I love a good headline as much as anyone, and here’s a peach from the Associated Press: “Dowagers Thumb Ride to Symphonic Concert.” It seems these dowagers were among 3,000 hardy music lovers who, one night in 1942, hitchhiked, walked, or biked to Tanglewood, where Serge Koussevitzky conducted Haydn’s Symphony no. 88 and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony under the August stars. This was during the war. So many events got canceled that year, due to fuel rationing, but not this one. When Koussevitzky took the stage, the Berkshire Eagle reports, he got a “greeting in which vociferousness surpassed record and remembrance.”
Peggy Daniel has loaded all sorts of goodies like this into “Tanglewood: A Group Memoir” (Amadeus, 2008). It’s full of dowagers with pluck, led by Gertrude Robinson Smith, a socially prominent New Yorker who strong-armed all her connections to launch the music festival during the Depression, fanning out ticket subscription teams to recruit at Rotary and Kiwanis meetings, granges and garden clubs. The recruiters touted the joy of music, plus the joy of jobs: The festival would hire local unemployed electricians, carpenters, and others to build the stages and work the events.
This dowager-meets-laborer quality has set the tone of Tanglewood from the onset. It’s a place of low-price-ticket rehearsals plus high-society picnics, James Taylor plus Anton Dvorak, classical music chestnuts plus avant-garde offerings. The book trumpets Tanglewood’s bolder moments, in fact, like how the festival championed new American composers early on, and how in the 1940s and ’50s, it was the “foremost laboratory for operatic experimentation” according to the conductor/impresario Boris Goldovsky.
There’s also some choice gossip here. The early years contained many catfights with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it appears, and tales of the vagaries of performing outside. To wit, real thunder and lightning heightened Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and when “Peter Grimes” was staged on a broiling day in 1946, stagehands hosed down a tar paper rock just before the tenor “died” slowly upon it, not willing to burn himself for art.
As this season heats up, too, I’ve got books that illuminate the schedule (as it was set at press time). On June 25-26, the Mark Morris Dance Group presented a new work set to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, arranged for piano four-hands. In his impassioned, intelligent “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven” (Vintage, 2015), the English maestro John Eliot Gardiner often notes the danceability of the master’s music, and focuses on his liturgical works (the Brandenburg Concertos may be secular, but they’re transcendent) especially St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor.
Gardiner also wrestles with the great paradox between the divine output and the contentious, even tedious, man. Bach said he lived “amid almost continual vexation, envy and persecution,” and who knows which troubles he fomented himself: Gardiner analyzes the famous bassoonist incident in which Bach publicly castigated one of his reed players, who proceeded to soundly beat up J.S. Give sympathy where it’s due, though; Bach, himself orphaned, buried 12 of his 20 children. And appreciate the intense affinity between the author and his subject. In 2000, Gardiner directed the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, as they played all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas (some 200) throughout the churches of Europe.
On July 3, the legendary soprano Jessye Norman was tapped to narrate Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” (devotees will recall her 1987 Tanglewood enactment of the last scene of Strauss’s “Salome,” which prompted a delirious, 10-minute ovation). Her memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” (Mariner, 2015), offers up this Georgia-born diva, who agreed to childhood piano lessons to get out of weekend chores. She chronicles several pivotal moments, like when her high school principal asked all the teens to forgo one school lunch and instead pool the money to send Jessye to her first singing competition. Later, at a European competition, she refused to comply with a racially-derived rule change meant to sideline her. Other good parts: Norman’s iron bond with Marian Anderson and her haunting memories of singing “Ave Maria” at Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral.
In midsummer, Tanglewood embraces the new anew, with its weeklong Festival of Contemporary Music, including the July 23 premier of the late Gunther Schuller’s “Magical Trumpets.” This pointed me to the lively memoir, “Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty” (University of Rochester, 2011), by this French horn player, composer and, for 20 years, the artistic director at the “Walden Pond of music,” as he called Tanglewood. It seems that Schuller came late to jazz — it was banned in the Nazi Germany, where he was partly schooled — and this may have given him fresh ears to help found the Third Stream movement, defined as a “growing rapprochement between the two musical mainstreams, jazz and classical.” He had long acted the emissary here, and I liked reading how he and Charlie Parker chatted about Bartok and Stravinsky. Also, Schuller loved the low register in music, comparing low tones to a tree’s roots, high ones to its branches. Hear for yourself on July 19, which features his chest-thrumming “Quartet for Double Basses.”
On Aug. 1 and 4, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Orchestra and Chorus performs Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and overture to “Candide.” And so to Allen Shawn’s pithy and wise “Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician” (Yale University, 2014). It begins with Bernstein at age 4, already a Whitmanesque force of nature (a “pianimal,” says Shawn) trying to sculpt men out of gathered dust, inspired by his father’s quoting the Talmud. And from there, Shawn admiringly follows Bernstein’s “dizzying record of activities in a bewildering number of fields.”
He takes an innovative look at Bernstein’s conducting career from New York to Israel and his compositions (“Jeremiah Symphony,” “Wonderful Town,” “Kaddish,” and more), adding that many mourned how the man’s fame overwhelmed his career as a composer. Still, Bernstein’s ability to popularize was unparalleled; there’s fabulous stuff on the Young People’s Concerts, as the Lawrence native — endearing and inspiring — tells the kids the resolved chord in the melody of the “William Tell Overture” feels good, “like winning an argument.”
No argument here that one of the great guilty pleasures in the canon are the cannons in the “1812 Overture,” which will pound the sky on Aug. 4 — a finale that the composer himself thought “shamelessly overblown,” per David Brown’s “Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music” (Pegasus, 2009). Instead, this British musicologist reserves his highest acclaim for “Romeo and Juliet,” “Eugene Onegin,” and especially the Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique”), which he calls “as near a perfect masterpiece as music can offer.” I learned that the Russian composer was a huge reader and a great lover of Mozart (a source of “holy rapture”). Also, when Pyotr’s parents made him take a break from piano, he’d “play” on any surface, once tapping his fingers so hard on a pane of glass, it broke and cut his hands. Listening tip for “1812”: It contains allusions to Russian folk songs, Russian orthodox chants, and the then-novel genre of national anthems, including “God Save the Tsar” and the “Marseillaise.”
National anthems also propel Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is based on Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” and will lift the night of Aug. 16. Tanglewood features nearly a dozen Beethoven offerings this summer, and many are contemplated in Jan Swafford’s modern masterpiece, “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” (Houghton Mifflin, 2014). But I was most swept away by Swafford’s lengthy, beautiful consideration of the Ninth, and how it buried the national heroic ideal — Napoleon’s promise, so hopeful two decades before in the Third Symphony (“Eroica”) had since come to ruin. Instead the composer, thoroughly deaf, after a life of great suffering, summons his full measure of art and gratitude to deliver “a Marseillaise for humanity.”
To that end, Beethoven purposely made the ode-to-joy melody a “little ditty,” hummable by anyone, much like a Masonic drinking song. Access and joy; just like Tanglewood. Indeed, as Swafford puts it, in the most soaring lyric of the symphonic chorale, “Beethoven tells us what the Ninth is for him: ‘This kiss for all the world!’ ”
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.