Rudolf Serkin – a redefinition of musical values

August 13, 2012 at 9:35 am

written by Victoria Warfield, Aug.13, 2012

“I believe in a unity in music.  I don’t believe too much in style. 

If a performance doesn’t move you, it is a bad performance.”

Rudolf Serkin (March 28, 1903 – May 8, 1991 was born in Eger, Bohemia – now the Czech Republic – to a Russian-Jewish family.  He was hailed as a child prodigy and sent to Vienna at the age of 9, where he studied piano with Richard Robert.  He made his public debut with the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 12.  Later, he also studied composition with Joseph Marx. From 1918 to 1920 he studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg and participated actively in Schoenberg’s Society for the Private Performance of Music. He began a regular concert career in 1920, living in Berlin with the family of German violinist Adolf Busch. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Serkin performed throughout Europe both as soloist and chamber artist with the Busch Quartet.  However, with the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933, Serkin and the Busch family left Berlin for Basel, Switzerland.

In 1933 Serkin made his first chamber appearance in the United States at the Coolidge Festival in Washington, D.C.  In 1936, he launched his solo concert career in the U.S. with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini and in 1972 he celebrated his 100th appearance with that orchestra.

The critics raved, describing him as “an artist of unusual and impressive talents in possession of a crystalline technique, plenty of power, delicacy, and tonal purity.” In 1937, Serkin played his first New York recital at Carnegie Hall.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Serkins immigrated to the USA, where he taught several generations of pianists at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

In 1951, Serkin and Adolf Busch founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Marlboro, Vermont with the goal of stimulating interest in and performance of chamber music in the United States.

Serkin was revered as a musician’s musician, a father figure to a legion of younger players, and a pianist of enormous musical integrity. He made European classical music an important part of American middle class culture throughout the mid-20th century.  Serkin played a key role in institutionalizing a redefinition of musical values in America.  Mr. Serkin had a clean attack and a firmly controlled anti-sentimental approach.  Many critics considered him profound.  He was widely regarded as one of the greatest Beethoven interpreters of the twentieth century.

He toured all over the world and continued his solo career and recording activities until illness prevented further work in 1989.