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This October, join the Curtis Archives in celebrating Gary Graffman’s 90th birthday through a series of posts looking back on his life and career.

A young Gary Graffman during a lesson with Isabelle Vengerova; 1938Gary Graffman was born in New York City on October 14, 1928. Exposed to music from an early age (his father was an accomplished violinist who taught in the Graffman home), young Gary demonstrated shades of his precocious talent by age 3. Recognizing this, his father initially tried to teach him the violin but, as the boy was too small to hold the instrument properly, decided on the piano as a stopgap until his son’s arms and hands developed more agility.

As is now well known, Graffman never returned to the violin. As his skill on the piano developed, his father began investigating avenues for furthering his son’s instruction, ultimately looking no further than his own Russian-émigré neighborhood. Isabelle Vengerova, renowned pianist and pedagogue, was a longtime friend of the Graffman family, and it was on her suggestion that Gary came to Philadelphia to audition for a spot at the Curtis Institute of Music on 17 April 1936.

Isabelle Vengerova not only taught at Curtis, she was among its founding faculty, along with Josef Hofmann and Leopold Stokowski.  Having toured extensively as a soloist and taught at the Imperial Conservatory of St. Petersburg, Vengerova brought with her an impressive pedigree as both performer and teacher. She and Hofmann exercised complete control over the piano department at Curtis, and many of her students lived in abject fear of her. Gary himself, having known Vengerova his whole life, experienced no such intimidation, although he did understand the effect she had on others; in later years he fittingly recalled her as “a battleship, but a rather motherly one.”

Because of the relationship between the Graffmans and Vengerova, it would be easy to surmise that it was this rather than merit that garnered Gary his place at Curtis. However, prior to his audition Vengerova was quick to make clear that his acceptance was not her decision alone. She would be but one member of a jury (that also included Josef Hofmann), and the results would depend not only on how well Gary played, but whether there was open spot in the department that year.  Fortunately, he succeeded in his audition (in his notes Hofmann called him “an amusing, musical child”), a place was available, and thus he was duly accepted to Curtis at the age of 7 on September 28, 1936.

Because Gary was so young, however, he did not relocate to Philadelphia. He remained in New York with his family and walked to his weekly lessons with Vengerova in her 93rd Street apartment on the Upper West Side. Although she taught at Curtis a couple of days a week, New York was still her primary residence, so this arrangement worked well for both teacher and student. Gary stayed with Vengerova throughout his ten years at Curtis. During that time, though their personalities, temperaments, and methods sometimes clashed, she was an integral part of his training, and they remained close friends and colleagues until her death in February 1956.

Although he was based in New York for the duration of his time at Curtis, Gary would frequently travel to Philadelphia for student recitals. Of these performances he recalled: “Think of a situation in which a nine- or ten-year-old walks onstage… and sees in the audience, besides his teacher and fellow students, the likes of Josef Hofmann, Fritz Reiner, Gregor Piatigorsky, William Primrose, Rudolf Serkin, Efrem Zimbalist, and Marcel Tabuteau. But such were the listeners… at those concerts in Casimir Hall.”  However, while his experiences on stage were essential to Gary's development as a soloist, these trips to Curtis were important for another reason beyond practice and performance. They provided the opportunity for him to fraternize and catch up with students and teachers alike, helping to foster a sense of belonging for a student whose Curtis experience was both socially and geographically removed than that of his Philadelphia peers.

On May 11, 1946, Gary Graffman graduated from the Curtis Institute, under the auspices of which he had spent the majority of his young life. Although still only 17, he was on the verge of embarking on a long and successful career as a classical pianist—an avenue that, given his training, seemed clear. What likely seemed less clear was that that same avenue of success would, some 30 years later, lead Graffman right back to Curtis to expand, deepen, and strengthen the bond with the school that had given him so much.


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