Timeline: A history of the Curtis Institute of Music
Since its founding in 1924, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia has been considered one of the world’s leading classical music conservatories. It was founded by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, with an inheritance from Cyrus H. K. Curtis and the Curtis Publishing Company (Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies’ Home Journal) and with artistic guidance from Philadelphia Orchestra director Leopold Stokowski and renowned pianist Josef Hofmann.
To house the new conservatory, Edward and Mary Louise Curtis Bok purchase three buildings on Rittenhouse Square at Locust Street–-the Romanesque home of the prominent Drexel family, the adjoining Sibley house, and the Beaux Arts–style Cramp mansion.
The Curtis Institute of Music is chartered on April 18, Leopold Stokowski's birthday, by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania "to train exceptionally gifted young musicians for careers as performing artists on the highest professional level."
Leopold Stokowski (top left) rehearses the Curtis orchestra in the Common Room (1925).
The Curtis Institute of Music opens on October 13, with Johann Grolle as its first director. There are 203 students, including Orlando Cole, who would become a member of the Curtis String Quartet and teach at Curtis for more than fifty years.
The faculty includes many prominent musicians born in Europe:
- 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 becomes the third director of Curtis, following William E. Walter (1925-27). On December 3, Mr. Hofmann performs the inaugural recital for the 250-seat Casimir Hall, named after his father. The hall would later be called Curtis Hall, then Field Concert Hall.
At the urging of Josef Hofmann, Curtis establishes merit-based full-tuition scholarships for all students. Mrs. Bok adds $12 million to the existing $500,000 endowment to support the new policy.
The Curtis orchestra makes its Carnegie Hall debut with Artur Rodzinski conducting on March 8. Several of the orchestra’s concerts are broadcast nationally by the Columbia Broadcasting System and the National Broadcasting Company.
Two legendary violinists from St. Petersburg join the Curtis faculty: Leopold Auer and Efrem Zimbalist, his former student.
On March 8, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, more than two dozen Curtis students, the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the American premiere of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck.
Fritz Reiner begins his decade-long tenure as a Curtis faculty member, leading the orchestra and teaching conducting classes.
The Curtis String Quartet performs for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House on February 12.
On May 22 Curtis holds its first commencement exercises. The seventy-plus honorees include thirty-four newly graduating students and many who had previously earned diplomas.
The Curtis String Quartet becomes the first American-trained chamber group to tour Europe. It records Dover Beach by Curtis graduate Samuel Barber with the composer as vocal soloist.
On April 1 Curtis presents the world premiere of alumnus Gian Carlo Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball, a one-act opera written while he was a student and dedicated to Mrs. Bok. A year later the opera is presented by the Metropolitan Opera.
Composer Randall Thompson is appointed director of Curtis with the goal of placing greater emphasis on academic and orchestral studies. The same year, pianist (and future director) Rudolf Serkin joins the faculty.
Efrem Zimbalist, head of violin faculty, is named Curtis director. He will hold the position for twenty-seven years.
Alumnus composer Gian Carlo Menotti joins the faculty.
On July 6 Efrem Zimbalist, a fifty-four-year-old widower, and Mary Louise Curtis Bok, a sixty-six-year-old widow, marry.
World War II draws many students and faculty into military duty (including Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), reducing the graduating class to nineteen. Notable additions are made to the faculty, including pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, violinist Ivan Galamian, violist William Primrose, and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
Future Pulitzer Prize–winner George Walker becomes one of the first African-American students to graduate from Curtis with majors in both piano and composition.
The Curtis Orchestra (disbanded from 1942 to 1947 due to student service in World War II) leads Curtis’s twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration at the Academy of Music. Efrem Zimbalist and Gregor Piatigorsky are soloists, Alexander Hilsberg conducts, and Philadelphia Orchestra members augment the student ensemble. A Philadelphia Orchestra program book calls the Curtis Orchestra’s influence on its own roster “incalculable,” adding “[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.
William Smith, associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, becomes head of the Curtis Orchestra. He will shape both institutions’ music education for forty years.
Renowned baritone Martial Singher is appointed as head of the voice program. Later he will become head of the opera program, as well.
Violin student Jaime Laredo wins first prize in the illustrious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition in Brussels—on his graduation day.
Rudolf Serkin, a member of the piano faculty since 1939, becomes Curtis director.
Mr. Serkin strengthens Curtis’s relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy begins to conduct the Curtis orchestra, supervises its training program, and encourages Philadelphia Orchestra guest conductors—such as Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta—to work with the Curtis ensemble.
Mr. Serkin emphasizes the chamber music program, adding the Guarneri String Quartet (three of whom are Curtis alumni) and cellist Mischa Schneider to the faculty.
(Portrait by Norman Rockwell). On January 4 Mary Louise Curtis Bok dies at the age of ninety-three.
Rudolf Serkin reinvigorates the opera department with the appointment of Max Rudolf, former artistic administrator of the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Serkin also revives the conducting department, which was suspended when Fritz Reiner left in 1941.
Pianist and scholar Edward Aldwell joins the Musical Studies faculty, which he will later chair until his sudden death in 2006.
Felix Galimir is named head of the chamber music department. Twenty years later he joins the violin faculty, as well. His students will include Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Jennifer Koh, and the Muir String Quartet.
Curtis celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with orchestra concerts, opera productions, performances of works composed by leading alumni, an intensive master class series with visiting artist-teachers, and a gala weekend. In November faculty member John Weaver performs a recital on the newly restored and enlarged Aeolian-Skinner organ in Curtis Hall.
Oboist John de Lancie becomes the first Curtis alumnus to serve as Curtis director. During his tenure the academic curriculum is formalized, leading to accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Music.
A series of commemorative concerts is inaugurated to honor distinguished faculty members, including harpist Carlos Salzedo, violinist Efrem Zimbalist, oboist Marcel Tabuteau, composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, and pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski.
Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and alumnus Ned Rorem joins the faculty.
On February 27 world-renowned Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache makes his American debut, conducting the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in a historic concert at Carnegie Hall.
On April 22 alumnus Leonard Bernstein conducts the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in two of his own works as part of Curtis's sixtieth-anniversary celebration.
Otto-Werner Mueller joins the faculty as head of the conducting department and orchestra. He will become a significant influence on both conductors and orchestra musicians through weekly “lab orchestra” training sessions led by the conducting students and symphony orchestra rehearsals and concerts.
Alumnus and world-renowned pianist Gary Graffman is named artistic director of Curtis. In 1989 he becomes director and in 1995, president. By the time he retires in 2006, he will have appointed two-thirds of the Curtis faculty and signed the diplomas of nearly one-quarter of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
A reciprocal agreement with the University of Pennsylvania allows qualified Curtis students to enroll free of charge in Penn academic courses not offered at Curtis—and gives Penn’s student composers performances of their works by the Curtis orchestra.
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.
Curtis receives full accreditation from the Commission on Higher Education of Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, ensuring that credit for academic courses taken at Curtis is transferable and accepted by all other accredited schools and universities in the U.S.
The Alumni Affairs Council of Curtis holds its first meeting. The council’s purpose is to strengthen ties between alumni and the school.
EMI Classics releases a recording by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra and conductor André Previn. This major-label debut includes Vaughn Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Symphony No. 5, as well as the world-premiere recording of Mr. Previn's Reflections for cello, English horn and orchestra.
Curtis celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary with awards, performances, commissions, and festivities. Former faculty member Mstislav Rostropovich receives the first Curtis Award in recognition of his artistic and humanitarian achievements, and Orlando Cole, cellist and pedagogue, and industrialist Frank Gorell receive the new Alumni Award. On October 17, 1999, Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the Curtis orchestra at the Academy of Music. In November the orchestra performs on a thirteen-city European tour with conductor André Previn and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and in May it premieres commissions by Curtis graduates Daron Hagen (Much Ado) and faculty member Jennifer Higdon (blue cathedral) in a concert conducted by alumnus Robert Spano.
On April 4, following extensive renovation and restoration, Curtis’s historic 240-seat Curtis Hall is dedicated Field Concert Hall in honor of benefactors Joseph and Marie Field.
On February 24 alumnus Robert Spano conducts the debut of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The all-Ravel program includes soloists from the Curtis Opera Theatre.
Curtis kicks off its eightieth-anniversary celebrations with a free lunchtime concert on October 1, Founder’s Day, in Rittenhouse Square. That evening’s Musical Open House gives donors a behind-the-scenes look at Curtis.
In April the Curtis Symphony Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall, five years after its last appearance there. Alumnus Michael Stern conducts a piece by faculty member Richard Danielpour, performed by alumnus Jaime Laredo, violin, and Sharon Robinson, cello. The New York Times praises the “polished woodwind playing and raucous but fully controlled brass work.”
President/Director Gary Graffman retires after twenty years of leading The Curtis Institute of Music, remaining on the piano faculty. Alumnus Roberto Díaz leaves his post as principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra to become Curtis’s ninth leader.
Digital recording equipment installed in Field Concert Hall yields its first weekly television series of recital broadcasts, produced by Philadelphia's PBS affiliate WHYY.
A small group of Curtis students and faculty members begin what will become an annual trip to La Mortella, William Walton’s gardens and home on the Italian island of Ischia. They perform recitals and participate in master classes.
In March the Curtis Opera Theatre performs Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar in collaboration with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center. This first official partnership among the organizations leads to productions of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 2008–09 and Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in 2009–10.
A new program, Curtis On Tour brings students, faculty, and alumni together for performances around the country. The inaugural tour begins in Maine and ends in Florida with a student quartet playing alongside president Roberto Díaz and alumna cellist Margo Tatgenhorst Drakos.
President Roberto Díaz initiates a crosscurricular focus for the academic year with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (“Quartetto serioso”). Classroom study, chamber coachings, a demonstration/lecture, and a recital all lead up to the Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s transcription of the quartet at the Kimmel Center and Carnegie Hall, conducted by alumnus Alan Gilbert. The New York Times names the project one of the best educational ideas of 2008.
In June the Curtis Board of Trustees approves an ambitious five-year Strategic Plan for the school, outlining major goals in the areas of faculty, students, programs, student services, and infrastructure.
Ondine Records releases a CD of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach, featuring faculty member Leon Fleisher as soloist in the world premiere recording of Klaviermusik mit Orchester by Paul Hindemith. The disc also includes DvoYák’s “New World” Symphony.
Ground is broken for Lenfest Hall, the first expansion of Curtis’s campus in more than thirty years. The $65 million facility is named for Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest—the Curtis board chairman and a Curtis overseer, respectively—whose $30 million challenge grant accelerated the building’s funding. Slated to open in 2011, Lenfest Hall will include:
- a customized, acoustically designed rehearsal space for the Curtis Symphony Orchestra
- thirty-five studios for lessons, individual practice, and chamber music rehearsals
- dining facilities
- residences for half the student body