(b. 28 March 1903 in Eger, Bohemia, now Cheb, Czech Republic; d. 8 May 1991 in Guilford, Vermont), pianist best known for his interpretations and recordings of central European classics, teacher at and director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and cofounder and later president and director of the Marlboro Festival in Vermont.
Serkin was the fifth of eight children born to Mordko Serkin, a Russian basso, cantor, and merchant, and Augusta Schargel, a homemaker. Serkin’s father introduced all his children to the piano and the violin, and Rudolf Serkin preferred the piano. He progressed prodigiously under the tutelage of his childhood teacher Camilla Taussig. His first public performance, at age five or six, took place in the town of Franzensbad near Eger. At age nine Serkin, who was called Rudi, played for the Viennese pianist Alfred
Grunfeld, who encouraged him to study in Vienna with the distinguished teacher Richard Robert. At age twelve Serkin debuted in Vienna with the Tonkünstler-Orchester under the conductor Oskar Nedbal, performing Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G Minor, op. 25. Serkin studied theory and composition with Joseph Marx and harmony and counterpoint with Arnold Schoenberg, one of his most important influences. He had no formal academic schooling.
Serkin flourished in the rich cultural environment of Vienna, where he was welcomed into the home of the patroness Eugenia Schwarzwald, within whose sphere circulated the leading creative thinkers of the day. Blessed with an insatiably curious mind, Serkin developed lifelong interests in art, history, philosophy, poetry, and politics.
As a young pianist Serkin cultivated an extensive and varied repertoire that included compositions by Max Reger, a particular favorite, and a good deal of twentieth-century music. His plans to visit Paris in 1920 for further study with Isidor Phillip were interrupted by unreliable train travel. Stranded in Vienna, Serkin had a chance encounter with the violinist and teacher Adolf Busch that changed his life. Busch directed Serkin to Berlin to study with the venerable Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni, however, thought Serkin too old for lessons and advised him to continue his development solely through performance. Hearing the young Serkin play, Busch quickly selected him as his own sonata partner. In turn Serkin found in Busch a benefactor. He moved in with the Busch family in 1920 and in May 1935 married Busch’s daughter Irene, a gifted violinist. They had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. Busch was a caring mentor who profoundly influenced Serkin. His expressive and deeply thoughtful playing resonated with Serkin’s own instincts, and the synergy of their partnership drew widespread acclaim.
Serkin made his first appearance in Berlin with Busch in 1921. In the following years he toured extensively, garnering an enviable reputation as a solo and chamber pianist. Serkin moved with the Busch family first to Darmstadt, Germany, in 1922, then to Basel, Switzerland in 1927. They all took Swiss citizenship after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Basel’s location enabled Serkin to travel regularly to Italy to hear performances by Arturo Toscanini, another great musical influence in his life. The combined architecture and passion of Toscanini’s art circumscribed the totality of Serkin’s own vast and penetrating vision, and their collaboration years later catapulted Serkin to the forefront of the world’s leading pianists.
Serkin’s appearances in the United States began in 1933 with a sonata recital with Busch at the Coolidge Festival in Washington, D.C. His concerto debut was at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 20 February 1936 with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Society. That program included the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 27 in B-flat, K. 595, and the Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 4 in G, op. 58. In 1944 Serkin and Toscanini collaborated again on the same Beethoven concerto, a historic performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra preserved in a broadcast recording.
Amid the threat of war in 1939 the Busch and Serkin families moved to the United States, where Serkin joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia as head of the piano department. Serkin’s rigorously intellectual approach and discipline profoundly altered the tenor of the institute, strengthening its place as one of the world’s foremost music conservatories. Accordingly many of the most gifted young musicians, including his own son Peter Serkin, who like his father was one of the finest pianists of his generation, passed through Serkin’s studio. As a teacher Serkin was extraordinarily demanding. He expected no less of his pupils than he did of himself, and he responded harshly to arrogant, shabby, or unprincipled playing. The bedrock of his teaching was the faithful study and interpretation of the printed score, which he regarded as inviolate. Inculcating in each of his pupils the highest standards of pianism, integrity, and stewardship, he served as the institute’s director from 1968 until 1976.
In 1950 Serkin, Adolf Busch, Herman Busch, Marcel Moyse, Louis Moyse, and Blanche Honegger Moyse inaugurated the first summer programs at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont. The program was a hybrid: a music school and festival in which a community of like-minded musicians pooled their personal resources and gathered to play chamber music. With personal egos and the business of music left outside the gate, Marlboro was for Serkin the most natural setting in which to make music. Serkin and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1950.
Upon Adolf Busch’s death in 1951 Serkin became the artistic director and by consent Marlboro’s “sovereign among equals.” Serkin applied himself assiduously to the task, molding Marlboro into one of the world’s most prestigious summer programs for professional musicians. He engaged distinguished colleagues as regulars and shared in the general work of the community, from serving meals to turning pages. The familial surroundings showcased his boundless generosity toward others and triggered his mischievous wit and proclivity for practical jokes. However, no room existed for joking when it came to making music, and for participants and listeners alike Marlboro was intense and intensely satisfying.
Serkin’s career and reputation grew to astonishing proportions. He cared little for celebrity, avoiding interviews and self-promotion, but nonetheless enjoyed box office success, winning audiences all over the world through his sincerity, personal warmth, and exalted musicianship. His success was a product of monumental labor. He practiced for hours on end and toured season after season. Recordings rolled off the presses and accolades poured in, including honorary degrees and memberships, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and a National Medal of Art in 1988. He took a year’s sabbatical in 1960–1961 to study musical works such as the Haydn quartets and the Bach cantatas—pieces that he as a pianist would never have the occasion to play but that drew his attention simply for their inherent beauty.
Serkin made his home in Guilford, Vermont. He relished his role as a citizen of Guilford and took pride in his achievements as a New England dairy farmer. Illness in the late 1980s forced him to curtail his activities but he rallied to program the last three Beethoven sonatas in his final Carnegie Hall appearance on 8 April 1987 and the Emperor Concerto in Cleveland and Chicago in 1988. He died of cancer on 8 May 1991 and was laid to rest in Guilford, Vermont.
Serkin is widely regarded as one of the most important pianists of the twentieth century. He was lean, nervous, “bookish,” and bug-eyed behind thick glasses. He was gaunt and pale in later years, with very little hair scattered in untamed white wisps. In contrast were the strength of his playing and his large, powerful hands and thick fingers, which compounded the technical challenges of playing. Notwithstanding his achievements, he was not a “natural” pianist. He regarded making music as a crushing responsibility and a serious business for which musicians could not overprepare. In the grip of a performance he was nervous and ungainly, driven by an elemental inner frenzy. His playing combined a biting tone, foot stomping, and anguished groaning with lofty and incorruptible musical ideals, a keen understanding of musical architecture, taut and unrelenting rhythms, unity, and ruthless logic. He avoided musical effects, pianistic gimmickry, and crowd-pleasing display pieces, choosing in his later years severe and intellectually demanding programs centered around large-scale works of Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, and especially Ludwig van Beethoven. Serkin remained ever humble in the face of the music he loved and in which he saw human grandeur. He evoked a saintly aura in his approach to music making and he became the musical conscience of generations of listeners and musicians. His many recordings perpetuate his legacy as a divinely gifted artist consumed by music.
Archival materials on Serkin are at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Serkin’s art is best represented in his Columbia recordings of works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Schubert. John Gillespie and Anna Gillespie, “Rudolf Serkin,” in Notable Twentieth-Century Pianists (1995), couples a chronology of his life with an assessment of his art through reviews. David Dubal,
“Rudolf Serkin,” in The Art of the Piano (1995), is an engaging essay devoted to details of Serkin’s playing. The biography by Tully Potter, Adolf Busch: The Life of an Honest Musician (2001), includes information about Serkin. The most important interviews with Serkin are Dean Elder, “Serkin,” Clavier 9 (Nov. 1970): 8–15, and Robert Silverman, “Serkin,” Piano Quarterly 26, no. 100 (winter 1977-1978): 3-6. Other important articles include Irving Kolodin, “The Complete Musician,” Horizon (Sept. 1961): 82-87; Joseph Roddy, “Rudolf Serkin,” High Fidelity 11 (July 1961): 24–28, 82; and Claude Frank, “Rudolf Serkin: Servant of Music,” Keynote (Mar. 1983): 12-16. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 May 1991).
Robert J. Chabora
Serkin, Rudolf, eminent Austrian-born American pianist and pedagogue of Russian descent, father of Peter (Adolf) Serkin; b. Eger, March 28, 1903; d. Guilford, Vt., May 8, 1991. He studied piano with Richard Robert and composition with Joseph Marx and Schoenberg in Vienna. He made his debut as a soloist with Oskar Nedbal and the Vienna Sym. Orch. at age 12; his career began in earnest with his Berlin appearance with the Busch Chamber Orch. in 1920; thereafter he performed frequently in joint recitals with Adolf Busch, whose daughter he married in 1935. He made his U.S. debut in a recital with Busch at the Coolidge Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1933; then made a critically acclaimed appearance as a soloist with Toscanini and the N.Y. Phil. (Feb. 20, 1936). In 1939 he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. After World War II, he pursued an international career; appeared as a soloist with all the major orchs. of the world, gave recitals in the leading music centers, and played in numerous chamber music settings. In 1939 he was appointed head of the piano dept. at the Curtis Inst. of Music in Philadelphia; was its director from 1968 to 1976. In 1950 he helped to establish the Marlboro (Vt.) Music Festival and school, and subsequently served as its artistic director. In 1985 he celebrated his 70th anniversary as a concert artist. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963; in 1988 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. The authority and faithfulness of his interpretations of the Viennese classics placed him among the masters of the 20th century.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
SERKIN, RUDOLF (1903–1991), pianist. Born in Eger, Bohemia, Serkin made his first public appearance at the age of 12. He began his concert career in Berlin in 1920, and made his American debut in Washington in 1933 with the violinist Adolf Busch, whose daughter he married, and with whom he had already formed a famous duo in Europe. In 1939 he became head of the pianoforte faculty at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia. Serkin toured Europe, the United States, and the Orient, and was recognized as one of the master performers of classical repertoire in his generation. His son Peter *Serkin (1947– ) was also a concert pianist.