Rudolf Serkin papers, 1908-2003

Written by Ben Rosen, archival processor

serkin-faceRudolf Serkin (1903-1991) was a classical pianist who is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians. His personal papers, with a few minor additions from his wife and biographers, have now joined the Kislak Center’s archives, preserving the life and work of this incredible musical force, as well as the many musicians he knew and worked with. Represented in 182 boxes are his personal correspondence, performance records, papers relating to the Curtis Institute of Music, the Marlboro Music School and Festival, and the Institute for Young Performing Musicians, as well as a range of personal items, photographs, and a few videos and recordings. A complete listing of the collection and a fuller biography of Serkin can be found in the finding aid.

Despite his high stature, Serkin is remembered for his humble nature, both as a person and as a performer. Though he performed frequently as a solo artist, he was not above more egalitarian collaboration in the form of chamber music, and in fact actively promoted a democratic spirit of music making as the artistic director for the Marlboro Music School and Festival. (For more information about Marlboro, please see Marissa’s blog post on the Marlboro Music School and Festival records, also housed at Penn.) The origins of this can be traced to the very beginning of Serkin’s career. Serkin was born in Eger, Bohemia (today Cheb, Czech Republic) to a Russian-Jewish family, and began playing piano at the age of four under the tutelage of Camilla Taussig. When he was nine years old his family sent him to Vienna to get a more rigorous musical training with Richard Robert, Joseph Marx, and Arnold Schoenberg. Serkin become an exceptionally accomplished pianist as a child, but (thanks to his father) avoided the typical trajectory of the “child prodigy” who endlessly tours the most impressive showpieces of the solo repertoire. Instead, he travelled to Berlin, where he formed a close relationship with the violinist Adolf Busch, launching his career as Busch’s accompanist and playing as a member of the Busch Chamber players.

The collaborative element of Serkin’s early career no doubt contributed to his well-roundedness as a musician, but it perhaps also feeds the common critiques of his technical ability. Serkin has long had a reputation among some for lacking “natural” talent even though his place among the titans of classical piano is undisputed. It is true that Serkin practiced tirelessly, spending every moment he could improving his physical control of the instrument, never feeling as if he had reached a position of total mastery. He also had a peculiar stage presence that made him appear nervous about being in front of the instrument and as if he were struggling a great deal while playing. Compare this to another of the great piano soloists, Arthur Rubinstein, who admits, “I was born very, very lazy and I don’t always practice very long,” and yet manages to pull off the most difficult pieces with apparent ease. Rubinstein’s obituary contains a section titled “Happiness in Performance,” while the equivalent section in Serkin’s describes his behavior in concert as that of “a lion tamer approaching a dangerous animal.” But as Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber reveal in Rudolf Serkin: a life, these traits reflect not a lack of ability needing to be overcome, but an intense personality continually striving to improve no matter how great of a player he already was.

Getting a true glimpse of that personality can take some effort, even in his papers. (Fortunately much of the work in unearthing it has already be done by Lehmann and Faber in the abovementioned biography, and readers interested in a fuller picture of the man and his music are directed to that book.) Music was Serkin’s preferred means of communication and he was consequently a man of few words, especially in public situations. He rarely gave interviews and was often terse in his written correspondence, even with friends. In addition, comparatively few letters by Serkin exist in his papers, since, naturally, he sent these letters out to other people, and copies of these were only inconsistently kept. It is all the more exciting, therefore, to stumble upon even the tiniest piece of correspondence from Serkin that is more than just business logistics. Despite his reluctance to communicate in words, Serkin did make an effort to answer the requests he received, even when they came from strangers, whom he could easily have ignored as a high profile performing artist. A few of these survive in the collection and occasionally provide a rare insight into Serkin’s musical thinking.

In the letter below, for example, Serkin took the time to respond to pianist Janis Bass (a stranger to Serkin) who asked him about a difficult passage of a Beethoven cadenza:

Ms. Coll 813, Box 6, Folder 275

NEW YORK, January 25, 1967

Dear Mrs. Bass:

I received your letter and thank you very much for you kind words.

The trill at the end of the cadenza in the Beethoven Concerto in C minor is very difficult to execute, because it should not be interrupted by the upper and the lower voice. At bar 472, it is possible to stop after the first note and then continue the trill with E flat and C in the left hand and do the same again in bar 474, but the stop should be hardly noticeable to the ear.

I hope this will be of some use to you.

With kindest greetings,

It is wonderful to think that Serkin cared to offer advice to aspiring players he had never met, though his response is characteristically straight to the point, writing only what is strictly required of him. Serkin is especially known for his interpretations of Beethoven, and one imagines that he would have had much more to say about the problems associated with learning this piece and with playing Beethoven’s music in general had he been a more talkative person. As is, we must be satisfied with this single paragraph as a rare example of how Serkin approached technical problems.

The passage in question is from Beethoven’s own cadenza to his third piano concerto in C minor, op. 37 and looks like this:


Both hands are required to sustain long trills (a quick alternation between two adjacent notes) simultaneously while passing melodic fragments back and forth in the remaining fingers. Each melodic fragment on its own might take all five fingers to play, yet here two fingers on each hand are already tied up with the trill. Producing a smooth melodic phrase while never breaking the trill proves very tricky. What Serkin seems to be suggesting is that the double trills can sometimes be played in a single hand (leaving the other hand free to play the melody) even though they are notated on separate staves, which would typically indicate separate hands. The rests following each melodic fragment provide an opportunity to switch from using two hands to using a single hand momentarily. Penn’s music library has a copy of Serkin’s 1964 recording of the piece. Here is what the above excerpt sounds like in Serkin’s interpretation:

Whether or not one considers his technique to be “natural” or gained only by means of extreme labor, this clip ought to show that Serkin’s playing could ultimately be as brilliant as anyone’s–the difficult passage is executed beautifully without any audible hint of a technical workaround (if indeed he used the method he describes in the letter above for this recording).

Another example of Serkin responding to strangers, though not music related, reveals much more of his personality, and is quite simply a lot fun to read. Here he replies to a nine year old writing about his name “Rudolf” and how all of his peers at school make fun of it:

Ms. Coll. 813, Box 41, Folder 2255

Dear Mr. Serkin,

My name is Rudolf and I am 9. Sometimes I hate my name because kids at school joke about it. You are the only other Rudolf I ever heard of. My teacher told me about you. I hope that is OK. She played some of your records for our class. You are very good. Where did you get your name from? Will you be my friend? I sure need one.

Your friend,

Rudolf Lisac

P.S. What do your friends call you? Did you ever get so mad you wanted to punch somebody?

Ms. Coll. 813, Box 41, Folder 2255

My dear Rudolf Lisac,

Many thanks for your letter, which gave me great pleasure. Please forgive me for answering you so very late, but at the time you wrote the letter, I was abroad in Europe.

You shouldn’t hate your name because kids in your school joke about it. I don’t know how I got my name, and I wonder if you know about yours. Anyhow, neither you nor I were ever asked, and I think we should accept it with a smile. My friends call me Rudi.

I surely will be glad to be your friend. Please take good care of yourself and write me again if you feel like it. I shall always be glad to hear from my friend, Rudolf Lisac.

These are just a few examples from the 100 boxes of personal correspondence that have survived in these papers, not to mention the correspondence in the Curtis and Marlboro series. While Serkin may have kept his communications short, many of his correspondents were more loquacious and the collection serves to preserve these people as much as Serkin himself. Many of his correspondents are famous in their own right and include musicians such as Eugene Ormandy, Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emmanuel Ax, and Sviatoslav Richter, among many others. Due to Serkin’s involvement with the Curtis Institute of Music and Marlboro Music School and Festival, his papers also bear witness to the workings of these important musical institutions. Together with the Marlboro Music School and Festival records, these represent a significant addition to the Kislak Center’s music related archives.

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