Serge Koussevitzky: An Appreciation



WHEN Serge Koussevitzky took his place at the conductor’s stand in Symphony Hall on October 10, 1924, to assume the direction of Boston’s famous symphony orchestra, the occasion marked the beginning of a new era in the history of American music, for Dr. Koussevitzky possessed those qualities of mind and spirit which were to give impetus and leadership to musical creation.

The conductor who is to leave an impression upon the culture of a nation must be much more than a “batoneer.” He must be an organizer and an expert in matters of personnel, since without these qualifications he could not assemble and integrate a complex organization. He must be a pedagogue and teacher, trainer and taskmaster, for a great orchestra must be amalgamated into one unit. He must be a musician whose knowledge is respected and whose conception of music is stimulating to the men of the orchestra, for the performance which results from the arduous rehearsals will reflect both in technical details and in interpretation the conductor’s powers of analysis and synthesis. The conductor should also be the musical mentor of the community. The orchestral repertory which the music-lovers of a city hear depends largely upon the choice of the conductor — upon his catholicity of taste, his sense of values, and his qualities of mind.

To what degree is an orchestra the product of its conductor? There is an old adage among orchestra men which runs, “There are no bad orchestras; there are only bad conductors.” This is an oversimplificalion. It must be admitted, however, that the performance of an orchestra reflects to a remarkable degree the genius of its conductor. We can all testify to having heard brilliant orchestras sound dull and undistinguished under less capable conductors, and second-rate orchestras sound brilliant under distinguished conductors. I have heard Dr. Koussevitzky give a program of surpassing brilliance with the student orchestra of “Tanglewood” in spite of the fact that the students, though gifted, were inexperienced and had been playing together for only a few weeks. This ability to get the ultimate from the orchestra is one of the sternest tests of the conductor’s genius.

The training of an orchestra involves two basic divisions. The first includes the fundamental technical problems of rhythmic precision, articulation and bowing, attack and release, ensemble, phrasing, balance, quality, graduation of dynamics, and the like. The second division may be said to consist of the establishment of a flexible control extending from the mind of the conductor to the members of the orchestra. Through this control the conductor is able to use the technical virtuosity of the players to express a musical idea. This phase of the art, with a great conductor like Serge Koussevitzky, approaches the point of a hypnosis whereby the conductor controls the artistic will of the hundred men of his orchestra.

No two conductors approach the training of an orchestra in the same way. Conductors tend to emphasize in differing degrees technical perfection of performance and interpretation of the content of a score. The tradition of the Kapellmeister seems to require the dissecting of a score measure by measure, rehearsing each individual bar with endless repetition — a process which too frequently impresses one as musical vivisection without anesthetic.

Certainly this is not Dr. Koussevitzky’s method. I have heard him repeat a phrase again and again with tireless persistence until his high standard of performance was satisfied; but. his search for perfection is one which goes behind the notes to the basic purpose of the composer. It is a search not so much for the elusive sixteenth note—for the Boston Symphony Orchestra can generally put the sixteenth note in its place — as for the musical effect which will best interpret the composer.

I have heard him rehearse the opening of the Overture to The Flying Dutchman dozens of times, not because the horns could not play the notes, but because the notes as played did not yet convey their emotional and dramatic portent. I have heard him rehearse passages in Elgar’s familiar Pomp and Circumstance repeatedly until the low trumpets sounded brilliant. Every student of orchestration knows that low trumpet tones cannot sound brilliant, but at the end of that rehearsal they did sound brilliant.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has achieved under Dr. Koussevitzky a technical perfection attained by few orchestras of our time, but I believe that its mechanical perfection is a by-product. The qualities of precision, ensemble, balance, and flexibility have come as a result of Dr. Koussevitzky’s striving for complete musical expression. A scale is never merely a scale; a technical passage is never played solely to display the orchestra’s astonishing virtuosity. It must be re-created as a part of an expressive whole.


IN developing this phase of orchestral training — the establishment of a quasi-hypnotic control over the orchestra — Dr. Koussevitzky has been uniquely successful. Although this control must rest on technical development, it brings into play many factors less easily defined. The relationship between a conductor and an orchestra presents a fascinating psychological study. The structure of an orchestra is basically authoritarian. The absolutism inherent in the conductor’s position may create resentment on the part of individual players and friction within the orchestra. The layman does not always realize that in a major orchestra a large percentage of the individuals are distinguished artists in their own right. They have their own ideas, both technical and interpretative, about the music which is being performed, and they may submit to the judgment of the conductor grudgingly. Only when they are convinced of the surpassing artistry of their conductor do they willingly submerge their individualities in the creation of a unified interpretation.

One of the conductor’s most formidable tasks, therefore, is to win the respect, cooperation, and loyalty of his men. That the Boston Symphony Orchestra during Serge Koussevitzky’s regime has preserved a remarkable continuity of personnel is concrete evidence of his eminent success in this task. When one considers the normal changes due to death, retirement, or incapacity in the membership of any organization over a period of twenty years, it is significant that approximately 30 per cent of the present, orchestra remains from the day when Dr. Koussevitzky assumed its directorship twenty years ago.

When we observe also that this continuity of personnel includes such outstanding artists as Richard Burgin, concertmaster, and Julius Theodorowicz, assistant concertmaster, and such distinguished first-desk players as Messrs. Bedetti, cello, Laurent, flute, Allard, bassoon, Valkenier, horn, and Mager, trumpet, we have clear proof of the warm devotion of these men to their conductor and their orchestra. They have worked faithfully with Dr. Koussevitzky through the years in creating a great musical organization.

Nor is this personal and artistic loyalty limited to the solo players of the orchestra. The rank and file of the orchestra are equally imbued with Serge Koussevitzky’s ideal of artistic perfection. I once remarked to a member of the orchestra that the Boston Symphony Orchestra did not let down on tour — that the performances in other cities were frequently comparable to the best performances in Boston. His answer was, “Well, we feel that we are the Boston Symphony.”

I recall being in the conductor’s room during the intermission of a concert which the Boston Symphony Orchestra was giving in a city that had its own symphony orchestra. A player came to Dr. Koussevitzky’s room to apologize for some “blue notes” he had played during the first half of the program. Dr. Koussevitzky’s reply was typical: “That is all right, my friend, but do not let it happen again. This city has its own orchestra. If they want blue notes, they can make their own. They do not engage the Boston Symphony to play for them wrong notes.”

The spirit of the orchestra — which Dr. Koussevitzky calls “the artistical discipline” — results, I believe, not only from the deep respect which the men have for Dr. Koussevitzky, but also from their understanding of his purpose. They realize that the same “artistical discipline” which he demands of them he exacts of himself in even sterner measure. When this unity of purpose is fully achieved, an orchestra becomes the conductor’s own instrument of expression, a part of him as the violin becomes a part of a great violinist.

We commonly think of this merging of the artistic elements of an orchestra under the control of the conductor as a long task involving years of playing together. This is basically true, and yet it is possible for a conductor to bring a highly trained orchestra under complete control in a short period of time. I recall my astonishment at a concert of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony directed by Serge Koussevitzky as guest conductor. Fantastic as it may appear, the New York Philharmonic after three rehearsals with Dr. Koussevitzky seemed to have taken on the familiar characteristics of the Boston Symphony. That conservative and thoughtful critic, Olin Downes of the New York Times, devoted a special article to a description of this very phenomenon. It can be explained, I believe, as the result of technical discipline implemented by psychic control of the orchestra by a great conductor.

In the matter of interpretation Serge Koussevitzky is the exponent of a rare philosophy. Some of our distinguished conductors are essentially fundamentalists in that they devote themselves with meticulous care to the literal exposition of a symphonic score. The defense for this theory of interpretation is that the conductor’s sole duty is the unfolding of the score exactly as it was set down by the composer.

This doctrine might have complete validity if music notation were an exact science. It is instead a rather crude manner of conveying the composer’s general intentions. Pitch notation is fairly accurate, and an A in Boston will probably bear considerable similarity to an A in Los Angeles. In the matter of tempo, composers who wish to do so may, through accurate metronomic markings, indicate the exact tempo of the beginning of a movement or section — though I have found composers as a group remarkably inaccurate in their use of this simple instrument. Beyond this point, accuracy of notation ends. There is no way by which the composer can indicate with exactness small fluctuations of tempo or subtle nuances in balance, so that even a completely accurate, literal playing of a score may result, in a performance that is far removed from the composer’s conception.

Serge Koussevitzky is not a literalist. He strives first of all to ascertain the intention of the composer, and then brings to bear his formidable technical knowledge and amazing sensibility to its realization. In transmuting the score into sound, he assumes the task of re-creation rather than of translation. In the hands of a lesser man such a sense of freedom would be dangerous, but it serves Serge Koussevitzky as a powerful lens revealing the mind of the composer with amazing fidelity.

Occasionally a critic remarks of a conductor that he “makes the music sound better than it is” — a statement which every composer naturally resents. In a literal sense it is obviously impossible to make music sound better than it is, and yet in the hands of a conductor like Serge Koussevitzky this anomaly seems actually to occur. What happens is that his sensitivity to the purposes of the composer enables him to reveal the music in its most convincing form.


I HAVE remarked that a community is dependent upon the taste of the conductor for its symphonic menu. A few conductors present almost exclusively the repertories which suit their own tastes; the greater proportion try to give their audiences a balanced diet. But in spite of honest intentions, the repertory of each conductor must of necessity bo influenced by personal taste, racial background, political leanings. An interesting thesis could be written on the influence of political developments upon the symphonic programs of a nation.

Boston has always had a fine tradition of liberalism in its symphonic repertory. No one was better fitted to carry forward and expand that tradition than Serge Koussevitzky. A Russian by birth, a pupil of Nikisch in Germany, the conductor of the famous Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris, a frequent guest conductor of orchestras both on the Continent and in England, a liberal by nature, Dr. Koussevitzky had shown himself sympathetic to the art-forms of every country. He was as formidable a protagonist of the works of the great French composers as of the composers of his native Russia. He wars as sensitive to the beauties of seventeenthand eighteenth-century Italian music as he was to the symphonies of Germany. He has a warm and receptive interest in music regardless of the country of its origin. In an age which was still to a considerable degree dominated by the German symphonic repertory, the music of all lands found in him a valiant and unbiased champion.

The fine tradition which Dr. Koussevitzky had developed in Europe he continued in his direction of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His first Boston program presented music from Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia. His second represented Germany, France, and Spain. Throughout that season and the seasons to follow, the audiences of Boston were presented a rich fare in the finest tradition of artistic and political liberalism.

In recording these achievements I have not yet emphasized Dr. Koussevitzky’s greatest contribution: his championship of contemporary music. The turn of the century brought a curious perversion of attitude toward the creative arts, a veneration of the past coupled with an apathy toward the present, a glorification of the virtuoso at the expense of the composer, a canalizing of musical activities through managerial offices possessed at times of myopic vision. Music had become big business and was subject to the pressures and conservatism of big business.

But music to Serge Koussevitzky must be a living art, an art which speaks of today and tomorrow as well as of yesterday. In Europe he had revealed for the first time to many audiences the beauties of the music of Debussy and Ravel, Scriabin, Stravinsky, and a host of others. His battle for the recognition by Europe of Europe’s own important contemporary music constitutes an important chapter in the history of contemporary European music. The list of significant works given first performances by Dr. Koussevitzky during this period cannot be set down here. The important thing to emphasize is the dynamic philosophy behind his support of contemporary music, his insistence on music as a living art and a vital, spiritual force in contemporary life.

Some European conductors coming to the United States have found adjustment difficult. Fearful of the conservatism of a new country, some sacrificed their belief in the importance of contemporary music to expediency, and played safe with a repertory limited to symphonic war-horses guaranteed to carry them to a sure and painless victory. (I recall a distinguished German conductor, famous in Berlin for his interesting performances of new music, who upon coming to the United States lapsed into a complete and deadly conservatism.)

Serge Koussevitzky was not of this mind. His philosophy was too deeply imbedded, too genuinely a part of himself, to be changed by a breath of sea air. That first Boston program challenged attention with a world premiere of Honegger’s Pacific 231. Premieres followed in dazzling succession — to the amazement and perhaps discomfiture of Boston audiences. The second pair of concerts brought the first American performance of de Falla’s El Amor Brujo and the first Boston performance of Florent Schmitt’s Rêves. The third pair listed the first Boston performance of Prokofieff’s Scythian Suite. The fourth brought the first. American performance of Roussel’s Symphony in B Flat. The fifth included the first American performance of the MoussorgskyRavel Pictures at an Exhibition; and so through the season.

It was not until the twelfth pair of concerts that the good doctor allowed the people of Boston the relaxation of an all-Beethoven program. After this brief respite from new works, Boston heard in the following week an all-Stravinsky program including the first Boston performance of the Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra with the famous composer as soloist.

Nor was the contemporary American composer neglected. The season included works by Edward Burlingame Hill, Arthur Foote, Charles Martin Loeffler, Henry Hadley, Henry Eichheim, and Aaron Copland. Dr. Koussevitzky’s interest in American music was destined to grow steadily through the years. His belief in the position of the conductor as a protagonist of the creative forces of the age in which he lives is a basic and fundamental part of his philosophy. It was, therefore, a natural projection of this philosophy that he should seek to do for the composers of the land of his adoption what he had done so successfully for the composers of Europe.


IN JULY of 1944 a unique celebration took place in New York City. Hundreds of composers and their friends gathered at a great banquet to pay tribute to Serge Koussevitzky for his twenty years of inspiring work in behalf of American music. In itself unusual, since the composer is perhaps of all musicians the most self-centered and the least inclined to express gratitude to a conductor or to a performing artist, this tribute was sincere, forthright, and lusty. By the end of the evening there could be no question as to the affection of the composers of America for Serge Koussevitzky. For all of this there is a simple explanation. The list of American works performed by Dr. Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra over the past twenty years is a blue-ribbon record of the most important works by the country’s most gifted composers.

The performance of these works represented a herculean accomplishment, but the listing of the American repertory which Dr. Koussevitzky has conducted does not by any means tell the whole story. The secret lies not merely in the number of works performed but in the quality of the performances. The American composer is accustomed to hit-and-run performances of his works. He is less accustomed to the Koussevitzky performance, a carefully rehearsed and searching realization of the orchestral score.

A composer conceiving a work thinks of its performance in terms of a celestial orchestra, an orchestra where his subtlest desires are completely realized. The orchestras of this world cannot always measure up to this celestial standard, but in Dr. Koussevitzky’s hands the realization is frequently so near perfection that the composer is left in a state of breathless gratitude. Such performances are not the result merely of a detailed technical working out of the score; they spring from Serge Koussevitzky’s psychic penetration of the meaning of the music, his magical ability to comprehend the mind of the composer.

He has, in addition, a profound belief in the music which he has chosen to conduct. Having once made up his mind as to the value of a score, he is a lion in its defense. I recall some years ago a symphony which, though favorably received by the audience, had something less than unanimous approval from the critics. Upon reading the adverse criticisms, Dr. Koussevitzky’s reaction was typical: “They do not like this music. I must repeat it until they understand it.” And repeat it he did, until the critics reformed or gave up in self-defense. This is something more than loyalty to an individual composer: it is loyalty to a principle, to a deep, personal philosophy.

The final test of a great conductor is his ability to influence the developing cultural life of the country. Conductors have not always measured up to the opportunities and obligations of such leadership. Some of them in the days before the war were birds of passage, bringing us their gifts from foreign shores and then returning home. Under such nomadic conditions they could hardly expect to take an important part in the development of the musical resources of this country. But Dr. Koussevitzky, realizing that the future of the music of a nation must rest with its young people, founded the famous Berkshire Music Center in “Tanglewood,” where in beautiful surroundings talented young musicians could come for instruction under distinguished teachers and for training in orchestral playing and conducting.

When the war made the continuance of the Berkshire concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra impossible, Dr. Koussevitzky continued the concerts for a year with the student orchestra, assuming personally both the financial and the artistic responsibility for this courageous adventure. Its success has fully justified the faith of its patron. Here he taught youth not only the notes but the spirit behind the notes. Here he imparted his own dynamic evangelism of beauty.

Aesthetics, education, and even the economics of music, have all profited from Dr. Koussevitzky’s penetrating analysis. Uppermost in his heart, however, have always been the twin spirits of creation and performance — first the music and then its transmutation into sound with sympathetic understanding and loving care. His article, “Justice for the Composer,” is as stirring a manifesto in behalf of musical creation as this age may see. His establishment of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, in memory of his wife, Nathalie Koussevitzky, for the aid of composers is evidence of his rare ability to grapple practically with the economic difficulties of the composer.

The organization of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation again emphasizes Dr. Koussevitzky’s concern for music as a living art, his passionate belief in the eternal importance of musical creation. In order to help the composer of serious music, Dr. Koussevitzky inaugurated through the Koussevitzky Foundation a series of commissions. The manner of setting up these Commissions throws a revealing light on Dr. Koussevitzky’s breadth of mind and purpose. Commissions for large works are awarded to established composers to give them time for creative work. Smaller commissions are awarded to gifted young composers, not only for the financial assistance which they afford, but to give encouragement, incentive, and recognition. They are awarded to composers of foreign as well as of American birth, to men representing varying points of view, regardless of schools of thought, race, creed, or color.

Distinguished composers who have already completed works for the Foundation include Bela Bartok, Nicolai Berezowsky, Nikolai Lopatnikoff, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud, William Schuman, and Igor Stravinsky. Gifted young composers who have completed compositions under special awards include William Bergsma, Robert Palmer, and Burrill Phillips. The list of commissions outstanding includes the names of Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, Serge Prokofieff, Arnold Schoenberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Hector Villa-Lobos.

Serge Koussevitzky has a sense of historicity, a mystical ability to feel the motion of men’s minds and to assay his own place in the development of his time. History will recognize him not only as a great conductor but as one of the significant creative forces of his era. For what he has done, and for what he will continue to do, for the music of America and of the world, we are all greatly in his debt.