The Curtis Institute of Music owes its existence to Cyrus H.K. Curtis (1850-1933), founder of Philadelphia’s Curtis Publishing Co., who became one of the nation’s richest men by recognizing the power of mass marketing. His advertising-packed Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal so dominated the magazine landscape of the early 20th century that Curtis and his first wife, Louisa Knapp Curtis -- whom he had met at choir practice in Boston -- were able to engage in widespread philanthropy, including support of such music organizations as the newly founded Philadelphia Orchestra and the Settlement Music School, launched in 1908 as part of the College Settlement to give piano lessons to immigrant children, and separately chartered in 1913.
Mary Louise Curtis (1876-1970), Cyrus and Louisa Curtis’ only child, was 19 when she married Edward W. Bok, 13 years her senior and the editor of her father’s Ladies’ Home Journal.
Like her parents, she and her husband were socially prominent, and very active in city cultural and philanthropic circles; they were music lovers and close friends of Philadelphia Orchestra music director Leopold Stokowski, and Bok served on the orchestra’s board.
In 1917, having raised her two sons, Mary Louise Curtis Bok was enmeshed in a significant project: She had given $150,000 to the thriving Settlement Music School for a building of its own. The South Philadelphia school by then was offering instruction in a range of instruments under the leadership of violinist Johann Grolle, who, like some of Settlement’s other teachers, was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
But Mary Louise soon realized that Settlement’s best students, those with professional ambitions and abilities, were aging out of the school with no place to go to further refine their talents.
The Curtis Institute of Music was founded in 1924 by Mary Louise Curtis Bok in three elegant mansions on the east side of Rittenhouse Square. Bok sought advice from Leopold Stokowski, who joined the faculty and would lead the institute’s orchestra. She acquired several first-chair players from the orchestra as faculty members, and named Johann Grolle the school’s first director.
Stokowski predicted that Curtis would “become the most important musical institution of our country, perhaps of the world.”
Classes began in October for the institute’s first students -- 203 musicians, including cellist Orlando Cole, who would go on to teach at Curtis for 75 years. The next year Johann Grolle was replaced by William E. Walter, who in turn was replaced in 1927 by Josef Hofmann, eminent pianist and the first head of the piano department.
Prominent classical musicians from Europe made up the first faculty at Curtis:
Leopold Stokowski, conducting department head
Josef Hofmann, piano department head
Violinist Carl Flesch
Harpist and composer Carlos Salzedo
Composer Rosario Scalero
Coloratura Marcella Sembrich
Oboist Marcel Tabuteau (joined in 1925)
Pianist Isabelle Vengerova
Josef Hofmann and Mary Louise Curtis Bok agree to drop the $500 tuition fee; henceforth, all students will be admitted on full scholarships. Mrs. Bok adds $12 million to the $500,000 endowment to support the policy.
Hofmann (1876-1957), a superb technician possessed of a phenomenal music memory, began concertizing in Europe at age 5 and later became the only private pupil of the great Anton Rubinstein. With Thomas Edison in the 1890s, he made some of the earliest classical recordings, but the cylinders were lost during World War I. Regarded by many of his contemporaries, including Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Lhevinne, as the finest pianist of their generation, he was the first head of Curtis’ piano department, and the teachers he recruited immediately established the school as a destination for serious keyboard students. He became the school’s third director in 1927 and served until 1938.
The Curtis Orchestra makes its Carnegie Hall debut. Countless Curtis-trained musicians will follow. And two legendary violinists from St. Petersburg, Russia, join the Curtis faculty: Leopold Auer and Efrem Zimbalist, his former student.
The bird sanctuary and carillon of sixty-one bells, was dedicated by President Coolidge in Feb. 1929 and established by Edward W. Bok as a tribute to his grandparents, at Mountain Lake, Fla. The President and his wife are pictured, with Mary Louise Curtis Bok and Edward Bok on the right with other members of the reception.
The “Singing Tower” prompted a new Curtis program in campanology-the art of bell playing taught by Anton Brees, the tower’s first carillonneur.
In the winter of 1931 three Curtis student composers traveled to Florida to learn carillon, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Nino Rota (shown at right).
On March 8, under Leopold Stokowski’s direction, more than two dozen Curtis students participate with the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the American premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
British-born Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) made his mark early in the United States as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra starting in 1909 and moved in 1912 to the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was an instant sensation, a charismatic showman who over almost three decades would challenge and enchant audiences with visual effects; orchestral innovation (free bowing, which gave rise to “the Philadelphia Sound,” rearranging orchestra sections); dozens of U.S. and world premieres; numerous -- sometimes controversial -- adaptations of familiar works; and, always, a passion to proselytize for music, especially among young people. He founded a number of orchestras, married three times (and had an affair with Greta Garbo), and appeared in several Hollywood films. In Disney’s 1940 Fantasia, he led the Philadelphia Orchestra, and memorably shook hands with Mickey Mouse.
The Curtis String Quartet plays for President and Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House; Samuel Barber graduates.
Barber (1910-1981) is a member of Curtis’ inaugural class, but the handsome native of West Chester -- who at age 9 had written his mother a letter to say “don’t cry … but I was meant to be a composer” -- stayed for 10 years, studying voice and piano as well as composition. He would win two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1958 for his opera Vanessa (whose libretto was composed by Gian Carlo Menotti, a fellow Curtis student who would be his collaborator in work and partner in life for four decades), and in 1963 for his Piano Concerto, but it is his mournful Adagio for Strings that has become one of the most-played pieces in the 20th-century repertoire.
The Curtis String Quartet becomes the first American-trained chamber group to tour Europe, an important step in the realization of Mary Louise Curtis Bok’s founding vision of a school that would be the equal of any European conservatory. The quartet records 1934 graduate Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach,” with the composer, a talented baritone, as vocal soloist.
Josef Hofmann returns to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, where he had debuted 50 years earlier as a child prodigy of 11. Proceeds from the Sunday night concert were donated. He left his post as Curtis director the following year.
Amelia Goes to the Ball, a one-act opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, is given its world premiere at Curtis, where Menotti (class of 1933) wrote it as a student; a year later, it is performed by New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Menotti (1911-2007) not only studies at Curtis, he also teaches composition there for 20 years. His career is highlighted by two Pulitzer Prizes, for his operas The Consul (1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1955). His Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera ever written for American television, proves so popular that it becomes a Christmas tradition for years after its 1951 premiere on NBC, introducing a postwar generation of children to the delights of the form. In 1958, he founds the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, to celebrate opera, music, drama and dance, and in 1977 creates a sister summer festival in Charleston, S.C. Though the festivals’ relationship is not always smooth, both draw thousands of visitors.
Composer Randall Thompson becomes director of Curtis, charged with placing
greater emphasis on academic and orchestral studies. Pianist (and future
director) Rudolf Serkin joins the faculty.
Marc Blitzstein (1926)
Born in Philadelphia, he was known for his pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles. He also studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Boulanger.
Rose Bampton (1934)
First a mezzo, then a soprano, she was a major popular figure who sang with the Metropolitan Opera for 18 seasons.
Nino Rota (1935)
Composer of film music (The Godfather and Fellini’s 81/2 and Juliet of the Spirits), he was equally adept at scores for the concert hall.
Eleanor and Vladimir Sokoloff (1938)
Longtime Curtis teacher Vladimir “Billy” Sokoloff was keyboard partner to violinist Efrem Zimbalist, soprano Marcella Sembrich, violist William Primrose and cellist Emanuel Feuermann. He died in 1997, but his wife, Eleanor, still teaches piano at Curtis today -- 75 years and counting.
Vincent Persichetti (1939)
An important American composer in his own right, he became the teacher of Philip Glass and others.
After three years, Randall Thompson is replaced as director by Efrem Zimbalist, who has taught violin since 1928 and will lead the institute for 27 years.
Two years later, Zimbalist, 54, and Mary Louise Curtis Bok, 66 -- both of whom have lost their spouses -- are married. (His first wife was famed soprano Alma Gluck, also some years older than he; their son Efrem Jr. and granddaughter Stephanie, went on to successful television careers.) Like many Curtis faculty members, Zimbalist had a busy performing and recording career; he toured internationally and was enormously popular in the United States. When Zimbalist began easing toward the end of concertizing, which would come in 1949, he became ever more enmeshed at Curtis. Born in Russia, Zimbalist had studied violin under the legendary Leopold Auer (1845-1930) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, on which Curtis was modeled. Auer joins the Curtis faculty with Zimbalist in 1929 but dies soon after; Zimbalist goes on to become the school’s longest-serving director.
Twenty-five-year-old assistant conductor Leonard Bernstein steps in to conduct the New York Philharmonic -- with no rehearsal -- when Bruno Walter falls ill. The concert is broadcast by CBS Radio, and he becomes an instant national sensation. He will become the orchestra’s music director in 1958 and its lifetime conductor laureate.
After earning a Harvard University degree, Bernstein came to Curtis as a member of the class of 1941. He studied orchestration with Randall Thompson and reportedly received the only “A” Fritz Reiner ever awarded for conducting; among his piano teachers was the fierce, iconic Isabelle Vengerova, a founding member of the Curtis faculty. He goes on to compose three symphonies, numerous jazz, chamber and choral works, as well as operas (Trouble in Tahiti, A Quiet Place), ballets (Fancy Free, Facsimile), and musical-stage works (On the Town, West Side Story, Candide). He becomes a familiar face through his 53 Young People’s Concerts for CBS (1958 to 1972), the longest-running classical-music program ever shown on commercial TV. He conducts constantly and everywhere, inspires festivals, wins awards, and celebrates American composers even while leading a Mahler revival. On Christmas Day 1989 in East Berlin, he conducts the “Berlin Celebration Concert,” a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, marking the fall of the Berlin Wall. He would die the following October.
Composer George Walker, a future Pulitzer Prize winner, becomes one of the first African Americans to graduate from Curtis, with majors in piano and composition.
Jorge Bolet (1940)
The elegant Cuban-born pianist was a showman in Liszt and a master colorist in Debussy.
Stanley Drucker (1945)
Principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic for 49 years.
Eugene Istomin (1945)
The pianist entered Curtis at 12, won the Leventritt Award at 17, and formed a trio with violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose.
George Rochberg (1948)
A student of Rosario Scalero and Menotti at Curtis, he notably fused avant-garde techniques with traditional tonal elements, becoming an enormously influential composer.
Frank Guarrera (1949)
The Philadelphia-born baritone sang three dozen roles in 680 performances with the Metropolitan Opera.
After a five-year hiatus due to student service World War II -- which at one point reduces a graduating class to 20 -- the Curtis Orchestra celebrates the school’s 25th anniversary at the Academy of Music, with Philadelphia Orchestra members augmenting the student ensemble. A Philadelphia Orchestra program book calls the Curtis Orchestra’s influence on its own roster “incalculable,” adding that “[I]f all the Curtis alumni and alumnae were removed, the Orchestra would shrink to less than half its normal size.”
Metropolitan Opera stage director Herbert Graf begins a decade as head of the Curtis opera department. The era’s students include future Met star Anna Moffo and renowned vocal artist Benita Valente.
Leonard Kastle (1950)
A student of Gian Carlo Menotti, he was the composer of a 15-minute operatic miniature called The Swing, broadcast on NBC in 1956, but achieved greatest fame as writer and director of the quirky, widely acclaimed film The Honeymoon Killers.
Anna Moffo (1954)
At Radnor High School (‘50), she was captain of the field hockey team. On TV and the opera stage, she was a leading lyric-coloratura soprano in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Violinist Jaime Laredo wins the Queen Elisabeth Competition of Belgium on the day he graduates from Curtis.
Soprano Benita Valente, a student of Margaret Harshaw’s, graduates, wins the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and debuts at the Marlboro Music Festival, cofounded by Curtis faculty member Rudolf Serkin.
In 1962, Valente sings with the Freiburg im Breisgau Opera, making her debut as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte; in 1973 she makes her Metropolitan Opera debut in the same role, and later returns in many others. But during that decade she establishes herself foremost through her stellar command of lieder and chamber music, and vocal styles ranging from baroque to contemporary. A luminous collaborator with dozens of orchestras, chamber groups, and solo instrumentalists from Richard Goode to Yo-Yo Ma, in 1999 she received the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award from Chamber Music America -- the first vocalist to receive the award in its 20-year history. She retains her Philadelphia connection, living her with her husband, Anthony Checchia, artistic director of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
Lynn Harrell (1963)
Former principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra, he is active in solo work and chamber music.
Richard Goode (1964)
A student of Claude Frank, Rudolf Serkin, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski’s, the pianist is especially loved for his Beethoven and Mozart.
1968 After almost 30 years on the piano faculty, and while still an active performer and recording artist, Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) becomes Curtis’ sixth director.
Serkin’s work at Curtis and, during the summers, at the Marlboro School and Festival, which he cofounded, makes him one of the most influential American teachers of the postwar era. During his eight-year tenure as director, he strengthens the relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, with music director Eugene Ormandy supervising the Curtis Orchestra’s training program. Curtis’ opera department is reinvigorated by the appointment of Max Rudolf, former artistic administrator of the Met.
The conducting department, suspended since Fritz Reiner’s departure in 1941, is revived. Edward Aldwell, a pianist renowned for his Bach interpretations and a respected music theorist, joins the musical studies faculty.
Mary Curtis Zimbalist dies at the age of 93. The Curtis String Quartet played some of her favorite music at her funeral in Philadelphia.
Sought-after string teacher Felix Galimir is named head of the chamber music department. (Twenty years later he will join the violin faculty as well, and his students will include Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Jennifer Koh, and the Muir String Quartet.)
Oboist John de Lancie (1921-2002), a student of Curtis’ legendary Marcel Tabuteau, becomes the first alumnus to serve as the school’s director. Long the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal oboist, he would be succeeded in that post by his own Curtis student, current principal Richard Woodhams. During de Lancie’s tenure, the institute’s academic curriculum is formalized, leading to accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Music.
Cristina Ortiz (1971)
A Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner, the Brazilian studied with Rudolf Serkin.
Malcolm Lowe (1974)
Concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1984.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (1975)
Highly individualistic solo violinist.
Vinson Cole (1976)
A leading tenor, he has taken roles at the Met, Opera National de Paris Bastille, La Scala, and Vienna State Opera.
Yefim Bronfman (1977)
The pianist of conquering technique studied at Curtis for a year.
Mythic and mystical conductor Sergiu Celibidache makes his U.S. debut with the Curtis Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The New York Times is so impressed that when the Philadelphia Orchestra plays Carnegie the next night, the Times refers to it as Philadelphia’s “other” orchestra.
Pianist Gary Graffman, having returned to Curtis as a faculty member in 1980, is named artistic director. In 1989, he becomes director, and in 1995 adds the title of president. He stays in both capacities until 2006, by which time he will have appointed two-thirds of the Curtis faculty and signed the diplomas of nearly one-quarter of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Gary Graffman came to Curtis at age 7 in 1936, studied with Isabelle Vengerova, and graduated 10 years later, soloing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy at the age of 18. A rich performing and recording career followed, until a finger injury in the late 1970s led to the crippling of his right hand. But he commissioned works for the left hand (including one from Curtis faculty member and alumnus Ned Rorem) and never completely stopped performing, while leading the school into an era of budget consciousness, fund-raising, and also raising the profiles of students, who now arrive, especially from China and Korea, with astounding levels of technical proficiency. Graffman retires in 2006 but continues to teach.
Faculty member Mikael Eliasen is named head of the vocal studies department, also overseeing Curtis Opera Theatre productions. Several Curtis students of this era will later join the Metropolitan Opera roster, including Michael Schade, John Relyea, Juan Diego Flórez, and Eric Owens.
Paavo Jarvi (1988)
Music director laureate of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Alan Gilbert (1992)
Current music director of the New York Philharmonic, he is its second to come from Curtis.
Lang Lang graduates. With Yuja Wang, class of 2008, and Haochen Zhang, still a student in 2011, he marks the emergence of a new kind of Curtis star -- Asian-born, Graffman-trained, and launched on a high-profile career well before leaving the institute.
Jonathan Biss (2001)
In Beethoven and Schubert, the emerging pianist is a quiet poet.
Anthony McGill (2000)
Old World in tone, he is principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal violist, Roberto Diaz, becomes Curtis’ ninth director. His tenure inaugurates weekly radio broadcasts of concerts, a surge in recordings of student performances, a partnership with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center, and Curtis on Tour, which annually brings students, faculty, and alumni together at performances across the United States.
Composition faculty member Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, premiered the year before by Curtis alumna and former Higdon student Hilary Hahn (‘99), wins the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. In the concerto’s first movement, called “1726,” Higdon evokes and plays with the digits of Curtis’s Locust Street address.
Lenfest Hall opens at 1616 Locust St. in September, the first expansion of the Curtis campus in more than 30 years -- and the first dormitory in its history.
The $65 million Curtis expansion facility is named for H.F. “Gerry” and Marguerite Lenfest, whose $30 million challenge grant accelerated the building’s funding. The Lenfests are not longtime supporters of Curtis. Gerry Lenfest’s 2006 election as chairman of the board was engineered by his friend, civic leader Richard A. Doran, whom Lenfest succeeded as chairman and who died in 2007. Doran knew the school needed a leader with vast connections and deep pockets. Lenfest was supposed to stay a year, he has said, but keeps getting himself in deeper. Now, works from the Lenfests’ art collection brighten Lenfest Hall, their name is emblazoned on its façade, and their commitment to the school remains strong. It seems fitting that they were the recipients of the 2009 Philadelphia Award for service to the city -- an award inaugurated in 1921 by Edward W. Bok, husband of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who three years later would open to the world the doors of the Curtis Institute of Music.