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“Then there was the great Vengerova…never had I had a piano teacher so demanding and tyrannical.”

Isabelle VengerovaThough Leonard Bernstein came to the Curtis Institute in 1939 to study conducting, he opted to further his learning by taking supplemental courses in solfege, harmony and counterpoint, orchestration, and piano. Already an accomplished pianist, Bernstein likely felt that this last course would be the least of his challenges at Curtis.  Then he met his teacher. Stern, austere, temperamental, and brilliant, Russian pianist and pedagogue Isabelle Vengerova was an imposing figure that cast a large—and very formidable—shadow over the Curtis Institute.

Born in 1877, Isabelle Vengerova showed early promise on the piano, studying at the finest conservatories in both Europe and the USSR.  As an adult she spent time teaching at the Imperial Conservatory in St. Petersburg while also embarking on several international recital tours, cementing her reputation as an esteemed teacher and performer. Upon the completion of what would be her final international tour in 1923, Vengerova decided to leave Europe and settle permanently in the United States. Serendipitously, her arrival occurred just as Mary Louise Curtis Bok and Leopold Stokowski were finalizing plans for their newly established music conservatory in Philadelphia. Vengerova's reputation as a musician and pedagogue having preceded her, Bok and Stokowski reached out to her in the hope that she would  assist in the development of a piano studies curriculum.  She accepted, becoming not only one of Curtis’s founders, but a prominent member (along with Josef Hofmann and David Saperton) of one of the most highly respected piano faculties in the world.

Isabelle Vengerova and Gary Graffman, 1938

However, despite Vengerova’s excellent reputation, her somewhat unorthodox methods did not reflect the stolid, patrician atmosphere that characterized Curtis at that time. She yelled, she threw things, she reproached (often colorfully), and she insisted students learn her way, without exception. In short, she terrified her pupils. As the quotes below testify, after the first year they either fled to a different teacher or made the more harrowing (but ultimately worthwhile) choice to remain under her instruction.

“I would not have survived her. She was very critical and had very high standards. People just got wiped out by her.”—Seymour Lipkin (Piano ’47)

“Vengerova … looked after her own [students]. But to me and to most of her other students she rarely had a kind word. I believe that her ferocious shouts and furniture throwing were pretty much standard procedure.”—Gary Graffman (Piano ’46)

“Vengerova wBernstein recital program, 1941as insistent on a complete adherence to her approach.  For two years I was not allowed to touch a piece of music.  I had to work on her exercises. It was the most difficult time of my life because of the deprivation I felt. [But] she changed my life, physically at the piano and musically at the same time, without my knowing it was taking place. She was the most profound influence on my life, a remarkable woman.” —Anthony di Bonaventura (Piano ’53)

Fortunately, like Graffman and di Bonaventura, Bernstein was one of Vengerova’s students who endured. As there is no indication that she treated him any differently than her other students (Bernstein himself later described her as “great,” “demanding,” “tyrannical,” and “dear”), it is evident that these two formidable artistic personalities complemented one another rather than clashed, and that Vengerova held a place of high esteem in Bernstein’s memory. Or, in the more colloquial words of Bernstein’s Curtis classmate and later collaborator Seymour Lipkin: “Bernstein came when I was 12, in 1939. He studied with Vengerova—one of the great pieces of luck in my life is that I didn’t. Bernstein could handle anybody. You couldn’t have put Bernstein down with a fire truck.”


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