Obituary: Irene Serkin

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FAMILIES DON'T come more musical than those that surrounded Irene Serkin during the course of her long life, both the one she grew up in and the one she created.

She was born Irene Busch in Vienna in 1917, the daughter of Adolf Busch, who was perhaps the supreme representative of the German school of string- playing, and of Frieda Gruters, issue of another family of outstanding musical ability. For nearly six decades, Irene was the wife of Rudolf Serkin, one of this century's most dignified and perceptive pianists. And her own immediate family boasts the pianist Peter Serkin, the horn- player John Serkin and four musician daughters.

The story of how Irene Busch encountered her husband has a fairy-tale quality to it. She was only three years old when her father met Rudolf Serkin, then 17, gawky and nervous, in the apartment of Karl Gombrich (father of Sir Ernst) in Vienna. The two musicians very soon formed a duo-partnership and before long Busch had invited the young pianist to live with his family. At this point Irene, barely past the toddler stage, told Serkin that she would marry him when she grew up - and that is exactly what she did. When Irene reached 17 herself, she and Serkin were wed, in 1935, in Basel.

It would be difficult to say that she grew up anywhere in particular: Berlin, Darmstadt and Switzerland, perhaps, but more often than not she would be on tour with her father, travelling the length and breadth of Europe - and thus, like her husband, she had very little formal education.

Adolf Busch was conscious of his duty to the masterpieces of the Austro- German repertoire (he played the Beethoven Concerto, for example, no fewer than 400 times in the course of his career). But he was implacably opposed to the Nazi regime and, at considerable cost to himself, vowed never to play in Germany as long as the Nazis remained in power. (In this he showed a rather soberer insight than the idealistic Wilhelm Furtwangler, who thought he could defend German music from within the Nazi fold.) The Busches and Serkin, having moved to Switzerland in 1927, thus left Germany permanently in 1933.

The Serkins continued to Philadelphia in 1939 when Rudolf was appointed to the staff of the Curtis Institute there, first taking over Josef Hofmann's masterclasses and later becoming director of the Institute. Irene's father and mother followed her to America after a bungled attempt by the Nazis to kidnap Busch and drag him back to Germany (his house was temptingly near the German border; Busch got wind of their plans and made sure he was not at home when the Gestapo came to call).

United in the States, Irene's father, uncle (the cellist Herman Busch) and husband - together with the French flautist Marcel Moyse and his musician son and daughter-in-law, Louis and Blanche Moyse - founded the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont in 1951; Marlboro was to be the focus of much of the Serkins' life from then on.

Irene Serkin was not herself an outstanding string-player, but she was good enough to play in the Busch Chamber Players from the foundation of the group in 1935. And she would always play violin or viola in Marlboro concerts, often in music written by her father. She was an enabler. She and her husband offered helping hands to countless young musicians over the decades, and she played a prominent role in the musical life of the community around her. The warmth that was a marked feature of the atmosphere at Marlboro was owed in good measure to her.

Her end was as charmed as her life. She had suffered from heart problems but had shown no particular discomfort when she went shopping to find a Christmas tree to adorn the family hearth. Returning home, she took to bed for her usual nap and died peacefully in her sleep.

Martin Anderson

Irene Busch, musician: born Vienna 21 June 1917; married 1935 Rudolf Serkin (died 1994; two sons, five daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Guildford, Vermont 1 December 1998.