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Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951)

Koussevitzky on Microphone: Over the Airwaves and On Record

The advent of the microphone opened up possibilities for the BSO to be heard in clear tones outside the concert hall. Microphones allowed the orchestra to be transported from Symphony Hall to listeners around New England as the BSO embarked on its inaugural broadcasts in 1926. The microphone also allowed entire orchestras to travel the world via disc: the orchestra's only previous recording (in 1917 under Karl Muck) relied on the horn method of acoustical recording which greatly limited both ensemble size and pitch range. The electrical recording method, used first by the BSO in 1928, allowed for an entire orchestra to be captured in its full breadth and sold to millions for repeated listening enjoyment.

Vintage Altec 639 radio microphone

Vintage Altec 639 radio microphone

On loan from Kevin P. Mostyn

BSO Radio Broadcasts During the Koussevitzky Era (1924-1949)

  • 1926-28

    Newspaper article covering the first broadcast of the BSO in January 1926

    The BSO was heard on radio for the first time in concerts broadcast live from Symphony Hall during the second half of the 1925-1926 season, between January 23 and May 1, 1926.  Broadcasts were privately funded by Winfield S. Quinby and continued through the 1927-1928 season.

  • January 23, 1926

    Newspaper article covering BSO’s first radio broadcasts from Symphony Hall in 1926 in regards to copyright

    First time on the air

    On its very first broadcast, the BSO deals with the copyright issues that come with radio. There is also great interest in the technical side of production.

  • Fall 1926

    Newspaper article covering the BSO broadcasts in the fall of 1926 including a photo of two men in a radio booth

    The inaugural series was renewed in the fall of 1926, adding New York station WJZ to the broadcast relay.

  • October 4, 1930

    A special broadcast by WEEI and the NBC network to honor the Tercentenary of Massachusetts Bay Colony, includes a BSO performance.

  • 1932-38

    NBC continues to broadcast concerts for portions of the 1932-1933 and 1933-1934 seasons. As of October 1935, the BSO is back on NBC with regular Saturday night concerts. 

  • January 23, 1935

    Scapbook page with newspaper clipping covering RCA Victor's recording of the BSO in Symphony Hall

    During RCA Victor’s recording session, there is an hour-long broadcast on WBZ and the NBC Network to promote the company’s BSO recordings.  

  • 1938

    Barred from the Airwaves

    The American Federation of Musicians makes it more and more difficult for the BSO, still a non-union orchestra, to be heard on the airwaves.  Following the BSO’s August 4, 1938, Tanglewood Music Shed inaugural broadcast, the BSO is effectively barred from the airwaves.

  • December 26, 1942

    NBC Blue Network radio announcer James G. McDonald and Serge Koussevitzky stand at a microphone shortly after the BSO returned to the airwaves, January 1943

    The BSO returns to the airwaves on NBC’s Blue Network, having reached an agreement with the AFM.

  • 1940s

    Armed Forces Transcription Disc

    Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra on November 17, 1945

    During WWII, the Armed Forces Radio Service pressed thousands of transcription discs (recordings of broadcasts) and sent them to stations in Alaska and the Panama Canal Zone, including performances by the BSO.

  • 1943-1949

    In October 1943, as a result of a court order to prevent an NBC monopoly, the Blue Network becomes the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which continues to carry a one-hour portion of BSO concerts from Symphony Hall and Tanglewood through August 1948. NBC then broadcast some rehearsals and Tanglewood performances during the 1948-1949 season.

  • 1951

    Composer Aaron Copland looks at Serge Koussevitzky, wearing a coat, cap, and gloves

    Composer Aaron Copland and conductor Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood

    Photograph by Viktor Kraft, courtesy of The Library of Congress

    On October 6, 1951, WGBH made its inaugural broadcast, featuring a live BSO concert. The concert to first travel over the fledgling station's airwaves was dedicated to the memory of the late Serge Koussevitzky. During intermission, composer Aaron Copland discussed his hopes for the new station, including his conviction that Koussevitzky would have approved of WGBH's mission.

    Click here to listen to Aaron Copland mention Serge Koussevitzky on WGBH's inaugural broadcast on October 6, 1951
Solid aluminum transcription disc
WJZ radio transcription disc of Serge Koussevitzky and the BSO performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Jan Smeterlin as soloist, February 8, 1936. This solid aluminum transcription disc is exceedingly rare and is the earliest known radio broadcast for which we have the original source material. Recently donated to the BSO, the donor believes that the disc was probably created at the request of the soloist because at the time NBC was mostly broadcasting live and because the donor acquired the disc from England where Smeterlin retired. WJZ was the local affiliate of the NBC’s Blue Network. Gift of Kevin P. Mostyn, 2023

Listen: Excerpt of Serge Koussevitzky conducting the BSO and Jan Smeterlin in Chopin's Piano Concert No 2 on February 8, 1936 (transferred by Ward Marston and soon to be released on

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BSO Commercial Recordings during the Koussevitzky Era (1924-1949)

  • November 13, 1928

    Victor Talking Machine 78 rpm recording of Stravinsky's Petrouchka from 1928

    First recording sessions in Symphony Hall for Victor Talking Machine (later RCA Victor); Koussevitzky’s  first recording session with the BSO; and BSO’s first  ever electrical recording; Koussevitzky chooses works by living composers for his inaugural recordings. 

    "Symphony's Playing Is Captured in Wax" News, Hamilton, Ontario, November 24, 1928
  • 1929-30

    BSO makes more recordings in Symphony Hall with the newly merged RCA Victor.

  • Early ‘30s 

    The economic depression nearly wipes out the record industry.  RCA doesn’t renew its contract with the BSO.   

  • 1934

    In an effort to recruit the BSO, Columbia records the BSO’s February 2, 1934 performance of Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 1 in Carnegie Hall for release.  The BSO is not satisfied with the sound.

  • 1935

    RCA Victor and BSO sign a new contract; RCA returns to Symphony Hall with improved recording technology,  ushering in a period of regular recording sessions and releases.   During RCA Victor’s recording session on January 23, 1935, there is an hour-long broadcast on WBZ and the NBC Network to promote the company’s BSO recordings.

  • 1940

    The BSO is banned from making commercial recordings because of its status as a non-union orchestra.

  • 1942

    The BSO joins the American Federation of Musicians.

  • November 22, 1944

    The BSO’s first RCA Victor recording session following unionization.  

  • 1950

    Album cover for RCA Victor's recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, depicting a boy and cat in a tree, with a wolf chasing a bird.

    Though no longer Music Director of the BSO, Serge Koussevitzky spends the summer at Tanglewood and records Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with Eleanor Roosevelt as narrator.

  • November 1950

    Last recording made with the BSO before his death on June 4, 1951.

Listen: Koussevitzky conducts the BSO in the Russian Dance from Stravinsky's Suite from Petrushka on November 13, 1928 (BSO Classics 171002)

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Listen: Excerpt of Serge Koussevitzky conducting the BSO in Bernstein's The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No 2, Movement 5 'The Masque', with Leonard Bernstein on piano, April 9, 1949 (BSO CB 101-2)

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