This Day in Jewish History

1880: A Brilliant Piano Teacher and Even Better Wife Is Born

Rosina Lhevinne would return to performing only at age 76, after her pianist husband had died.

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March 29, 1880, is the birthdate of Rosina Lhevinne, piano teacher extraordinaire, who gave up her own solo career so as not to compete with her pianist husband, but who returned to the stage at age 76, after her husband’s death.

Rosina Bessie was born in Kiev, the daughter of Jacques Bessie, a Dutch-born Jewish jeweler, and the former Maria Klatch. Both parents were amateur pianists.

Before she was a year old, the family moved to Moscow, in the wake of anti-Jewish rioting in Kiev. When Rosina was four, she nearly died of diphtheria. Her life was saved only because her mother insisted that she be given a tracheotomy.

She began piano lessons at age seven was accepted for instruction at the Moscow Imperial Conservatory when she was nine. Overlapping with her at the school, but five years her senior, was Josef Levin.

She remained at the school through to graduation, in 1898, when she won the school’s prestigious Gold Medal, the same prize Josef had been awarded six years earlier. (Josef had been in the same class as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin.)

A week after Rosina graduated, she and Levin were married. He changed the spelling of their name at the suggestion of a manager who thought Lhevinne looked less Jewish.

Kaiser protected them, but aliens anyway

Friends predicted that their partnership wouldn’t survive two professional careers as pianists. In fact, they remained very happily married for 46 years, until Josef died in 1944. But after a brief period of performing together, Rosina decided to she give up her solo career. Thereafter, she appeared publicly only when Josef needed her to accompany him in piano duets.

The young couple lived in Tbilisi for two years, and also, alternately, in Moscow, New York and Berlin, where with the Kaiser’s personal approval they bought a mansion in Wannsee.

When World War I broke out, however, the Lhevinnes, as aliens and Jews, were required to register as aliens and to report to the police three times a day.

By 1918, they had a son and a daughter, and in the wake of the Russian Revolution, they decided to leave Europe for New York. They never returned to Russia.

In New York, they bought a large house in Kew Gardens, Queens. Both Josef and Rosina began teaching at the Institute of Musical Art, which later merged with the Juilliard School.

As a well-known performer, Josef had the higher status as a teacher, but it was generally acknowledged that Rosina was a superior instructor.

Reluctantly back on stage

When Josef died suddenly, of a heart attack, Rosina was reluctant to try to step into his shoes, but the Juilliard faculty insisted that she take over his teaching responsibilities.

In the decades that followed her students included Van Cliburn, Misha Dichter, John Williams (the film-score composer), David Bar-Illan (who became editor of the Jerusalem Post), Garrick Ohlsson and James Levine.

In 1956, she allowed herself to be persuaded to play publicly, together with the Juilliard String Quartet at the Aspen Summer Music Festival, and thereafter was a regular performing guest there. In 1963, she played the Chopin Piano Concert No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

But Lhevinne always considered herself primarily a teacher. As she told Winthrop Sargent, who profiled her for the New Yorker in 1963, “Everybody wants to be a concert pianist, and then, when they have to teach, they feel humiliated. Why? Teaching is a great profession. How would the tradition be carried on if it were not for teachers?”

Sargent described Lhevinne as “the most widely respected piano teacher in the United States.” Her reputation derived no less from her personal attention to her students as from her technical brilliance. Sometimes, for example, she served as matchmaker between students, he wrote.

“Her approach was through love,” said one of her students, Sakine Akmatova, who many years later made a documentary film about her late teacher. “She would always say, ‘Listen with a kind ear.’”

Rosina Lhevinne died on November 9, 1976, in Glendale, California, at her daughter’s home. She was 96.