitarianism of a different stripe in Italy, where one of his recitals was interrupted by a Fascist demonstration. (Perhaps Koussevitzky remembered the event when, in 1931, he cancelled an engagement at Milan's La Scala, to protest against threats that Toscanini had received from Fascist thugs. "I have always tried to keep politics out of art," he said. "The Toscanini episode recalls certain phenomena in Soviet Russia.")26

But he held no appointment. And when the Boston Symphony Orchestra approached him in 1923, with a three-year contract and an annual salary of $50,000,27 he readily accepted the position of conductor of the BSO. Again, there was boldness in his actions: he had never been in the United States (his previous plans to tour the USA had always fallen through); and the closest he had yet come to conducting an American score was Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231 - the Swiss composer's musical tribute to American locomotive engineering.

When the BSO's manager, William H. Brendan, returned from France with a signed contract, his assistant asked him to describe the new conductor. Brendan 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."28 It is not surprising that Brendan found it difficult to summarize Koussevitzky: there had never been anyone like him before. He had thrilled Russia and then Western Europe as a bassist and a conductor. He had promoted and published many contemporary composers. As a musician, he had many strengths and was adept (perhaps too adept) at circumventing his weaknesses. As the manager of his own career, he was a daring strategist who never missed an opportunity. Already he had achieved a great deal: if the Aquitania had sunk before reaching the New World, he would still be remembered today as a remarkable man. But Koussevitzky - just two months past his fiftieth birthday - arrived safely in New York on September 12, 1924.

The European musicians who immigrated to the USA throughout the twentieth century encountered a wide variety of challenges, which they responded to in many ways. To a large extent, success in America depended on the émigré's initial reception, and how that reception was managed by the émigré. Such figures as Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanni arrived in the USA as European celebrities and forged major American careers; others, such as Alexander Zemlinsky and Ernst Toch, received no such welcome, adapted poorly, and were less successful.

Given Koussevitzky's promotional skills, and the willingness of America to accept the judgements of Europe, it is hard to imagine a conductor and a nation more suited to one another. Indeed, from the outset, as reporters and photographers crowded the New York pier, it was a veritable match made in Heaven. As a famous European it was not necessary for Koussevitzky to first prove himself to the American public. His glittering reputation was proof enough: writing two decades after the conductor's arrival, music critic and historian David Ewen recalled that "he came to America an almost legendary figure."29 However, it was also known that Koussevitzky was a promoter of contemporary music, and this fact may have caused some anxiety. Certainly, Olin Downes, in his first article on the conductor, thought to bring the matter up. "Koussevitzky has been told that Americans do not like too much pepper where orchestral music is concerned," the critic wrote, "and he is inclined to be cautious in this direction."30

While it is not hard to imagine what Americans thought of Koussevitzky, it is difficult even to speculate as to what the conductor might have expected of the United States of America, and his new home of Boston. According to Pierre Key's Year Book, an annual musical directory published in New York, Koussevitzky would have found that music was thriving in America in the mid-1920s. Key boasted:

If a count could be made of those who attend the numerous symphony concerts offered regularly in not less than one hundred United States cities between every October and May, the total would probably reach a quarter of a million. An equal number of musically cultivated listeners (and not all of them the same persons who hear symphonic music) patronize chamber music affairs.31
Concerning the city of Boston, Key observed:
Boston's verdict on things musical is held in high esteem. A solo instrumentalist or singer, seeking recognition throughout the country, feels it imperative to give a recital in Boston - either after or prior to appearing in New York. . . . The New England metropolis prides itself on its music independence. It was the first of our foremost communities to bring the modern symphony orchestra to its highest level.32

Boston's "modern symphony orchestra" was a distinguished organization, but one that had had its ups and downs over the years. Uniquely among American orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the invention of one man: Colonel Henry Lee Higginson, a wealthy philanthropist who personally created, owned and managed the ensemble from 1880 until 1918, when a board of trustees was formed. According to Smith, Higginson "had privately come to the decision that five years was ordinarily a sound limit to the tenure of a conductor of his orchestra,"33 and as a result the orchestra had gone through many conductors in its relatively short history. As well, a whiff of recent scandals - one that erupted when the German conductor Karl Muck seemed reluctant to perform The Star-Spangled Banner during war-time concerts; and another that lingered from an attempted unionization and strike in 1919 - hung over the orchestra.

Koussevitzky succeeded Pierre Monteux, who led the orchestra from 1920 to 1924 - an excellent conductor by all accounts. However, writes Ewen:

Monteux worked against insuperable obstacles. The failure of a strike in the orchestra to establish a union resulted in the resignation of twenty of its important musicians, including the concertmaster. With such a depletion of forces, the orchestra for a while became a skeleton of itself.34

Koussevitzky lost little time reorganizing the orchestra: on April 17, 1925, the Boston Evening American reported that "the greatest shakeup in the history of the orchestra was about to take place."35 The conductor dismissed almost a score of players, and made it clear to the rest that his word was law - something no BSO player doubted for the next twenty-five years. To the press, Koussevitzky was vague about the sacked players' musical failings: he criticized them only for smoking in rehearsal. In one of the more pointed allegations in his book, Smith suggests that Koussevitzky was inclined to scapegoat his musicians for his own deficiencies. He cites a telling example:

There was no question about who was to blame on an occasion in Brooklyn when the orchestra was playing the "Forest Murmurs" from Siegfried. The music, it will be recalled, has numerous changes of time-signature. Through page after page of the score Koussevitzky conducted with the wrong number of beats to the measure. Then, to make matters worse, he began frantically giving cues in the wrong places. . . . The Boston musicians, like good troupers, finally got together somehow and finished together.36
Smith adds:
After the concert Koussevitzky called in two or three of the principal players and treated them to a tongue-lashing. It took a good deal of persuasiveness and tact to convince Koussevitzky that the fault was his own.37

In light of this claim, one of the most frequently asked questions hanging over Koussevitzky's reputation should now be addressed: what were his true abilities as a conductor? To be sure, his techniques - and even his competence - have been debated by a number of critics and musicians. Arnold Schoenberg (who convinced himself that Koussevitzky bore some personal grudge against him) accused the conductor of "general ignorance as a musician and a man."38 Igor Stravinsky is said to have sarcastically remarked, "His genius frees him of the necessity of studying at the piano the scores that he deigns to conduct. For this inferior function, someone is always ready to play the music until this star has his ass full of it."39 Not surprisingly, Lourié defended Koussevitzky's methods, protesting, "As though it mattered how a score was learnt - whether by eyes, ears, or fingers!"40

One of Koussevitzky's more notable rehearsal pianists was Nicholas Slonimsky. The brilliant musical factotum first met Koussevitzky in Paris in 1921, where the conductor hired him to help him learn modern scores. In his autobiography, Perfect Pitch, Slonimsky recalls that when he was assisting the conductor's first attempt to learn The Rite of Spring, a problem developed:

When precise metrical changes occurred, as from 3/16 to 2/8, he kept slowing down the sixteenth-notes and accelerating the eighth-notes so that the distinct binary ratios dissolved into formless, neutral triplets. . . . Koussevitzky also had trouble in passages of 5/8 in relatively moderate time, particularly when 5/8 was changed to 6/8, or 9/8, as happens in Stravinsky's score.41

Slonimsky's solution was to edit the score for Koussevitzky, re-drawing the bar-lines so that it was easier to conduct, without changing any of Stravinsky's notes. When Slonimksy immigrated to the USA in 1923, he again found himself in the conductor's employ - but when he became publicly known as "the person who teaches Koussevitkzy how to read scores," relations between the two men deteriorated. Slonimsky was soon dismissed.

It would be possible to devote an entire volume to a discussion of Koussevitzky's technical skills (or lack thereof) as a musician. But any discussion of Koussevitzky the conductor would be incomplete without also noting that he was primarily admired for the spirit of his performances and his effect on musicians. "The orchestra is as pliable under his fingers as the double bass, " stated Ewen, "he plays on it with an infinite variety of touch and nuance."42 And one BSO musician who played under him wrote, in 1969, "I am convinced he was the greatest conductor who ever lived."43 Some critics found his interpretations of the core repertoire too untraditional, but Koussevitzky defended himself with characteristic immodesty: "Who is it that makes a tradition?" he asked rhetorically. "The artist. Who follows it? The Kapellmeister."44

In any event, Koussevitzky's most far-reaching contributions to the musical culture of the USA went well beyond conducting, per se. As a conductor, he was just one of several prominent émigrés in mid-century America: Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Monteux, Dmitri Mitropulous, Artur Rodzinsky and others can all lay claim to impressive legacies. These conductors all left (in varying degrees) fond memories for audiences, fascinating recordings for collectors and fine orchestras for their successors. Koussevitzky left much more than this to the world. Musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt, who undertook a detailed study of Koussevitzky's repertoire in 1946, argues that "American symphonic music probably owes more to the uninterrupted efforts of Dr. Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra than to any other conductor or orchestral group."45 Harold C. Schonberg, comparing him with Toscanini and Stokowski, wrote, "Of the three, Koussevitzky was by far the most important to the cause of American music, for in him the composer had a spokesman and an exponent."46

In his very first season with the BSO, Koussevitzky began to promote American music, performing the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra of the young Aaron Copland, whom he had met in Paris in 1923. In 1944, the composer recalled in an article in Musical Quarterly his first introduction to the conductor, arranged by his teacher, Nadia Boulanger:

Mademoiselle Boulanger, knowing the Russian conductor's interest in new creative talents of all countries, took it for granted that he would want to meet a young composer from the country he was about to visit for the first time. That she was entirely correct in her assumption was immediately evident from the interest he showed in the orchestral score under my arm. It was a Cortège Macabre, an excerpt from a ballet I had been working on under the guidance of Mademoiselle Boulanger. With all the assurance of youth - I was twenty-two years old at the time - I played it for him. Without hesitation he promised to perform the piece during his first season at Boston.47

Ewen remarks, "it is safe to say that no influence was more responsible for Copland's present position in American music than Koussevitzky's championship."48 The conductor helped many others as well. When Koussevitzky heard of Walter Piston at Harvard, he sought him out and asked him to write a piece for the BSO. When Copland suggested the conductor might be interested in the works of the then-unknown William Schuman, Koussevitzky promptly programmed his music. He also took care to pay his respects to more established American composers: in his early Boston years, he performed works by Arthur Foote, Charles Loeffler, Henry Hadley, George Chadwick and Edward MacDowell. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of ASCAP in 1939, he presented an American festival, featuring works by Arthur Foote, Deems Taylor, Henry Hadley, Howard Hansen, William Schuman, George Gershwin, Roy Harris, John Alden Carpenter and Randall Thompson. Leichtentritt has calculated that between 1924 and 1944 Koussevitzky presented 162 American works, sixty-six of which were premieres.49

Nor were European composers neglected. Koussevitzky performed works by such varied composers as Igor Stravinsky (his Symphony of Psalms was commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the BSO in 1930), Ottorino Respighi, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Bohuslav Martinu, Ernst Toch, Jacques Ibert, Arnold Bax, and of course Béla Bartók, whose Concerto for Orchestra was premiered by the BSO in 1944, just months before the composer's death. (Arnold Schoenberg, however, was rarely heard on Koussevitzky programmes.)

Copland, in his article, goes on to praise the work of Koussevitzky and the BSO (evoking the vocabulary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), but he also points out that Koussevitzky harboured no particular love of American composers:

. . . a New Deal was instituted for the American composer. Fundamentally, this New Deal was founded upon the solid rock of Dr. Koussevitzky's unwavering belief in the musical creative force of our time. He had always had that faith - in Russia it had been Scriabine, Stravinsky and Prokofiev who aroused his enthusiasm; in Paris it was Ravel and Honegger (among others). He had simply transplanted to our own country his basic confidence in the creative powers of our world.50
The conductor's support for American composers may well have been, as Copland (perhaps inadvertently) implies, rooted in nothing more than an accident of history and geography. Yet his achievements were nonetheless significant and far-reaching. Indeed, two institutions that he personally supported and developed continue to have an effect on the musical life of the United States.

Koussevitzky's generosity towards contemporary music culminated in the establishment of the Koussevitzky Foundation. Established at the time of his wife's death, in 1942, the purpose of the foundation was to commission new works from composers. Most of these commissioned works were orchestral compositions; however, the foundation has also commissioned operas - including Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Michael Tippet's King Priam and Luciano Berio's Traces - and chamber works. (Three Canadian composers have benefited from the foundation's generosity: Colin McPhee, R. Murray Schafer and Harry Somers.)

The Tanglewood Festival was not strictly speaking the invention of Koussevitzky, but he made it what it is today. It began in 1934 as the Berkshire Music Festival, presenting open-air concerts by members of the New York Philharmonic. The next year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was invited to play, and the festival became the BSO's summer home. By 1938, Koussevitzky had goaded the trustees into building a permanent structure, the famous Music Shed, and in 1940 the Berkshire Music Center - a training facility for orchestral musicians and conductors - was built. During the war years, Koussevitzky kept the festival going with his own funds. It remains one of the foremost music festivals in the USA.

Koussevitzy's personal attitudes towards the United States were rather complex, and changed over time. At first, Koussevitzky held himself aloof from Boston society (Smith proposes that this was at the urging of Koussevitzky's wife, who found American manners shockingly casual), and he never perfected his command of the English language. His household in Boston was run like a tiny Russian enclave, and he read the Russian émigré newspapers from Paris. One aspect of American culture that particularly displeased him was the style of music criticism.

Slonimsky recounts how the conductor flew into a rage when a critic wrote that while a Russian conductor might be inclined to give a "hysterical" performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony, Koussevitzky, in a recent concert, had not done this. Angrily, he ordered Slonimsky to type the following letter:

I am depriving Europe of my art in order to give your town the best of my artistry. Instead of gratitude, I find myself insulted on the pages of your newspaper. To say that I might have conducted in a hysterical manner is to reveal a total ignorance of my interpretive ideas. . . .51
Fortunately, the letter was never sent and a public scandal was averted.

Koussevitzky also took offense at the reviews of Boston Herald critic Theodore Chanler, and exerted all his influence to have the journalist replaced. Eventually he succeeded. The composer-critic Virgil Thomson recalled that Mrs. Koussevitzky was annoyed that Chanler's dismissal took so long to achieve. "In Europe," she explained to Thomson some time afterward, "we handled these situations more efficiently."52 Any democratic beliefs about freedom of speech that Koussevitzky may have held did not necessarily include the concept of freedom of speech about him.

But Koussevitzky seemingly warmed to his new home: over the years he shortened his summer excursions to Europe to spend more time in the USA. (He stopped giving his Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris by 1930.) And in February 1941, he and his wife became American citizens. He proclaimed to reporters:

This is where I have carved out my career in life. This is where my friends are, and this is where I want to spend the rest of my days, in an atmosphere of freedom and achievement. The United States is the only country in the world today in which artistic and musical ability can find free expression. I have great hope for the future of America and am proud to be adopted and accepted as one of its citizens.53
During the 1944 US election he utilized his citizenship by campaigning in support of Roosevelt - something he certainly did not have to do if he did not wish to.54

However, the caveat "seemingly" in the previous paragraph was deliberately chosen, as it can be argued that for Koussevitzky, nationality was a matter of mere convenience - that he was first and foremost a citizen of the world of music. (Even Lourié might have agreed with this interpretation: he described Koussevitzky's life as bearing "the impress of one single passion - his ardent love for music - which consumes his being as with fire."55) Ethnicity and cultural identity were at best of secondary significance to Koussevitzky. Apparently he was quite sincere when he suggested that a talented young conductor should change his Jewish-sounding surname to the more Anglo-Saxon "Burns," because "there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in American music."56 He warned the man, "You will never see the name 'Leonard Bernstein' on the marquee outside Carnegie Hall."

Koussevitzky retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949 and died just two years later. His impact on the orchestra was enormous: in 1969, a BSO musician wrote, ". . . the spirit of Koussevitzky still hovers over the orchestra. If I should tell you that hardly a day passes that he is not remembered and quoted, I would not be exaggerating."57 He made the BSO world-famous, developed the Tanglewood Festival, supported composers around the world and fostered the idea of an American symphonic repertoire. In one respect, his influence may have had an inhibiting effect: his neglect of opera may have hindered the progress of that art form in Boston - to this day the city does not have a major opera company. And in some ways he was not influential: his unique method of score-study has not been imitated, and his commitment to personal inspiration as the basis for interpretation has largely been set aside in favour of the current trend towards "historically informed" performance.

Koussevitzky changed music in America, but did America change him? Perhaps he thought that it did. The following words may be Lourié's, but the sentiments expressed are probably Koussevitzky's:

European musicians who have long worked in America and have been absorbed in the building up of its culture become, imperceptibly to themselves, Americanized. By degrees they lose the link with the culture in which they were trained, and are durably bound up with creation there. They rightly belong to America - they constitute the first layers of her musical and artistic agglomeration. . . .58

Politically, if America changed Koussevitzky, it was perhaps to intensify his pre-existing position as a pragmatist. Essentially he was on his own side, and he had the common sense to realize that his interests were best served in a liberal, democratic society that permitted a free flow of people, ideas and capital.

Of the men whose photographs today line the hallways of Boston's venerable Symphony Hall, some may have been better musicians, others may have had more agreeable dispositions, but none has acquired the legendary status of Serge Koussevitzky. He will remain controversial for as long as his name is known.


1. Moses Smith. Koussevitzky. (New York: Allen, Towne & Heath Inc. 1944) p. 303.

2. Norman Lebrecht. The Maestro Myth. (London: Simon & Schuster, 1991) p. 1.

3. Gordon Epperson. "At the Hands of the Mighty." The Strad. July 1997. Vol. 108 No. 1287. p. 745.

4. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 32.

5. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 215.

6. Giovanni Camajan and Detlef Gojowy. "Arthur Vincent Lourié." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (second edition). (London: MacMillan, 2001)

7. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch, translated by S.W. Pring. (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1931) p. 253.

8. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 208.

9. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 212.

10. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 224.

11. Harold C. Schonberg. The Great Conductors. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967) p. 306.

12. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 24.

13. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 48.

14. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 57.

15. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. pp. 143-144.

16. The extent to which Koussevitzky was impoverished by the Bolshevik nationalization is, like so many other things, debatable. Lourié states that by 1920 "the Kousseivitzkys had no money" (p. 185), but Smith speaks suggestively of certain family resources "salvaged from the Revolution" (p. 105).

17. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 160.

18. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 103.

19. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 103.

20. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 216.

21. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 216.

22. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 259.

23. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 273.

24. Boris Schwarz. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983) p. 189.

25. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 183.

26. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 223.

27. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 120.

28. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 120.

29. David Ewen. Music Comes to America. (New York: Allen, Towne & Heath Inc., 1947) p. 145.

30. Hugo Leichtentritt. Serge Koussevitzky: the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New American Music. (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1946) p. 14.

31. Pierre Key. Pierre Key's Music Year Book, 1925-26. (New York: Pierre Key Inc., 1925) p. 9.

32. Pierre Key. Pierre Key's Music Year Book, 1925-26. p. 89.

33. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 133.

34. David Ewen. Music Comes to America. p. 145.

35. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 177.

36. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 166.

37. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 166.

38. Norman Lebrecht. The Maestro Myth. p. 135.

39. Norman Lebrecht. The Maestro Myth. p. 136.

40. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 51.

41. Nicholas Slonimsky. Perfect Pitch: A Life Story. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1988) p. 75.

42. David Ewen. Dictators of the Baton. (Chicago and New York: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1943) pp. 99-100.

43. Harry Ellis Dickson. Gentlemen, More Dolce Please. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) p. 40.

44. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 193.

45. Hugo Leichtentritt. Serge Koussevitzky: the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New American Music. p. 3.

46. Harold C. Schonberg. The Great Conductors. p. 307.

47. Aaron Copland. "Serge Koussevitzky and the American Composer." Musical Quarterly, July 1944, Vol . 30 No. 3. p. 255.

48. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 187.

49. Hugo Leichtentritt. Serge Koussevitzky: the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New American Music. p. 151.

50. Aaron Copland. "Serge Koussevitzky and the American Composer." Musical Quarterly, July 1944, Vol . 30 No. 3. p. 257.

51. Nicholas Slonimsky. Perfect Pitch: A Life Story. p. 100.

52. Mark N. Grant. Maestros of the Pen. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998) p. 234.

53. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 302.

54. Moses Smith. Kousseivitzky. p. 324.

55. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 3.

56. Michael Freedland. Leonard Bernstein. (London: Harrap, 1987) p. 48.

57. Harry Ellis Dickson. Gentlemen, More Dolce Please. p. 51.

58. Arthur Lourié. Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch. p. 221.