It took a determined Russian, an insatiable audience and one very fierce storm to create the New England music festival that now ranks among the world’s greatest. Located in the foothills of the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, the site's vistas are sublime, the pace is a slow tempo and there is literally music in the breeze. For 75 years, this has been the home of Tanglewood, America’s summer musical oasis.
“To be able to come here in the summer and hear the crickets at night and the wind in the trees during the day and think about music is a dream,” says laureate conductor and famed composer John Williams.
During the summer of 2012, Tanglewood celebrates its 75th anniversary and a legacy that has evolved from a simple summer music festival into what Williams calls “the spiritual home of music in America.”
“It is a precious spot in our country. It is one of those magical places where you can come sit….and music one is writing is more than conducive. It’s very, very helpful,” Williams said.
Tanglewood was created in 1937 by Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. It was composed out of a promise and a problem, says BSO managing director Mark Volpe.
Koussevitzky "wanted a place to train the next generation of musicians," Volpe explains. "Another reason for Tanglewood is much more pragmatic. You had this orchestra which at that point was very gender-specific (it was all men), and the men would all go back to Europe because they were almost all European. Then they’d meet a fraulein and they wouldn’t come back, so you never knew in October what orchestra you’d have." So Koussevitzky wanted a way to employ the musicians year-round so he could keep and build an orchestra.
So Koussevitzky made Lenox, Mass., the BSO’s summer home. It had already been a literary retreat for writers like Hawthorne and Melville, and on that first summer season, well-heeled concert-goers were bowled over — almost literally.
“We had a tent up here and the tent got blown away by a big storm and hence within a few months they raised enough money to build a shed,” Volpe says.
The Shed, as it’s affectionately known is the centerpiece of the Tanglewood campus today, a complex that features stately homes, rehearsal “huts” and the majestic Ozawa Hall. But the Shed is where hundreds of thousands of people settle into seats or on the sprawling lawn every summer — as drawn to the place as to the staggering array of international artists who’ve insisted they appear here for 75 years, says Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart.
“From the very first couple of years when Koussevitzky was here and young people by the name of Copeland and Bernstein were studying with him, it really has become something beyond a music institute where people come and hear a bunch of concerts. It stands for an approach to music that’s grounded in a place of great natural beauty that is away from the rapid-fire way in which our urban lives tend to work,” Lockhart says.
“I do walk the grounds often,” says Williams. “Since I’m writing music, I’m sitting down all the time, and to get up and walk for an hour or so everyday is something that I’ve found is essential for me.”
Many of Williams’ historic Hollywood scores were composed at least in part on the campus. It is also fertile ground for young 20-something musicians who train and perform here each summer as part of the Tanglewood Music Center, a prestigious fellowship organization directed by Ellen Highstein and founded by Koussevitzky.
“There’s something to be said for the fact that if you have people who are really excellent and really devoted, something will continue. They’ll make it continue because they have to express it,” Highstein says.
“The best of what we are you can see in [the young musicians],” says Williams. “And the best of what we can become we see in these kids that come here and study. They have the same idealism in them.”
Tanglewood truly is its own symphony: a blend of dreams and conviction, of talent and beauty. It is an American music mecca whose pilgrims and preachers are unwavering.