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Rudolf Serkin: A Life

By Stephen Lehmann Humanities Bibliographer, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, University of Pennsylvania, USA; and

Marion Faber, Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA.

Published by Oxford University Press, USA, 27 February 2003

ISBN: 0-19-513046-4 £20 [US$35.00]

Hardcover 234mm x 156mm [6-1/8" x 9-1/4"]

360 pp.; 53 illustrations. Discography by Paul Farber.

Includes a monophonic CD [75.18] of music by Bach, Mendelssohn, and Chopin from solo concerts from 1946 through 1950 originally recorded on acetate disks at the US Library of Congress and restored by Ward Marston.

My interest in reading this book was not based on my being a great fan of Serkin’s, but rather on knowing very little about him or his recordings, knowing literally nothing about the man apart from his son Peter’s reputation for flamboyance and originality in music as in life. Thus the book was all the more fascinating in that virtually everything in it was new to me and it turns out to be an interesting story about a very interesting man, interesting even if he isn’t your favourite pianist.

Rudolf Serkin was born March 28, 1903, in Eger, Bohemia, which is now Cheb in the Czech Republic. Rudolf’s father Mordko was born to a strict orthodox Jewish family in Belarus, but ran away from home and became an Atheist. While serving occasionally as cantor he earned his living singing minor roles in operettas. Rudolf’s mother, Auguste, née Shargel, also Jewish, was from Galicia near the present day Polish-Romanian border. Her family would consent to the marriage only if Mordko gave up his stage career, which he readily agreed to do, and they helped him to set up in business as a shoemaker. Auguste was not happy in the marriage but she suppressed her disappointment; she and her children were not close emotionally.

His father was keen that all his children become musicians, and Rudi began piano lessons with Camilla Taussig at the age of 4, performing in public for the first time at age 6. Composition lessons began at age 8. His talent astonished the violinist Huberman and a few weeks later an audition before the Viennese virtuoso Alfred Grünfeld resulted in a move to Vienna and lessons with Richard Robert, who was also the teacher of George Szell. Robert insisted on a solid grounding in the great masters and was considered by some to be a reactionary, but was much loved by his students. Rudolf’s family suffered severe financial losses, and there were hardships to be endured in wartime Vienna during WWI. Rudi had time for nothing but study and work.

In 1918, Serkin met Schoenberg whom he later credited with being the greatest single influence on his musical personality, and for two years played nothing but contemporary music. In 1920 Serkin found fault with some of Schoenberg’s music, and the friendship was abruptly terminated. On tour in Vienna, violinist Adolf Busch needed a new accompanist, Serkin was auditioned and not merely hired but literally adopted by Busch. He went on to live with him in Berlin and later married his daughter Irene. As with Prokofiev, the first photograph ever taken of Serkin smiling was his wedding picture.

Serkin and Busch at once developed an intense rapport and played together all over Europe to rave notices. Although Busch was not Jewish—indeed he and his musical brothers were so central to early 20th century musical life in Germany that they can only be compared to the Bachs of the 18th Century—his friendship with Serkin put him on the Nazi’s list. They moved first to Switzerland, then in 1939 they moved to the US together to escape the Nazis. Busch was indeed openly and virulently hostile to the Nazis. At one point when an olive branch was extended to him, even to the extent of proposing to officially declare Serkin to be an "honorary Aryan," Busch’s reply was "Hang Hitler, then hang Göring." Only the onset of serious illness which ended Busch’s career in 1940 ended their performing together. Busch continued to teach until his death in 1952.

Busch was close friends with Donald Francis Tovey, who before WWI had played the Goldberg Variations in Germany to great critical acclaim. But after the WWI Tovey forsook the life of a touring virtuoso, and now it was Rudolf Serkin who toured Europe playing the Goldberg Variations, on one occasion as an encore—complete! At one point Serkin gave up performing certain classical concerti because he became dissatisfied with the available cadenzas, and Tovey advised him to write his own.

The Serkin family had been among the 550 (3%) citizens of Jewish ancestry in the predominately Catholic town of Eger which in the years to come would become virulently anti-Semitic. Rudolf never either denied his Jewish roots nor embraced them, and considered himself a "non-Jewish Jew." Once safe and successful in America he responded very, very generously to appeals from friends and relatives in Europe for money and help with visas.

Because of Serkin’s shyness and sense of privacy and his absolute refusal to talk about himself the authors have had to rely entirely on the testimony of others. They include a series of lengthy verbatim personal statements ("Voices") of recollections by friends of Serkin. He was not a conversationalist, and friendship with Serkin meant making music with him; his friends were all the greatest virtuosos of his time, from Alexander Schneider and Mieczyslaw Horszowski to Pablo Casals.

In the USA he joined the staff of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and taught there from 1939 to 1976 along with Isabelle Vengerova (Bernstein’s teacher) and, after 1942, with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who was broadly interested in classical as well as modern music and who frequently performed the Tovey "Tragique" Trio.

Serkin was delighted to discover that the hills of South-western Vermont reminded him of Austria and Switzerland, and he purchased 125 acres near Guilford. He delighted in raising his family there, sending them to the local schools. The press found this extremely interesting and dubbed him "Farmer Serkin." But due to teaching, recording, and concertising, it was not until 1976 that the farm became the family’s year around permanent home.

He quickly made friends with the founders and staff at the nearby Marlboro College, and from 1946 was instrumental in establishing the school of music there. The Marlboro Festivals were another result, beginning in 1951, where Serkin invited his friends to make music under very informal surroundings. In 1972 he said, "...remember that Marlboro is the real world, the rest is only a nightmare..."

Serkin became a member of the "Eastern" European musical focus, distinct from the "Western" focus in Hollywood which included Bruno Walter, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky (and almost included Prokofiev). It is curious why these two settlements remained so separate for so long. Since Serkin had broken with Schoenberg many years before, it might be understandable why he never travelled West, but as a fellow member of the Eastern settlement, it is more difficult to understand why he did not get along with Hindemith whose music one would have thought would suit Serkin’s temperament well. But, apparently with the exception of Reger, Serkin lost his interest in modern music and is identified strongly with the classics, particularly Beethoven and Mozart. Almost in confirmation of this is his son Peter’s deep interest in modern music of all kinds; however, the book includes no details of family disputes in this or any other matter.

The cd, with 25 tracks chosen from perhaps hundreds of concerts, represents a superb sampling of the finest moments of Serkin’s art and is worth the full price of a CD, which in a sense reduces the net price of the book by about one half. The sound is OK but not spectacular and some coughs and crackle remain. The playing is always clean, with intense commitment, emotion, even passion, yet every note is precisely in place. Although my previous favourite performance of the complete Chopin Etudes is by Guiomar Novaes, this performance of Opus 25 is certainly as good and I will listen to it often. The Mendelssohn is a little more vigorous and less graceful than my reference performances with Murray Perahia. The Bach is better than any other modern piano performance I’ve ever heard, similar in style to Andras Schiff, but the sound is marred by intermittent pitch instability in the later movements.

Paul Shoemaker



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