conductor, double-bassist, composer
July 26, 1874 - June 04, 1951
Serge Koussevitzky was a Russian-born American conductor of Jewish descent, composer and double-bassist, known for his role in establishing the Boston Symphony Orchestra as one of the leading orchestras of the US.
Serge Koussevitzky: Godfather of the Boston Symphony
Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky was born to a poor Jewish family in Vyshny Volochyok near Tver, about 250 km of Moscow, Russia. Since his parents were professional musicians, from a very early age he learned to play violin, cello, piano and trumpet.
At the age of 14 he had to undergo baptism: the Jews were not allowed to live in Moscow at the time, he had just received a scholarship to the Musico-Dramatic Institute of the Moscow Philharmonic Society! He excelled at the bass and joined the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra at the age of only twenty, succeeding his teacher, Edward Rambusek, as the principal bassist and making his solo debut in 1901.
In 1902 he married the dancer Nadezhda Galat, but only three years later divorced her to marry Natalie Ushkova, the daughter of a Moscow tea magnate, resigning from the Bolshoi, moving to Berlin to study conducting and even paying off his teacher's gambling debts.
After two years of practicing in his own home with an orchestra made up of students, he was invited by the Berlin Philharmonic and made his debut as a conductor in 1908, conducting Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, with the great composer himself playing the piano.
Upon returning to Russia, he tried himself in business, establishing his own orchestra in Moscow and creating his own music publishing firm, Éditions Russes de Musique, which bought out catalogues of many of the greatest composers of the time, including Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Nikolai Medtner.
He was even successful under the new regime, after the 1917 Russian Revolution, though not for long... He accepted the position of the conductor of the newly re-named State Philharmonic Orchestra of Petrograd, but in 1920 left the Soviet Union for Paris, where he operated the Concerts Koussevitzky orchestra, presenting new works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel, and later moved to America.
The fame was not long in coming. In 1924 he took the post of the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, starting the golden era of the orchestra: over a 25-year period, he built the ensemble's reputation into that of a leading American orchestra. He also discovered the young tenor Alfred Cocozza, who would later be known as Mario Lanza, one of the most famous singers in American history!
His students included such famous musicians as Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Adler, and Sarah Caldwell.
As the legend has it, Bernstein received a pair of cufflinks as a gift from Koussevitzky, and afterwards would invariably wear them to each and every concert he conducted as a good luck charm.
In 1941 Koussevitzky and his wife Natalie became United States citizens. The very next year Natalie died, and in 1947 the conductor married again, to his long-time secretary Olga Naumova. The family life was not for long, unfortunately: in 1951 Koussevitzky died in his home in Boston and was buried alongside his second wife Natalie; although he was of Jewish descent, his tombstone had a Christian cross on it.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. New York: Grove's Dictionaries
Colin Eatock (Spring 2003). "Serge Koussevitzky Discovers America". Discourses in Music 4
Smith, Moses. Koussevitzky. Allen, Towne & Heath, 1947
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