Happy birthday Rudolf Serkin!

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Rudolf Serkin (March 28, 1903 – May 8, 1991) was a Russian-Jewish pianist, born in Eger, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. Serkin began studying piano at the age of nine, and by twelve, was performing at the Vienna Philharmonic. To escape Nazi persecution, he and his family moved to Switzerland in the 1930s. He performed in New York's Philharmonic Orchestra and later became head of the piano department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he spent the majority of his career. He taught many burgeoning pianists throughout his career and continued to tour and record until 1989.

 

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Serkin was considered a child prodigy. He could play and read music by the time he was four years old. As a young boy, he studied under famed Viennese piano instructor Richard Roberts and studied composition under Joseph Marx and Arnold Schoenberg. After his breakout performance with the Vienna Philharmonic at age twelve, he moved to Berlin with violinist Adolf Busch and his family where he began to perform regularly. It was there that Serkin met Irene Busch, then eight years his junior and who would later become his wife. During that period, Serkin performed throughout Europe both solo as well as with the Busch Chamber Orchestra.

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Photo credit: David Hertzberg

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In 1931, music critic Hubert F. Peyser wrote, "Mr. Serkin is not a sensational pianist, though he can storm the clouds and summon the mellowest of thunder and dazzle with the best of them in the sheer resplendence of mechanics." Serkin became especially known for his interpretations of Ludvig van Beethoven, but also was an apt interpreter of Brahms, Schubert, Mozart, and Bach.

 

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Rudolf Serkin and Szell savor a felicitious moment while recording a Mozart concerto in November 1955.

 

Serkin made his first appearance in the United States at the Coolidge Festival in Washington, DC in 1935 and his first U.S. tour the following year was met with great acclaim. He began to appear with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936, performing under Arturo Toscanini. Herald-Tribune critic Jerome D. Bohn wrote of Serkin following his January 1937 performance at Carnegie Hall that he was, "one of the most magnificent accomplishments in the field of pianism." Soon after, the Curtis Institute of Music offered him a position for $8,000 a year–a large sum at that time. He wrote to the Busch's, to whom he had grown inordinately close, for advice. Adolf Busch advised him to accept the position, so he did.

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Photo credit: Galliano Passerini

From the 1940s through the 1980s, Serkin made countless recordings, mostly for Columbia Masterworks. In 1951, Serkin and Adolf Busch founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Marlboro, Vermont to encourage interest in chamber music in the United States.

Serkin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. Following the celebration of his 100th performance with the New York Philharmonic in 1972, the orchestra named him an honorary member of the Philharmonic Symphony Society. Others in the Society included Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Paul Hindemith.

Serkin continued to tour the United States into his eighties, but stopped when his illness took hold and prevented him from performing in 1987.

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Photo credit: David Weiss

Listen to: Rudolf Serkin and his son Peter play Schubert

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Friday, 28 March 2014
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