/ News / Bernstein: A "Stöhr" Thing

Austrian theorist Richard Stöhr’s move to America—and his hiring by Curtis—may ultimately have saved his life.

Richard Stöhr c. 1915In March of 1938 Germany annexed Austria, creating a politically legitimate union under which Nazi ideology penetrated further into Europe. Austrian society and institutions fell quickly to the hateful rhetoric, and those subject to Nazi persecution faced the difficult decision of fleeing or remaining in their homeland to face an uncertain future. Richard Stöhr was one such individual. A Jewish music instructor, he made the decision to emigrate to America where, in a classroom at the Curtis Institute of Music, he taught the young Leonard Bernstein.

Richard Stöhr was born in Vienna in 1874 and showed an aptitude for composition from an early age. Though he went on to complete a medical degree, he soon reverted to his first love and enrolled in the Vienna Conservatory to study composition under Robert Fuchs (who also taught Gustav Mahler). After receiving his Ph.D. in music in 1903, Stöhr remained as an instructor at the conservatory until his dismissal in 1938 due to his Jewish heritage. Ultimately Stöhr decided not to remain in Europe; he left for Philadelphia in 1939 where, through the advocacy of a former student, he had secured a job as a music librarian at the Curtis Institute. As compared to the fate of many Jews who remained in Austria, it can be argued that Stöhr's move to America—and his hiring by Curtis—ultimately saved his life.

Curtis Catalogue, 1939Shortly after Stöhr's arrival at Curtis, it became evident that his extensive knowledge and  teaching abilities would be better utilized in the classroom than in the library. Mrs. Bok appointed him the Counterpoint and Harmony instructor for the coming year. It was in this class that Stöhr taught some of Curtis’s most renowned alumni, including Veda Reynolds, Joseph de Pasquale, Seymour Lipkin—and Leonard Bernstein.

In later years Bernstein remembered Stöhr as the “gentle and remarkable” teacher of a subject that, at Harvard, had been considered too “old hat,” but which Bernstein saw as invaluable to his success as a conductor. In fact, so influential was Stöhr on Bernstein that, at the end of the former’s life, the student was able to show his gratitude a final time through the funding of Stöhr’s hospice care.

Stöhr's class at Curtis, 1940Stöhr and Bernstein both left Curtis in 1941—Bernstein as a graduate and Stöhr as a result of wartime financial cuts at Curtis. Both traveled north, with Bernstein heading to New York and Stöhr to St. Michael’s College in Winsooki Park (now Colchester), Vt., to teach German and music theory.  He taught there for nine years before retiring in 1950, remaining in Vermont until his death in 1967. 

When, in 1898, Stöhr decided to forfeit medicine in favor of music, he wrote: "I am a musician and I carry this responsibility seriously, consciously and without regret." As the success of his numerous students can attest—including Bernstein, Rudolf Serkin, Samuel Barber, Herbert von Karajan, and Marlene Dietrich—his years spent teaching not only justified this decision, but fulfilled his lifelong, self-imposed purpose.                                                                                                                                    

Kristina Wilson / archivist / Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.