(pianist; born March 28, 1903, Eger, Bohemia; died May 8, 1991)
With his overwhelming talent and dazzle, Rudolf Serkin has amazed audiences the world over during his long career. His gentle technique has earned him profound respect, and critical acclaim.
Serkin was born in Eger, Bohemia, to Mordko and Augusta Serkin, Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms. He could play the piano and read music by the time he was four years old. Alfred Gruenfeld, the celebrated Viennese pianist, heard young Serkin play and suggested to his parents that they send him to study piano in Vienna under Professor Richard Robert.
Serkin studied piano with Robert and composition with Joseph Marx and Arnold Schoenberg. Although practicing was difficult in a one-room apartment with his seven brothers and sisters, young Serkin ignored the chaos around him and learned to play so well that he made his debut as guest artist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra when he was only 12. He was invited to tour the continent, but declined in order to continue studying piano. He began his concert career when he turned 17, performing solo and in chamber orchestras. He also played a series of sonatas for piano and violin with Adolf Busch.
Over the next few years, Serkin toured the capitals of Europe, impressing audiences everywhere with his intense and dignified style. Music critic Hubert F. Peyser wrote, in 1931, "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."
In 1935, Serkin made his first United States appearance at the Coolidge Festival in Washington, DC, playing with Adolf Busch. The very next year, he launched his solo concert career with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini. The critics raved, describing him as "an artist of unusual and impressive talents in possession of a crystalline technique, plenty of power, delicacy, and tone pure and full" and "a masterly musician. . .a scholar of profound art without pedantry, with the loftiest conceptions of beauty, whose every thought and emotion is for the glory of his art."
Serkin married Irene Busch, daughter of his violin partner, in 1936. Two years later, he played a series of Beethoven and Schubert violin sonatas with his father-in-law in New York. During this time, in 1937, Serkin played his first New York recital at Carnegie Hall. After the performance, the critic, Olin Downes, wrote that Serkin is a "curious figure on the platform because of his slightness and the fact that he is not tall, the nervous intensity of his walk to the piano, and his fantastical intentness on the work at hand. He played significantly, always with magnificent control and with a sovereign sense of form."
Becoming an American citizen in 1939, Serkin made his home in Philadelphia, where he soon became head of the piano department of the Curtis Institute of Music. He taught piano there until 1968, when he became the Institute's director. He also continued to make annual tours of the U.S., usually selecting a handful of Beethoven and Schubert pieces to perform.
Serkin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and, in March 1972, he celebrated his 100th appearance with the New York Philharmonic by playing Brahms's D Minor Piano Concerto. The orchestra also named Serkin an honorary member of the Philharmonic's Symphony Society of New York, an elite musical society that includes Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Hindemith. In 1986, he celebrated his 50th anniversary as a guest artist with the orchestra.
In 1987, Serkin's health forced him to retire from touring. He recorded Beethoven's Appasionata sonata in 1987 at his studio in Vermont, and he continued to teach at the Curtis Institute until his health began to decline. Serkin died of cancer at his home in Guilford, Vermont in 1991.