The Naked Face of Talent: Rosina Lhevinne
by Madeleine Hsu [Forte]
as printed in The American Music Teacher, November/December 1981
Ms. Hsu, currently an associate professor at Boise State University, has performed throughout the United States, Europe, and South America. Among her teachers, in addition to Rosina Lhevinne, were Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff. She has won many international competitions, the earliest in 1961.

0nce upon a time there arrived in New York two immigrants, Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, with their children, their governess, their music, their books, and their hopes. Like most immigrants, the Lhevinnes had something to forget. An immigrant runs away from a place, he escapes from somebody, or from himself. He is unsatisfied, and looks for a nest to continue his dreams or start new ones. He does not shed tears for himself, for he has chosen his way. This might not be an extraordinary one, but it is the least of all evils.

In particular, one such immigrant was Béla Bartók who escaped to America, for it was the least of all evils. He escaped the Inferno of the Nazis as well as the Inferno of incomprehension and solitude. He never escaped from himself. Every musician knows the tragedy Bartók suffered in America.

In sharp contrast to Bartók, his colleague in Austria, Rosina Lhevinne lived and died the image of success. Daughter of a wealthy Dutch father and a vivacious Russian mother, she married one of the most astonishing pianists of all times, Josef Lhevinne. Despite difficulties and illnesses, they lived their golden dream of fame and fortune in America. I like to believe that the lively, gregarious, and ambitious Rosina played a main part in helping along their destiny.

When her husband died in 1944, Madame Lhevinne started a new tradition: taking in cultured young ladies to help her lead her life. One thing she could not stand was solitude. She was no philosopher; philosophy was even a frightening subject for her. She was at ease in the domain of mathematics, at chess, at the game of life among her fellow human beings.

Everyone in the musical world knew that, each year, she would choose one of her students and offer her room and board in exchange for various services. One year, my turn came. It was August 6, 1968, in Paris. My study grant was exhausted. I was mulling over my future on the balcony of my parents' flat; and beyond the Arch of Triumph and the Saint Augustin Church, my wandering eyes inexorably encountered New York's skyscrapers. I was seeing a mirage. I was suffering.

Madame Lhevinne's letter was one of those ticks of destiny that we never forget.

I arrived in New York in early September. Alone in the Claremont Avenue apartment—for my teacher was still in California—I opened the piano with emotion. The spirit of Josef Lhevinne filled the apartment, one large portrait rested on the piano, the other on the wall behind it. “The magnificent stormer” of hearts and keyboards was looking at me. The portraits of this handsome man revealed suffering; his dreamy eyes, resting on the immensity of lost lands, were disturbing. I wondered if he had played on this piano. I started some romantic pieces, but they turned into improvisation, for my mind could not concentrate. To live with a Russian artist. What a dream for a Parisian girl! Even today, ever since the “Russian Craze” started with Diaghilev's “Ballets Russes,” the “Théâtre des Champs Elysées” quickly puts up “sold out” signs as soon as a Russian artist shows up. Among all these records, scores, books in English, French, German, and Russian, and the two magnificent portraits of Josef Lhevinne, I felt animated with intellectual energy.

A phone call surprised me in my meditations. It announced Madame Lhevinne's arrival. My heart gave a thud and I stood where I was. Today, my job started. But what a job? I knew nothing of my duties, and I started wondering anxiously: would I be a secretary, a companion, a granddaughter, a maid, a girl Friday?

Voices in the hall, the doorbell: no doubt, here was my teacher. I opened the door to see a handsome young man with a grin, carrying two heavy suitcases, who I later learned was her assistant Howard Aibel. He reminded me of the Russian pianist Wíasenko, and for a moment I was puzzled. But no, Wíasenko is a Soviet artist, and could not possibly assist Madame Lhevinne at this time in this place. He was followed by what seemed to be an entourage.

In a twinkle, I was preparing a light snack with tea, adding “more hot water,” and “more cold water.” Who was talking to me? Madame Lhevinne. She was very busy with her tea, and oblivious of her student standing and waiting for a word of welcome. Nervous at my new performance, I hardly realized that I was completely ignored. Earlier, I had rushed to the flower shop to get a bouquet of the delightful rust flowers she particularly liked. In my ingenuousness, I had expected the Master to notice that attention. All my effort went unnoticed.

Very soon, the handsome young man (Aibel) and another helper showed signs of agitation. With great efforts at speaking softly, he said, “Sarah has forgotten the two bags at the airport!” Horror! Madame's mink coat was in one of them and there was no trace of the bags at the airport. We had to wait until the next morning to recover the luggage.

Needless to say, our first night at the Claremont Avenue Apartment was restless. Madame had finally realized what had happened. She nervously switched the light on many times, probably dreaming that the mink coat had been stolen or burned or carried to a far away country.

It was not long before I would compare myself to Haydn: I was was my Master's servant; room and board assured, I could concentrate on my mind and my fingers without worry. But I also wore the livery. I could hardly think of myself; for beside the classes at Juilliard and my own time for practice, Madame Lhevinne was the center of my attention. My triangle was school, apartment, and park. I was living Rosina's life. Would I become older because of her? Or would she gain from my youth? There definitely was a phenomenon of osmosis between us. It was both frightening and exciting. One of my privileges was to listen to the story of her life. I did not let one day go by without noting our talks in a diary. However, I lacked the time to organize them into a book. I had not crossed the Atlantic to become a writer, but to improve myself as a pianist.

She loved to talk of her husband. She must have adored him, for she was still vibrant after nine decades. I learned that Josef Lhevinne had not been particularly ambitious. He accepted a few tours, but it was the sacrifice of a teaching career rather than glory on stage. He had had greatness in his heart. He had not liked publicity around him, and had derived more satisfaction from having discovered a star before a famous astronomer had than for being a pianist held in awe—“Of course, Jo did not reveal his discovery.”

He differed from his wife by being excessively modest and humble. Rosina never practiced more than four hours a day at the piano. She never had Josef's patience. Contrary to what Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times of November 21, 1976, that “He was a bit lazy,” she told me that Josef would practice five hours in the morning and then have a big lunch, European style, and practice five more hours until nine or ten at night. He was reserved in his feelings. She recalled what had happened at the end of his life: on his last trip to California, friends asked him, “Are you going to play your Bach 'Chaconne' soon?” “I don't know,” he answered: “Rosina did not hear it yet.” He would not play anything until she had heard it. He had never told his wife how much he appreciated her judgment.

When he had his heart attack, he told Rosina that it was just a little something in his heart, and, instead of going to Santa Fe, he continued concertizing and swimming.

She would often talk of her life with her parents in Moscow. Jacques Bessie, her father, a very distinguished Dutchman, could not accustom himself to the ways of Russia. He would say: “Grattez Ie Russe et vous trouvez le Barbare!” Madame Lhevinne would not find such differences between people. She liked to tell me that, as a French girl, I was a Latin, and Latins were like Russians: “Ils ont leurs hauts et leurs bas!”

Josef became a great friend of the family. The Bessies loved the boy like the son they never had, and found him talented and mature. However he liked pranks. For example, the Dean of the Moscow Conservatory was a severe and hard woman who used to shut pupils guilty of misbehavior into a cupboard full of mice. One day, Josef wanted to frighten her and jumped on her from the fourteenth step of the grand staircase. Although he landed short of her, he had to go to the cupboard; but he was thrilled to have scared the woman.

Madame Lhevinne used to repeat that Josef was the “star pupil” of the Conservatory, and a personal friend of Anton Rubinstein, who liked to tell the young boy his experiences, human and musical. Josef recalled Rubinstein's reminiscence that he had fainted from emotion at a Liszt concert. Rubinstein, however, never mentioned anything about Chopin. The temperaments of Chopin and Rubinstein must have been too different.

Through her stories I had a taste of her life at Juilliard during the famous “Van Cliburn years.” Shirley Aronoff was a student at the time of Dean Mark Schubart. She was a charming and talented girl, although given to practical jokes. She would put frogs in her teacher's studio or salt in her tea, or she would hide outside the window (leading to the terrace) to hear the deliberations of the piano jury. One day, Madame Lhevinne asked me to listen to a 78 record. I thought, “For sure it is her playing or Josef Lhevinne's.” It was no music; it sounded like Madame talking, something nasal. When my teacher started to laugh in her typical rhythm, I realized that the voice on the record was an imitation. Shirley Aronoff and her friend had captured every inflection of Madame Lhevinne's manner. On the record we heard: “David! David! Open the windows a little less!” (a phrase often cited as an example of her English syntax). Then came, “Madame Lhevinne, Carl Philip Emmanuel said to start the ornaments on the beat.” “Then go and study with C.P.E. Bach!”

Rosina's laugh became contagious. Sarah, her faithful maid, was wiping her tears, sniffling vigorously. I was busy noting most of the record and also enjoying it.

Madame Lhevinne liked Sarah to be part of the family. Once Sarah was asked to give her opinion of my playing. I was practicing while she set the table for dinner. After my last note, Sarah looked at me with her big black eyes and told me, “Madeleine, you play beautiful!” Madame Lhevinne who had heard the whole thing from her bedroom called out, “You know, Mr. Lhevinne always felt happy when Sarah liked his playing. He said she is not musical, but she has a heart!”

Sarah was considerate. I remember the occasion of the string. That weekend, she was not going home. Since Madame Lhevinne would wake up at night, Sarah found a system: she put a string around her arm, passed it under the bedroom door, and attached it to Madame's hand. Madame would only have to shake it whenever she needed Sarah, without waking me up. And it worked. I did not wake up, and the next day, they reported the success to me.

At other times, Sarah complained that she could stand one “spitfire” but not two, and she was right.

One day, I had had it. It was exam time at Juilliard. Exhausted after an incredible amount of “little services,” I locked myself in the bathroom (with my books). It must have been a first in the whole history of Madame Lhevinne's girls Friday. After that, I was punished a whole week: the great and proud Russian lady sulked in silence.

But she could also have sudden bursts of generosity. I had been invited to perform piano works at a mansion at Gramercy Park. I was to wear a concert dress because it was a formal party. Since Rubenstein and Menuhin had played in this “salon,” there was no need to expect any fee from the gentleman, but I was to thank him for the honor to play for such an elegant audience formed by his friends. Madame Lhevinne was offended that no cab had been sent for me from the wealthy Maecenas. She gave me a ten dollar bill for a taxi back and forth, saying: "Le cochon! Le cochon!"

Her generosity could be hard on her friends when her students got important engagements. When I played on NBC Television, she was so proud that she called all her friends to make sure they would watch the program. She called an important friend of hers at his country house—a fact that touched me, but also embarrassed me, for I am sure that he did not really care if I was playing or not.

During one of her illnesses, Madame Lhevinne had decided that I should take lessons from Martin Canin, then her assistant at Juilliard. One evening, I came in tears from his lesson. I had played particularly badly, and Martin had told me my “four truths.” Madame Lhevinne reacted like a grandmother. I had to sit on her bed and tell her everything. She was very moved by my sincere sorrow, hugged me, and kissed me, finding warm words to stop my tears: “Don't cry like this; it hurts me; you are a very good pianist; I love your playing; I am going to call Martin right away!” I had to convince her not to do it, for I knew too well that I was at fault. I had neglected my piano. And I had crossed the Atlantic to come and study at Juilliard? From that day on, my conscience heavy, I practiced with care.

I wonder if any of her numerous girls Friday ever had the idea to write about Rosina Lhevinne. I was one of her very last ones. Rosina helped me smooth my asperities; I helped her realize that a French girl was the product of the Revolution, and that Imperial Russia was no more. When I evoke my teacher, I can see her black eyes frosty with anger, or her smile childish and tender, or the lady wrapped in silence, or the friend confiding and laughing—in short, an exceptional human being.

If I may borrow from Agatha Fassett, I saw the "Naked Face" of her talent.

At her graduation from Juilliard, the author (left) and Madame Lhevinne