In the official biographies of Serge
Alexandrovitch Koussevitzky you will
find that the boss of the Boston Symphony learned the art and mystery
conducting at the Royal Hochschule in Berlin under the great Artur
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
the drawing room of his Moscow home.
The job lasted just about a year, and
our pianist has never looked at a
There's also an anecdote to the effect
that, much earlier, when Serge
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
score open in front of him, conduct them. Once in a while he'd stop
and berate the chairs. Then little Serge's language was something
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
batonist's platform appearance is so meticulous and his movements are
obviously studied to produce the desired effects that he seems to
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
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
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
unpredictable motions than both of them put together. Time cannot
nor custom stale, the infinite variety of his shadow boxing.
Those who knew his history look upon Mr.
unrestrained gymnastics with tolerant eyes. They realize that, for
he was forced to hide his fine figure and athletic prowess from
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
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,
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
a third-rate theatre orchestra. The boy, intensely musical, wished to
a fiddler like his father. When he was fourteen, his family gave him
blessing, which was all they had to give, and sent him to Moscow to try
a scholarship at the Philharmonic School.
He arrived with three rubles in his
pocket. At the school he was told
the only available scholarship was one in bull fiddling. Serge tried
and won. He was, so far as is known, the first musician to make the
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
Koussevitzky was twenty-nine (he's sixty-eight now but looks a
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
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
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
taken aback, for it was with the bull fiddle that he had wooed and won
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
that Mr. Koussevitzky sent for him and began an intensive course of
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
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
never heard symphony music before. In seven years Mr. Koussevitzky and
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
winter; the country was in the killing grip of cold and famine.
Koussevitzky and his players starved for
weeks on end. The boss
in mittens. The men wore mittens, too, but they had holes in them, so
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
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
was refused because officials said, "Russia needs your music."
The fiery Koussevitzky told the
Government that, unless he were allowed
travel abroad, he'd never play or conduct another note in Russia. They
Mr. Koussevitzky says that the
Bolsheviks robbed him of about a million
money, land and other property. In illustration of the state of things
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
the orchestra. "Who are those people?" he asked, pointing to a group of
players at the conductor's left. "Those," said Koussevitzky, "are the
"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
Clear them out!"
Mr. Koussevitzky went to Paris, where he
conducted a series of
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
In 1924, the offer of a $50,000 salary
and the opportunity of
the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which had sadly deteriorated since the
of Dr. Karl Muck, lured him to this country.
American customs, he now admits, at
first appalled him. He was amazed
find musicians smoking in intermissions at rehearsals and concert. This
called "an insult to art." He forbade smoking. The players raised an
unholy rumpus, but Koussevitzky persisted. The men haven't taken a puff
Symphony Hall since that time.
The next unpopular move he made was to
fire a number of the old
who had sat in the orchestra for most of its forty-four-year history.
vant yongk blott!" he cried in his then still very thick accent. "If
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
cow and they regarded the older members in the light of special pets.
when, at the opening of the new season, they heard a brilliant,
rejuvenated orchestra, they forgave the new conductor. Since then, he
has restored the Symphony to its old-time glory. Today Beacon Hill has
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.
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
stevedore. When he, the pants and the sweater had been with the
ten years, the men gave him a testimonial dinner.
Next to Mr. Toscanini he's the world's
most temperamental conductor,
has the ability to keep himself in check—when he wants to.
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
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
Afternoon of a Faun," when smoke from an incinerator fire in a
building penetrated the hall. The smoke grew dense. People rose, rushed
the exits in near-panic. Women screamed.
He stopped the orchestra, turned to the
audience, held up his hand and
"Come back! Sit down! Sit down—all of
you! Everything is all right!"
The customers meekly resumed their
seats. Mr. Koussevitzky swung 'round
continued playing Debussy's brooding, sensuous dreampiece as if nothing
Because he has done so much, both as
conductor and publisher, for
composers (he is the high priest of the Sibelius cult), he has been
a modernist. The label infuriates him.
"Nonsense!" he snarls. "I'm not a
modernist and I'm not a classicist.
a musician! The first movement of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven is
greatest music ever written and George Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' is
"There you are! Make the best of it!"