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Serge Koussevitzky

Born: July 26, 1874   

Died:  June 4, 1951, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Alternate/ Birth Name :Sergei Aleksandrovich Koussevitzky. His forename is transliterated into English as either Sergei or Serge and his surname is transliterated as variously Koussevitzky, Koussevitzky, Kussevitzky or, into Polish as Kusewicki.

Birthplace: Vyshniy Volochek, Russia                     

  • Mother: nee Anna Barabeichik (Vorobeichik) (D. 1877)
  • Father: Aleksandrovich Koussevitzky
Sibling: 3 Siblings, 2 Brothers and 1 sister
  • Sister: Anna Koussevitzky (B. 1866)
  • Brother: Adolf Koussevitzky
  • Brother: Nicholas Koussevitzky

Profession: He was a Russian-born Jewish conductor, composer and double-bassist, known for his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Education: Since his parents in the music profession, Koussevitzky's early teachers were his parents and taught him violin, cello, piano and trumpet at an early age. This was followed by piano lessons by Maria Fedorovna Ropenberg who became Koussevitzky's guardian after his mother's death.Legend has it that Koussevitzky ran away from home at age fourteen to study in Moscow, but that is only partly correct. Koussevitzky did take private cello lessons in Moscow but he seldom stayed there more than a night. Koussevitzky had first applied for admission at the Imperial Moscow Conservatory but was told to reapply in the spring probably because of his Jewish backgroud.However, instead the impatient Koussevitzky applied for admission at the School of the Moscow Philharmonic Society, where he was given the same reply. This time Koussevitzky would not take no for an answer and the strong-willed youth managed to convince the director, Pyotr Adamovich Shostakovsky, of his desire and his merit. Since the penniless Koussevitzky could not afford the tuition he was given the choice to study either trombone or double bass, both of which came with a scholarship and a stipend. He received this scholarship becasue students seldom choose these instruments. Koussevitzky choose the double bass and studied double bass with Josef Rambusek and music theory. He excelled at the bass, joining the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra at age twenty and succeeding his teacher as the principal bassist at twenty-seven.

Childhood: He was born into a musical but poor family where his his father played either violin or double bass (possibly both), his mother was a pianist. Koussevitzky's parents due to their profession taught him violin, cello, piano and trumpet at an early age.It is said that during his childhood he used to take some spare chairs and then stand on a box leading the musicians. His path took him to becoming one of the great double bass soloists with a remarkable cello like quality to his playing that emphasized beauty of sound. When Koussevitzky was just three years old his mother died and the children were faced with the strict discipline of his father though all this mellowed At age eight Koussevitzky came under the guardianship of a local woman named Maria Fedorovna Ropenberg. She came as a boon to  who not only mitigated the elder Koussevitzky's harshness, but also continued Koussevitzky 's piano lessons which were started by his mother initailly. Soon afterward he began composing music for the local theater and by the time he was twelve years old was touring with the theater troupe throughout the local district. He was a Jew by birth but was baptized at the age of 14 as Jews weren't allowed to live in Moscow and he had received a scholarship to the Musico-Dramatic Institute of the Moscow Philharmonic.  

First Break:In 1908, Koussevitzky made his professional debut as a conductor, hiring and leading a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.   

Spouse : Serge first got married with Nadezhda Galat (1902),she was a dancer and then Koussevitzky divorced his first wife and then he married to Natalie Ushkov, the daughter of an extremely wealthy tea merchant, in 1905.

  • First Wife:Nadezhda Petrovna Galat (ballet dancer, divorced 1905)
  • Second Wife: Nataliia Konstantinovna Ushkova (1881-1942) (marriage 1905 Aug 17)
  • Third Wife: Ol'ga Aleksandrovna Naumova (1901-1978) (marriage 1947 Aug 15)

Children: No info.

Musical Journey:
Classic net - Annotated Recordings List (Click Here)
Classic net - Discography (Click Here)

Musical Achievements:
1894: He gave recitals on and composed a concerto for his instrument.
1908: He made his first professional debut as a conductor at Berlin.
1909 to 1920: He established himself as a brilliant conductor in Europe
1920: He went to Paris and organized the Concerts Koussevitzky and show his new work by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel.
1924: He moved to America and got it’s citizenship.
1924: He was appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
1940: He established the Koussevitzky Music Center at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony’s summer home)
1942: He formed the Koussevitzky Music Foundation(in memory of his late wife)

Famous Performances and Recordings

In concert
Scriabin, Prometheus: Poem of Fire, Moscow, March 2, 1911
Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Paris, October 19, 1922
Prokofiev, First Violin Concerto with Marcel Darrieux as soloist, Paris, October 18, 1923
Prokofiev, Second Symphony, Paris, June 6 1925
Prokofiev, Fourth Symphony, Boston, November 14, 1930
George Gershwin, Second Rhapsody, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Boston, 29 January 1932
Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York, December 1, 1944
Samuel Barber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Eleanor Steber as soloist, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1948
Copland Appalachian Spring (suite) Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1945

On record

Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Boston Symphony Orchestra, October 1930
Sibelius, Seventh Symphony, BBC Symphony Orchestra, HMV, London, 1933
Roy Harris, Third Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1939
Berlioz, Harold in Italy with William Primrose as soloist, 1946
Copland, Appalachian Spring (suite), Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1946
Haydn, Symphony No 94 In G (The "Surprise" Symphony), Boston Symphony Orchestra

Harriet Brower's Account For Serge Koussevitzky

In the official biographies of Serge Alexandrovitch Koussevitzky you will find that the boss of the Boston Symphony learned the art and mystery of conducting at the Royal Hochschule in Berlin under the great Artur Nikisch, but in this town

there lives and breathes a rather well-known Russian pianist who tells a different story.

Long ago, says this key-tickler, when he was a youth, he was hired by Koussevitzky, then also a young fellow, to play the piano scores of the entire standard symphony repertoire.

He pounded away by the hour, the day and the week, while Koussevitzky conducted, watching himself in a set of three tall mirrors in a corner of the drawing room of his Moscow home.

The job lasted just about a year, and our pianist has never looked at a conductor since.

There's also an anecdote to the effect that, much earlier, when Serge was still a little boy in his small native town in the province of Tver, in northern Russia, he would arrange the parlor chairs in rows and, with some score open in front of him, conduct them. Once in a while he'd stop short and berate the chairs. Then little Serge's language was something awful.

Whether these stories are true or not, the fact remains that Mr. Koussevitzky became a conductor and a great one—one of the greatest. The yarn of the mirrors is the most credible of the lot, for the Russian batonist's platform appearance is so meticulous and his movements are so obviously studied to produce the desired effects that he seems to conduct before an imaginary pier glass.

For elegant tailoring he has no peer among orchestral chiefs, except, perhaps, Mr. Stokowski. It's a toss-up between the two. Both are as sleek as chromium statues. Mr. Stokowski, slim, lithe, romantic in a virile way, looks as a poet should look, but never does. Mr. Koussevitzky, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, extremely military and virile in a dramatic way, looks as a captain of dragoons in civvies should have looked but never did.

Mr. Koussevitzy's conductorial gestures are literally high, wide and handsome. His wing-spread, so to speak, is much larger than that of either Mr. Stokowski or Mr. Toscanini, and he has a greater repertoire of unpredictable motions than both of them put together. Time cannot wither, nor custom stale, the infinite variety of his shadow boxing.

Those who knew his history look upon Mr. Koussevitzky's joyous, unrestrained gymnastics with tolerant eyes. They realize that, for years, he was forced to hide his fine figure and athletic prowess from thousands of potential admirers.

For Mr. Koussevitzky, before he became a conductor, was a world-famous performer on the double bass, that big growling brute of an instrument popularly known as the bull fiddle. In those days all that was visible of his impressive person was his head, one of his shoulders and his arms.

He didn't want to be a bull fiddler any more than you or you or you, and it's greatly to his credit and indicative of his iron will, consuming ambition and extraordinary musicianship that he developed, according to authoritative opinion, into the best bull fiddler of his time.

Here's what happened:

Serge was the son of a violinist who scratched away for a meager living in a third-rate theatre orchestra. The boy, intensely musical, wished to be a fiddler like his father. When he was fourteen, his family gave him their blessing, which was all they had to give, and sent him to Moscow to try for a scholarship at the Philharmonic School.

He arrived with three rubles in his pocket. At the school he was told that the only available scholarship was one in bull fiddling. Serge tried for it and won. He was, so far as is known, the first musician to make the barking monster into a solo instrument.

An overburdened troubadour, he dragged the cumbersome thing all over Russia and played it in recitals with amazing success. In 1903, when Mr. Koussevitzky was twenty-nine (he's sixty-eight now but looks a mettlesome fifty), the Czar decorated him—the only instance in history of a decoration bestowed for bull fiddling.

That same year, while giving a concert in Moscow, the virtuoso happened to look into the audience and his eyes met those of a stunning brunette in the front row. The owner of the lovely eyes, Natalya Konstantinova Ushkova, became his wife two years later.

Natalya, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a rich girl in her own right, promised him anything he wanted for a wedding gift. "Give me a symphony orchestra." was Koussevitzky's startling request. The bride was taken aback, for it was with the bull fiddle that he had wooed and won her and she hated to see him give it up, but she kept her word.

Now here is where our old pianist comes in. It was at that time, he says, that Mr. Koussevitzky sent for him and began an intensive course of study before the triple mirror.

A year or so later Natalya hired eighty-five of the best musicians in Moscow. After a season of rehearsals Mr. Koussevitzky took his band on tour aboard a steamer—a little gift from his father-in-law.

They rode up and down the Volga. Every evening the vessel—a sort of musical showboat—tied up at a different city, town or village and the orchestra gave a concert, often before peasants and small-town folk who had never heard symphony music before. In seven years Mr. Koussevitzky and his men traveled some 3,000 miles.

Came the revolution. Kerensky ordered Koussevitzy and his men: "Keep up with your music." They did, but it wasn't easy. It was a terribly severe winter; the country was in the killing grip of cold and famine.

Koussevitzky and his players starved for weeks on end. The boss conducted in mittens. The men wore mittens, too, but they had holes in them, so they could finger the strings and keys of their instruments.

The Bolsheviks made Mr. Koussevitzky director of the state orchestras which, in those early Soviet days, were at low musical ebb. He labored in that job for three years, from 1917 to 1920, but he was out of sympathy with the Lenin-Trotzky regime and asked permission to leave the country. It was refused because officials said, "Russia needs your music."

The fiery Koussevitzky told the Government that, unless he were allowed to travel abroad, he'd never play or conduct another note in Russia. They let him go.

Mr. Koussevitzky says that the Bolsheviks robbed him of about a million in money, land and other property. In illustration of the state of things that impelled him to leave his native land, he likes to tell this story:

A minor Bolshevik official came in one day to check up on the affairs of the orchestra. "Who are those people?" he asked, pointing to a group of players at the conductor's left. "Those," said Koussevitzky, "are the first violins."

"And those over there?" asked the inspector, indicating a group at the conductor's right. "The second violins," was the reply.

"What!" yelled the official. "Second violins in a Soviet state orchestra? Clear them out!"

Mr. Koussevitzky went to Paris, where he conducted a series of orchestral concerts and performances of Moussorgsky's "Boris Godounoff" and Tschaikowsky's "Pique Dame" at the Opera. Between 1921 and 1924 he also appeared in Barcelona, Rome and Berlin. In Paris he established a music publishing house (still in existence), which issued the works of such modern Russian composers as Stravinsky, Scriabine, Medtner, Prokofieff and Rachmaninoff.

In 1924, the offer of a $50,000 salary and the opportunity of rebuilding the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which had sadly deteriorated since the days of Dr. Karl Muck, lured him to this country.

American customs, he now admits, at first appalled him. He was amazed to find musicians smoking in intermissions at rehearsals and concert. This he called "an insult to art." He forbade smoking. The players raised an unholy rumpus, but Koussevitzky persisted. The men haven't taken a puff in Symphony Hall since that time.

The next unpopular move he made was to fire a number of the old standbys who had sat in the orchestra for most of its forty-four-year history. "I vant yongk blott!" he cried in his then still very thick accent. "If dose old chentlemen vant to sleep, let dem sleep in deir houses!"

The Boston music lovers didn't like it. To them the Symphony is a sacred cow and they regarded the older members in the light of special pets. But when, at the opening of the new season, they heard a brilliant, completely rejuvenated orchestra, they forgave the new conductor. Since then, he has restored the Symphony to its old-time glory. Today Beacon Hill has no greater favorite than Serge Alexandrovitch Koussevitzky.

The orchestra men, too, learned to like him. They discovered that, with all his public histrionics, he was on the level as a musician. He is a merciless task master, but in rehearsals he gives himself no airs. Dressed in an old pair of pants and a disreputable brown woolen sweater, which he has worn in private since the day he landed in Boston, he works like a stevedore. When he, the pants and the sweater had been with the Symphony ten years, the men gave him a testimonial dinner.

Next to Mr. Toscanini he's the world's most temperamental conductor, but he has the ability to keep himself in check—when he wants to. "Koussevitzky," says Ernest Newman, the eminent English music critic, "has a volcanic temperament, yet never have I known it to run away with him. It is precisely when his temperament is at the boiling point that his hand on the regulator is steadiest."

At a concert in Carnegie Hall four years ago he gave a dramatic demonstration of self-control. He was conducting Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," when smoke from an incinerator fire in a neighboring building penetrated the hall. The smoke grew dense. People rose, rushed for the exits in near-panic. Women screamed.

He stopped the orchestra, turned to the audience, held up his hand and shouted:

"Come back! Sit down! Sit down—all of you! Everything is all right!"

The customers meekly resumed their seats. Mr. Koussevitzky swung 'round and continued playing Debussy's brooding, sensuous dreampiece as if nothing had happened.

Because he has done so much, both as conductor and publisher, for living composers (he is the high priest of the Sibelius cult), he has been called a modernist. The label infuriates him.

"Nonsense!" he snarls. "I'm not a modernist and I'm not a classicist. I'm a musician! The first movement of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven is the greatest music ever written and George Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' is a masterpiece."

"There you are! Make the best of it!"