Sergey Aleksandrovich Kusevitskii (known in the West by the French spelling of his name, Serge Koussevitzky) was one of the great conductors of the twentieth century American orchestral scene and a champion of newer music.
Born into a rural Russian-Jewish family of amateur musicians, young Sergei made a little money playing trumpet at weddings and fairs in a small wind ensemble. He moved to Moscow at the age of 14, accepting Christian baptism because Jews were otherwise barred from having careers. Choosing to study double bass, he won a scholarship to the Moscow Philharmonic Society's school and became one of history's great virtuoso double-bassists. He joined the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra in 1894 and began touring as a double bass soloist in 1896. He wrote some compositions to enlarge the small repertoire of solo pieces for the instrument, even enlisting the assistance of Reinhold Glière to write a concerto for himself. Meanwhile, he closely studied the great conductors he encountered as an orchestra player and at concerts, particularly Arthur Nikisch.
On September 8, 1905, Koussevitsky married Natalya Ushkova, daughter of a wealthy tea merchant. Soon thereafter, he gave up the regular grind of theatrical orchestral playing and toured full time. In 1907, he had his first experience in conducting with a student orchestra. He was satisfied enough with his skill that he hired the Berlin Philharmonic to let him conduct at a public concert on January 23, 1908. The appearance was so successful it led to his engagement as guest conductor.
In 1909, Koussevitzky went into music publishing, establishing the firm known in the West as Editions Russe de Musique, and organized his own symphony orchestra. In 1910, he took the orchestra up and down the Volga River on a chartered steamboat, bringing symphonic music to places where it had scarcely been heard of before, repeating the tours in 1912 and 1914. As a publisher and conductor, he championed the works of Scriabin, Stravinsky, Medtner, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev.
During the difficult years after the 1917 Bolshevik coup and the subsequent civil war, he continued to conduct in Moscow through 1920, when he permanently left for the West. He presented a series of concerts called Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris, again featuring new music: Ravel, Honegger, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. These concerts included the world premiere of the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; it soon became a concert staple in both Europe and America.
In 1924, Koussevitsky was chosen as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With the BSO, he continued his tradition of championing the new music he found around him, thus giving vital exposure to great American composers, such as Copland, Barber, Bernstein, Carter, Hanson, Harris, and a host of others over the years. During the 1931 season, he commissioned a series of commemorative works for the orchestra's fiftieth anniversary, yielding a treasury that included Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Beginning in 1935, he annually brought the orchestra to the summer Berkshire Festival, organized by Henry Hadley in 1934, becoming its music director and making it part of the BSO's operation. Koussevitzky established the Berkshire Music Center (now Tanglewood Music Center) in conjunction with the festival in 1940, making it into one of the premier American educational institutions where young musicians could polish their craft and network. After his wife died in 1941, Koussevitsky set up a foundation to commission works in her memory. Britten's opera Peter Grimes was one of the first works that resulted.
Until his death in 1951, he continued to direct both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Berkshire Festival, recording frequently.