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Taking over the directorship from Josef Hofmann, Randall Thompson brought with him new perspectives that challenged the prevailing attitudes at Curtis

Randall ThompsonLeonard Bernstein’s admission to Curtis in October 1939 coincided with the arrival of another new face to the school: that of Randall Thompson, the school's new director and Orchestration instructor. Taking over from Josef Hofmann, Thompson brought with him new perspectives that challenged the prevailing attitudes at Curtis. In his ongoing attempts to implement these values within the school, Thompson made a deep impression on a young Bernstein, while fostering a friendship and respect that lasted well beyond their time at Curtis.

When Randall Thompson accepted the directorship of Curtis in the spring of 1939, Curtis founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok referred to him in a letter to a friend as a "corker," expressing her great happiness that such an accomplished and well-respected composer had taken the post. Thompson was indeed quite a catch for Curtis. In addition to his experience as a composer, he brought with him a core set of values based on the importance of a broader, interdisciplinary approach to music education. His worldview, formulated over years spent at Harvard University, Wellesley College, and the Eastman School of Music, stood in direct contrast to the insular atmosphere prevalent at Curtis—an atmosphere that Mrs. Bok was looking to dispel.

Thompson's reply to Mrs. Bok upon accepting the directorship at Curtis



Letter from Mrs. Bok on hiring Randall Thompson








Thus Thompson, in an effort to create a more scholarly environment, moved rapidly to implement new programs to de-emphasize virtuosity in favor of more interdisciplinary learning. These actions, though dismaying some in the tradition-steeped Curtis community, heartened and inspired the young Leonard Bernstein. He agreed with and appreciated Thompson’s desire to bring the world to Curtis’s “island of musical enterprise”*, especially in light of the storm brewing in Europe at the time. Building on these shared ideologies, the two men became firm and fast friends, and often spent large portions of their Orchestration sessions talking or indulging in their “freaky love of British crossword puzzles…in the London Times.”*

In 1940, while still Thompson's student at Curtis, Bernstein was asked by Serge Koussevitzky to conduct his teacher's Second Symphony at the inaugural season of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. A delighted Thompson wrote of the performance in a letter to Mrs. Bok on 21 July: “Bernstein opened the first concert by the orchestra and did a superb piece of work, everyone agreed. He conducted with real authority and great expression and remarkable rhythmic precision… he carried it off in fine fashion.” 

Randall Thompson with students, 1940The following spring, both men left Curtis, Bernstein as a graduate and Thompson to accept a position at the University of Virginia. Although their paths then diverged, Bernstein spoke fondly of his former teacher 35 years later, demonstrating that his respect for Thompson, and what he had tried to accomplish, had not waned:

“The school at the time was like a virtuoso factory… interdisciplinary it was not.  Something had to be done, and something was done; they engaged a new director, Randall Thompson, a composer, an intellectual, and—good Lord!—a Harvard man. He was engaged to change this school from a conservatory into a true school based on the axiom that there is truth beyond virtuosity… to create a scholarly, questing atmosphere. Oh, how he tried. There had to be broader horizons at Curtis—and now there are.”*

*from Leonard Bernstein’s speech given at Curtis’s 50th anniversary, 27 February 1975


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