The Composer’s Advocate: Serge Koussevitzky

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Composer’s Advocate: Serge Koussevitzky, performed on March 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Tonight’s concert pays tribute to a legendary and charismatic figure. Among Serge Koussevitzky’s formidable talents was his capacity to use his distinctive personality and dashing style as a source of inspiration for others. He left an indelible impression on Leonard Bernstein and several generations of students and protegés at Tanglewood. No conductor in the history of the Boston Symphony has ever been so beloved by his audience. Few would dispute that under Koussevitzky’s watch the Boston Symphony developed it own unique sound with a Russian-French patina, an elegance, fluidity and transparency decidedly different from the Germanic power of the Chicago Symphony tradition or the luscious sensuality and brilliance of Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra. Koussevitzky by all accounts gave great performances of many works in the standard repertory. However, he is best remembered as a patron of new music, both during his lifetime and through the tradition sustained posthumously by the Koussevitzky Foundation. Although Leopold Stokowski was undeniably adventuresome in his programming, no one could rival Koussevitzky in his support of new music through the act of commissioning new works. Stravinsky, Martin, Bartók, Dutilleux, and Copland, just to name a few, saw many of their finest works come into being as a result of Koussevitzky’s request for new works.

Despite all of this, there is a strange undercurrent in the posthumous legacy of Koussevitzky. One can detect it even in the program notes to this concert. Gary Karr alludes to the rumor that Koussevitzky did not write his own concerto. Bernard Jacobson quotes Stravinsky’s sardonic observation that Koussevitzky seemed unaware of massive errors in the parts and score he was using. The result was a catastrophic set of performances of the Ode on today’s program. There is in addition the testimony of Nicholas Slonimsky, who loved to tell of how he had to teach Koussevitzky The Rite of Spring, and even rebar it for him. And then there are the stories of how the members of the Boston Symphony knew when to come in at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: they watched Richard Burgin, the concertmaster, who in turn observed when Koussevitzky’s hand went below a certain button on his jacket. The implication was that Koussevitzky was somehow deficient in conducting technique and basic musical skills. This seems quite implausible. For reasons that are not entirely self-evident, Koussevitzky is not remembered with the reverence accorded to other past masters, the way Toscanini, Szell, Furtwängler, Reiner, or now Karajan and Bernstein are. Stokowski was accused periodically of having been a charlatan, and Koussevitzky came in for his own share of critical snobbery, but in the massive output of CD reissues, Stokowski has still done better than Koussevitzky. Yet Koussevitzky was an international star with a prodigious role in twentieth-century music history and a devoted following among the greatest musicians of his day.

Born in Russia in 1874, Koussevitzky made his conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1908, after gaining a substantial reputation throughout Europe as a double-bass soloist. He quickly acquired stature as a conductor notably through numerous guest engagements with the London Symphony. In 1924 he became music director of the Boston Symphony, a post he held for 25 years. With the BSO, he commissioned such works as Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Ravel’s Piano Concerto, and Hindemith’s Konzertmusik, among numerous other works. But it was with the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, which he established in 1942, that the conductor ushered into music history some of the finest works of the twentieth century, including Britten’s Peter Grimes, Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard, Copland’s Symphony No. 3, Milhaud’s Symphony No. 2, Villa-Lobos’s Madona, Blitzstein’s Regina, Malipiero’s Sinfonia No. 4, Piston’s Symphony No. 3, Harris’s Symphony No. 7, Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, Honegger’s Symphony No. 5, Fine’s String Quartet, Thomson’s Lord Byron, Dallapiccola’s Tartiniana, and Bernstein’s Serenade. After his death in 1951, the Foundation carried on with works by almost every major composer of the century, including Bloch, Chavez, Riegger, Carter, Schuman, Sessions, Toch, Foss, Tippet, Blackwood, Ginastera, Walton, Cowell, Poulenc, Berio, Henze, Krenek, Babbitt, Crumb, Cage, Del Tredici, Penderecki, and Birtwistle.

Perhaps it was Koussevitzky’s charm, success as an organizer, and his personal access to wealth that made him the source of envy. But the fact remains that he was a great conductor, an inspiring presence on the podium, a virtuoso of note, a competent composer, and a suave but canny observer of contemporary music. He managed to make the Boston Symphony an utterly crucial part of the cultural and civic life of that city and all of New England. He founded a school and festival which has remained a model for the entire world, through which practically every major composer, conductor, and musician has passed at some point in his or her career. After settling in Boston, Koussevitzky did not do much guest conducting and traveled reluctantly. His discography is only now slowly being made available in digital format. Tonight’s concert should inspire us to reflect on what a difference a magnetic, full-time, non-jet-setting music director of an orchestra can achieve in a city; how an orchestra can function in the culture as more than the instrument of subscription concerts; how it can generate new music and not simply be a museum intent on conservation. Koussevitzky showed how a great orchestra can play an educational role in the community, and how magnetism, elegance, generosity of spirit, and a vision can legitimately be considered an integral part of being a music director and conductor. The overwhelming fact is that no conductor in the twentieth century, not Toscanini and not Furtwängler, left such a decisive imprint on the character and direction of twentieth-century music as did Serge Koussevitzky. Through the commissions he gave and the institutions he created, Koussevitzky changed the course of history and brought into being icons of twentieth-century culture such as Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

For Koussevitzky, conducting was not the act of making a highly personalized case about an existing canon. Conducting was not merely an act of interpretation. For Koussevitzky, conducting was an act of advocacy not of dead composers but of contemporaries who needed to be prodded and supported in order to write the next new work for orchestra, so that the canon of twentieth-century music would eventually rival that of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. From the Edition Russes de Musique (a publishing house he founded in 1909) to the last commission, 48 years after his death and at the end of the twentieth century, we can observe with confidence that the legacy of twentieth-century orchestral music does indeed rival the historical body of work upon which Furtwängler and Toscanini expended most of their efforts. That this is the case is in no small measure due to Koussevitzky. The American Symphony Orchestra is particularly pleased to remind us all that the Koussevitzky tradition of support for new music continues as the Koussevitzky Foundation proceeds to commission works for the concert stage.