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Bernstein and other Curtis students join Tanglewood in its first year

Berkshire Music Center, class of 1942The Berkshire Music Center, known to most musicians simply as “Tanglewood,” opened in 1940. It was the brainchild of Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1948. His vision was to build a microcosm of America’s musical community, where the future of music could be nurtured and discovered. With its similar mission, Curtis’s connections to Tanglewood run deep, beginning with the very first class. For the young student, Leonard Bernstein, 1940 would mark the start of many summer trips to Lenox, Massachusetts.

The Curtis Institute’s founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, played a significant role in Tanglewood’s early success. Mrs. Bok donated $10,000 for building construction. For a time, she also allowed regional auditions for Tanglewood to be held at Curtis and offered scholarships for Curtis students to pay their expenses there

Curtis’s director, Randall Thompson, joined the Tanglewood faculty in its first year. Koussevitzky had asked America’s best-known composers at the time to join him in the Berkshires. Aaron Copland accepted, as did Paul Hindemith. However, it was the addition of composer Randall Thompson, lesser known but respected by Koussevitzky, that offered the Center direct contact to composition and conducting students. 

Three Curtis students entered the Berkshire Music Center that year: singer Donald Hultgren, composition student Lukas Foss (who was also a conductor), and conducting student Leonard Bernstein (who was also a composer). Bernstein and Foss both studied conducting with Koussevitzky himself.

Randall Thompson letter to Mary Louise Curtis Bok, Tanglewood, 1940Randall Thompson wrote to Mary Louise Curtis Bok of their 
students’ progress at the Center in this excerpt (images, right). He notes how Bernstein fared conducting Thompson’s own Symphony No. 2. Thompson closes his thought with, “The Scherzo of my symphony is not easy you know, but he carried it off in fine fashion.” 


In the coming years, Curtis students and faculty continued continued to dot the landscape at Tanglewood, as they do today. The 1942 photo at the top, part of the Seymour Lipkin Collection, shows the young pianist entering the fold at the tender age of 15. (Lipkin is in the second row, third from the right; Bernstein and Foss are at the center of the front row.*) Lipkin also studied conducting with Koussevitzky during his staylater, he would become assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic during Bernstein’s tenure as music director.

Bernstein, Foss, and Koussevitzsky 1942


It was Leonard Bernstein, though, who would return most summers for the next 50 years—first as a student, then as an educator and advisor. He found working with young musicians in this peaceful, positive environment to be immensely gratifyingUltimately Tanglewood became his most lasting artistic affiliation.




The 1940 yearbook from the Berkshire Music Center:





*Can you help identify other Curtis students in the 1942 photo? Also thought to be attending that year: Kenneth Emery ’43, Walter Hendl ’41, Jacob Krachmalnick ’41, Marc Lifschey ’48, Jerome Lipson ’40, Harold Meek ’35, Joseph Pepper ’49, Theodore Podnos ’37, Harry Potts ’42, Erwin Price ’42, Robert Ripley ‘42, Marguerite Smith ’46, Stanley Solomon ‘42 



Barbara Benedett / digital archivist / Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.