She is, quite simply, the most famous piano teacher in the world. The doyenne of New York’s famous Juilliard School of Music, Rosina Levine has been teaching there since 1924. And last week at 94, she flew across the United States to teach her fourth summer of master classes at the University of Southern California.
The term “master classes” is not hyperbole in Madame Levine’s case. Among the thousands of pupils who have studied with her, such names as Van Clyburn, John Browning, Adele Marcus, Tong II Han, Misha Dichter, Ralph Votapek and Arthur Gold have attained international distinction. So devoted is Van Cliburn, after his years under her tutelage, that from wherever in the world his concert career has taken him, he sends her a single red rose each 29th of March—her birthday. On the occasion of her 90th birthday, Harold Schonberg, the music critic of the New York Times, hurrahed, “This tiny lady…this teacher who produced such stars…In her head, in her ears, in front of those wise old eyes, is the century’s history of piano playing.” Through her extraordinary familiarity with that history, she imbues her pupils—she presently takes from 25 to 32 of those who importune her from all over the world—with the great romantic tradition of Slavic pianism. The tradition stems from Franz Liszt, and though not popular now with many in the modern stream of music, is still exemplified by such masters as Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. For Madame Lhevinne, the giants of the piano whom she heard and revered include Josef Hofmann, Ferruccio Busoni, Artur Schnabel and her one true hero—Josef Lhevinne.
Rosina Bessie was born in Kiev in the Ukraine in 1880, and sent to the Moscow Conservatory when she was 9. There she met Josef Lhevinne, then 14. She was 18 when she was graduated with the Gold Medal—the conservatory’s highest honor—which Josef had won six years before her. A week after graduation the two pianists were married.
From the beginning the story of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne had such charm and sweetness as to have been a tale by Maeterlinck. While Josef’s career as a concert artist burgeoned, she abandoned her own career as a soloist to travel with him, to look after him and—after they settled in the U.S. in 1919—to teach. She confined her own public performances to duo appearances with him until his death in 1944. Since then Madame Lhevinne has made a number of notable appearances as a soloist. When she was 75, she recorded the Mozart C major Concerto at the Aspen Festival. At 82, her performance of the Chopin E flat Concerto with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, won prolonged ovations.
But it is teaching that has truly become her vocation. To her modest apartment near the old Juilliard School, on New York’s Upper West Side, come gifted young people, to play for Madame Lhevinne and to listen to her wisdom: “Technique is never a goal in itself. Anyone can have technique, what is important is to be yourself. And one must listen with the heart.”
From time to time she sallies forth to recitals by her pupils at the new Juilliard School at Lincoln Center. She is assisted in her work there by Martin Canin and Howard Aibel (“Canin-Aibel” are, of course, part of Juilliard student lore), who sometimes bear her fragile figure into the Juilliard Theater. On the occasion of important recitals by one of her pupils she takes her place high in the balcony. After the performance she holds court, and a parade led by dignitaries like composer Peter Mennin, president of the school, ascends to pay homage to the only surviving original member of the faculty.
Always a lady, with great old world dignity, Madame Lhevinne is nonetheless vital and outgoing. She hates drafts (favoring shawls winter and summer) and adores madeleines and children (her own son and daughter are childless). When the 5-year-old son of Olegna and Howard Aibel played his violin for her at Easter, he brought tears of joy to her eyes. Music, to which Rosina Lhevinne has dedicated her life, still has the power to transport her. And she has passed on her gift to generations.