Until 1938, Tanglewood was the Tappan family estate in Lenox, Massachusetts; a sleepy little town in the scenic Berkshire Hills. But that year the Tappans gave the Boston Symphony Orchestra two hundred acres, and ever since, Tanglewood has been known the world over as the orchestra's summer home and the United States' foremost music festival.
With musical director Serge Koussevitzky on the podium, the BSO performed six concerts there in 1938 and then again in 1939 to great popular acclaim. But for the 1940 season, Koussevitzky proposed that the festival be expanded to six weeks and, most importantly, contain an intensive music training program. Aaron Copland was to be composer in residence, Koussevitzky himself was to head the conducting class, and twenty-nine members of the Boston Symphony were to coach the instrumentalists who would form the student orchestra.
Twenty-two-year-old Leonard Bernsteinwho had just completed his first year of study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphiaheard about Koussevitzky's plan and quickly arranged for letters of recommendation from influential friends and professors, including Copland. He gained a meeting with Koussevitzky in Boston. A few minutes of conversation with Bernstein were enough to convince Koussevitzky to accept the young musician into his conducting class that summer.
The letters featured in the correspondence area of this site recount Bernstein's extraordinary experience that first summer, studying with the great man who became his mentor and champion. Koussevitzky immediately recognized Bernstein's prodigious gifts and over the course of the summer, gained ever greater confidence in his musical abilities. Bernstein responded to the Maestro's warm-hearted teaching style and quickly flourished. Only two years later, Koussevitzky appointed Bernstein as his assistant, placing him on the Berkshire Music Center's august faculty, a status he maintained and cherished until his death.
Bernstein taught and performed at Tanglewood virtually every summer for fifty years. Some of his most enduring friendships and collaborations were forged and nurtured there. Few places held as profound a meaning for him, and for its part, Tanglewood has always felt enormous pride to count Bernstein among its native sons. His 70th birthday celebration took place at Tanglewood, where many of the world's greatest musicians assembled for an unprecedented tribute. When the Tanglewood grounds expanded several years ago, the new campus was named for him. And it was at Tanglewood, two months before his death in 1990, that Bernstein conducted his last concert. Those who attended that performance of Beethoven's Seventh symphony will never forget its drama, both musical and human, as Bernstein gave his customary dynamic interpretation while gasping for breath throughout. (The performance was later released on Deutsche Grammophon.)
Since his death, Tanglewood has honored his memory with an annual memorial concert.
Bernstein always delighted in working with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood; but it was teaching that energized him most. Just as Koussevitzky had inspired him in the 1940s, for more than forty years, Bernstein inspired countless young conductors and musicians who studied and played under his tutelage. Today, the tradition endures under the guidance of the Boston Symphony's music director Seiji Ozawa and conducting professor Gustav Meier. Tanglewood continues to nurture and refine young musical talent and offer world-class concert performances in a sublime setting. Koussevitzky's dream has more than come true.