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Martin Bookspan, 1926-2021


Today brought news of the death at age 94 of Martin Bookspan. Fresh out of Harvard and after three years announcing on the University’s WHRB, he became a founding announcer for a newly established classical radio station in Boston. I first heard him there in my seventh or eighth year.

For the price of a return stamp, the burgeoning WBMS would mail a tiny program listing, printed one or two weeks ahead; that’s how I learned of the broadcast of Firebird that frightened me [see my posting HERE]; I was also intrigued by a mysterious listing, something by Ravel I didn’t even know about: “Concerto for the Left Hand.” I won’t forget a piano melody that introduced Martin Bookspan’s hours on WBMS; he didn’t identify it, and it wasn’t until years later that I finally learned it was: Beethoven’s Bagatelle in E-flat Major, op. 33, no. 1. But that gentle, authoritative announcer’s voice remained in my memory for more than 70 years as a firm anchor to classical listening. Station WBMS didn’t last very  long in the competitive AM market, maybe up to about 1949 when LP records started appearing; Bookspan himself eventually went to New York, WQXR, and “Live From Lincoln Center.” In the 1990s I met him in person, at the New York Philharmonic, or at a meeting of the American Musicological Society. He smiled warmly when I recalled WBMS. Then I reminded him that my father-in-law, Wilfred Mirsky, had been his Hebrew-school teacher; he hadn’t forgotten that, either. “Brought classical music to many,” the Globe’s obit headline read, and for some, that meant the beginning of a career as well.

Brian Bell’s 2016 conversation with Bookspan led to the engaging three-part BSO feature HERE. It includes what is probably the only one-on-one interview with Serge Koussevitzky.

Listen to Bookspan’s memorable radio voice in his interview with Artur Rubinstein in 1963 HERE,


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I wonder if there is a comparable conversation with William Pierce.

    Comment by William Keller — May 6, 2021 at 5:34 am

  2. Before I ever heard Martin Bookspan’s voice I had his book, “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers”. An invaluable book in the early 70’s for a young man just finding his way into classical music. In fact, it’s still got its place on my bookshelf 50 years later. He was a terrific advocate and guide for the music we all love.

    It’s been a sad week for artists born in Massachusetts. Within a few days we lost Martin Bookspan, Olympia Dukakis and Jacques d’Amboise.

    Comment by jim — May 6, 2021 at 6:06 pm

  3. Just reading the headline I heard his voice in my head: “This is Martin Bookspan.” Followed, when I read the first comment, by “This is William Pierce, welcoming you once again …”

    Comment by Mark Lutton — May 6, 2021 at 9:33 pm

  4. My own encounter with Marty was some years ago when I inherited several open reel tapes of his 1970s radio series for Philips Classics, a series of one-hour interviews including Colin Davis and other musicians. I showed the originals to him at Tanglewood, and promised to copy them to CD for him. I did, and when he got them he called me personally, expressed great delight as he didn’t have a single copy of anything from that series, and we wound up chatting for the next two hours. One of my happiest memories.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — May 12, 2021 at 12:25 pm

  5. I grew up in Newton and of course remember WCRB, including early stereo — one channel on AM, the other on FM. But I’ve never heard of WBMS. What was that? There was also WBCN, which I did some volunteer work for immediately following their transition away from classical.
    The NYT story mentions the time the Boston Symphony’s piano broke during the slow movement of Brahms Piano Concerto #2. Bookspan who had left the announcer’s booth raced back and talked for 15 minutes while they fixed the piano. I remember listening to that broadcast.

    Comment by Ross Capon — May 12, 2021 at 10:49 pm

  6. According to the “Eastern Massachusetts Radio Timeline,” WBMS was started by the Templetone Radio Manufacturing Company. It began operating as a daytime-only station on 1090 AM in 1946. The studio was at 35 Court St. In 1950 the station changed its format from classical to popular. It became WILD in 1957.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 12, 2021 at 11:03 pm

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