Cherished Tradition: The Curtis Institute of Music at Mid-Century

By Rezits, Joseph | American Music Teacher, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Cherished Tradition: The Curtis Institute of Music at Mid-Century


Rezits, Joseph, American Music Teacher


Adjacent to Rittenhouse Square in center-city Philadelphia is an edifice from which wondrous tales of musical endeavor, poignant stories of magnanimity and empathy, and hilarious moments of levity and outrageous humor have emanated for the past seventy-five years. This kaleidoscopic entity is called The Curtis Institute of Music, and the denizens of this building have included a myriad of notable pedagogues and performers ... from Galli-Curci, Hofmann, Stokowski, Sembrich, Auer and Landowska (to name a few faculty members from the early years) to several generations of many of the most gifted artist-students.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this motley collection of significant artists is that a family atmosphere permeates the very core of this organization--a family represented by traditional characteristics: an underlying love and affection for individual members, an intense protective mechanism that supports these members in time of crisis and need, and a deep appreciation and never-ending support of the family unit. I hasten to say that, as in the case of any family, there are "sibling rivalries," diversity of purpose or decisions by the "parents" the students may find difficult to accept. But hovering above all this--from the graduates of the 1920s to the most recent graduates of 2002--are loyalty, love and appreciation for what The Curtis Institute of Music has given to us.

Intimate, Yet Formal

My first indirect contact with The Curtis Institute was in the form of my mother's veneration of Josef Hofmann's incredible pianism. Long before I had made plans to audition, my mother concluded, "If Josef Hofmann teaches at Curtis, that is the place where my Joseph will study someday." However, it was not until May 1942, that I actually had the opportunity to see The Curtis Institute. I was in Philadelphia for the annual Curtis Institute of Music auditions--16 years of age, almost ready to graduate from high school and awed by the prospect of being on the threshold of professional study. At the time for my audition, I was politely ushered to the stage of Curtis Hall. As I walked to the piano, I barely had time to look at my evaluating committee, but with a gasp (hopefully not audible), I realized I was in the presence of Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. There also was a rather portly lady wearing a faintly Victorian hat, sitting in her chair as if it would be a Herculean effort to rise. The audition seemed to go smoothly, but I felt as if I had not done my best. Assuming I had ruined my chances to attend The Curtis Institute, I walked dejectedly into the large foyer--the Curtis Common Room. Shortly thereafter, I attempted to gather sufficient courage to get up and move toward the front door. As I was about to rise, I noticed a very distinguished looking gentleman heading my direction. As he came closer, I recognized him: It was Efrem Zimbalist, eminent concert violinist and director of The Curtis Institute. He bowed in greeting--an absolutely elegant gesture, which all the male students at Curtis learned to imitate--and proceeded to speak: "The committee liked your playing very much and would like you to be a student of The Curtis Institute next season. With whom would you like to study?" Almost completely paralyzed with emotional shock, I managed to choke out the name, "Rudolf Serkin." Mr. Zimbalist then said, "I'm sorry, but Mr. Serkin already has his quota for next year. I really feel that Madame Vengerova would be the best teacher for you." I mumbled something to the effect of "What's fine for you, Mr. Zimbalist, is just fine for me, too."

Faculty-staff-student interaction was facilitated because of the small size of the Institute. This feature encouraged intimacy but did not modify a certain inherent formality. Yet, in terms of these relationships, there were delightful paradoxes and contradictions. Among ourselves, in speaking of Zimbalist, we students rarely said "Mr. …

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