Piano Genius Rudolf Serkin Is Dead at 88


Rudolf Serkin, who began his life in abject poverty but spent it performing in nearly every grandiose concert hall in the world, has died, it was reported Thursday.

Marry Lynn Fixler, his publicist, said he had died Wednesday night of cancer at a hospice in Guilford, Vt.

The lanky, bespectacled pianist--who both looked like a scholar and played like one--was 88.


Serkin--with Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz--was the last of the European-born troika of keyboard geniuses who set performing and aesthetic standards that their younger contemporaries still are emulating.

His was a lengthy and fabled career that extended from his debut at age 12 in 1915 to his last major concert in 1988.

Though not as flamboyant a stage presence as either Rubinstein or Horowitz (his personal eccentricities were few and thus reviews of his appearances concerned themselves more with his music than his pyrotechnics) he nonetheless was an essential and peerless artist, capable of exerting all the inherent forces in Beethoven yet coaxing warmth and nuances from Schubert and Brahms.

Those closest to him say his childhood may well have presaged his seriousness.

An aesthete, he was born, he said during a 1978 PBS television special devoted to him, to Russian Jewish parents in Bohemia, which is now part of Czechoslovakia.

At the outbreak of World War I, the parents and their eight children moved to Vienna, where all 10 lived in a one-room apartment.

His father was a businessman but, Serkin said, “a poor businessman who went bankrupt . . . four times.” The elder Serkin took to polishing shoes and the only bright spot in young Rudolf’s childhood was the family piano that he learned to play at age 4. That and the prostitutes on the corner who “gave me candy.”

Vienna, like most of Europe, was starving. “Bread was mixed with sawdust. One of my sisters died from tuberculosis,” he said. But the boy was the primary recipient of what little largess there was. Part of the shoeshine money went for piano lessons. Some of it went to a sister who was paid to sit on the bench next to her brother and make sure he practiced.

Despite the clatter of the apartment, Serkin learned. He studied with Richard Robert and--when the family’s economics had improved--composition with Arnold Schoenberg, leading exponent of the 12-tone scale.

Although he could read music at age 8 and was considered a prodigy, his father refused to let him perform publicly until he was 12. That debut came as guest artist with the Vienna Symphony. He was acclaimed by critics and patrons but his parents turned away prospective managers and insisted that the boy continue to live and study at home.

At age 17 he had a chance meeting at a train station with Adolf Busch, the famed violinist. Busch auditioned him and encouraged the youth to move into his home in Berlin, a city that offered a greater selection of teachers. The Serkins judged Busch a proper influence for their son and agreed to let him accept the older man’s hospitality.

When Rudolf arrived, only the governess and Busch’s 3-year-old daughter, Irene, were at home. Irene was to become Serkin’s wife and the mother of their six children, one of whom, Peter, is himself an established concert pianist. Another, son John, is a horn player. Rudolf Serkin’s wife and four daughters also survive.

After additional study, Serkin and Busch began a series of sonata recitals throughout Europe and the pianist signed his first record contract with HMV (His Master’s Voice, a European affiliate of RCA Victor.)

In 1931, Serkin gave a recital in Berlin attended by Herbert Peyser, a New York Times music correspondent.

Peyser wrote that the 28-year-old was “a pianistic star of formidable magnitude . . ,” while likening his physical demeanor to “a somewhat overgrown high school student” whose playing “in its limpid and subtle loveliness, called to mind the famous (Walter) Gieseking. Under the name of Rudolf Serkin lives one of the most commanding pianists of our age.”

But that age also involved the rise of Adolf Hitler. Busch and Serkin fled Germany for Switzerland in 1933, where Serkin married Busch’s daughter two years later. (She had announced at age 4 that she was going to marry the future keyboard great. “I told her I would wait,” Serkin said during the TV interview.)

Serkin first came to the United States in 1935 to perform with his father-in-law at the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Festival in Washington. Within a year, Arturo Toscanini invited him to become a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.

Many came away from Toscanini with less-than-pleasant memories of the maestro’s petulant moods and his outbursts at musicians who gave less than what Toscanini felt was their best.

Serkin, however, remembered his New York Philharmonic debut as “one of the highest flights in my life (although) it made me terribly scared.”

To ease his nervousness, Toscanini scheduled a Beethoven concerto ahead of a Mozart, later telling Serkin, “It is easier to overcome nervousness with Beethoven than with Mozart.”

Critics Leonard Liebling and Olin Downes referred to him, respectively, as “an artist . . . in possession of a crystalline technique” and “a scholar and a profound one . . . with the loftiest conception of beauty.”

In 1937, Serkin gave the first of dozens of Carnegie Hall recitals, and two years later--with World War II breaking out--the Busch-Serkin families settled permanently in the United States.

The Serkins raised their family on a 125-acre working farm in Vermont, complete with a tractor that was presented to Serkin on stage in 1951 by the management of the Philadelphia Orchestra in gratitude for his participation in a benefit concert. (He performed a similar service for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1986).

By then he had become an international figure, commuting between North America, Europe and Asia each year until his health began to fail. One of his final concert appearances was in Shanghai.

He was guest soloist for his old friend, cellist Pablo Casals, at the festivals Casals established. He expanded his repertory so that by his death he was considered the premier interpreter of composers ranging from Bach to Bartok, and established himself as an artist whose greatest strength lay in the intellectual forces he combined with his talent.

Los Angeles Times music and dance critic Martin Bernheimer on Thursday called Serkin “more than just a pianist.

“He also was a thinker, a poet and, in the best sense of the word, an actor. No one ever accused him of being the neatest technician in the world, but that hardly mattered. What did matter was his emotional commitment, his grasp of the grand line, his concern for illuminating detail, his awareness of style and his sense of proportion.”

Gradually, Serkin began to devote more time to activities outside the concert hall. With Busch he had established the Marlboro Music Festival in 1950, a summer celebration at Marlboro College in the Green Mountains of Vermont where professional musicians from throughout the United States would perform and then critique themselves.

(Bernheimer, reflecting on long-ago personal experiences with Serkin, also remembered him as “a gentleman of remarkable wit though his shy civility did not preclude instigation of those virtuosic post-meal food fights that became a tradition in the Marlboro cafeteria.”)

Serkin added the directorship of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1968, taking over the noted conservatory from violinist Efrem Zimbalist, and staying until 1975.

President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1967 on the occasion of his 100th performance with the New York Philharmonic. In 1977, he became the first artist invited to perform at the White House by President Jimmy Carter, and in 1981 received Kennedy Center honors, considered the nation’s highest official tribute for a performing artist.

Schubert and Mozart became even closer friends toward the end of his professional life. Not that he was discovering new works, for he was long past that point--he was merely re-examining and refining their delicacies as he performed with his customary jerks and twitches.

Decades earlier he had gained the respect of musical scholars around the world for his slavish devotion to the purity of the score.

But for Serkin, the performance also had to please the audience.

“I believe in a unity in music,” he once said. “I don’t believe too much in style. If a performance doesn’t move you, it is a bad performance.”