Sergey Koussevitzky was born into a poor but musical family: the first musical instrument he learnt to play was the trumpet. He won a scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied the double-bass with Rambousek and theory and composition with Blaramberg and Kruglikov. Having joined the double-bass section of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, Moscow, in 1894, he was principal from 1901 to 1905 and also started his career as a soloist in 1901, with a repertoire that consisted predominantly of transcriptions, many made by himself, of works originally composed for the cello. In 1905 Koussevitzky married Natalie Ushkov, the daughter of a rich tea merchant, who soon became a major patron of his new son-in-law. After moving to Berlin in 1907 Koussevitzky studied conducting at the High School for Music and saw Nikisch in action, making his conducting debut during the following year with no less an orchestra than the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra which he had hired for the purpose.
Upon returning to Moscow in 1909 Koussevitzky founded both his own orchestra and a publishing company, Les Éditions russes de musique, which favoured the most prominent young Russian composers of the time such as Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Glazunov. Later, in 1915, it absorbed the firm of Gutheil and subsequently opened an office in Paris. With his orchestra he undertook three summer tours down the River Volga, in 1910, 1912, and 1914. After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 Koussevitsky accepted the offer of the post of chief conductor of the State Symphony Orchestra in Petrograd (which later became the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra), but left Russia in 1920 and following brief periods in Berlin and Rome he settled with his wife in Paris. Here he founded and conducted, between 1921 and 1924, the Concerts Koussevitzky, the orchestra of which was made up of the finest instrumentalists in the city; its repertoire included the music of many contemporary Russian and French composers. He was invited to become the chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1924, and held this post for twenty-five years, until 1949; although his true home remained Paris until 1939, and he resided in America only for the concert season. With the outbreak of World War II however he made America his base and took American citizenship.
As previously in Russia and France, Koussevitzky quickly became a staunch proponent of the young composers in his new country, commissioning important works from Copland, Harris, Piston, Barber, Hanson, Schuman and Bernstein. In addition he created the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1935, and in 1940 the Berkshire Music Center, which soon became a highly influential establishment for advanced musical study. Koussevitzky himself taught the conducting classes there, his students including Frederick Fennell, Lukas Foss, and Leonard Bernstein; he retained the direction of the Center after relinquishing the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. To preserve the memory of his wife, who died in 1942, he founded in 1943 the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission and fund the performance of new works. Among the Foundation’s most well-known early commissions were Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Koussevitzky remarried in 1947, to Olga Naoumoff, his wife’s niece.
During his twenty-five years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Koussevitzky raised it to become one of the very finest orchestras in the world, described by the critic Martin Bookspan in the New York Times as ‘…a miracle of subtle colors, finely shaded nuances and hair-trigger precision’. His conducting style was highly emotional, and combined levels of intensity and technical execution rarely encountered even today. His platform manner has been vividly described by an informed eye-witness, Robert Ripley, in the newsletter of the Koussevitzky Recording Society: ‘My impression was, he’s walking as though he’s made of glass, and if you should touch him he would just shatter apart. I don’t know if it was an act or what, but it sure was effective. And he stood there at the podium and he started over here looking at the violins, and he slowly moved his head and looked at the entire orchestra, all around the circle to the violas, and then he went back to the middle, and his face was already beet-red, and that vein was showing in his temple, and everybody thought he was going to die from it. And he held his baton like this and just went POW—straight out without any preparation to the horns, you know, at the beginning of the Tchaikovsky Fourth. I tell you, I mean, never in my life before or since have I had such an experience.’
The results were captured in a number of commercial recordings, made for RCA. Koussevitzky’s attitude to recording was well summed up by an exchange which the conductor had with the RCA producer Charles O’Connell, remembered by Robert Ripley: ‘You vill take care of de apparat; I vill take care de music.’ Among his most notable recordings are luminous and deeply-felt accounts of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ and of Debussy’s La Mer; an extraordinarily vigorous Harold en Italie by Berlioz, with William Primrose as the solo violist; a most colourful reading of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the orchestration by Ravel, which Koussevitzky commissioned; dramatic interpretations of Roy Harris’s Symphonies Nos 1 and 3, of Copland’s Appalachian Spring and El Salón México, and of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 3; brilliant accounts of Prokofiev’s Symphonies Nos 1 and 5, and of excerpts from his ballet Romeo and Juliet; virtuoso readings of Richard Strauss’s tone poems Also Sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, and works by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, of whom he was an authoritative interpreter. Koussevitzky recorded little with other orchestras, but his recording of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7, made in concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, has rarely been equalled for intensity, and a powerful account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, recorded in concert during 1950 in Paris with the Orchestre National de Radio France shortly before his death, has also been published.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).
Role: Classical Artist