Rudolf Serkin papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) was an American classical pianist known as one of the 20th century's greatest soloists and for fostering a vibrant culture of chamber music via the Marlboro Music School and Festival. Born in Eger, Bohemia (today Cheb, Czech Republic) to a Russian-Jewish family, Serkin 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 for a more rigorous musical training with Richard Robert, Joseph Marx, and Arnold Schoenberg. Having become an accomplished pianist, Serkin went to Berlin at age seventeen to meet violinist Adolf Busch, who discovered an excellent pianist and accompanist in Serkin. This was to be the beginning of a lifelong bond (both musically and personally) between Serkin and the Busch family, who became Serkin's "Wahlverwandte" ("relatives by choice"). Serkin would later marry Adolf's daughter Irene.
Following the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitism in Germany, Serkin found it increasingly difficult to perform in public, and he and the Busches moved to Switzerland, while continuing to tour Europe outside of Germany. In 1933, they made their first visit to the United States, performing at the Coolidge Festival in Washington, DC. This was followed by a second trip in 1936, when Serkin made his debut with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Finally, in 1939, Serkin permanently relocated to the United States along with the Busches, eventually becoming an American citizen in 1950. Once in the States, Serkin joined the faculty of Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he served as Head of the Piano Department for nearly 30 years until succeeding Efrem Zimbalist as director from 1968 to 1976.
Though Serkin was tied to Philadelphia during the academic year, he spent the summer months in Vermont, which was to become his true home for the rest of his life. In 1951, Serkin--along with with Adolf and Herman Busch, and Marcel, Louis, and Blanche Moyse--helped launch an unusual summer music program at Marlboro College, a small liberal arts school near Serkin's Vermont home. Known as the Marlboro Music School and Festival, the program was aimed at providing advanced players a chance to study chamber music repertoire in a relaxed setting free from the restrictions and pressures of normal concert life. In a reversal of most performers' typical experience, public performances were secondary to intense rehearsals. The Festival became hugely successful and attracted all kinds of famous and soon-to-be-famous musicians, including Pablo Casals. While always staying true to its purpose of providing performers with an opportunity for private study, the end of summer concerts also began to attract a dedicated audience of non-musicians who joined the Marlboro family. Serkin remained artistic director of the Festival until the end of his life, and only once missed a summer session. To this day, the Festival remains an important institution in the world of classical music.
In 1976, Serkin left Curtis over disagreements with the board, though publicly claiming that he would like to focus more on his own performing career. While the latter was no doubt true to an extent, Serkin still had a mind to teach and in 1978 created the Institute for Young Performing Musicians. It differed from Marlboro in that in was exclusively for pianists working under Serkin's guidance, was not limited exclusively to the study of chamber music, and ran for more than just a few months in the summer. The school was intended for young players who had completed their formal training but required further study and guidance before beginning to concertize seriously. Like Marlboro, it was located in a rural town away from the distractions of city life. Even for his own school, however, Serkin's schedule proved to be too tight and the experiment was quickly abandoned, having had only four students.
In addition to all of his duties at Curtis, Marlboro, and the Institute, Serkin maintained a full concert schedule, including many week-long tours within the United States and Europe. He also made several trips to Asia, including a visit to India in 1956, an extensive multi-country tour of East and Southeast Asia in 1960, and four more trips to Japan. Outside of his own tours, Serkin participated in the Pablo Casals Festivals in Puerto Rico and the Prades Festival, as well as many other one-off engagements. Live performances such as these were Serkin's preferred means of communicating to his audience, but he frequently visited the recording studio despite his dislike of recorded music. Working especially with the Columbia Recording Corporation, Serkin recorded everything from solo repertoire to concertos with full orchestra (with Eugene Ormandy conducting), and chamber music in between. The Marlboro Music School and Festival also kept an archive of recordings (in part via the Marlboro Recording Society), many of which document Serkin's performances there.
Serkin was known to practice continuously and kept up a serious study routine throughout his life. Despite his virtuosity, Serkin had a reputation for struggling with the instrument, though this may have reflected his drive to continually improve himself more so than any lack in natural talent. He was also very particular about the accuracy of musical scores and spent as much time studying the musical text as the instrument itself. He corresponded with publishers, including his friend Günter Henle, to discuss details of alternative versions of the scores. He ordered copies and microfilms of original musical manuscripts from libraries and archives worldwide to decide for himself what the most precise score would look like.
His lifelong concertizing and teaching brought Rudolf Serkin much recognition. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. Serkin was also awarded honorary degrees from different universities including the Curtis Institute, the New England Conservatory, Marlboro College, Temple University, Oberlin College, the University of Vermont, and Harvard University.
For more complete biographical information, please consult Rudolf Serkin: a life by Stephen Lehman and Marion Faber.
The Rudolf Serkin papers, 1908-2003 consist of the personal archive assembled by Serkin himself during his lifetime as well as a few minor additions from his family and biographers (the latter are obviously the items dating from after Serkin's death in 1991, though a few earlier items may also have been later additions to the collection). They are arranged into eight series: Correspondence, Performances, Curtis Institute of Music, Marlboro Music School and Festival, Institute for Young Performing Musicians, Personal files, Media, and Photographs. For more detailed information about each of these series, please see below.
Gift of Irene Busch Serkin, circa 1999; with additions from biographers, circa 2003.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Ben Rosen and Juliette Appold
- Finding Aid Date
- 2015 June 26
- Access Restrictions
The bulk of this collection is open for research use; however, because a few subseries ("Institutional Records" within Curtis" and "Applicants and Artists" within Marlboro) contain some restricted material, items in boxes 119, and 125-130 require curatorial review prior to access. Also, access to original audio/visual materials and computer files is restricted. The Kislak Center will provide access to the information on these materials from duplicate master files. If the original does not already have a copy, it will be sent to an outside vendor for copying. Patrons are financially responsible for the cost. The turnaround time from request to delivery of digital items is about two weeks for up to five items and three to seven weeks for more than five items. Please contact Reprographic Services (firstname.lastname@example.org) for cost estimates and ordering. Once digital items are received, researchers will have access to the files on a dedicated computer in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. Researchers should be aware of specifics of copyright law and act accordingly.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.