One of the most important symphony conductors in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, Serge Koussevitzky (1874–1951) not only introduced American audiences to the works of modern Russian and European composers, he championed young American composers. In this regard Koussevitzky played a pivotal role in the development of modern American classical music. He was also instrumental as an educator, with probably his most important contribution in this field being the establishment of the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts.
Early Musical Training
Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky was born in Vishny-Volochok, Russia, a small town about 160 miles northwest of Moscow, on July 26, 1874. He was born into a musical family: his father played either violin or double bass (possibly both), his mother was a pianist, and one of his siblings, Adolf, was a well-known musician, teacher, and conductor in Moscow. Koussevitzky's mother died when he was three years old and he and his siblings were faced with the strict discipline of his father. At age eight Koussevitzky came under the tutelage of a local woman named Maria Fedorovna Ropenberg who not only mitigated the elder Koussevitzky's harshness, but also taught young Serge piano. Soon afterward he began composing music for the local theater and by the time he was twelve years old was touring with the theater troupe (throughout the local district). Legend has it that Koussevitzky ran away from home at age fourteen to study in Moscow, but that is only partly correct. Koussevitzky did take private cello lessons in Moscow but he seldom stayed there more than a night. In Vishny-Volochok and elsewhere—such as on the train to Moscow or on pleasure boats on the Volga River—he took odd jobs as a musician to pay for his studies and the cost of his travel to and from Moscow. In the fall of 1891 he did, however, make his way to Moscow to begin serious musical studies. He was seventeen years old and he may have been preceded to Moscow by his brother Adolf (the records are unclear).
Koussevitzky first applied for admission to study at the Imperial Moscow Conservatory but was told to reapply in the spring. Instead the impatient Koussevitzky applied for admission at the School of the Moscow Philharmonic Society, where he was given the same reply. This time Koussevitzky would not take no for an answer and the strong-willed youth managed to convince the director, Pyotr Adamovich Shostakovsky, of his desire and his merit. Since the penniless Koussevitzky could not afford the tuition he was given the choice to study either trombone or double bass, both of which came with a scholarship and a stipend (since students seldom chose these instruments). Koussevitzky chose the double bass.
Koussevitzky's double-bass professor was Josef Rambousek, a Czech who was the first double-bass player at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater. Within a year Rambousek had pronounced his gifted student a virtuoso; Koussevitzky, in 1892, even performed with Tchaikovsky (on piano) in the latter's rooms. They played the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky's first string quartet. While a gifted musician Koussevitzky was less prodigal when it came to musical theory, and this lifelong weakness not only effected his later career as a conductor but gave rise to various negative rumors.
A Virtuoso Double Bassist
Koussevitzky's performing remained unmatchable. Part of the secret of his success he claimed was that he tuned his instrument a tone higher for added clarity. On October 1, 1894, he joined the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra where he performed for both opera and ballet. Soon after this triumph, and while still attending school, Koussevitzky tried out for the position of double bassist for the orchestra of the St. Petersburg's Imperial Opera. He was the first to audition and after he performed half of the other applicants did not even bother to try out. Koussevitzky was awarded the position but refused, ostensibly because he would be performing in opera only. Many have come to believe that the whole episode was merely a prank. A personal aspect of Koussevitzky at this time is that he converted to Christianity. The exact date of this conversion is unknown, but it was sometime before joining the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra, which barred Jews.
Koussevitzky gave his first solo performance in 1896 in Moscow—though with the double bass, especially at that time, solo was an elastic word. More often than not Koussevitzky was assisted by a tenor. Koussevitzky also performed in chamber groups, either in trio or quartet. When Koussevitzky's old professor, Rambousek, died in March 1901 Koussevitzky not only stepped in to fill his position as leader of the Bolshoi Orchestra bass section, but also began teaching double bass at the Philharmonic School.
The exact date when Koussevitzky married his first wife, ballet dancer Nadezheda Galat, has been lost, though most scholars place the year as no later than 1902. By this time Koussevitzky's reputation had extended to St. Petersburg and he was about to make the leap onto the international stage. On March 27, 1903, he gave his first performance outside of Russia when he performed at Berlin's Singakademie. He gave a second Berlin performance in December 1903 and performed elsewhere in central Europe at this time. Koussevitzky also began to compose music for the double bass, since the repertoire for the instrument was extremely slim. In 1902 he composed a concerto in F-sharp minor, but he did not perform it until February 1905 with the Moscow Philharmonic. By then the force of Koussevitzky's musicianship and personality more than carried the music.
The year 1905 was a momentous one in Koussevitzky's life. Along with the premier of his composition came two major changes, one personal and the other professional. First, he divorced Nadezheda Galat and on September 8, 1905, married Natalya Ushkov in Dresden, Germany. She was the daughter of a prosperous tea merchant whose Moscow mansion was also a salon that Koussevitzky regularly visited. Thereafter Koussevitzky's musical ambition would be realized with the aid of Natalya and her family fortune. Not long after their marriage Koussevitzky resigned from the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra. In a letter to the press—which was first printed in Russkoye Slovo (Russian Word) and reprinted in Muzykalnaya Gazeta (Musical Gazette)—Koussevitzky outlined his reasons for quitting the orchestra. These included low pay and poor treatment, but worst of all, as quoted by Moses Smith in Koussevitzky, he wrote: "The deadening spirit of police bureaucracy, which has penetrated that domain where, it would seem, it should have no place whatever, into the domain of pure art, has converted the artists into artisans and intellectual work into the forced labor of slaves."
Embarked on a Conducting Career
Koussevitzky and his wife then decamped for Berlin where, in one of the great career changes in twentieth-century music, Koussevitzky forsook that of a promising musician (albeit on a "lesser" instrument) to become an orchestra conductor. He initially gave performances in Berlin, Leipzig, and other central European cities, but it was his acquaintance with conductor Artur Nikisch that altered his career. Interestingly, Koussevitzky did not attend Nikisch's conducting class. Instead he studied technique by watching Nikisch conducting during concerts; he also studied the techniques of Gustav Mahler and others. He then set about practicing a composition with a piano for accompaniment. Critics and scholars have argued the efficacy of Koussevitzky's method, but he always maintained that that was the only way he could learn the art of conducting.
Koussevitzky's debut as a conductor came on January 23, 1908, in Berlin's Beethoven Hall. He hired the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (another benefit of having wealthy in-laws) to perform a program of Russian music: Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet; Rachmaninoff's C minor Piano Concerto, with Rachmaninoff as piano soloist; the entr'acte to Taneiev's Orestes; and Glière's Symphony in C minor. The debut was by-and-large judged a success by the critics. At this time Koussevitzky continued performing, appearing on stage in Paris, London, Budapest, and Dresden, as well as Berlin. In 1909 Koussevitzky branched out even further when he and his wife founded the Russian Music Publishing House. He also returned to Russia that year.
Koussevitzky spent the years prior to the First World War performing primarily in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He was an advocate of the music of Alexandr Scriabin, whom he had met in 1908 in Geneva. His music publishing company was also on firm ground, and after 1910 he had near exclusive rights to the work of Igor Stravinsky, with the exception of The Firebird. In 1910 Koussevitzky went on tour in Berlin, London, and Paris; his conducting had developed to such a degree that even Nikisch was impressed. On his return to Russia Koussevitzky enacted a bold plan to bring music to the provinces. He hired a steamer to sail down the Volga River to the Caspian Sea with a symphony orchestra. This proved so successful that he repeated his Volga tours annually right up until the First World War. Back in Moscow for the 1910–1911 season, Koussevitzky had enormous plans: he was going to organize his own orchestra to offer concerts at prices the masses could afford, he was going to build a concert hall, and nearby that he was going to build apartments to house musicians. Of all that only the orchestra was organized—for the 1911–1912 season—and named the New Symphony Concert Union.
After war broke out in 1914 Koussevitzky traveled between Moscow and Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called) and in the summer of 1915 conducted daily performances in Moscow. With the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1918, however, Koussevitzky's days in Russia were numbered. Between the Soviet expropriation of much of the Ushkov fortune and the bureaucratic rules applied to culture, Koussevitzky decided to immigrate first to Germany, then France. He and his wife made a bungled attempt to cross the Soviet border on their own, but by 1920 he had received permission to leave.
Koussevitzky remained in Paris for four years where his stature was as high as it had been in Russia. During the 1923–1924 season he organized the Concerts Koussevitzky, introducing the work of Sergei Prokofiev to the West. By then American music critics, especially Olin Downes of the New York Times, had begun to take notice of Koussevitzky. After rejecting two offers from U.S. orchestras he decided to accept the baton of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1924. Before leaving France Koussevitzky was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Koussevitzky was conductor and music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) for 25 years and his impact on the American musical scene was tremendous. He literally transformed the BSO into a world-class orchestra. In 1931, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the BSO, Koussevitsky commissioned works by Stravinsky, George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, and others. During Koussevitzky's tenure as conductor the BSO presented 128 world premieres by such giants of twentieth-century music as Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Lukas Foss, Samuel Barber, and Arnold Schönberg as well as Koussevitzky's own Passacaglia on a Russian Theme. Under his guidance the works of American composers such as Copland, Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Walter Piston, to name a few, were showcased. During the years of the Second World War the Koussevitzky Music Foundation commissioned 20 works.
Perhaps Koussevitzky's most lasting contribution to American music was the establishment in 1940 of the Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music School, to train conductors, musicians, and composers; in the early years Koussevitzky served as instructor for the conductors and his students included Foss and Bernstein. The BSO had been performing at the Berkshire Music Festival since 1936 and Koussevitzky and the orchestra quickly became linked with the summer festival.
Serge Koussevitsky died in retirement on June 4, 1951, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Leichtentritt, Hugo, Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the New American Music, AMS Press/Harvard University Press, 1946.
Smith, Moses, Koussevitzky, Allen, Towne & Heath, 1947.
"Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky (1874–1951)," http://www.classical.net/music/guide/society/krs/koussbio.html (December 22, 2003).
"Koussevitzky, Serge." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/koussevitzky-serge
"Koussevitzky, Serge." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/koussevitzky-serge
Koussevitzky, Serge (Alexandrovich)
"Koussevitzky, Serge (Alexandrovich)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/koussevitzky-serge-alexandrovich
"Koussevitzky, Serge (Alexandrovich)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved June 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/koussevitzky-serge-alexandrovich
Serge Koussevitzky (Sergei Aleksandrovich Koussevitzky) (sĕrzh kōōsəvĬt´skē; Rus. syĬrgā´ əlyĬksän´drəvĬch kŏŏsyĬvēt´skē), 1874–1951, Russian-American conductor, studied in Moscow. He began his career as a double bass player. In 1908 he made his debut as a conductor in Berlin. In 1910 he and his wife, Natalie, formed an orchestra that Koussevitzky conducted until 1918. In 1917 he was made conductor of the State Symphony Orchestra in Petrograd. Leaving Soviet Russia (1920), he stayed mainly in Paris until coming to the United States in 1924, becoming a citizen in 1941. He was conductor (1924–49) of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and also directed (from 1936) the Berkshire Symphonic Festivals, today known as the Tanglewood Music Festival. A champion of new music and the first important maestro to emphasize modern American music, he created (1942) the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission and perform new works by American composers.
See biographies by M. Smith (1947) and A. Lourié (1931, repr. 1969); study by H. Leichtentritt (1946).
"Koussevitzky, Serge." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/koussevitzky-serge
"Koussevitzky, Serge." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/koussevitzky-serge