“What you have inherited from your fathers,” Goethe once wrote, “you must acquire before you can possess it.”
The American pianist Peter Serkin, who died on Feb. 1 at 72, was born into a family of musical luminaries. Yet before he could possess his inheritance, he had to acquire it by embracing the music of his own time with a missionary zeal. While discovering his own voice, he became one of the most critically admired American pianists of the last half-century.
Across an unusually large repertoire, from Bach to Berio and beyond, Serkin performed with a sense of uncompromising seriousness, pristine technique, and supple insight. He was a musician’s pianist but also a pianist’s musician. And in a kind of proprietary paradox, he unveiled scores with a modernist’s sense of objectivity while also charging them with a deeply personalized spiritual intensity. To play classical music, he once said, was “an act of bravery.” To play as Peter Serkin did — to forge not a career but a life in music so fully individualized — was more than that. It was an act of subtle defiance and singular grace.
Tall and rail thin, Serkin was a familiar presence on Boston stages. He gave over 140 performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, many with Seiji Ozawa, including world premieres of two works by Peter Lieberson. A devoted teacher with affiliations at several schools, he also taught for 29 summers at the Tanglewood Music Center.
Yet as visible as he may have been, Serkin remained a somewhat reclusive figure who shied away from the press and held himself at a distance from the culture of celebrity that can surround the most acclaimed soloists. He came by his knowledge of that culture honestly.
Serkin’s father was the legendary Austro-American pianist Rudolf Serkin and his maternal grandfather was the revered Swiss-German violinist and conductor Adolf Busch. Both men fled Hitler’s Europe and were involved in the founding of the Marlboro Music Festival. As a child, Peter Serkin grew up hearing stories of family connections to Brahms and Mendelssohn. He turned pages for his father and collected the autographs of giants. And he trained rigorously to become a pianist in the mold of the older generation. By 12 he was performing in public, and by 18 he had graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music. Yet despite this fairy tale musical upbringing, Serkin felt a certain unease with the weightiness that seemed to accompany the great tradition he was taking on.
“I came from a family,” he once told the Globe, “that took music so seriously, in the Old World sense of being a kind of religion, with respect for the masters and tremendous piety toward the music, and with such identification with our being musicians, that it was really necessary for me to just drop that, and to say, ‘I don’t have to have that reference point, or any other.’ I needed to just be alive, to appreciate just that.”
In the early days of his career, finding a way “to just be alive” as separate from his family’s legacy, meant exploring jazz, reading Eastern philosophy, spending time traveling abroad and away from the piano. It turned out individuality suited him. He began bucking the conventions of concert dress by swapping out tails and white tie for Nehru shirts and espadrilles. And far more significantly, to just be alive also meant forging a deep and nourishing connection to the music of his own time. Toward that end, Serkin threw himself into the ecstatically mystical music of Olivier Messiaen. He championed the largely forgotten émigré composer Stefan Wolpe among many others. And he forged close relationships with living composers such as Toru Takemitsu, Leon Kirchner, Oliver Knussen, and Charles Wuorinen.
For Serkin, ironically (or classically), the journey away from the musical worlds associated with his father allowed him a freedom to return on his own terms. Without retreating from his passion for modern music, Serkin re-embraced the Austro-German repertoire (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms) closely associated with his father — while sounding nothing like him whatsoever. Serkin’s true gift turned out to be his ability to render the classical and the modern in each other’s image, such that old masters shed their ponderousness and spoke with an urgency undimmed by the centuries; and works by living composers, pulsing with the currents of modern life, carried the lapidary force of the monumental.
By the time I first heard Serkin, his Nehru shirts had long since given way to three-piece suits, yet he still retained an aura of being in the classical world but not quite of it. He appeared often with orchestras but always seemed to be exploring new repertoire. The conventional concerto circuit would surely have been more lucrative and brought more fame. But he would have nothing of it.
As he aged, Serkin retained a preternaturally youthful air that I always connected with his decision to release himself from the imposed rites and rigors of a more traditional career. At the keyboard he could at times make puzzling interpretive choices but he would persuade you of their rightness by the sheer force of the profound humility and sincerity from which his playing seemed to originate. He steered clear of any performative emotionality yet at the same time often seemed quietly enraptured by the music beneath his fingers, such that his best performances became like private dialogues, gestures of communion with a composer, whether that person had died 200 years ago or was sitting in row D.
“Peter took the music inside him to such a point that the music literally lived for us through him,” the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, one of Serkin’s oldest friends and closest musical partners, told me a few days ago. “When we were on stage, he was nervous but his hands would press the keys and follow the line with such intensity, it was almost as if there was a current of electricity going through him, into the piano, and out to all of us. It was breathtaking.”
Stoltzman would know. In 1973, he and Serkin cofounded a group called Tashi, along with violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Fred Sherry. In a most unusual precedent, the players came together to perform Messiaen’s otherworldly “Quartet for the End of Time,” a work written during World War II while its composer was in a German prison camp.
The score was still little known in the early 1970s but has since become a modern classic, in part through Tashi’s performances of the work, more than 100 times, in venues across the country and in Europe. The group lasted until 1979, when Serkin chose to move on to new adventures.
I was too young to experience Tashi’s Messiaen the first time around, but the group reunited for some performances in 2008, including one at Harvard’s Paine Hall. In a telling gesture, as soon as the players walked on stage, a wave of applause rose up from every corner of the auditorium, the kind of applause that felt unmistakably like a collective statement, an honoring of the simple, unlikely fact that these four musicians were still here, still in humble service to this art form.
That evening’s transcendent Messiaen performance lingers in memory as one of the highlights of my years of concert-going. At the time I wrote that “Serkin presided with cool majesty at the keyboard, dispensing chords with a quiet, pearly iridescence or conjuring a vast carillon that tolled out the messages of Messiaen’s angels.” But that account failed to convey the beautiful way in which, just as Stoltzman described, Serkin’s aura of entrancement, his deep interiorization of the music, had radiated outward to envelop the group and all of us in the audience.
Music as a way “to just be alive.” It was Peter Serkin’s way.