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; the formal address is 1726 Locust Street. 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.
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.
David Saperton as teacher
Bryce Morrison, writing in the IPQ Winter 1997, is not very enthusiastic. But it must be said that there is other evidence from interviews where JB paid tribute to his teacher. And Saperton did bring his young charge to the notice of Godowsky.
"A punishing régime of work under his teacher David Saperton, a man who approached his students with the subtlety of a drill sergeant. Such discipline undoubtedly laid the foundations of future greatness but none the less made inroads into his unusually sensitive nature."
"Regarding Bolet's outwardly stunning pedigree it should be emphasised that David Saperton (Godowsky's son-in-law with whom Bolet served a formidable seven-year apprenticeship) was partly responsible for the up and down sides of his musical nature, his odd swings from mastery to fallibility.
A born martinet, Saperton's recordings of the complete Chopin Etudes, a selection of Godowsky's magnum opus, his 53 Studies on Chopin Etudes, and two Strauss-Godowsky paraphrases show him as a mechanically proficient player but an artist of lesser distinction. His insistence on nothing less than keyboard perfection from his most gifted student was hectoring and obsessive and, in retrospect, it is difficult not to sense an element of jealousy, an awareness of Bolet's wider horizons and ability.
Stung by Saperton's constant criticism and sarcasm Bolet sought refuge in occasional lessons with Godowsky himself, Rosenthal and Hofmann. Alas, such apparent glory also had its downside. Bolet's musical gods may have seemed irreproachable as pianists, but they were much less satisfactory as teachers.
None of these glitterati offered anything approaching consistent or constructive advice (these were, after all, the days when a lofty attitude was fashionable among pianists, their teaching little more than a question of noblesse oblige). It is indeed astonishing that Bolet had so little to say about any of them in their capacity as teachers, and it is clear that they behaved irresponsibly towards a young and outstanding student hungry for advice and encouragement."
The young Jorge auditioned twice in 1927 at Curtis. Aged 12, he had sailed with his sister Maria Josefa (aged 23) on the SS Governor Cobb from Havana to Key West Florida, landing on 16 September 1927. His visa (no. 582) had been issued on 27 August in Havana. Travel to the United States was not new to the Bolet family. Maria had, for example, been admitted to Key West the previous year (15 October 1926) and her last permanent residence in the United States was Jacksonville, Florida. Father Antonio’s address was given as San Miguel 224, Havana.
The first audition was on 27 September 1927, in which JB auditioned for the remarkable founder of the Curtis Institute, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and members of the Piano Faculty Isabelle Vengerova and David Saperton. There was a second audition on 6 October 1927 for the famous Director Josef Hofmann and, again, Mrs. Bok. First day of class for the 1927-28 year was 3 October, 1927.
There exist some letters sent by Maria to Mrs Virginia Shaw, at around this time 1927/8.
‘The Curtis Institute of Philadelphia will give 60 scholarships for people with talent and I hope Jorge will win one. Is it not that glorious, we have to be there the 26th of Sept… Jorge had his piano examination Tuesday and yesterday he had theory. He was accepted and won a scholarship, is not that grand, they will teach him everything so he doesn't have to go to school…
Jorge…is taller each day I am afraid it will be hard for me to make him do what I want when he grows a little more…he is just as a five years old child and he is 13!! And with a body like a 18 years boy!! I say he has in his head and heart only music so much that he can't do or think anything else…
'Jorge is all right, I suppose he is still bad, he has written me only once since he went to camp the 1st of July, it makes me sorry that he is so lazy, he simply doesn't like to write and that reason he writes to nobody…I only hope he will change…
From 1927-34, Bolet was taught at Curtis by David Saperton (1889-1970), son-in-law of pianist-composer Leopold Godowsky, whose music Bolet would champion throughout his career.
“My teacher (at Curtis) didn’t have to correct any purely mechanical aspects of my technique. He more or less took off from where I was. My sister must have taught me extremely well. Mr Saperton suggested my working on a good number of exercises, mostly from the Joseffy School of advanced piano playing. I use these studies very religiously with my students.” (Interview in Adele Marcus, Great pianists.)
(Until a revival of interest in Godowsky began in the 1980s, Saperton, in the words of Abram Chasins, 'alone had both the will and the skill to play and record a sizeable number of Godowsky’s compositions'.)
You can hear JB talking with Gregor Benko about Hofmann here. He says that he employs a number of the 'extra notes' which Hofmann added, for example to Liszt's Venezia e Napoli. (Hear Hofmann playing Chopin's fourth Ballade in F minor in Casimir Hall, 1938.) Bolet was among a group of students that included Nadia Reisenberg, Shura Cherkassky and the now-forgotten Lucie Stern. Born in 1914, the same year as Bolet, Stern died in 1938.
On 28 February 1928 Moriz Rosenthal gave a recital at Curtis which JB may have heard. His programme included Beethoven's sonata Op.109 in E major, Schubert's Wanderer Fantasie, the Chopin Barcarolle, Albeniz Triana and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.
It was in 1928, at the urging of Josef Hofmann, that the Curtis established merit-based full-tuition scholarships for all students. Mrs. Bok added $12 million to the existing $500,000 endowment to support the new policy.
'George (sic) Bolet, 14 year old and Fiorenzo Tasso, Italian tenor will be starred in the Curtis broadcast over WKRC and the Columbia network at 9pm tonight. Bolet will play Chopin’s F minor fantasy and Naila waltz (Delibes, arranged by the Hungarian pianist/composer Ernő Dohnanyi). It will be heard at 6pm in San Francisco, Los Angeles... Tasso is a pupil of Emilio de Gogorzo. Various listeners on the West coast will hear it at 10pm, preceded by Under the gaslight, that famous old thriller of the Civil War days.' [Commercial Tribune, Cincinnati, 21 May 1929]
JB arrives from Havana [25 September] aged 14 on the Governor Cobb at Key West with his sister (who is going to the Phila. School of the Bible). Father’s address is given as Santos Suarez, Havana.
‘In Cuba, Jorge Bolet, who is being assisted in his music study by the Pro Arte Musicale society of Havana, gave a piano recital before the members of the society, especially arranged for July 4 as a gesture of appreciation of the Curtis Institute. A second concert was given later, on September 10, publicly, with much success, in the largest auditorium in Havana.’ OVERTONES, The Monthly Publication of The Curtis Institute of Music [October 15, 1929]
In the fifth of the series of twenty half-hour radio concerts broadcast over the Columbia System (Station WCAU in Philadelphia and Station WABC in New York, with a nation- wide network of stations), on Friday evening, December 20, at 10:30, The Curtis Institute of Music presented eight of its artist- students in the following programme: the Delibes-Dohnanyi Naila Valse, played by Jorge Bolet, Pianist.
A young JB with teacher David Saperton, 1929
Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical Journal 15 May1930 publishes a letter from the Curtis Institute of Music Rittenhouse Square (dated 1 May, 1930) to Mrs Maria Teresa Garcia Montes de Giberga [1880-1930], President of the Pro-Arte Musical Society, Calles Calzada and D, Vedado, Havana.
‘Dear Madam, We are happy to report to you on the excellent progress of Jorge Bolet...during the past season. Our Director is of the opinion that he will be one of the foremost Cuban pianists of whom all Cubans may be proud. Instead of coming to Cuba for the summer as he did last year, we would suggest that he continue his studies with Mr. Saperton during the early part of the summer and take a vacation in the mountains during July and August, returning to his studies early in September. Very truly yours, N. C. Nood.’
As a seventeen year old he travelled to Washington to hear Horowitz. there was a terrible snowstorn and Horowitz didn’t make it to Constitution Hall. The manager asked if anyone could play a little while. Bolet did two and a half hours recital. This anecdote is told by Eleanor Sokoloff, a former Curtis classmate. She described him as ‘shy, very sweet, private’. Philadelphia Inquirer 18.10.90
In 1984, JB chose ‘The swan of Tuonela’ as one of his eight discs on BBC Desert island Discs; playing the cor anglais was Marcel Tabuteau, first oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1915 to 1953 and teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music. JB revered his playing and sometimes played the accompaniment for his students during these years.
Edward and Mrs (Mary Louise Curtis) Bok resided at Swastika, 443 Highland Ave North, Merion, Montgomery County, PA . On 4 October 1927 Hofmann sailed from Southampton on the Olympic to New York City and gave this as his address.