This summer, just like every summer since the mid-1930s, musicians and music lovers have come together at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. In her book, Tanglewood: A Group Memoir, Peggy Daniel recounts the Tanglewood story as told in first-person accounts by such Tanglewood luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland, Erich Leinsdorf, Phyllis Curtin, Seiji Ozawa, Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, John Harbison, James Levine, and many of the leading musicians, critics, and music professionals who consider Tanglewood a second home.
To mark the start of this year’s festival, the Boston Globe compiled its list of “Seven Books About the Tanglewood Music Festival,” and it begins is list with Tanglewood: A Group Memoir.
I love a good headline as much as anyone, and here’s a peach from the Associated Press: “Dowagers Thumb Ride to Symphonic Concert.” It seems these dowagers were among 3,000 hardy music lovers who, one night in 1942, hitchhiked, walked, or biked to Tanglewood, where Serge Koussevitzky conducted Haydn’s Symphony no. 88 and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony under the August stars. This was during the war. So many events got canceled that year, due to fuel rationing, but not this one. When Koussevitzky took the stage, the Berkshire Eagle reports, he got a “greeting in which vociferousness surpassed record and remembrance.”
Peggy Daniel has loaded all sorts of goodies like this into “Tanglewood: A Group Memoir” (Amadeus, 2008). It’s full of dowagers with pluck, led by Gertrude Robinson Smith, a socially prominent New Yorker who strong-armed all her connections to launch the music festival during the Depression, fanning out ticket subscription teams to recruit at Rotary and Kiwanis meetings, granges and garden clubs. The recruiters touted the joy of music, plus the joy of jobs: The festival would hire local unemployed electricians, carpenters, and others to build the stages and work the events.
This dowager-meets-laborer quality has set the tone of Tanglewood from the onset. It’s a place of low-price-ticket rehearsals plus high-society picnics, James Taylor plus Anton Dvorak, classical music chestnuts plus avant-garde offerings. The book trumpets Tanglewood’s bolder moments, in fact, like how the festival championed new American composers early on, and how in the 1940s and ’50s, it was the “foremost laboratory for operatic experimentation” according to the conductor/impresario Boris Goldovsky.
There’s also some choice gossip here. The early years contained many catfights with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it appears, and tales of the vagaries of performing outside. To wit, real thunder and lightning heightened Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and when “Peter Grimes” was staged on a broiling day in 1946, stagehands hosed down a tar paper rock just before the tenor “died” slowly upon it, not willing to burn himself for art.
Read the rest of Katharine Whittemore’s list here.