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Sergei Aleksandrovich Koussevitzky ( ) (July 26, 1874 June 4, 1951), was a Russianmarker-born Jewish conductor, composer and double-bassist, known for his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949.


Early career

Koussevitzky was born into a poor Jewish family, growing up in Vyshny Volochyokmarker, Tver Oblast, about 250 km northwest of Moscowmarker, Russiamarker. His parents were professional musicians who taught him violin, cello, and piano. He also learned trumpet. He was baptized at the age of fourteen, since Jews were not allowed to live in Moscow and he had received a scholarship to the Musico-Dramatic Institute of the Moscow Philharmonic, where he studied double bass with Rambusek and music theory. He excelled at the bass, joining the Bolshoi Theatremarker orchestra at the age of twenty and succeeding his teacher Rambusek as the principal bassist in 1901. That same year he made his début (25 March) as a soloist in Moscow, and later won critical acclaim with his first recital in Berlinmarker in 1903. In 1902 he married his first wife, the dancer Nadezhda Galat. The same year, with Glier's help, he wrote a popular concerto for the double bass, which he premiered in Moscow in 1905. Later in 1905 Koussevitzky divorced his first wife and married Natalie Ushkov, the daughter of an extremely wealthy tea merchant. He soon resigned from the Bolshoi, and the couple moved to Berlin, where Sergei studied conducting under Arthur Nikisch, using his new-found wealth to pay off his teacher's gambling debts.

Conductor and publisher

In Berlinmarker he continued to give double bass recitals, and, after two years practicing conducting in his own home with a student orchestra, he hired the Berlin Philharmonic and made his professional début as a conductor in 1908. The concert included the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with the composer at the piano. The next year he and his wife returned to Russia, where founded his own orchestra in Moscow and branched out into the publishing business, forming his own firm, Editions Russes de Musique, and buying the catalogues of many of the greatest composers of the age. Among the composers published by Koussevitzky were Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Nikolai Medtner. During the period 1909 to 1920 he continued to perform as soloist in Europe, and in Russia he and his orchestra toured towns along the Volga by riverboat in 1910, 1912, and 1914. The programs included many new works. After the Russian Revolution, he accepted a position as conductor of the newly named State Symphony Orchestra of Petrograd (1917-1920). In 1920, he left the USSRmarker for Berlin and Parismarker. In Paris he organized the Concerts Koussevitzky (1921-1929), presenting new works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel. In 1924 he took a post in the United Statesmarker, replacing Pierre Monteux as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, he continued to return to Paris in the summers to conduct his Concerts Koussevitzky until 1929. In 1941 he and his wife would become United States citizens.

In America

Koussevitzky's appointment as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the beginning a golden era for the ensemble that would continue until 1949. Over that twenty-five year period he built the ensemble's reputation into that of a leading American orchestra, and developed its summer concert and educational programs at Tanglewoodmarker. In the early 1940s, he discovered a young tenor named Alfredo Cocozza, who would later be known as Mario Lanza, and provided him with a scholarship to attend Tanglewood. With the Boston Symphony he made numerous recordings, most of which were well-regarded by critics. His students and protégés included Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Adler, and Sarah Caldwell. Bernstein guest-conducted the Boston Symphony, including the 1951 world premiere of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2. Bernstein's very last concert, in August 1990, was with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. In Joan Peyser's book Bernstein: A Biography, she writes that Bernstein once received a pair of cufflinks from Koussevitzky as a gift, and thereafter wore them at every concert he conducted.

Champion of contemporary music

In 1922, Koussevitzky commissioned what has come to be known as one of the greatest and most popular examples of orchestration in the repertoire, Maurice Ravel's arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's 1874 suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition. It was premiered in Paris in 1923, and quickly became the most famous and celebrated orchestration of the work. Conductor Arturo Toscanini, who apparently had no great fondness for 19th century Russian music, considered the Mussorgsky-Ravel version of Pictures the greatest example of orchestration that had yet been produced, and performed and recorded the work for RCA Victor in 1953. Koussevitzky held the rights to this version for many years, and after his death, practically every celebrated conductor in existence recorded it.

Koussevitzky was a great champion of modern music, commissioning a number of works from prominent composers. For the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary he commissioned Ravel's piano concerto, George Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 4, which Prokofiev later revised, Paul Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass, and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, as well as works by Albert Roussel and Howard Hanson.

He died in Bostonmarker in 1951.


In 1942 he founded the Koussevitzky Music Foundations, whose charge is to foster and commission the performance of new work. Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, Douglas Moore's opera The Ballad of Baby Doe, Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3, and Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie are all direct results of the foundations.

Following Koussevitzky's 1951 death, his widow, Olga Koussevitzky, presented double-bassist Gary Karr with his double bass, previously believed to be fabricated in 1611 by brothers Antonio and Girolamo Amati. The instrument now bears the names of both Karr and Koussevitzky.

The Tanglewood Music Center awards the Koussevitzky Prize for outstanding student conductor. It has been awarded since 1954, but unlike many prizes, it is not awarded annually. Past winners have included Seiji Ozawa (1960) and Michael Tilson Thomas (1969).


Sergei Koussevitzky recorded with the Boston Symphony exclusively for RCA Victor, except for a live recording made with Columbia (Roy Harris, "Symphony 1933") in Carnegie Hall, New York, during a concert on portable equipment. One quite notable early RCA session in Boston's Symphony Hall in 1929 was devoted to an early recording of Ravel's Boléro, and his very first sessions with the Boston orchestra of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and a suite from Stravinsky's Petrushka were recorded in Symphony Hall in 1927. His younger brother Fabian "Sevitzky" conducted the Indianapolis Symphony during this same period, making several recordings of his own for RCA Victor.

Some of Koussevitzky's later recordings, including performances of the second suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (1945, Symphony Hall, Boston) and first (1947, Carnegie Hall, New York, a session that included Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony) and Fifth symphony (1945, Symphony Hall, Boston), were reportedly mastered on Victor's revolutionary sound film optical recording process, first employed in this way with the San Francisco Symphony in March, 1942.

His very last recordings, made in November 1950, on magnetic tape using RCA's proprietary RT-2 1/4-inch machines at 30 inches per second, were acclaimed performances of Sibelius' Second Symphony and Grieg's "The Last Spring". Both have been rereleased by RCA/BMG on CD in Taiwan. Some of Koussevitzky's performances at Tanglewood, including a very spirited Beethoven "Egmont Overture", were also filmed during the 1940s.

According to Music & Arts Programs of America, a number of the Boston Symphony's 78 rpm recordings with Koussevitzky were issued on the bargain RCA Camden label, originally released at US$1.98 for a 12-inch LP album when similar top-of-the-line Red Seals were selling for US$5.98, in the early 1950s as the "Centennial Symphony Orchestra". One of the later albums featured Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks; while the orchestra was again listed as the Centennial Symphony—and the conductor not identified, the narrator, actor Richard Hale, inexplicably, was. Koussevitzky ultimately rerecorded the piece in Tanglewood with Eleanor Roosevelt during the summer of 1950 on magnetic tape; issued on three 45s and a 10-inch LP, it has never been rereleased officially by RCA/BMG in spite of the popularity of the Camden disc with Hale. Hale was also the narrator for Arthur Fiedler's 1953 RCA recording of the same music with the Boston Pops. RCA often reissued historic recordings from the RCA Victor catalog on its Camden label with fictitious orchestral names to avoid having them in direct competition with newer recordings by the same artists on RCA Victor's upscale Red Seal label.

Notable premieres

In concert

On record


External links

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