The music of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, as conducted by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, from a rehearsal broadcast of March 14, 1949. In addition to being a widely admired and celebrated conductor, Koussevitzky was also a highly regarded teacher as well as widely respected benefactor who commissioned works by many modern composers.
He was one of the most important figures in 20th century music and his tenure with the Boston Symphony was one of the longest in history.
This performance of Vaughan-Williams Symphony Number 6 is unusual in that, he never recorded it commercially, even though he was an ardent admirer of Vaughan-Williams’ music – for whatever reason, the music of Vaughan-Williams was being recorded and offered commercially by a number of British orchestras at the time.
Koussevitzky’s appointment as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) 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. Together with Gertrude Robinson Smith he played a central role in developing the orchestra’s internationally acclaimed summer concert and educational programs at Tanglewood where today the 5,700-seat main performance venue bears his name. 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, Eleazar de Carvalho, 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.
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. Among the well-received premieres were Honegger’s Pacific 231, George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody and Roussel’s Suite in F.
For the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary, he commissioned Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, Copland’s Ode, 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.
In 1922, Koussevitzky commissioned Maurice Ravel’s arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition, which was premiered on 19 October that year and quickly became the most famous and celebrated orchestration of the work. Koussevitzky held the rights to this version for many years.
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.
As with all of these rehearsal broadcasts, they aren’t the complete work, but they offer a tantalizing glimpse into the inner workings of an orchestra during the rehearsal process.