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The World's Great Men of Music By Harriette Brower Characters: 12544

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

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!"

[Transcriber's Notes:

a. The spelling of names and places are noted as having changed

between the publication of this book and the year 2004:

Chapter I (Palestrina):

'Michael Angelo' vs. 'Michaelangelo' (also in Chapter VI)

Chapter II (Bach):

Leipsic vs. Leipzig (repeated in following chapters)

Lüneberg vs. Lüneburg

Chapter X (Mendelssohn):

'Dreifaltigkeit Kirch-hof' vs. 'Dreifaltigkeit Kirchhof'

Wiemar vs. Weimar

Chapter XIII (Berlioz):

Academié vs. Académie

Chapter XIV (Verdi):

'Sant' Agata' vs. 'Sant'Agata'

'Apeninnes' vs. 'Apennines'

'Corsia di Servi' vs. 'Corsia dei Servi'

Chpater XXI (McDowell):

Frankfort vs. Frankfurt (Germany)

Peterboro vs. Peterborough (New Hampshire)

* * * * *

b. Spelling errors found, not corrected:

beseiged (besieged);

Esterhazy (spelled unaccented twice) vs. Esterházy (spelled with accent 6 times)

Carreno vs. Carre?o (Teresa; each spelling used once.)

Academié (Académie)

Scandanavia (Scandinavia)

* * * * *

c. Obvious spelling errors corrected:

Lüneberg (in 1 place) to Lüneburg (this spelling found in 3 places)

Febuary to February (One day in February ...);

obsorbed to absorbed (... soon became so absorbed ...);

polish to Polish (... a Polish emigre ...);

Intrumental to Instrumental (Instrumental music no longer satisfied ...);

Opportunties to opportunities (... greater opportunties for an

ambitious ...);

financée to fiancée (... assisted by his

financée ...);

turing to turning (... turing his hair ...)

* * * * *

d. Chapter numbers (Roman numerals) omitted

for start of chapters on Toscanini, Stokowski and Koussevitzky,

but were present in the Table of Contents;

so the proper numbers (XXIII, XXIV, XXV) were entered in the proper places.]

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