Thomas Wolf is the author of the recently published The Nightingale’s Sonata (Pegasus), a biography of his grandmother, the Russian-born violin virtuoso Lea Luboshutz (1885–1965) who taught at Curtis from 1927 to 1947. He will present a lecture and performance at Curtis on Saturday, October 19.
By Thomas Wolf
My grandmother, Lea Luboshutz, joined the violin faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in 1928. Over the next quarter century she taught roughly 150 students, many of whom won jobs in major orchestras, including six in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Two of Lea’s students became concertmasters—Rafael Druian (with orchestras in Dallas, Minnesota, Cleveland, and New York) and Henry Siegl with the Seattle Symphony. Lea also had success with female students including one, Ethel Stark, who became famous as the co-founder and longtime conductor of an orchestra made up entirely of women. Lea’s track record as a teacher was so impressive that Curtis bestowed on her an honorary doctorate in 1960, thirteen years after she retired.
Lea’s teaching approach was in some respects very old school. One practiced basic scales, arpeggios, and familiar études that developed finger and bow technique every day and one studied the classic solo violin literature. Everyone was considered “soloist” material, so there was no time or inclination to study the violin parts of orchestra repertoire. There was a certain irony in this since most of her students did end up in orchestras. The great chamber music literature—string quartets and quintets, piano trios (with violin), and other mixed ensemble music—was also not part of the program. Playing that music was something one could do for fun in one’s spare time but it should not distract from core study.
During the summer, Lea, like many other faculty members, had many of her students follow her to wherever she was residing. Curtis Director Josef Hofmann had insisted to founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok that many, if not most, students would benefit from year-round study and Mrs. Bok should provide the resources to make this possible. In the 1930s and 1940s Lea’s students came to the little town of Rockport, Maine, where there was an entire colony of Curtis faculty and which today still boasts residents who are descendants of some of the original Curtis pioneers. In Rockport, Lea had what she called her “7 to 11 club”—any student of hers had to be up and breakfasted by 7 a.m. in order to practice the requisite four hours. Lessons were held after lunch and then the students were free to swim and play. Evenings were often devoted to informal concerts.
Lea’s philosophy of teaching was simple and mirrored that of Josef Hofmann: Good outcomes were not the result of genius teachers. Rather, they came about when brilliant students were willing to work hard with experienced performer/teachers as their guides. Curtis had provided her with such students, and she was grateful. In an interview for the May 9, 1945 Philadelphia Record, reporter George M. Lang tried to replicate Lea’s distinctive accent while describing her philosophy:
“A titcher,” she says, “can not mek a genius. Only Gott can do dat. A titcher can titch goot or bad and dat is very important. But de poopil must have tolent and be villing to prectice wit patience, wit hard vurk, wit schvet. Dere is no odder way.”
Lea believed strongly that the instructional program should include performance opportunities for her young charges. It is one thing to play for a teacher, quite another to play in front of an audience, especially one as critical as one’s fellow students. Each week, the living room of her summer cottage was transformed into a mini–concert hall. In addition, Lea wanted her pupils to hear faculty members play so they could discuss these performances with their teachers at lessons the following week. So her summer programs featured faculty as well as students. She was not shy about appearing herself, often with her son, Boris Goldovsky (a Curtis student who later joined the faculty; the two are shown together at right) and later with her grandson, Andrew Wolf (who was also a Curtis graduate).
During the year, the pattern continued. Because she believed that students could learn from one another, she instituted something called “class concerts.” In these, students could get some performance experience in semiformal settings and she used these as teaching and learning situations. The programs were followed by talk sessions in which students discussed what they had heard and, in some cases, made constructive suggestions to one another. In her class yearbook from 1929–1930, now in the Curtis Archives, Lea writes about what she had encountered when she started teaching at Curtis: “The attitude of my pupils toward each other was the usual one, strangers who criticized each other severely, as only young people can do. No consideration, no real friendship, no deep understanding existed between them, and each was convinced he was better than the other. There was no harmony between my students, and it was a hard struggle to overcome their attitude toward each other.”
But now, she claimed, the situation had changed. And to prove it, Lea had each student write something in the class yearbook to demonstrate what he or she had learned not only about violin playing but about being part of a musical family and community at Curtis—what Lea described in all capital letters as “MUSICAL PARADISE ON EARTH.” In her own words, “My class is now a wonderful group of friends, all working hard, playing for each other, never passing a jealous remark, always ready to help one another.” One can read these words a bit cynically, as I did when I first encountered them, wondering whether Lea had been terribly naive. There is generally no one more competitive, critical, or cruel than a student at a leading musical conservatory.
But over the years, in talking to some of Lea’s students, I came to realize that much of what she said about their attitude was probably true. According to one of them, Robert Gomberg, who became a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra:
The innovation of class concerts by Madame Lea Luboshutz seems to me one of the greatest accomplishments ever made by a modern music teacher . . . It is of great advantage to the student . . . who is trying to become accustomed to the presence of an audience. The auditors, though few in number, nevertheless played an important part in detecting mistakes in passages, intonation, tempi and degree of self control.
Judging from the results of Lea’s teaching and the tremendous success her students enjoyed after graduation, her system worked. Today many of her “innovations” have become commonplace. But for her time, she was a pioneer—a woman succeeding in a man’s world bringing new ideas to an old craft.
This article is adapted from Thomas Wolf’s recently published book, The Nightingale’s Sonata: The Musical Odyssey of Lea Luboshutz. Visit the book’s web site at www.nightingalessonata.com and be sure to attend The Nightingale’s Sonata: A Narrated Concert on October 19, 2019 at Curtis as part of Philadelphia Music Week.