Essential Bernstein

Understanding Serge Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein: A Primer

Leonard Bernstein spent years learning from Serge Koussevitzky, the man he called his mentor. At times both tender and tyrannical, devoted and demanding devotion, Koussevitzky ran the Boston Symphony Orchestra like it was his own personal kingdom — but, Bernstein said, everything Koussevitzky did was a product of love for his orchestra, and, above all, the music.

So how did Bernstein meet Koussevitzky, and how did Koussevitzky decide to take Bernstein under his wing?

Here is a brief primer of an 11-year friendship — conducting teacher and student, mentor and mentee, father figure and son — that defined decades of music, education, and scholarship, well beyond Koussevitzky’s death in 1951.

Serge Koussevitzsky, BSO Music Director 1924-1949, conducting. (Courtesy: Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives / photographer unknown)
Serge Koussevitzky, Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director 1924-1949, conducting. (Courtesy: Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives / photographer unknown)

First Meeting: Summer, 1940

When Bernstein finds out that Boston Symphony Music Director Koussevitzky is launching a conducting program in Massachusetts, he writes to Koussevitzky’s assistant (with a note from his friend, composer Aaron Copland) requesting an audition to be among the inaugural conducting fellows.

(Explore the summer of 1940 in letters from Bernstein)

Koussevitzky agrees to meet Bernstein, and selects the twenty-two-year old as one of three inaugural conducting fellows for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new Berkshire Music Center (now known as the Tanglewood Music Center).

Bernstein makes an impression that first summer. He conducts members of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in a surprise performance of Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat (“complete with words made up by Bernstein for the occasion,” according to the Boston Symphony) at a tea for Tanglewood students, given by Koussevitzky and Natalie, his first wife, at their summer home.

Bernstein conducts Stravinsky's L'histoire du Soldat at an informal Tanglewood tea party. Serge Koussevitzky- conductor and Bernstein mentor- and his wife Natalie look down from the balcony. The inscription to Helen Coates refers humorously to L'histoire D'un éléve - the tale of the student. 1940. © Made available online with permission from The Berkshire Eagle.
1940. © Made available online courtesy of The Berkshire Eagle. Photo via Library of Congress Music Division.

Bernstein describes that first summer, and what it was like working with Koussevitzky, in this video from the Boston Symphony:

Tanglewood and Symphony Hall: 1941-1950

Bernstein returns to Tanglewood to work with Koussevitzky in 1941.

The next year, Koussevitzky appoints Bernstein his conducting assistant. Later that summer of 1942, Koussevitzky conducts the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad. Bernstein plays the bass drum.

From 1943 to 1945, while World War II rages, the Tanglewood Music Center suspends activities, but the Koussevitzky Music Foundation continues producing concerts in the Lenox area, including a series of concerts at the Lenox Public Library. One of these concerts features the premiere of Bernstein’s I Hate Music with soprano Jennie Tourel.

In 1944, Bernstein conducts his Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah,

In the summers of 1946 to 1950, Bernstein returns to Tanglewood to serve as Koussevitzky’s assistant.

In 1949, Koussevitzky conducts the world premiere of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, at Symphony Hall in April, with Bernstein as piano soloist. The musicians repeated the program at Tanglewood in August.

These were Bernstein’s first performances as a pianist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Serge Koussevitzky brings Bernstein on stage after a performance of “The Age of Anxiety” at Tanglewood, August 12, 1949. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives)
Serge Koussevitzky brings Bernstein on stage after the performance of “The Age of Anxiety” at Tanglewood, August 12, 1949. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives)

Carrying the Banner: Koussevitzky’s Legacy

Following Koussevitzky’s death on June 4, 1951, Bernstein takes on the position of Head of Orchestral Conducting at the Tanglewood Music Center. Hear Bernstein describe the irreplaceable way Koussevitzky made every piece of music feel vitally important (1:07):

(This excerpt of a 1961 recording of Bernstein was broadcast in 1963 as part of The Art of Serge Koussevitzky, produced by WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting.)

Over the next four decades, Bernstein conducts numerous memorial concerts for his friend and mentor, including the annual Koussevitzky Memorial Concert at Tanglewood.

Hear the music Bernstein commonly conducted during these concerts, including Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection.

More Bernstein at 100
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