Listening Week 4: BSO performs musical landmarks of the 20th century

BSO at home: Listening Week 4
BSO at Home Week 4: BSO performs musical landmarks of the 20th century

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Great Performances from the BSO Archives, selected by BSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg.

Few orchestras have demonstrated such a sustained commitment to contemporary composers, nor established so distinguished a legacy of commissioning new work, as the Boston Symphony. The very first concert, in October 1881, included music by one of the leading living composers of the time, Max Bruch; its first conductor, George Henschel, was himself a composer – as well as a fine pianist and baritone - and frequently programmed his own compositions during the first seasons, thus initiating a long tradition of composer-conductors collaborating with the BSO. And the list of new works commissioned for or by the orchestra reads like a compendium of musical landmarks of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This week, we celebrate this great legacy through singular performances of music by composers close to the artistic heart of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And, by extension, we recognize the enormous influence of the BSO’s music director from 1929 to 1949, Serge Koussevitzky.

Listening Week 4 Playlist Preview Week 5

For continuous playback of each day's music at the highest fidelity, choose the SoundCloud player. For the ability to listen to individual movements separately, choose the "Listen" button on each day's section.

The BSO sincerely thanks our generous donors whose gifts supported concerts, guest artist appearances, and pieces for performances that were scheduled to take place this week:
Saturday, April 18: The Nancy and Richard Lubin Concert

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To begin this week’s selection, I’ve chosen a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s brilliant first symphony. Written as a graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory when Shostakovich was only 19, the work brims with astonishing invention and quicksilver changes of mood, as well as displaying incredible mastery of form and orchestration. This performance by Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 forms part of a long BSO tradition of championing Shostakovich’s music, dating back to 1935. Koussevitzky was an especially important exponent here in the United States. And, of course, our current music director, Andris Nelsons, is soon to complete a recorded cycle for Deutsche Grammophon of all 15 symphonies.

Paul Hindemith was already established as one of the most important European composers of the early 20th century when he escaped Nazi Germany, eventually settling in the US in 1940. By this stage, Koussevitzky had premiered Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass (commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the BSO) and was quick to invite him to become head of composition for the inaugural season of the Tanglewood Music Center – the BSO’s summer training program for young musicians. Hindemith composed his Symphony Mathis der Maler in 1934 as a type of study for his opera of the same name, based on the life of the painter Matthias Grünewald. It’s one of his most popular orchestral works. Here it receives a performance of incredible refinement by one of the most patrician conductors of last century, Carlo Maria Giulini.

The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was living in exile in Paris in 1927 when Koussevitzky conducted the world premiere of his orchestral allegro, called La Bagarre, in Symphony Hall. This was the first of six premieres and commissions by the orchestra, and eventually prompted Martinů’s decision to move to America in 1941. The Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani (1939) is one of Martinů’s strongest scores – muscular in profile, with virtuosic writing for all the forces. The great Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik, brings unique authority to this performance in January 1967.

Invariably, the name Aaron Copland is almost always linked with that of the BSO’s summer home, Tanglewood. Copland’s early career owes much of its success to the support of Koussevitzky, who invited him to head the Tanglewood Music Center in 1940, along with Hindemith. Copland remained active as a teacher and conductor at Tanglewood into the 1980s, and today there’s a striking bust of him situated in a wooded bower near the old Theater-Concert Hall – one of three sculptures by the eminent American artist Penelope Jencks, commissioned for Tanglewood by John Williams. Copland’s clarinet concerto (1948-49) was written for Benny Goodman and is in two continuous parts: the first, spacious and nocturnal in feeling; the second, highly rhythmic and jazz-inflected. Harold (Buddy) Wright was the BSO’s legendary principal clarinetist from 1970 to 1993 and was a musician of profound insights and technical command. Copland himself conducts this performance of his clarinet concerto with Mr. Wright as soloist at Tanglewood on July 5, 1980.

Serge Koussevitzky seemed to have an uncanny ability to know precisely the right moment to commission a composer to create a new score, and exactly what the scope and nature of that work could be, resulting in some of the most important musical works of the 20th century.

In the case of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental Turangalîla-Symphonie, archival correspondence suggests that Koussevitzky gave the composer almost ‘carte blanche’ as to the length, orchestration, and design for a new composition, with apparently no deadline for when the manuscript was to be delivered. These liberties gave Messiaen the freedom to create one of the most original works of all time. It’s a ten-movement orchestral celebration of love, God, and nature, which is close to 80’ in duration. Here is a note which explains the Sanskrit title and gives a guide to each of the movements.

There are two solo instruments featured in the score of Turangalîla: a virtuosic and intricate part for piano; and a prominent role for an early 20th century electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot, which produces an eerie and otherworldly sound. In the first performances in Symphony Hall in 1949 (conducted by Leonard Bernstein), these solos were performed by Messiaen’s wife and sister-in-law, respectively: Yvonne Loriod and Jeanne Loriod. Here they are 26 years later, performing Turangalîla at Tanglewood with conductor Seiji Ozawa, himself a noted champion of Messiaen’s music.

There’s perhaps no other commission by Koussevitzky that’s been more often played – and which has become such a cornerstone of orchestral repertoire – than Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitzky proffered the opportunity of a new piece for the BSO to Bartók when the composer was living in poverty in New York and already in poor health. It resulted in this five-movement masterpiece of orchestral writing and a synthesis of all aspects of the composer’s style. Pierre Monteux (BSO music director from 1919 to 1924) conducted an enormous variety of works and styles but was famous as an interpreter of music from the early 20th century. Curiously, he conducted the Concerto for Orchestra with the BSO only once: this concert at Tanglewood in July 1956, which was followed by a performance on tour in Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland, the following month. This rare recording of the NBC broadcast was found in a collection in the Library of Congress.

Finally, this week’s offerings conclude with a gripping performance by Sir Colin Davis of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ compact yet urgent fourth symphony – a portrait of the composer’s concerns for developing political tensions in Europe and of his own personal anxieties.

Enjoy this selection of musical landmarks of the 20th century, all played by the great Boston Symphony Orchestra!


Anthony Fogg

Erich Leinsdorf conducting

April 13
      1. Allegretto; Allegro non troppo
     2. Allegro
     3. Lento
     4. Allegro molto
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor
(Symphony Hall, September 26, 1964)

Continuous Play:


Carlo Maria Giulini headshot
Photographer: S.A. Gorlinsky Ltd.

April 14
HINDEMITH Symphony, Mathis der Maler
     1. Angelic Concert
     2.  Entombment
     3. The Temptation of St. Anthony
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor
(Symphony Hall, March 30, 1974)

Continuous Play:



Rafael Kubelik, 1967
Photographer: Heinz Weissenstein

April 15

MARTINŮ Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani
     1. Poco Allegro
     2. Largo; Adagio
     3. Allegro
Rafael Kubelik, conductor
Charles Wilson, piano
(Symphony Hall, January 14, 1967) 

Continuous Play:



Aaron Copland conducting

April 16

COPLAND Clarinet Concerto
Aaron Copland, conductor
Harold Wright, clarinet
(Tanglewood, July 5, 1980)

Listen on SoundCloud:


Seiji Ozawa leads the BSO in a performance of Messiaen's
Photographer: Heinz Weissenstein
April 17

MESSIAEN Turangalîla-Symphonie
     1. Introduction 
     2. Chant d'amour 1
     3. Turangalîla 1
     4. Chant d'amour 2
     5. Joie du sang des étoiles
     6. Jardin du sommeil d'amour
     7. Turangalîla 2
     8. Développement de l'amour
     9. Turangalîla 3
    10. Finale
Seiji Ozawa, conductor
Yvonne Loriod, piano
Jeanne Loriod, ondes Martenot
(Tanglewood, August 16, 1975)

Continuous Play:



April 18Pierre Monteau at Tanglewood, 1955
Photographer: Gus Constantine

BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra
     1. Introduzione: Andante non troppo; allegro vivace
     2. Giuoco delle copie; Allegro scherzando
     3. Elegia: Andante, non troppo
     4. Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto
     5. Finale: Presto
Pierre Monteux, conductor
(Tanglewood, July 22, 1956)

Continuous Play:


Colin Davis conducting the BSO in the Tanglewood Shed, 1973
Photographer: Heinz Weissenstein
April 19

     1. Allegro
     2. Andante moderato
     3. Scherzo; allegro molto
     4. Finale con epilogo fugato, Allegro molto
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
(Symphony Hall, October 26, 1973)

Continuous Play:




Archival images courtesy BSO Archives


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