Carole Owens: A joyful tradition at Tanglewood

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STOCKBRIDGE >> For those of us who were at Tanglewood on Sunday August 16 to hear Beethoven's Ninth; for those who sat on the lawn in the sparkling sunshine and let the music wash over them; for those who found a vantage point and looked at the Berkshire Hills as they listened to Beethoven, for all of us: aren't we lucky?

Do you know why the Boston Symphony Orchestra played that particular piece at that time? It is tradition.

The BSO is off to Europe before the traditional end of the Tanglewood season. While breaking one tradition, they upheld another: their last concert at Tanglewood was Beethoven's Ninth. Why?

It was August 4, 1938, the day they dedicated the shed at Tanglewood. Gertrude Robinson Smith spoke first.

"Most of you know what happened last year when Wagner and the elements got into conflict."

Blessing in disguise

What happened of course was the famous thunderstorm that drenched orchestra and audience. What happened was the storm that prompted Koussevitzky to demand shelter or he would not conduct in the Berkshire Hills again.

"It seemed a tragedy, but it was a blessing in disguise." Robinson Smith concluded.

The blessing was the quick, cost efficient building of the highly satisfactory Tanglewood "shed".

Just two months earlier the Berkshire Evening Eagle reported: "June 12, 1938. Disclosed yesterday for the first time that the music shed plans drawn by Eliel Saarinen were rejected...rejected was the cost of$200,000. The plans and specifications finally accepted are those of Joseph Franz."

Over the winter, when it was clear there were not sufficient funds, Saarinen walked away and Stockbridge resident Franz came to the rescue. Excavation and concrete work was completed in temperatures as low as zero and only as warm as 45 degrees. Franz was there every day devising ways to work in bitter conditions.

Franz drew the plans and found cost savings to bring the shed in at $80,000 including his $1,000 fee for service. For example, he used the stage he had built a few years earlier, and instead of spending $7,000 for an acre of concrete floor, Franz told the workmen to get heavy rollers and squeeze out all the moisture from the Berkshire clay. It dried hard as cement and plain Berkshire clay has been the floor of the shed ever since.

The Eagle raved: "The Tanglewood Music Shed is made of 500 tons of steel and can seat 6,000 people. . .The biggest building of its type in the world is now ready for the festival in good time. Why is it called a shed? Frankly we do not know."

The job had been done in 22 days. The contractors were Graves and Hemmes Inc. of Great Barrington, J. Jones Electric of Lenox, and the Bethlehem Steel Company.

Koussevitzky inspected the shed on May 2 after Professor Ray, an acoustical engineer from MIT, pronounced the shed capable of carrying the sound to the last seat, clear and true, without amplification. There it stood: open on three sides providing both protection and the feel of an outdoor concert. Koussevitzky was pleased.

At the dedication, Koussevitzky said: "On this significant day in musical life, I have selected to give Beethoven's Ninth Symphony not only because it is the greatest masterpiece in the musical literature but also because it calls all nations to brotherhood."

He raised his baton, and "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: was followed by the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.

The fact that Koussevitzky called it the greatest masterpiece in musical literature is probably a good reason why it closes the Tanglewood season each year, but it is not the reason. In 1947 Koussevitzky did the Beethoven cycle — all nine symphonies. Leonard Bernstein was in the chorus that year. Yet that is not the reason every season is closed with the Ninth.

Munch tradition

It was another conductor, one who loved Tanglewood less, who instituted the tradition loved by all. Charles Munch was no lover of Tanglewood because his health was not good and he would have preferred less strenuous summers. Nonetheless it was Munch who decided to close every summer season with Beethoven's Ninth — a tradition that continued from the 1950s to a sunny Sunday in 2015.

Oh,and why was it called the shed?

Saarinen, probably in one of his many moods of discontent when he turned down the job and waltzed out the door, said, "for that money you can only build a shed."

Postscript: After attending the dedication concert in August 1938, a letter to the editor appeared. It read: "In my day, a shed was one of the less dignified outbuildings hardly a worthy name for this temple of music. Find a more mellifluous name."

No one ever did.

Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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