Essential Bernstein

Letters from Bernstein: The First Summer at Tanglewood, 1940

The summer of 1940 was a momentous season for Leonard Bernstein. He began his first conducting fellowship at Tanglewood Music Center, under the official tutelage of a man who would become his mentor: Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1924 to 1949).

By all accounts, including Lenny’s, Bernstein loved every minute of his time at Tanglewood.

Koussevitzky, for his part, was charmed by and impressed with his young upstart pupil, and continued to mentor and coach him through the better part of the decade.

When Bernstein wasn’t at Tanglewood, where he could convene with Koussevitzky directly, mentor and mentee exchanged letters. Bernstein asked for Koussevitzky’s advice on a regular basis, and Koussevitzky was more than happy to give it.

Bernstein also wrote about his time at Tanglewood frequently to Helen Coates, his former piano teacher, who would later become his personal secretary and archivist.

The following are letters from 1940 that reveal more about Bernstein’s first summer at Tanglewood, particularly the importance of meeting Koussevitzky. The correspondence begins with a note from another well-known American icon: composer Aaron Copland.

Copland was like a father to Bernstein — and recommended to Koussevitzky (whom he calls, “Koussie”) — in person — that he teach Bernstein.

Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, April 1940:

It’s Hollywood again. And in a hurry — I plane there next Wed. for “Our Town”. I’ll be back by May 1.

I plan to see Koussie before I go and will talk to him about you. …

Letter from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, 1940. (Library of Congress, Music Division)
Letter from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, 1940. (Library of Congress, Music Division)

Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, July 1, 1940

Copland tells me that Kouss. is expecting one of the students to conduct Randall Thompson’s Symphony No. 2 the very first week, and that he has mentioned my name as the first possibility.

Hanover, NH 

Dear Helen: 

I sincerely trust you’re out of the old hospital by now, and are your same old self again. If not, forgive my tactlessness, but your mother assured me that you would be OK by this time. I’m so sorry that I learned of your sudden escapade with the knife only on the morning that I was leaving for New York – I should have liked very much to see you. As it is, I can only hope you take very good care of yourself; and don’t find any more reasons to land in hospitals.

I am visiting now with my friend Raphael, and getting much work done, actually, besides stocking up on some good country air. Hanover is a lovely town, though completely dead now that the college term is over. Nobody knows what to do with himself. One of those places where the merchants charge enough in the winter to last over the summer as well.

I’ve learned SHEHEREZADE and Beethoven’s Fourth! About to start on Copland’s Music For The Theatre. Copland tells me that Kouss. is expecting one of the students to conduct Randall Thompson’s Symphony No. 2 the very first week, and that he has mentioned my name as the first possibility. So I’m all excited of course, in anticipation of the possibility, especially since Randall will be there then. (I’m also practicing the piano, tho [sic] you may be sceptical [sic].) Write me soon; if you can manage it before July 4th, write me here, % Silverman, Hanover, NH; if not, better wait until I get to the Berkshires, and I’ll send you my address there as soon as I know it.

All kinds of good wishes to you and Mother- 

Lenny 

Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, 1940. (Library of Congress, Music Division)
Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, 1940. (Library of Congress, Music Division)

Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, July 18, 1940

In short, the place here is magnificent, + I’ve never been so completely happy. I’ve already conducted my first concert!

The piece was the longest + most difficult on the program, besides, significantly enough, being a modern American work—Randall Thompson’s 2nd Symphony.

I had a great success—Kouss. is very pleased with my work, + is working extra hard with me. He says I have a fine gift for conducting, but lack experience—all of which is time.

The Cranwell School
Lenox, Mass 

Dear Helen –  

I hope that by now all is well again. I feel mighty guilty for not having written you in all this time—but I’ve been saving it all for one letter that would come when all the activity here had rather smoothed out and gained some semblance of normalcy. 

In short, the place here is magnificent, + I’ve never been so completely happy. I’ve already conducted my first concert!

The piece was the longest + most difficult on the program, besides, significantly enough, being a modern American work—Randall Thompson’s 2nd Symphony. I had a great success—Kouss. is very pleased with my work, + is working extra hard with me. He says I have a fine gift for conducting, but lack experience—all of which is time. Nevertheless he gave me the hardest piece to do—a sign of faith.

Thompson himself was up for the concert + was very pleased. The orchestra is superb for having been together only a week or so. The players like me, + work very hard for me; they’re terribly coöperative.

I conduct every day (we alternate, one week I do chamber orch., the next the big one). This week I do the Bach 2-violin concert, perhaps even conducting from the harpsichord! Next week the Scheherezade [sic]!

Then, of all things, L’histoire d’un Soldat of Stravinsky, one of the most difficult things to conduct ever written.

After that the schedule is indefinite, but I shall probably do the Brahms-Haydn Variations on the 6th week.

It’s all so exciting I could perish–the one challenge is that the other members of the class have conducted for years—this is really my first attempt. So pray for me— + if you possibly can, I’d love to have you come up some weekend when I’m conducting. Best to Mother.  

Love, Lenny

Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, 1940. (Library of Congress, Music Division)

Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, July 26, 1940

Kouss. seems to like me more all the time. He now wants me to study with him this winter in Boston. He said today that I will certainly be the greatest(!) conductor, if only I will work hard

Cranwell School
Lenox, Mass 

Dear Helen – 

So glad you’re better and in Concord. I have a great desire to see people happy when I’m so happy myself. The Thompson was a great success, the Bach Double Concerto last week well liked, even very well liked. Tomorrow might conduct Schéhérezade [sic]! 

I think the last time for you to come would be the 6th week, when I’m doing the marvelous Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn. I’m very excited about them + I’d love you to hear them. As far as I know, that concert will be Tuesday night, Aug. 12 (?). Let me know if you can make it + I’ll try to get you tickets for the festival (write how many concerts—I take it you have the programs, but I’m sending this anyway). How long will you stay? Let me know soon. 

Kouss. seems to like me more all the time. He now wants me to study with him this winter in Boston. He said today that I will certainly be the greatest(!) conductor, if only I will work hard—3 years—that’s all. He wants to mould me, etc. He says I have everything for it—of course, I have my usual reaction of self-abasement, + get slightly depressed by that sort of confidence, but it’s so wonderful here that I disregard it, + work, not ever thinking of the horror of conscription that seems to be looming in the fall. No matter—I must work while I can— 

This in haste— 

Best to Mother 

Lenny 

Take care of yourself 

Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, 1940. (Library of Congress, Music Division)

Leonard Bernstein to Serge Koussevitzky, September 1940

This summer to me was beauty—beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and cooperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it. These last six weeks have been the happiest and most productive of my life.

17 Lake Avenue
Sharon, Mass 

Dear Dr. Koussevitzky, 

Words are a remote enough medium of expression for any musician, but it is especially difficult for me to find words for this letter. Let it be brief. 

This summer to me was beauty—beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and coöperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it. These last six weeks have been the happiest and most productive of my life. I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose with a glorious freedom from personal problems. 

It was a renaissance for me—a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined Weltanschauung [German, “a worldview or philosophy”] with which I came to you. 

For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation {sic} of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit! 

I am now at home, resting with my family. I hope to be in Lenox within the next few weeks, and I should like very much to see you and talk with you. Can you let me know when this would be best for you? 

Please give my very warm greetings to Madame Koussevitzky and to Miss [Olga] Naumoff. 

In devotion, and in gratitude— 

Leonard Bernstein 

Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Serge Koussevitzky, 1940 (Library of Congress, Music Division)

Serge Koussevitzky to Leonard Bernstein, September 5, 1940

Nothing could have made me happier than to know that your work this summer has really given you beauty and strength and a better understanding of the gifts with which nature has endowed you.

Letter from Serge Koussevitzky to Leonard Bernstein, 1940 (Library of Congress, Music Division)
Letter from Serge Koussevitzky to Leonard Bernstein, 1940 (Library of Congress, Music Division)

Leonard Bernstein to Serge Koussevitzky, September 30, 1940

… don’t you think it would be wise for me to attempt the organization of a young orchestra? I am sure there are many instrumentalists in Boston who would be glad of orchestral experience; if you like the idea, we might even establish it as a king of training or feeding orchestra for the Boston Symphony. If these young people knew you were behind it, I am sure they would rally to the cause. 

86 Park Avenue
Newton, Mass 

Dear Dr. Koussevitzky, 

As I sit and wait for the outcome of your place, in a kind of Proustian twilight state between knowing and not knowing, between sleeping and waking—in the midst of all this I have had an inspiring idea. It would have to have—and I pray it will have—your support. 

I have met one or two of the people who have been conducting small orchestras in greater Boston, and I have been singularly unimpressed—or rather, singularly impressed with their lack of equipment. It occurred to me, that if they can get orchestras of young people, perhaps I could. And with your support, almost certainly. 

If you are unable to establish connections with the representatives of Backward Boston, don’t you think it would be wise for me to attempt the organization of a young orchestra? I am sure there are many instrumentalists in Boston who would be glad of orchestral experience; if you like the idea, we might even establish it as a king of training or feeding orchestra for the Boston Symphony. If these young people knew you were behind it, I am sure they would rally to the cause. 

The problem for me is to make contact with these people. Again, if you could speak to the men of your orchestra they might be willing to send their pupils to this orchestra. I realize the responsibility I would be shouldering; but I do it only under the influence of your spirit which still hovers around me. I could then work with an orchestra (which would derive great benefit from their association with you) and still be here to work with you this season. Please don’t think me presumptuous; I am just making a great effort to be practical. 

Please try to get some rest before the season. I am sorry to intrude on your privacy even with this letter; but I am made bold by my recent reading of Nietzsche, who teaches me that I must be somewhat bolder if I, like his Zarathustra shall ever face “the great Noon-Tide.” 

In eternal devotion, 

Leonard 

Warmest greetings to Madame [Natalie] Koussevitzky and Miss [Olga] Naumoff.

Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Serge Koussevitzky, 1940 (Library of Congress, Music Division)

About this content

Letters used by permission, courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. To explore more of this collection, visit the Library of Congress’ Leonard Bernstein Digital Collection and Nigel Simeone’s The Bernstein Letters (Yale University Press).

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