fb-pixel Skip to main content

Koussevitzky’s dream, and the festival it inspired

Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, named after the former Boston Symphony Orchestra music director, with a view of lawn in the distance.
Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, named after the former Boston Symphony Orchestra music director, with a view of lawn in the distance.Steve Rosenthal/Photographer

As sunset faded into twilight on the evening of Aug. 5, 1937, a crowd of some 5,000 listeners streamed onto the grounds of a fabled Berkshires estate lined by ancient pines and elm trees. There were political and cultural leaders present, socialites from Boston and New York, and local residents from neighboring towns, all crammed under an enormous tent full of portable chairs and benches. At one end sat the players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, surrounded by a plywood shell designed to project their sound. Some of the musicians had been camping on the nearby shores of the Stockbridge Bowl. Others had been rehearsing in a space formerly used as a stable. Large gardens had been planted for the occasion. Someone even thought of a refreshment stand.

At the appointed hour, an elegantly attired Serge Koussevitzky ascended the podium, raised his baton, and gave the downbeat of the Tanglewood music festival.

Advertisement



BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky conducted the first performance at Tanglewood.
BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky conducted the first performance at Tanglewood.Egone/BSO Archives/Egone, courtesy BSO Archives

It was an all-Beethoven program, with the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 followed by the composer's Sixth and Fifth Symphonies. The crowd was delighted, and close observers sensed the moment's import, as the first BSO performance on an estate donated to the orchestra just months earlier as its new summer home. With the country still reeling from the Great Depression, the front page of the next day's Boston Globe carried a banner headline about labor unrest, but a few inches below it appeared music critic Cyrus Durgin's dispatch in a more optimistic key. "No more appropriate nor beautiful site could have been chosen for the Boston Symphony's Berkshire festival than 'Tanglewood,' " he observed. The evening had gone brilliantly, and he concluded by looking ahead: "One can imagine Summer performances here of opera, large choral works and new music. 'Tanglewood' may prove to be the scene of a Summer musical activity which has had scarcely a parallel in this country."

Advertisement



They were prescient words. Tanglewood, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer, became through the decades not one remarkable festival but many sharing a single name. Most summer audiences today know it for its weekend BSO performances, but there is also a constant whirl of summer activity at the Tanglewood Music Center, an academy of advanced musical training that makes up a kind of second Tanglewood, fired by the energies of youth. TMC concerts often take place in Ozawa Hall, where prominent soloists visiting the BSO also offer recitals. And there is opera, too. The sheer breadth of activities taking place on its bucolic grounds makes Tanglewood unique among summer festivals.

To leaf back through its history is to encounter not a single clean unifying narrative but a collection of moments, a series of interactions between people, music, and place. Many of the 20th century's most distinguished composers have passed along its neatly trimmed hedges — including Copland, Hindemith, Britten, Messiaen — and so have many crowds of listeners interested less in these composers' music than in the more traditional pleasures of a good picnic accompanied by the sounds of Beethoven. There is no single concept of Tanglewood.

The summer home of the BSO has hosted many of classical music’s greatest talents (including Leonard Bernstein, below).
The summer home of the BSO has hosted many of classical music’s greatest talents (including Leonard Bernstein, below).United Press International/file

In truth the festival lawns have always wrapped their endless green around a set of familiar tensions, between elite and populist visions of culture, between artistic and commercial agendas, between seeking retreat in the simpler charms of rural life and the paradoxical habit of bringing the city with us. There are starry skies and traffic jams, there have been moments of great artistic generosity and ugly power struggles. Tanglewood has been compared over the years to both the Salzburg Festival and to Coney Island. It is always dancing between past and future. Beneath it all, however, lies the idealistic vision of Koussevitzky himself, its undisputed patriarch.

Advertisement



As the BSO's music director from 1924 to 1949, Serge Koussevitzky was a remarkable figure who inspired devotion not just through his interpretations of the canonical repertoire but through his vision of the larger role that the orchestra as an institution could play in modern American life. On his watch, classical music harbored claims not simply to broad relevance in society but to deeper powers of transformation. He also championed the work of living composers with a zeal that made music's present and future feel continuous with its storied past.

Koussevitzky was revered during his tenure in Boston, but that reverence only went so far. He wanted Leonard Bernstein, his true spiritual heir, to succeed him as music director, but the BSO trustees ignored his wishes and instead appointed Charles Munch, in effect redirecting the main branch of the orchestra's future. Its virtuosity was safeguarded, but the BSO's position of broader national artistic leadership would not be the same.

Yet Koussevitzky's memory still survives at Tanglewood. Born in Russia under the czars, educated in Berlin, hailed in Paris, he was buried in a churchyard cemetery in Lenox, less than 2 miles from the festival's main gate. The large pavilion, known rather incongruously as the Shed, also bears his name. There is a bust of him at Seranak, his former home, also near the festival grounds. But the real monument to Koussevitzky is Tanglewood itself.

Advertisement



The festival's key moments came densely packed in the early years, as the BSO pioneered the new business of a major American orchestra presenting its own summer festival. Nothing was settled, even the musicians' concert dress. One Globe headline a few days after opening night read "Koussevitzky, Symphony Orchestra Make History; Play in Shirt Sleeves." (It had been hot in the tent.) Then a few days later came a notorious Wagner concert in which loud downpours silenced the orchestra and tent leaks drenched enough audience members that $30,000 was pledged on the spot toward the building of a permanent structure, which opened the following summer.

A 1939 photo of the banner at the Berkshire Symphonic Festival.
A 1939 photo of the banner at the Berkshire Symphonic Festival.Courtesy of the BSO

With the BSO growing more ensconced on its new estate, Koussevitzky turned to reviving a dream he had privately held since before World War I: to build, as he told BSO trustees in a speech in 1939, "an academy of music and art as a permanent institution." It would be "a creative musical center where the greatest living composers will teach the art of composition; the greatest virtuosi, the art of perfect performance and technique, the greatest conductors, the mystery of conducting orchestras and chorus." Such an institution would lead, he argued with unabashed idealism, to "the creation of new and great values of art"; "the radiation of the beams of high culture over a nation and the whole world"; and "the education and training of a new generation of American artists. . . ."

Advertisement



The word "American" in this context was not accidental. As the skies were darkening over Europe, Koussevitzky believed that his adoptive home country could safeguard Europe's great traditions and carry them forward in distinctly American ways. The BSO signed on to funding the new school, dubbed the Berkshire Music Center (later renamed the TMC). No major symphony orchestra in the country had embraced an educational mission on such a scale. At the school's opening exercises in July 1940, Koussevitzky told the crowd: "If there was ever a time to speak of music, it is now, in the New World. . . . We feel it is our duty to hand down the old treasures of Musical Culture to American Youth. Enriched by this culture, the young people of America will carry it further to new achievement."

The immediate postwar years were heady ones at Tanglewood. Composers Arthur Honegger, Bohuslav Martinu, and Samuel Barber all passed through. Eleanor Roosevelt stopped by to narrate "Peter and the Wolf." In his memoir, the young American composer Ned Rorem recalled Benjamin Britten dropping in on Copland's orchestration class to discuss his own opera "Peter Grimes," which received its American premiere at Tanglewood that summer of 1946 with Bernstein conducting and W.H. Auden in the crowd. Koussevitzky, who had commissioned the opera, addressed the audience in his inimitable accent, "Benjamin Britten say to me: 'This opera belongs to you.' 'No, my dear,' I say, 'this opera belongs to the world, and the world is happy.' "

Around that time, Robert Shaw jump-started the choral program (the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under John Oliver, came in 1970). Boris Goldovsky brought the opera program to new prominence, and singers such as Leontyne Price, Phyllis Curtin, and Dawn Upshaw passed through over the years. Composer Gunther Schuller directed TMC through much of the 1970s, with Bernstein as its adviser, but Schuller resigned in 1984 citing "fundamental artistic differences" with BSO music director Seiji Ozawa.

As the final true repository of Koussevitzky's idealism, the TMC would become a flash point for conflict during the Ozawa years. The music director's distance from the school was first criticized, and then in the 1990s, he became aggressively involved, prompting a rancorous public controversy and more departures from respected faculty and administrators. It's a long and unflattering story, reported in the pages of the national press at the time and summarized (along with much more history) in critic Andrew Pincus's book "Tanglewood: The Clash between Tradition and Change" and in Peggy Daniel's trove of primary documents, "Tanglewood: A Group Memoir."

A 1946 photo from the Tanglewood area.
A 1946 photo from the Tanglewood area.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

In 1986, the BSO purchased Highwood, an adjacent estate, giving the original property new breathing room, and the land to build Ozawa Hall, which opened in 1994. Bernstein retained a presence at Tanglewood until his death in 1990. The final performance of his career was with the BSO, leading a program that included music from "Peter Grimes" alongside Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Dramatic coughing fits on the podium made it seem as if his health was failing before the audience's eyes. The musicians played on, and he replenished himself afterward by taking drags from both an oxygen tank and a cigarette. The Tanglewood lore goes on and on.

This summer, Tanglewood celebrates its anniversary with nine world premieres and programs modeled on earlier concerts, including the July 6 season opener under Christoph von Dohnanyi reprising the all-Beethoven program first led by Koussevitzky on that fateful evening in 1937. Music from that original opening performance will also be part of an enticing set of 75 free music streams, culled from the BSO's archives and offered through its website. This year's Festival of Contemporary Music, to be directed by John Harbison and Oliver Knussen, takes place Aug. 9-13. And the season will end in the traditional fashion with a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, this time to be paired with a new Harbison work paying tribute to Koussevitzky.

It should be a fitting way to conclude the anniversary, since Koussevitzky's spirit still hangs over the place, whether as inspiration or as a kind of artistic conscience. You certainly sense it at Seranak, which the BSO acquired in 1979 and still uses for functions and to house the orchestra's guests. The lucky ones are placed in the conductor's own bedroom, where, in one of Tanglewood's most felicitous quirks, Koussevitzky's elegant eveningwear still hangs in the closet, including his tuxedos, his white linen suit, even his cape.

It's apparently not meant as an exhibit or private archive; the clothes, shoes, and slippers are simply there, either because no one has taken them out, or, it's nice to think, because the place tries to remain on intimate terms with his memory. It's as if the maestro is not really gone, just stepped out for the moment. Back soon. In the meantime, Tanglewood redefines his legacy each summer anew.


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at
jeichler@globe.com.