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Serge Koussevitzky

Serge Koussevitzky

Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky[n 1] (Russian: Серге́й Алекса́ндрович Кусеви́цкий; Sergey Aleksandrovich Kusevitsky; July 26 [O.S. July 14] 1874 – June 4, 1951) was a Russian-born conductor, composer and double-bassist, known for his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949.


  • Biography 1
    • Early career 1.1
    • Conductor and publisher 1.2
    • In America 1.3
    • Personal life 1.4
  • Champion of contemporary music 2
  • Legacy 3
  • Recordings 4
  • Notable premieres 5
    • In concert 5.1
    • On record 5.2
  • Notes and references 6
  • External links 7


Early career

Koussevitzky was born into a family of professional musicians in Vyshny Volochyok, Tver Governorate (present-day Tver Oblast), about 250 km northwest of Moscow, Russia.[1] His parents taught him violin, cello, and piano. He also learned trumpet.[2] At the age of fourteen he received a scholarship to the Musico-Dramatic Institute of the Moscow Philharmonic Society,[3] where he studied double bass with Rambusek[2] and music theory. He excelled at the bass, joining the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra at the age of twenty, in 1894, and succeeded his teacher, Rambusek, as the principal bassist in 1901. That same year, according to some sources, he made his début (25 March) as a soloist in Moscow,[2] although his biographer Moses Smith states he made his solo début earlier in 1896;[4] he later won critical acclaim with his first recital in Berlin in 1903. In 1902 he married the dancer Nadezhda Galat. The same year, with Reinhold Glière's help, he wrote a popular concerto for the double bass, which he premiered in Moscow in 1905.[2] In 1905, Koussevitzky divorced Nadezhda and married Natalie Ushkova, the daughter of an extremely wealthy tea merchant.[5] He soon resigned from the Bolshoi, and the couple moved to Berlin, where Serge studied conducting under Arthur Nikisch, using his new-found wealth to pay off his teacher's gambling debts.[6]

Conductor and publisher

In Berlin he continued to give double bass recitals and, after two years practicing conducting in his own home with a student orchestra, he hired the

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Hugo Warlich
Musical Directors, State Philharmonic Orchestra of Petrograd
Succeeded by
Emil Cooper
  • Free scores by Sergei Koussevitzky at the International Music Score Library Project
  • Discography: Young, Edward (1990). ARSC Journal : 45–12920Part I: and : 241–26520Part II: .
  • Serge Koussevitzky at AllMusic
  • Serge Koussevitzky at the Koussevitzky Music Foundations
  • Serge Koussevitzky at the Koussevitzky Recordings Society
  • Serge Koussevitzky concert notes at the American Symphony Orchestra
  • Serge Koussevitzky biography at the Bach Cantatas Website
  • Turangalîla-Symphonie/ A film about Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. commissioned by the Koussevitzky foundation.
  • Sergei Koussevitzky Time magazine cover October 10, 1938
  • Double Bass Concerto in F-sharp minor, Op. 3, 1st movement on YouTube
  • Double Bass Concerto, Op. 3, 2nd movement on YouTube
  • Double Bass Concerto, Op. 3, 3rd movement on YouTube

External links

  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e f g José Bowen, "Koussevitzky [Kusevitsky], Sergey (Aleksandrovich)" in Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. New York: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-239-0.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Smith, Moses. Koussevitzky. Allen, Towne & Heath, 1947: p. 15
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^
  7. ^ Joan Peyser, Bernstein: A Biography
  8. ^ a b Copland. "1900 through 1942" by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. ISBN 978-0-312-16962-6.
  9. ^ Copland. "Since 1943" by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis. ISBN 978-0-312-03313-2.
  10. ^ Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky at Find a Grave
  11. ^ a b Nichols R. The Harlequin Years: music in Paris 1917–1929. Thames & Hudson, London, 2002.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Coppola P. Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris 1922–1939. Librairie F Rouge & Cie, Lausanne, 1944, p26.
  14. ^ Smith, pp. 218, 224
  15. ^ Wilfried D'hondt (15 October 2003). "Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky" at the Wayback Machine Originally retrieved 2007-04-02.
  16. ^ a b Seiji Ozawa at Retrieved 2001-11-05.
  17. ^ a b Michael Tilson Thomas at Retrieved 2009-11-05.
  18. ^


  1. ^ Koussevitzky's original Russian forename is usually transliterated into English as either "Sergei" or "Sergey"; however, he himself adopted the French spelling "Serge", using it in his signature. (See The Koussevitzky Music Foundations official web site. Retrieved 2009-11-05.) His surname can be transliterated variously as "Koussevitzky", "Koussevitsky", "Kussevitzky", "Kusevitsky", or, into Polish, as "Kusewicki"; however, he himself chose to use "Koussevitzky".
  2. ^ Both Copland and Ravel failed to complete their works in time for the anniversary, so their American premieres were delayed until the following season.[14]


Notes and references

On record

In concert

Notable premieres

Several 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 Seal records 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, 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 reissued officially by RCA in spite of the popularity of the Camden disc with Hale. Hale was also the narrator for Arthur Fiedler's 1953 RCA Victor recording of the same music with the Boston Pops Orchestra. RCA Victor reissued several other historic orchestral recordings on its Camden label with fictitious names to avoid having them in direct competition with newer recordings by the same artists on RCA's upscale Red Seal label.

His very last recordings, made in November 1950, on magnetic tape using RCA's proprietary RT-214-inch machines at 30 inches per second, were acclaimed performances of Sibelius's Second Symphony and Grieg's "The Last Spring". Both have been re-released by RCA on CD in Taiwan. Some of Koussevitzky's performances at Tanglewood, including a very spirited Beethoven "Egmont Overture", were also filmed during the 1940s.

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

Serge Koussevitzky recorded with the Boston Symphony exclusively for RCA Victor, except for a live recording made for Columbia Records, the Symphony 1933 composed by Roy Harris, recorded in Carnegie Hall, New York, during a concert, using portable equipment. One quite notable early RCA Victor session in Boston's Symphony Hall in 1929 was devoted to an early recording of Ravel's Boléro, and his 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 nephew Fabian "Sevitzky" conducted the Indianapolis Symphony during this same period, making several recordings of his own for RCA Victor.


Serge Koussevitsky

The Tanglewood Music Center awards the Koussevitzky Prize for outstanding student conductor.[16][17] It has been awarded since 1954, but unlike many prizes, it is not awarded annually.[18] Past winners have included Seiji Ozawa (1960),[16] Russell Peck (1966), and Michael Tilson Thomas (1969).[17]

Following Koussevitzky's 1951 death, his widow, Olga Koussevitzky, presented double-bassist Gary Karr with his double bass, once believed to have been made in 1611 by brothers Antonio and Girolamo Amati. The instrument now bears the names of both Karr and Koussevitzky, and has been played by bassist Scott Pingel and the San Francisco Academy Orchestra.

As an avid supporter of new music, Koussevitzky created the Koussevitzky Music Foundations in 1942. The basic aim of the foundations was to assist composers by commissioning new compositions and underwriting the cost of their performance.[8] New works created with the foundations' support include: 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, Henri Dutilleux's string quartet Ainsi la nuit and Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie.


In 1940, Koussevitzky commissioned Randall Thompson, then a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the men's Glee club, to write a new piece for performance at Tanglewood. Koussevitzky had a large-scale festival piece in mind, but with World War II underway and France having fallen to Germany, Thompson could not find such an inspiration. Instead, he produced his unaccompanied Alleluia – with the word sung 64 times in the Russian manner – which became his most frequently-performed work.

In 1922, Koussevitzky commissioned Pictures at an Exhibition, which was premiered on 19 October that year[11] and quickly became the most famous and celebrated orchestration of the work. Koussevitzky held the rights to this version for many years.

For the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary, he commissioned Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, Copland's Ode,[n 2] 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.[15]

Koussevitzky was a great champion of modern music, commissioning a number of works from prominent composers. During his time in Paris in the early 1920s he programmed much contemporary music, ensuring well-prepared and good quality performances.[11] Among the well-received premieres were Honegger’s Second Rhapsody[12] and Roussel’s Suite in F.[13]

Champion of contemporary music

Koussevitzky died in Boston in 1951 and was buried alongside his wife Natalie.[10]

Koussevitzky's second wife Natalie died in 1942, and he created the Koussevitzky Music Foundations in her honor.[8] In late 1947, he married Olga Naumova (1901–1978), Natalie's niece. Naumova had lived with the couple and acted as their secretary for 18 years. Olga Naumova was the daughter of the distinguished politician and civil servant Aleksandr Naumov (1868, Simbirsk — 1950, Nice. France) who served as Minister of Agriculture in the Russian Imperial Cabinet.She has been described as quiet, and soft-spoken, and Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland counted her among their close friends.[9]

Personal life

Koussevitzky's appointment as conductor of the Boston Symphony was the beginning of a golden era for the ensemble that would continue until 1949. Over that 25-year period, he built the ensemble's reputation into that of a leading American orchestra, and developed its summer concert and educational programs at Tanglewood. In the early 1940s, he discovered a young tenor named Alfred 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 once received a pair of cufflinks from Koussevitzky as a gift, and thereafter wore them at every concert he conducted.[7]

In America

[5] until 1929. In 1941 he and his wife became United States citizens.Concerts Koussevitzky. However, he continued to return to Paris in the summers to conduct his Boston Symphony Orchestra as conductor of the Pierre Monteux. In 1924 he took a post in the United States, replacing Maurice Ravel presenting new works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and [2]

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