Bernstein on Koussevitzky: Passing the Tanglewood Baton (Audio exclusive)

Before he accepted the Tanglewood baton from Serge Koussevitzky, Leonard Bernstein got one last chance to talk with his beloved conducting mentor.

The eleven years that Leonard Bernstein knew Serge Koussevitzky were the most formative of his conducting career. Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was always in Bernstein’s corner; much more than just a teacher, he was a mentor, a role model, and a father figure — which made it all the more devastating when he died.

In the spring of 1951, Bernstein had taken some time off from conducting. He intended to live in Mexico City for awhile, resting and composing, and indeed, he did just that — until one day, a phone call from Olga Koussevitzky, Serge’s second wife, sent him hurrying back to Boston.

Hear Bernstein describe Koussevitzky’s last days in 1951 (4:14):

[Warning: Audio includes his description of Koussevitzky’s death.]

“I was just getting installed, and the piano had come, and I was just beginning to write…. when a phone call came from Olga Koussevitsky that he was not… that he wasn’t well, and would I consider coming to Tanglewood [Music Center] and doing his job … and I sensed something in her voice that made me put a shirt in a bag and run to the airport in Mexico City.”

Bernstein arrived in time for one more conversation with his beloved mentor (2:22):

We had a perfectly marvelous few hours together — on his death bed, as it turned out. …

The next morning, June 4, 1951, Koussevitzky died.

Serge Koussevitzky with his conducting assistants at the TMC, Stanley Chapple (left), and Leonard Bernstein, ca. 1950. (Credit: Heinz Weissenstein, Whitestone Photo/BSO Archives)
Serge Koussevitzky (center) with his conducting assistants at the Tanglewood Music Center, Stanley Chapple (left), and Leonard Bernstein (right), ca. 1950. (Credit: Heinz Weissenstein, Whitestone Photo/BSO Archives)

After Koussevitzky passed away, Bernstein agreed to take over his mentor’s Tanglewood responsibilities, accepting the position of Head of Orchestral Conducting at Tanglewood Music Center. On August 9, 1951, he conducted the first memorial concert for Koussevitzky.

Bernstein continued to carry the Tanglewood orchestral baton through 1960. He returned to Tanglewood frequently the next three decades: conducting, teaching and mentoring the Tanglewood Music Center and Boston Symphony Orchestras innumerable times, until his last concerts with each orchestra in August 1990.

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 12B, digitized by WGBH Educational Foundation. Used by permission, courtesy of Julia Gruen. All rights reserved.

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