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Leonard_Bernstein at piano surrounded by a class of auditors analyzes his 'Age of Anxiety.' New York Philharmonic conductor Artur Rodjinski hand on chin wearing glasses looks on. Circa August 1949.

PART III: Tanglewood Music Center at 75: Koussevitzky’s students: Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss

By Monday, Aug 10, 2015 Arts & Entertainment

Editor’s Note: The summer of 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s acclaimed academy of advanced musical study founded by Serge Koussevitzky. In celebration of this event, we are running four sections from the chapter “Early Days of the Berkshire Music Festival (as the TMC was called in those days) from Peggy Daniel’s book, Tanglewood A Group Memoir. To read Part I of this series, click here; to read Part II, click here.

The school had begun. And Koussevitzky turned out to be a dedicated and inspiring teacher. His most famous pupil was Leonard Bernstein, who wrote this rave review in a letter to his family in Sharon, Massachusetts.

Dearest Folks,

I have never seen such a beautiful setup in my life. I’ve been conducting the orchestra every morning & I’m playing my first concert tomorrow night. Kousss gave me the hardest & longest number of all – the second symphony of Randall Thompson. 30 minutes long – a modern American work – as my first performance, and Kouss is so pleased with my work. He likes me and works very hard with me in our private sessions. He is the most marvelous man – a beautiful spirit that never lags or fails – that inspires me terrifically. And he told me he is convinced that I have a wonderful gift, & he is already making me a great conductor. (I actually rode in his car with him today!) He has wonderful teaching ability, which I never expected — & is very hard to please — so that when he says he is pleased, I know it means something. I am so thrilled – have never been more happy & satisfied. The orchestra likes me very much, best of all the conductors, & responds so beautifully in rehearsal. Of course, the concert tomorrow night (Shabbas, yet!) will tell whether I can keep my head in performance. We’ve been working very hard – you’re always going like mad here – no time to think of how tired you are or how little you slept last night – the inspiration of this Center is terrific enough to keep you going with no sleep at all. I’m so excited about tomorrow night – I wish you could all be here – it’s so important to me & Kouss is banking on it to convince him that he’s right – if it goes well there’s no telling what may happen…

Please come up – I think I’ll be conducting every Friday night & rehearsing every morning – please come up –

All my love


Lenny remembered more about conducting the Thompson symphony in a remarkable verbatim interview with Herbert Kupferburg published in his book, Tanglewood.

Serge Koussevitzky clasps hands with Leonard Bernstein during a curtain call in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, ca 1947.

Serge Koussevitzky clasps hands with Leonard Bernstein during a curtain call in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, ca 1947. Photo: Courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra

I remember that first week I was up here, very confused, not knowing what to do, never having conducted an orchestra at all, and there was this beautiful student-conductor orchestra ready to be conducted. I was very nervous, as I can tell you. I thought maybe I could get through The Afternoon of a Faun with some luck, or something like that. But he announced to me the first day that I would have to conduct Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony, because Randall Thompson was up here then, having just written that famous Alleluia for the opening exercises, which has been sung every year since. And Randall was somebody I had been studying with at Curtis. And I’d studied orchestration with him at Curtis that same year I was with Reiner. Koussy said: “But how apropos! Of course you must conduct Randall’s Second Symphony!” And I said, “All of it? All four movements?” And he said, “All of it.” And I said, “When?” He said, “Well, Friday night. This is Monday – you have rehearsals Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.” Just like that!

So I got hold of a score and went into the bushes somewhere and studied till I was blue in the face. The next day I had my first rehearsal with Koussy by my side. We had private sessions in between at which he gave me great long disquisitions on legato….and the sun coming out…”it must be varm, varm.” He was so inspiring, so caring. And I must say I was in the sky somewhere. And I did that symphony on the Friday.

H.K.    How did it go?

L.B.     It was great. I couldn’t believe it. It took a lot of doing. Koussevitzky was so thrilled.

At the end of the summer, in a letter to his first piano teacher and later long-time secretary, Miss Helen Coates, he waxes even more enthusiastic over Koussevitzky.

Dear Helen,

He 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 and get slightly depressed by that sort of confidence, but it’s so wonderful here that I disregard it, and work, not even thinking of the horror of conscription that seems to be lurking in the fall. No matter – I must work while I can.

According to the Kupferberg interview, Bernstein had not as yet met Koussevitzky, but had seen an article in a newspaper saying….

…that Koussevitzky was opening a thing called the Berkshire Music Center, so I applied, like all the other kids. I mean, I had no particular in or anything…And I came to Boston and met Koussevitzky for the first time in the green room at Symphony Hall after one of his concerts. We just sat there and talked, there was no audition or anything, and he suddenly said, “But of course, I vill accept you in my class,” which was astonishing to me. I jumped for joy…

I think that in those eleven years we had only one quarrel, or one time of tension. Quarrel’s not the right word. It was the first time I knew that I was really very important to him. He invited me to dinner at Seranak and began to make me a speech which obviously he had rehearsed in his mind. It had a certain formality about it. He was addressing me. And I remember the words very clearly. He said that he had been thinking a great deal about me and so on, and then he said: “It vill be open to you all the gates from the vorld.” It was the first time I ever heard anybody speak in those terms – full of sentences about what I would be and become, and what I would signify for my country, and my people, and music…

In the summer 1942, a young man by the name of Theodore Giddings, who lived at 55 Appleton Avenue in nearby Pittsfield, spent some time researching Koussevitzky as he conducted the student orchestra at Tanglewood. Mr. Giddings’ notes somehow ended up in the Archives of the Boston Symphony in Boston.

Koussevitzky, usually attired in sports shoes, slacks, and open front shirt with sleeves rolled, sits on a high chair with cushioned back on the podium and conducts with a small baton. He sings or hums the music while conducting and gesticulates his commands mostly by expressions of the mouth. The players learn to read his lips, for he never shouts although giving the appearance of shouting.

The other day, in rehearsal, a violinist was late coming in several times. When Koussevitzky stopped the rehearsal, it was to show this player why he was late. The violinist was holding his bow improperly while in rest position. Illustrating by drawing his baton across his arm, Koussevitzky showed the dilatory player how to be in an alert position, thought resting, and thus come in on time.

Personal instruction is often given by Koussevitzky during rehearsal, but he never holds a student up to ridicule, and his criticism, though sharp, is constructive…

When the students begin their orchestra training at Tanglewood, they are rehearsed one morning each week in sections by faculty leaders. This is a tremendous help to them in their orchestra work under Koussevitzky because they are “tipped off” and taught what to expect from him. The Boston Symphony faculty members being Koussevitzky-trained themselves are able to impart invaluable knowledge to the students.

There are no prima donnas in the student orchestra. The chairs are rotated between first, second and third chair players, so that the first chair player today may find himself in the third spot tomorrow or vice versa.

“It doesn’t sound, it doesn’t sound,” he will say frequently during rehearsals, “but we will arrive, we will arrive.” (He uses “arrive” continually when he means succeed)

It is this continual encouragement that makes the students work harder than ever to deliver the goods for Koussevitzky…

“Dr. Koussevitzky insists on the greatest amount of sonority and tone, “ said Miss Barbara La Couline, 19, of Springfield, a violinist. “He expects and gets the fullest amount of concentration at every rehearsal. He knows we are young and he doesn’t fail to remind us that we are. ‘You are young, play it from your heart,’ he tells us, beating his hand over his heart.”

Students respect Koussevitzky not only as a musician and conductor, but as a person. His attitude is paternalistic in the sincere sense of the word, and he seems to have a friendly interest in all the students whether in or outside the concert shed. They feel that his ability as a teacher is on a par with his genius as a director.

Lukas Foss, now an internationally-acclaimed composer and conductor, was in 1940 another spectacularly gifted student studying in the school that first summer.

He is very enlightening on the subject of Koussevitzky as a conductor. In my interview with him, he honed in on what is probably the essence of the Koussevitzky magic. “Koussevitzky was able to do the Tchaikovsky Fifth for the hundredth time as if it were the first. He was never jaded — never!”

 Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss stand on either side of Serge Koussevitzky as he cuts his birthday cake at Tanglewood ca 1946. Photo: Courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss stand on either side of Serge Koussevitzky as he cuts his birthday cake at Tanglewood ca 1946. Photo: Courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra

He was a father figure to me. Lenny and I were like his children. It was very privileged position to be in and I was very grateful and felt a great deal of love for him. He was really wonderful. He was so giving, so generous in every respect — silly little things like when he had worn one of his suits five times and had had enough of it, he would give it to me. And he would have me try it on, like a tailor, and then he would say, “Good! Do you feel rich now?” We were his kinder.

My first impression of him was wonderful. I remember auditioning – we had to do a bit of Till Eulenspiegel and before I started to conduct for the audition, Koussevitzky said, “You know I see you right for Hindemith composition and for me conducting. You can’t have both. That’s too much. Why don’t you do Hindemith this year and next year you can study with me.” And I said, “Oh, I prepared myself for this audition.” “Well, you can always do the audition.” So I did the audition and when I got through he said, “If you vish, you will have.” I will never forget that statement. “If you vish, you will have.” So I had both.

Everything was very important to Koussevitzky. If we didn’t do our work he would say things like, “Tanglewood – 4,000 people, that means 8,000 eyes are on you. And you have to look right as a conductor. You have to portray the music correctly.” I had never thought of the way I look when I conduct.

Hindemith and I had a little problem at first. He went into Koussevitzky and said, “I cannot teach Lukas Foss. He wants to know, but he doesn’t want to follow.” Koussevitzky showed me his letter. He said, “That’s wonderful. That’s what I want my students to do – want to know and not to follow. I’ll make him take you back.” He was very daunting. But you know, young people can be very arrogant. I was more arrogant then than I am now.

This Koussevitzky speech, “On the Art of Conducting” given to the conducting students at Tanglewood in 1940, exemplifies why Bernstein, Foss and the students found him so inspiring. Today, we might even say he was quite the “New Age guy.”           

The art of conducting is very much like the art of a violinist, a pianist, or any virtuoso. To a conductor, the orchestra is as much an instrument as the violin is to a violinist, the piano to a pianist – with the difference that the orchestra is an instrument infinitely more complete and complex.

The conductor must possess a far greater will-power to be able to convey his artistic will to a living instrument.

Too little is known about the technique of conducting. Therefore, we often observe the method of using a great deal of energy, waving of arms, sweeping gesticulation; whereas an imperceptible beat, the slightest motion of the hand, have a reflection upon the sensitive chords of the orchestral instrument and prove far more effective.

Today, I shall not discuss that particular subject. We shall return to the significance of the technique of conducting later, during the course of our work.

When I began to think of a system for the art of conducting, or more exactly, the art of interpretation, I naturally began to recollect the experiments in this field by old masters of interpretation. Also, I began to recall my own experiments during almost my whole life – first as a soloist, then as conductor. I realized that I had accumulated an enormous amount of material as a result of my artistic experience. On the basis of this material, I felt it was now possible to create a system of advanced technique of interpretation.

In the work and life of an artist, each separate experience should be examined, appraised and laid in his soul as a foundation for his creative work.

In my observation of great artists, I have noticed that bodily freedom, the absence of muscular strain and a complete subjugation of the physical apparatus to the will of the performer play a great role. When this freedom is attained, the result is a splendidly organized creative labor, enabling the artist to freely reveal that which his soul feels. I myself have felt this state of creative ability on the stage; and when this happened, I experienced a feeling of liberation and was able to live on the stage by my creative work.

This is why it is essential for a conductor to possess an external technique – that is, a technique of the hands as well as an inner technique. Freedom of external technique, that is, muscular freedom, gives a tremendous possibility of concentration. The creative faculty is above all a complete concentration of the whole nature, spiritual and physical. It takes possession not only of the vision and hearing, but also of the mind, body, will, emotions, memory and imagination. The whole spiritual and physical nature must be concentrated on that which is taking place in the soul during the transmission of a musical composition.

Autographed print of Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Photo: Courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra

Autographed print of Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Photo: Courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra

First of all, a musician must feel a composition and that which he himself is doing. One must always be feeling the truth, be finding it. It is essential to develop within us artistic sensitiveness to the truth of feeling and emotions, to the truth of the creative impulse struggling to manifest itself.

Truth outside us is not important, but what is important is truth within us: The truth of what we are doing.

It appears that the feeling of truth, just like the faculty of concentration and muscular control, is subject to development and exercise.

The calmer and more restrained the emotions on the stage, the greater appears the demand to restrain gesticulation.

It is necessary so to work at rehearsals that the inner essence of a composition is revealed. Standing on the platform, the hardest thing of all is to have faith in what has to be done. Without faith it is impossible to perform any composition. The most important thing is to believe sincerely, to be excited sincerely. Moments occur occasionally when, by chance, comes the gift from heaven. Sometimes the face of a musician, a movement, will instantly change the mood. How to explain this incomprehensible creative evolution? How is emotion to be forced out of its secret hiding place and forced to assume the creative initiative? It must be won in an interesting, creative, imaginative way.

Artistic values must not be understood in their outer aspect. But sometimes a young artist, in understanding the outer truth, approaches the inner one. And the inner truth begins to provoke that true emotion which arouses creative intuition. The value of such work for an artist consists in the finding of a secondary way to the artistic soul: from outer to inner; from body to soul; from incarnation to spiritual experience; from the form to the content. Of course, even a secondary artist can grasp a score outwardly. But only true talent can grasp the soul of a score and transmit the spiritual meaning of a composition.

Among the large number of pieces in an artist’s repertoire are certain ones which become a part of his nature. And he has only to touch such a piece to bring it to life, without creative pains, without searching, and almost without technical work. This is because, due to chance or coincidence, the spiritual material and its forming processes are prepared by life itself. The sounds come to life, like an organic part of nature. And these sounds flow as they should. They cannot do otherwise. It is as difficult to analyze them as it is difficult to analyze our own soul.

I am convinced that, in time we shall reach and we shall find technical means to penetrate into the artistic sanctuary which is truth, not by mere chance of our own will.

The line of intuition and emotion is always suggested by the composer. But, in order to discover the innermost essence of a composition, it is imperative to make a penetrating analysis of its spiritual depths. An artist must discern the high refinement of the spirit; he must know how to grieve over the immortal soul, or to conceive the sorrow of this soul; he must understand that immortal domain which cannot be approached without emotion…..There are no other ways in art!

In our creative work there exists the difficult problem of safeguarding a composition from spiritual decay. Due to the great number of performances of one and the same piece, habits are formed. Therefore a spiritual preparation is necessary before the actual performance – every time, and at every repetition of it. Before re-creating a work, we should know how to enter into that spiritual atmosphere in which alone the creative sacrament is possible.

An interpreter must recognize that he is working not only on a score but also on himself. An artist must strive for perfection of the ideal, that is, for the simple, strong, deep, exalted and beautiful expression of a live emotion.

Next: Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith put some young composers — many soon to become famous — through their paces.

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