Rudolf Serkin

1903 1991

Rudolf Serkin

Piano

Biography

Also in 1933, Serkin made his first appearance in the United States, performing together with Busch at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. during the Coolidge Festival. His next American performance was in February 1936 with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Toscanini. He gave his American debut recital they next year at Carnegie Hall. In 1939, he performed the complete cycle of Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Busch at Town Hall.

That same year, Serkin was appointed to the piano faculty at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, where he taught for 36 years. He also served as the director of Curtis Institute from 1968 to 1975. During his tenure in Philadelphia, Serkin taught and influenced a large number of pianists including his son Peter, Eugene Istomin, Seymour Lipkin, Anton Kuerti, Lee Luvisi and Richard Goode, though this is often overlooked due to his immense performing career.

Serkin also made history as a founder of the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, which was near his family’s rural home in Guilford, Vermont. Many of Europe’s exiled musicians lived in this area and worked together to make Marlboro the chamber-music centre in America. These artists included Adolf and Herman Busch, Blanche Honegger Moyse, Louis Moyse and Marcel Moyse. Many renowned artists appeared at Marlboro including Pablo Casals, Alexander Schneider, Felix Galimir, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Jaime and Ruth Laredo, Eugene Istomin, Pina Carmirelli and Peter Serkin. His wife, Irene (violinist/violist and the daughter of Adolf Busch), also performed at Marlboro.

Serkin was the type of pianist that could appeal to both the emotional and the academic pianists. He did not possess a natural technique, and thus spent many hours perfecting his finger-technique. ‘He practiced scales and arpeggios endlessly, contending it was impossible to overemphasize technique’. He maintained a rigorous practice routine, and ‘only after five hours did he warm up and really begin to practice’. Interestingly, he disapproved of the German romantic approach to piano playing, as he believed it emphasized ‘feeling’ above clean technique.

The Austrian-born American Rudolf Serkin was one of the most successful pianist and pedagogues of the 20th century. He was also a prolific recording artist and led a long career as a soloist. Serkin was also one of the founders of the prestigious Marlboro Festival in Vermont.

Rudolf Serkin was born on 28 March 1903 in the Bohemian town of Eger to Mordko Serkin and his wife. Mordko was a Russian bass and ensured that Rudolf was literate in music before he was even able to read words. Given the options of piano or violin, Rudlolf chose the former, as ‘he disliked having the violin sound so close to his ear’.

His first public performance was of the Schubert Impromptu in E flat op. 90, no. 2 at the age of 5 or 6 at the spa of Franzenbad. After playing for pianist Alfred Grunfeld, Serkin was invited to move to Vienna to study with Grunfeld’s friend Richard Roberts at the age of nine. There, he met and befriended fellow studentGeorge Szell.

Serkin’s composition studies first took place with Joseph Marx and then with Schoenberg. He even published a string quartet. Outside of music, Serkin had no formal education, though he was very well-read. At the age of 12, Serkin made his concert debut with the Vienna Symphony.

Several years later, at the age of 17, Serkin met Adolf Busch, an established violinist looking for an accompanist. Pleased with the young Serkin’s performance, Busch continued to perform with him throughout Europe. He also served as a chamber musician with the Busch Chamber Players. Despite his remarkable talent, Serkin was turned away from his idolFerruccio Busoni. Busoni refused Serkin lessons as he, at the age of 17, was too old for piano lessons. He instead advised Serkin to perform as much as possible.

Serkin moved with the Busch family to Darmstadt in 1922. The family, which included the brothers Adolf (violinist), Fritz (conductor) and Herman (cellist), moved again in 1927 to Switzerland, just outside of Basel. During Hitler’s reign, they were granted Swiss citizenship, which they held until becoming American citizens in 1950.

Serkin’s Russian-Jewish background led to problems in Germany in the 1930s with the rise of the Nazis. He was denied permission to play at a Brahms centennial celebration in Hamburg in April 1933, prompting Busch to refuse to participate.

The New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg raved about Serkin’s 1963 performance of a work by Brahms, describing his playing as ‘sheer grandeur, the kind that sets the standard to which all must aspire’. He was also known for his ‘warm, sonorous tone’ which could, without notice, turn to banging. His programmes were not especially innovative, consisting mostly of music by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann. He sometimes performed the works of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Reger and Bartok.

Throughout his career, Serkin recorded extensively. His recordings with Adolf Busch are especially prized. During the 1940s he made many solo recordings with Columbia. Later, during the 1980s, he recorded for Telarc and Deutsche Grammophon. A number of his early recordings with EMI/Angel and CBS/Sony have recently been reissued on CD. His recordings include the Beethoven Piano Concertos, Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano and Piano Concertos and a number of Mozart Piano Concertos. He also recorded Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet. He recorded with, among others, the Boston (Seiji Ozawa), London (Claudio Abbado) and Columbia (George Szell) Symphony Orchestras and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Eugene Ormandy), Mstislav Rostropovich, the Budapest String Quartet and Adolf Busch.

Serkin received many honours during his lifetime. In addition to giving two performances at the White House, in 1966 and 1970, Serkin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by John F. Kennedy. He held honorary doctorate degrees from a number of institutions including, the Curtis Institute, Harvard University, Williams College, the University of Rochester, the New England Conservatory, Marlboro College, Temple University, Oberlin College and the University of Vermont. Serkin was made an honorary member of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York. He was also named a Chavalier in the Legion of Honour by the French Government and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Council on the Arts.

Rudolf Serkin died from cancer at the age of 88 in his home in Guilford, Vermont.

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