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July 05, 2024

Koussevitzky and Beethoven

News article highlighting the BSO's 1927 Beethoven festival with Serge Koussevitzky conducting.

Beethoven - Concerto for Piano No. 4, performed by the BSO featuring soloist Dame Myra Hess, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky

(recorded Metropolitan Theater, Providence, Rhode Island; November 19, 1946) Source material: ABC linecheck transcription discs deposited in the Library of Congress in 1959 by the Boston Symphony. Disc digitization done at the Library of Congress in 2013, as part of a project funded by Kevin P. Mostyn; audio processing by Aaron Z. Snyder.

Beethoven - Symphony No. 5, performed by the BSO and conducted by Serge Koussevitzky

(recorded Symphony Hall, Boston; December 26, 1942) Source: Linecheck transcription discs in the Kevin P. Mostyn collection. This is the only known surviving recording of the Symphony #5 on this broadcast. Discs originally recorded by Robert E. Buchsbaum. Disc digitization done in 2023 by Karl F. Miller, DMA; audio processing by Aaron Z. Snyder and Dr. Miller.

The German composer from Bonn has long figured prominently in the life of the Boston Symphony Orchestra: visitors to Symphony Hall may notice that Beethoven is the only composer’s name to be engraved on the proscenium framing the stage. While he peppered his tenure at the BSO with numerous new works by contemporary composers, Serge Koussevitzky by no means dismissed the classics: From 1924 to 1950, he conducted more than 600 performances of Beethoven’s works. In 1927 on the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, Koussevitzky organized the BSO’s first festival to feature all nine symphonies and the Missa Solemnis to commemorate the occasion.

This week’s episode features two of Koussevitzky’s Beethoven performances: The Piano Concerto No. 4 with soloist Dame Myra Hess and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Hess (1890-1965) appeared with the BSO 32 times between 1922 and 1949; nearly half of those performances featured Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (incidentally the work with which she launched her solo career). This recording from November 19, 1946 is the last time she performed the Fourth Piano Concerto with the BSO. Koussevitzky and the BSO never released a commercial recording of this work, making this broadcast a rare artifact. Although a renowned soloist before World War II, Hess became especially beloved during the war for organizing free lunchtime concerts in London. These began shortly after the war did, and continued for six and a half years, even through the Blitz. Her work supporting British morale earned her a damehood. 

Guest performer Dame Myra Hess.  Photograph by John Vickers.

The U.S. had been involved in World War II for one year when Koussevitzky presented this performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. During the war, the Fifth took on a coded meaning for victory, with the first four notes—dot dot dot dash—resembling the Morse code for the letter V. This broadcast was also the first time that the BSO returned to the airwaves after unionizing in 1942, perhaps symbolizing a cry for “victory” both nationally and internally. Two years later on November 23, 1944, Koussevitzky and the BSO recorded Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with RCA Victor. 

Koussevitzky 150

This story was created as part of the Koussevitzky 150 celebrations at Tanglewood, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Serge Koussevitzky's birth and the 100th anniversary of his appointment as the BSO's first Music Director.

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Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss stand on either side of Serge Koussevitzky as he cuts his birthday cake at Tanglewood ca 1946