Bernstein on Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony’s “Benign Tyrant” (Audio Exclusive)

Post updated: August 2, 2018

“Now, you were saying the other day that we must talk more about relationships…” the biographer reminds Leonard Bernstein.

“I was saying?” Bernstein asks.

It is the summer of 1967. Bernstein is vacationing in Italy with his family and friends, including biographer John Gruen. Bernstein seems to shift slightly in his chair. He knows the recording equipment is capturing these intimate conversations as fodder for Gruen’s book.

“Yes, you said that — that we must get more on relationships. And in that connection, we were about to go into your [Serge] Koussevitzky story, and your relationship with him — which we haven’t talked about really — and, your relationship to other conductors, or other guiding forces…”

With this slightest nudge, Bernstein seems to relax, settling in to describe Serge Koussevitzky, the leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1924-1949), and the founder of Tanglewood Music Center in 1940.

“Yes, Koussevitzky, of course was constantly in my life, and because it was 11 continuous years of association, and since he was an official teacher, he had much more influence in the long run than [Dimitri] Mitropoulos who I saw sporadically and who never taught me, but who was nevertheless a phenomenal influence at the beginning because, it was, the first one …”

After a nod to Mitropoulos, Bernstein describes his beloved (and first official) conducting teacher, Koussevitzky, “one of the last of the great old-school European tyrants” (13:23):

Leonard Bernstein [0:50]:

If he wanted the strings to give more – a warmer sonority – he wouldn’t simply say, ‘I would like a warmer sonority,’ but he would say, ‘Gentlemen, it must be like when the sun come up from the sky! Warm, like the sun!’

And it would take that long to say.

It would be that slow and ponderous, and impressive – and somehow it would happen. It went on for decades with the Boston Symphony …


And he would turn to the viola section, which had just done something wrong and scream at … not scream, but be so mortally offended in a personal way – ‘You spoil me the whole thing!’ he would say. ‘You spoil ME the whole thing,’ not  — you didn’t spoil Beethoven, you spoiled MY work, you see, and it was all very personal.

‘You must SUFFER. Why you don’t suffer more? Only then the music will be beautiful.’

I mean, it was grand. … also, he was a very, kind, gentle man …

Bernstein describes the influences of Koussevitzky on and off the conducting podium: from how to approach the orchestra, to understanding his own Jewish religion and identity, to how to hold the baton. Bernstein references Koussevitzky’s friend, actor and educator Konstantin Stanislavski; Olga Koussevitzky, Serge’s second wife; and Bernstein’s other conducting influences: Fritz Reiner and Mitropoulos.


Koussevitsky used to go into all sorts of detail when he taught me about how to approach the orchestra: how to walk in, how to stand on the podium. How you begin, that was always terribly important, and don’t forget he was a friend of [Konstantin] Stanislavski – and he was TERRIBLY involved in the whole theater of it – he would prepare in his green room as an actor prepares in the Stanislavski method.

And then he would walk very silently and slowly down to the wings – and his entrance was an incredible thing to behold – his walk, the way he made the turn at the angle of the stage where he had to turn, it was something to behold – it was semi-military and semi-dance – very grave, and, like a priest approaching an altar.  Because it was always a kind of reverential, solemn religious occasion.

Then he would come to the podium…


But, when we were alone together, he would tell me how Jewish he felt — both in a religious sense, and in the sense of his people. …


To the very end he [Koussevitzky] tried to get me, to use a baton, as [Fritz] Reiner had done. …

And I couldn’t bear the idea of a baton. I just couldn’t bear it.

And I realize now that that again is due to that first overwhelming experience of Mitropoulos, who didn’t use a baton. And I went through all Reiner’s classes, using a baton for the first couple months, and then I pleaded with him to let me drop it, and he did. And the rest of the time, two years, I was without a baton.

And the same with Koussevitzky.

And it wasn’t till 10 years ago, I think ’57, when my back went to pieces in Israel, that I took up a pencil because I just couldn’t move… and I’ve used a baton ever since then.

About this content

For his book on the private world of Leonard Bernstein, biographer John Gruen spent the 1967 summer vacationing in Italy with the Bernstein family, asking countless questions while becoming a part of their lives. The Bernstein Experience on Classical.org brings you, for the first time ever, the intimate recordings from these interviews. Enter the private world of Lenny…

Audio copyright: Estate of John Gruen. Excerpt from Tape 15B, digitized by WGBH Educational Foundation. Used by permission, courtesy of Julia Gruen. All rights reserved.

More Bernstein at 100

Listen to part two of Bernstein on Koussevitzky

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