Book Club: Inside the lines of Busch and Serkin

Book Club: Inside the lines of Busch and Serkin


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2018

From our book club moderator, Anthea Kreston:

Welcome to the Fortnightly Music Book Club. This week, in addition to the second portion of our video interview of Roberto Dìaz, President and CEO of Curtis Institute of Music, we are privy to inside glimpses into the fascinating world of the Serkin/Busch family. Reader questions are being answered by David Ludwig, composer and faculty at Curtis, and grandson to Rudi Serkin and Irene Busch.

The three books, all related to Curtis and its Directors, are:
A Life (Rudolf Serkin)
I Really Should be Practicing (Gary Graffman)

Anthea Kreston:
In these three books, the reader gets a clear sense that the Directorship of Curtis has both managed to remain true to its original ideas from 1924, founded on the great European and Russian traditions, while at the same time moving forward and leading the way to the future boldly. I even sense this in the three generations of Serkin family which has been an integral, and unbroken part of Curtis. Can you tell us about your specific relation to Rudi and Peter Serkin, The Busches, and how do you feel that you are similar or different from these generations (and them from one another).

David Ludwig:
Rudolf Serkin is my grandfather, which for some reason is confusing for people (mostly because I have my father’s last name, I think…) He was my mother’s (Elizabeth Serkin) father (and so Peter is my uncle—her younger brother). He died when I was a teenager-just starting college—and I spent time with him all my life until then—went to concerts when he played in Philly or New York, and would usually visit for holidays in Vermont. He was the most amazing grandparent you could imagine and I think about him all the time. I got up the courage to talk to him about music as I was really beginning to be comfortable in my desire to be a composer, and he shared with me all sorts of things about his time studying with Schoenberg et al when he was young, and many of his colleagues (I was a guitar player, and he told me lots of stories about his friendship with Segovia, for instance…)

My grandmother was Irene Busch-Serkin. Her father was Adolf Busch, the violinist, and so Busch is my great grandfather.

Peter has been an amazing presence in my life, and actually Curtis brought us closer together this year when the school did its European tour. That was the most time I’d spent consistently with him. To see his reverence for the music he performed with the orchestra (Brahms 1) and the reverence, in turn, shared by the students was very inspiring. It was reminder of why we make music––at Peter’s last performance on the tour the students lined up in scores to take a picture with him. I think he’s a consummate artist (as biased as I might be!) and adore his programming choices, which shows the widest perspective of our musical tradition that I know.

When I was coming up I never volunteered my family background because I wanted to do my own thing without the onus of that history or the assumption of validity that comes with it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to embrace this history and be openly proud of where I come from. I don’t see these family members from my past as casting shadows, but as lights along the way.

At Curtis, I feel my grandfather’s presence strongly in the school’s emphasis on chamber music, practice, and technique as a vehicle to artistry. I know he broadened the school’s purview, and felt the importance of opera and other programs, as well—in many ways he prepared Curtis artistically to continue artistically long after he left. How the school has evolved in the past decade I feel is really positive, too; there are a wide array of options for students to pursue in their studies, a vitality and importance in contemporary music, and the means to explore the world as a young artist—all keeping a focus on the fact that being a great musician first is the key that unlocks the door to everything else.

The short and longer answer to your question is that I feel my grandfather’s presence alive and well at Curtis—not just in myself, but in all of the people still there who knew him as a mentor or who had mentors who worked with him. This is a kind of inheritance passed down, of which I am very aware, and I am very grateful to be a part of it both in my life as an artist and teacher—and as a six year old kid who used to run around outside causing mayhem with his grandfather in Vermont!


    • Tom Moore says:

      just a note to say that this interview was done in 2010, and of course Ludwig’s career continues to move upward. He is now Gie and Lisa Liem artistic advisor, chair of composition, artistic director of the Curtis 2021 ensemble.

  • Caravaggio says:

    The Serkins. The Busches. Veritable musical aristocrats, naturally elegant, cultured and ever dedicated to humbly serving the great music put before them. Theirs was a golden age that can no longer be revived.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      So I would think too. And yet at Marlboro the quality of chamber music making makes me feel like the legacy of the Busches and the Serkins lives on.
      I was there two weeks ago at the final concert. Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, a Serkin favorite and a Marlboro tradition, sounded like large scale chamber music. The orchestral sound was maybe not as refined as, say, that of a world class orchestra, but musically the performance was as satisfying and deeply felt as it gets. The whole vibe there is about music, not glamor. The iconic sign “Caution: Musicians at Play” feels right; I couldn’t imagine it at Salzburg or Verbier, whatever their merits.
      A decade ago at Marlboro, one of the young violinists that caught my attention because of her beautiful playing (though I have to admit she also looks beautiful) is currently a rising conductor and Slipped Disc favorite: Karina Kanellakis.

      • Caravaggio says:

        I think I went overboard and you are right. The legacy of the Serkins and the Busches at Marlboro is alive and well. You said it best: music, not glamour.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    An EMI “References” CD in my collection has the Serkin/Busch collaborations in the Beethoven Sonatas No. 5 (“Spring”) and No. 7, in c minor. It also has Busch solo in the Bach second Partita. These are from Abbey Road 78s circa 1929 to 1933. The sound is not bad although EMI was using the “CEDAR” processing for which there was a vogue at the time, a vogue that made me wonder if anyone at the controls had ever listened to unprocessed 78 rpm originals that they evidently thought they were improving. CEDAR managed to make even Stokowski/Philadelphia 78s sound bland, no mean feat.

    It’s all wonderful stuff BUT the c minor Sonata has to be heard to be believed. It is the very definition of backbone, faithfulness to the score, and unity of conception. What a pity we do not have a complete set of the Beethoven sonatas from these artists when Busch was in his prime.

    • Anthea kreston says:

      David – how can we hear this? Can you upload it somehow and share the link? Maybe sound only on youtube?

      • peryh says:

        Hi Anthea, the c minor sonata is already on Youtube:

        It starts about 36 min into the video

        • David K. Nelson says:

          Indeed I was pleased to see that a great deal of the Busch/Serkin discography — maybe everything? — is on YouTube often in multiple versions with seemingly different origins. One could spend a pleasant several days listening to it all. Not the worst way to attend the wake of Western Civilization, which the YouTube advertising interjections will unfortunately remind you of on a regular basis.

          A series of vids has the same c minor sonata in one movement per video. E.g. (sure hope this link is “live” but they are easy enough to search for on YouTube).

          For those not used to listening to older recordings and artists of the past (older vocal recordings have a larger audience than older instrumental recordings, or so it seems), it needs to be pointed out that recordings of the era seem very dry to our ears which was by design of the producers but also reflected the limitations of the process, given the continuous slight “white noise” of the 78 rpm shellac surfaces; the placement of the piano in something of a background role is something Serkin/Busch sonata recordings share with virtually all others of the time, even Kreisler/Rachmaninoff. Busch uses a very restrained vibrato and for some listeners that is either off-putting or takes some getting used to. Ironically the period instrument types have perhaps made us all more receptive to the Busch vibrato, which was regarded as very old fashioned indeed when I was a young violin student. Now that I am an old violin student I like it very much.

          Dave Nelson

  • Itsjtime says:

    Mr. Ludwig has a tremendous…dare I say comprehensive knowledge of the game of Baseball. It is indeed unusual for a modern fan to be so well versed in “the dead ball era”.
    So, he has that going for him, which is nice.