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A Taste of Tanglewood at the Library of Congress

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Summer is a vibrant time of year for the arts. Performance offerings shift from more-traditional settings in the regular season (Autumn-Spring) to an array of different urban, suburban and rural venues. Music festivals, summer stock theater and dance festivals are back in session, as training grounds for the next generation of leading performers and second homes to the ensembles, performers and troupes that we all love. The history and global impact of one particular summer festival, Tanglewood, is chronicled in large part here at the Library of Congress.

Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA (Nicholas A. Brown, 2008)

Located in the rolling green Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and Boston Pops, and is the site of the Tanglewood Music Center. Founded in its present location in 1937 by the BSO’s then music director Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), the festival has had an enormous presence in the worlds of symphonic, chamber and vocal music, as well as opera and jazz. In its over 75-years of existence Tanglewood has played a major role in the lives of many leading figures in not just American music, but the global music community, establishing it as one of the premiere festivals of its kind, rivaling Aspen, Ravinia, Lucerne and Salzburg. Some of the icons who came up through Tanglewood as students, later taught there and performed there frequently, include Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Phyllis Curtin, Lukas Foss, Oliver Knussen, Seiji Ozawa and Michael Tilson Thomas. Other distinguished alumni include Stephanie Blythe, William Bolcom, Lorin Maazel, Wynton Marsalis, Zubin Mehta and Leontyne Price.

Leonard Bernstein with conductor Serge Koussevitzky after performance of Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 at Tanglewood, August 11, 1949 (Music Division, Library of Congress).

The reason why Tanglewood is so near and dear to the stacks of the Music Division at the Library of Congress is that the web of musicians, musical compositions and historical moments that comprise the history of the festival can be traced throughout our many special collections, including those of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. The most prolific collection related to Tanglewood is that of Serge Koussevitzky. Occupying 138 boxes and over 100 feet of shelf-space, Koussevitzky’s archive is a treasure trove for exploring the formation of the festival and its early years under his leadership, which included a period of hardship during World War II. The collection includes correspondence, and photographs, as well as personal and business papers. One can even catch a glimpse of phone bills from Koussevitzky’s Berkshire estate Seranak.

In addition, the Music Division is home to the works commissioned by Koussevitzky and his Koussevitzky Music Foundation. This mind-boggling list of important commissions includes Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, Poulenc’s Gloria and Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. Of note in this Benjamin Britten centennial year is the fact that Koussevitzky’s foundation commissioned the composer’s landmark opera Peter Grimes.

For those of you who will not have a chance to make it to the Berkshires this summer, feel free to visit the Performing Arts Reading Room and delve into the history of Tanglewood through the people and music that have made the festival a musical utopia.

Additional Resources:

In addition to the Library of Congress, the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives, curated by Bridget Carr, is an invaluable resource for any study of Tanglewood, Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

A video of last year’s Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration, featuring the BSO, Boston Pops, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Williams, Keith Lockhart, Andris Nelsons, Peter Serkin, Yo-Yo Ma and James Taylor, is available here.

Bernstein conducts Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat at an informal Tanglewood tea party. Serge Koussevitzky—conductor and Bernstein mentor—and his wife Natalie look down from the balcony. The inscription to Helen Coates refers humorously to L’histoire d’un éléve—the tale of the student. 1940. (Music Division, Library of Congress).

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