Lhevinne, Rosina (1880–1976)

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Lhevinne, Rosina (1880–1976)

Russian-born musician who spent much of her career playing dual-piano works with her husband and, after his death, went on to fame as a soloist and teacher of many of America's leading classical pianists. Name variations: Rosina Lhévinne. Pronunciation: Lay-VEEN. Born Rosina Bessie on March 29, 1880, in Kiev, Russia; died on November 9, 1976, in Glendale, California; daughter of Jacques Bessie (a Dutch merchant) and Maria (Katch) Bessie (a Russian); attended Imperial Russian Conservatory, 1889–98; married Josef Lhevinne, on June 20, 1898 (died 1944); children: Constantine (renamed Don) Lhevinne; Marianna Lhevinne.

Won gold medal upon graduation from Conservatory (1898); began career as dual pianist with husband (1899); moved to Tiflis (1899); interned in Germany during World War I (1914–18); settled in U.S. (1919); began teaching at Juilliard School in conjunction with her husband's appointment to Juilliard faculty (1924); appointed to faculty of Austro-American Conservatory in Mondsee, Austria (1930); with Josef, performed 40th anniversary concert as dual pianists at Carnegie Hall (1939); appointed to faculty of Juilliard School (1945); appointed to faculty of Los Angeles Conservatory (1946); underwent operation for breast cancer (1950); accepted Van Cliburn as her student at Juilliard (1951); joined faculty at Aspen Music Festival (1956); her student Van Cliburn won Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow (1958); became faculty member of University of California, Berkeley, and appeared with National Orchestral Association (1961); had second mastectomy and made debut with New York Philharmonic (1963); given 90th birthday party at Juilliard School (1970).

"She was quite simply one of the greatest teachers of this century," Peter Mennin, president of the Juilliard School, said of Rosina Lhevinne. She was also one of the century's most notable female musicians. A brilliant pianist in her own right, she subordinated her playing career to that of her equally talented husband Josef Lhevinne for over 40 years. Her fiery and emotional personality was the perfect balance for his calm and moderation. In those years, she gave occasional solo concerts and more frequently played dual concerts with him. Following Josef's death in 1944, her career took a new direction. First, she replaced the late Olga Samaroff as the most distinguished piano teacher in the United States, producing such eminent performers as Van Cliburn. Second, in her mid-70s, she reemerged as a noted soloist.

I accomplished what I wanted to: to give an example to the young people of what can be accomplished—even at my age—with work and dedication to music.

—Rosina Lhevinne

The future musical star was born Rosina Bessie in Kiev on March 29, 1880, the daughter of Jewish parents who were devoted to music. Her father Jacques Bessie had been born in Holland and worked in Russia as a merchant dealing in diamonds and wine. As a youngster, he had studied piano, and his education included a stay at the Sorbonne in Paris. Rosina's mother Maria Katch Bessie also came from a cultured and affluent background; like her husband, she had studied piano as a child. The family moved to Moscow in the early 1880s.

Rosina grew up under her mother's watchful—indeed, obsessive—eye. The child nearly died of diphtheria at age four; the dangerous episode made her naturally protective mother even more determined to safeguard Rosina against all perils. At age six, young Rosina began piano lessons. Three years later, having demonstrated exceptional talent, she was admitted to the Moscow Conservatory. A further testimony to her promise was the sharply limited number of places Jewish students were permitted to occupy at the distinguished school.

In attending the conservatory, Rosina remained under her mother's protective wing. She still received her basic education at home from private tutors and was permitted to attend the Conservatory only once a week as a student of the renowned Vasilly Safonov (1852–1918). Nonetheless, she soon made the acquaintance of Josef Lhevinne. Several years older than Rosina, he was already one of the Conservatory's outstanding students. Graduating in 1892 after being awarded the gold medal, a prize given only to students who had attained the highest level of achievement, he soon attracted the attention of the composer Peter Tchaikovsky and the reigning piano virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein. Josef's reputation as a rising young performer was made in 1895 when he won the prestigious Rubinstein Prize Competition in Berlin. It quickly led to a triumphant concert tour throughout Western Europe.

By now, Josef was a frequent visitor at the Bessie house. He had prepared for his success in Berlin by using the pianos at the family's Moscow home while the Bessies were at their country cottage for the summer. As Rosina recalled, for a long time he still treated her as a young child. But when Josef had to interrupt his career for a year's service in the Russian army, he was stationed near Moscow, and their relationship became one of adult affection. Josef later divulged that he fell in love with her in May 1896 when he watched the 16-year-old play Chopin's E minor concerto with the Moscow Conservatory Orchestra.

Rosina graduated from the conservatory in June 1898. Like Josef, she was able to measure her success there by receiving the exceptional reward of a gold medal. On June 20, one week after her graduation, the two young pianists were married. During the following five-week honeymoon, which they spent at a resort town outside Moscow, they competed to see who could learn Mendelssohn's Etude in E minor more quickly. Rosina won the contest, but she was impressed by the superior performance he produced ten days later.

The honeymoon weeks led Rosina to a decision that marked the next four decades of her life. Writes their biographer Robert Wallace: "Buoyed by her first intimate exposure to her husband's pianistic craft, she decided to be content to be a wife." Friends who had speculated that the marriage between two such gifted and ambitious musicians could not survive now learned that Rosina had given up her potential for a career as a soloist. She would instead devote her energies to insuring Josef's success.

Within a year of their marriage, the Lhevinnes found themselves in the distant city of Tiflis in the Caucasus. Josef's army service had stopped the momentum of his concert career, and, in order to support himself and his wife, he accepted a position as professor at the Imperial Conservatory in the remote Georgian region of the Russian empire. After three years there, Rosina made the key decision that shaped their future. Josef had awed local audiences in his performances, and his salary at the conservatory was rising steadily. Nonetheless, Rosina convinced him to abandon this comfortable but isolated musical niche in order to return to the musical mainstream. "I thought about it for a long time," she said, "and finally decided that we should go to Berlin, then the musical capital of the world."

Success came quickly. Following warm-up concerts in Warsaw and Paris, Josef made a triumphal debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in March 1902. Later that year, with his musical reputation burgeoning, he was invited to take a position as professor at his alma mater, the Moscow Conservatory. When the Lhevinnes returned to their native city, Rosina briefly resumed her career as a soloist and also began teaching. A stint at a fashionable private school for the daughters of Russian noble families was disappointing due to her students' lack of interest, and she turned to teaching students privately at home. Meanwhile, her husband's career remained her paramount concern.

In the winter of 1905–06, Josef Lhevinne made his first journey to North America and created a sensation in his debut at Carnegie Hall on January 27. Rosina, pregnant with their first child, remained in Moscow. She gave birth to a son, whom they named Constantine, in Paris in July. Four months later, the entire family set sail for the United States.

Between 1907 and the outbreak of war in 1914, Josef Lhevinne toured the U.S. annually in addition to giving numerous concerts throughout Europe. Frequently, his concerts consisted of solo works broken up by duets with Rosina. From 1909 onward, they made their permanent home in Berlin, where both Josef and Rosina taught piano to advanced students. In a decision that brought future hardship to the family, Josef kept his substantial savings in banks in Moscow.

The Lhevinne family was trapped in Berlin when war broke out between Germany and Russia in the summer of 1914. As a reserve officer in the Russian army, Josef was not permitted to return home. The family shared the hardships of the German population during four years of food shortages, but they also suffered the special privations of being enemy aliens. Thus, the Lhevinnes were not permitted to give concerts or otherwise to earn money, and they were required to report regularly to the police. Nonetheless, Josef's status as a distinguished musician helped them through these years. Germany's monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, personally directed that Josef and his family be interned in their villa outside Berlin rather than being placed in a prison camp. And government officials winked at the fact that Josef traveled regularly to Budapest to perform in public. Only by turning the gardens of the villa into farmland, however, were they able to feed themselves adequately. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November 1917 added to their impoverishment when the new Communist government confiscated Josef's bank accounts. As the war moved toward its conclusion in 1918, the family had a rare piece of good news; Rosina gave birth to the couple's second child, a girl they named Marianna Lhevinne .

In the immediate postwar period, Josef was once again free to travel and perform. He now decided to make the United States the permanent home for the family, and, in September 1919, the Lhevinnes set sail from Copenhagen to New York. Within two days of their arrival, Josef was giving a recital in Connecticut.

In the following years, several times each season, Rosina sometimes joined Josef in concert performances as the couple formed a two-piano team. Josef disliked such duets, and these performances were his tribute to Rosina's talent and

desire to appear in public. Music for dual pianos was still a novelty for American critics as well as American audiences in general. They generally received favorable notices. One critic in Philadelphia noted that "they made two pianos speak with but a single thought." Nonetheless, Rosina refused to travel extensively where her children were young. Her style of parenting resembled that of her own mother; it was marked by extreme, even excessive, fears for their health and restrictions on their freedom. To the disappointment of both parents, neither Constantine (now renamed Don) nor Marianna showed any interest in the piano.

In 1924, Josef was appointed to the faculty of the newly established Juilliard School of Music. When he toured, Rosina filled in for him, and sometimes the two gave lessons together. On many occasions they gave various American students, who spoke only English, the disconcerting experience of sitting and listening to the Lhevinnes discuss his or her progress in Russian. Rosina soon acquired a reputation as the more severe teacher of the pair, with Josef's manner distinguished by its gentleness. In 1930, Rosina Lhevinne took on independent responsibilities as a teacher when she was appointed to the faculty of the newly created Austro-American Conservatory located in the Austrian village of Mondsee. She worked there for three summers.

As the children grew, Rosina became more comfortable about traveling substantial distances away from New York. Only a third of Josef's appearances from the late 1930s until his death in 1944 were solo concerts, and the Lhevinnes played together extensively. For small-town audiences in particular, the novelty of a two-piano performance, with husband and wife on the same stage, outweighed the great musical skills they displayed. Together, they also conducted summer master classes in Maine and then in Colorado. A reporter who interviewed the two in 1938 recorded a vivid picture of Rosina: "plumpish, black-haired, dark-eyed … she somehow reminds you of a dear mamma in a tin type of the Nineties."

A notable occasion for the Lhevinnes was a gala benefit concert marking the 40th anniversary of their first appearance as a two-piano team. The proceeds went to New York City's Greenwich Music Settlement House. Held at Carnegie Hall on January 14, 1939, the gala featured three concertos for dual pianos which they played to the accompaniment of the Juilliard Orchestra. At Josef's insistence, the program included a solo performance by Rosina. She chose to play the work that had induced Josef to fall in love with her so long ago in Moscow: Chopin's E minor concerto.

America's entry into the Second World War affected the Lhevinnes deeply. Their son went into the army, and many of their students from the Juilliard School likewise entered military service. Josef and Rosina gave concerts to support the government's bond program and to raise money for British children. In these charitable activities, they performed in numerous small towns where local organizations could not meet their regular fee. "To repay America for all it has done for us" was the explanation they gave for their efforts.

The duo's busy schedule of touring and concerts went on with no apparent threat to Josef's health. The onset of his final illness came in August 1944 while he was visiting their daughter in Los Angeles. He suffered a heart attack while swimming, and, after convalescing for several months in California, returned to New York on December 1. He died suddenly the next day. Rosina found herself with no insurance and a mass of debt, both attributable to Josef's lack of concern with finances.

Disoriented after her sudden loss, Rosina at first refused an offer from the president of Juilliard to take over Josef's position on the faculty. Nonetheless, in 1945 she took up teaching duties at the renowned music school and remained on the faculty even though she had technically reached the age for retirement. In the summer of 1946, she began a long career as a teacher at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Students flocked to her studio, where she was the standard-bearer of the golden days of Imperial Russian Romanticism. John Browning, Daniel Pollack, Misha Dichter, Garrick Ohlsson, Tong i Han, Howard Aibel, and Olegna Fuschi were just a few, many of whom held posts at universities throughout the world.

At first she avoided performing; it raised painful memories of her years on stage with her husband. Nonetheless, in November 1947, she gave in to entreaties from Victor Babin, like Rosina a Russian-born pianist who had made a career in America, to play with the newly formed Little Orchestra Society in New York. This indicated, as Wallace described it, her "complete return to the vigorous musical life she had led while her husband was alive."

In the midst of her ongoing career, Rosina Lhevinne was struck by a new tragedy. In early 1950, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The resulting operation involved removing part of her arm, but she made a rapid recovery. Rigorous exercises, which she performed with tears flowing freely, brought her body back to a condition in which she could once again play the piano with her old skill.

Her students at Juilliard invariably noted Rosina's Russian-accented English and her occasional errors in choosing the right English word. More important was her intense relationship with them in which she involved herself intimately in their personal as well as their professional lives. She claimed the need to get an intimate understanding of her students' ideas and emotions. Since this could not be achieved through weekly lessons, she would invite them for long walks. A regular part of training with Rosina Lhevinne for many students became walking with her and a group of fellow students at Jones Beach on Sundays. The success of her methods became evident in the years after 1950, when her students distinguished themselves in national competitions like the Piano Recording Festival put on by the National Guild of Piano Teachers. They did equally well in the annual competitions at the Juilliard School. Her teaching came to include master classes at Aspen, starting in 1956, and at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961.

Teachers of future concert performers rarely attain national fame, but Rosina Lhevinne proved an exception, largely due to the prominence of one student: Van Cliburn. She began teaching the 17-year-old Texan in 1951; in 1954, he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition. Four years later, at Rosina Lhevinne's urging, Cliburn entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Although it seemed unlikely, if not impossible, that an American could compete successfully in this contest given the ongoing tensions of the Cold War, she worked diligently to prepare Cliburn. His victory made him the most famous young musician in America, and his return to the United States featured a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan and a gala reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In the words of one former student, Jeaneane Dowis Lipman , Cliburn's success made Rosina Lhevinne "the world's most famous piano teacher."

The renowned teacher moved in another new direction when, at age 75, she began to perform as a soloist. She was invited to teach at the Aspen Music School during the school's annual summer festival, and she accepted the accompanying obligation of giving concerts with the festival orchestra. Starting in 1956, she performed there almost every summer until the mid-1960s, and she marked her 80th birthday with concerts in Indianapolis and New York. The capstone to her career as a performer came in January 1963 when she gave four concerts with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. One performance was broadcast over national radio, and she received tributes from listeners throughout the country.

The last years of Rosina Lhevinne's life combined illness and a determination to continue her work as long as possible. Her cancer recurred in 1963 and led to a second bout of surgery. Students continued to flock to her for lessons, many of them after encountering her at her summer sessions at Aspen and Berkeley. Others came at the behest of her former students, many of whom occupied teaching posts of their own.

At age 90, she received a tribute from her colleagues at the recently relocated Juilliard School. The birthday celebration, which brought together hundreds of her friends from the music world, marked the announcement of a scholarship at Juilliard in her name. A few months later, she gave her last series of lessons at Aspen, where she had been an instructor since 1956. Nonetheless, her zest for teaching remained. She taught at the University of Southern California from 1972 through 1974, and even a stroke in November 1974 did not prevent her from returning to the faculty in the fall of 1975.

Rosina Lhevinne expressed her awareness of increasing age by refusing to travel on streets that contained cemeteries. She likewise avoided presenting her students with the task of learning Chopin's B-flat minor sonata, which contains a funeral march. Remembering that she had been sickly as a child, the vibrant nonagenarian repeatedly noted that a healthy diet and lots of exercise had given her a more extended lifetime than anyone might have predicted.

Rosina Lhevinne died in Glendale, California, on November 9, 1976. She had helped train scores of distinguished performers, impressing on them both her musical sense and her distinctive personality. Her methods had combined a harsh insistence on superior technical skill with a deep respect for the individual talents of each student. All were impressed by her complex personality as they encountered both the facet that offered unlimited encouragement and the equally sharp facet that insisted on the standards she had learned as a youngster at the Moscow Conservatory. As Lipman put it, she combined "the merriness of a teddy bear with the majesty of a czarina."


Lipman, Jeaneane Dowis. "Rosina: A Memoir," in The American Scholar. Summer 1996, pp. 359–378.

Wallace, Robert A. A Century of Music-Making: The Lives of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1976.

suggested reading:

Dubal, David. Reflections from the Keyboard: The World of the Concert Pianist. NY: Summit Books, 1984.

Ericson, Raymond. "Rosina Lhévinne, Pianist, Is Dead," in The New York Times. November 11, 1976, p. 44.

Kogan, Judith. Nothing But the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School. NY: Random House, 1987.

Schonberg, Harold C. "Undoctrinaire Inspiration," in The New York Times. November 11, 1976, p. 44.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Lhevinne, Rosina (1880–1976)

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