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A Legacy of Music.

Who would ever dream of a music school where students are accepted on the basis of merit alone? Where tuition is completely free? Where members stay anywhere from two to ten years? Where all keyboard, conducting, and composition students are lent Steinway grand pianos for use throughout their studies?

Mary Louise Curtis Bok (later Zimbalist) had such a dream--and turned it into reality with the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia more than 75 years ago.

But the story actually begins earlier.

Louisa Knapp Curtis, wife of magazine mogul Cyrus Curtis, died in 1910, bequeathing her own considerable fortune to her husband. He, in turn, gave the inheritance to their only child, Mary Louise, who was married to Edward Bok, a journalist from the Netherlands and editor of the Ladies' Home Journal. Both the Journal and Curtis' other publication, The Saturday Evening Post, were riding high at the time.

Mrs. Bok (which is what everyone always called her) was herself a serious amateur musician. At age 48, she became involved with the Philadelphia Settlement School, which provided musical training to young immigrants. Her first public gift to music, in 1917, was $150,000 for a Settlement Music House. The music house's goal was "Americanization among the foreign population of Philadelphia." The Boks' best friend, pianist Josef Hofmann, played a recital at the school's dedication.

Fortunately for the dream, the Boks also were on a friendly basis with other leading musicians of the day, including Leopold Stokowski, then musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. After much discussion with Stokowski, Hofmann, and other friends on how best to help musically gifted young people, Mrs. Bok again dipped into her inheritance and bought three splendid turn-of-the-century mansions on Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. After having them joined and renovated, she formed a faculty of renowned performing artists and opened the Curtis Institute of Music in October 1924. She eventually supplied the institute with a magnificent endowment of $12 million and spent the rest of her life making her dream the best possible place for exceptionally gifted students to study and learn.

The criterion for acceptance to the institute has always been unsurpassed musical talent. In fact, a violin student of Yehudi Menuhin and a daughter of Itzhak Perlman were each denied admission to the school. In one semester, only 5 out of 300 applicants were accepted into the vocal department. "Small but excellent" remains the motto of the Curtis Institute of Music.

Not surprising, critics have called the institute everything from conservative and insular to autocratic and feudal, even snobbish--a place where "everybody auditions but nobody gets in." That last assertion is belied by scores of former Curtis students now playing in the world's great orchestras.

The main Curtis building, now known as the Common Room (although it looks anything but), serves for social as well as musical events, including the weekly teas presided over for many years by Mrs. Bok herself. In addition to refreshments, she wanted to give the students--many of whom were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe--"some social polish."

During those first years, she also developed an informal set of precepts, which are still followed. First, she realized that everyone would benefit if enrollment were kept small. Thus, the institute accepts only enough instrumentalists to make up one orchestra; just enough singers for a minuscule opera department; and only a handful of keyboard, composition, and conducting students. Present enrollment stands at 167.

Then there were the school's goals, as stated by Mrs. Bok: "Students shall learn to think and express their thoughts against a background of quiet culture, with the stimulus of personal contact with artist teachers who represent the highest and finest in their art. The aim is for quality of work rather than quick, showy results."

Mrs. Bok also decided early on that the length of study at Curtis had to be open-ended. Students, therefore, graduate when their major teachers decide they are ready to do so. Graduation can take place after three to ten years, partly because Curtis accepts-in fact, welcomes--students far younger than those accepted by other conservatories.

"I may have been the youngest, having entered at age seven," says Gary Graffman, who now serves as head of the Curtis Institute. He adds, "I may also hold the record for staying longest--ten years."

For more than six decades, Mrs. Bok's original endowment was sufficient to fund full merit-based scholarships, plus all expenses. A decade ago, however, the institute began going to the public, launching an annual fund drive that now supplies one fifth of the operating budget. In all, Curtis Institute has produced more than 3,500 graduates, presently at an average training cost of $44,000 for each undergraduate student.

Mary Bok's philanthropy was not limited to educational matters, however. She helped students in many ways, at times extending assistance to them long after graduation. She continued to subsidize Italian-born composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, for example, even after he became world-famous. "But I always needed the money," he has said, rather sheepishly.

Russian emigres constituted an important part of the faculty in the early days of the Curtis Institute. Among them was violinist Efrem Zimbalist. Although nowadays best known as the father of actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., the senior Zimbalist was a brilliant and popular performer who became an important member of the Curtis family--literally.

In 1941, Zimbalist was appointed director of the Curtis Institute. Two years later, a 54-year-old widower, he married Mary Louise Curtis Bok, a 66-year-old widow, at a quiet ceremony in her home. Zimbalist served as the institute's director until 1968. The Zimbalist-Bok marriage lasted until her death in 1970 at age 93.

The Bok legacy of great musicians and stunning performances lives on, however, adding luster to the promising new millennium.

To name the famous alumni and teachers of the Curtis Institute of Music and to expound upon their accomplishments would require a rather large book. But here are some of the highlights.

In its 75-year history, the school has attracted and trained many of the last century's most outstanding musicians from the United States, as well as from 25 foreign countries.

More than 40 alumni have gone on to sing with the Metropolitan Opera. Others can be found in every major orchestra in the United States and Canada. Half of today's Philadelphia Orchestra members graduated from Curtis, and many also teach there. Institute grads also hold positions as teachers and directors of music schools and departments throughout the world. Many have claimed countless top awards and competition prizes.

Composer Samuel Barber studied there. Leonard Bernstein is said to have been "full of himself" there. And it was at Curtis that Fritz Reiner conducted the student orchestra, on occasion banishing whole sections from the room when they did not play up to his expectations.

Menotti's first professional opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball, was dedicated here to Mrs. Bok, who, in turn, named her cocker spaniel Amelia. Eugene Ormandy supervised the student orchestra training program at Curtis and built a tradition of guest conductors at rehearsals, including such luminaries as Wolfgang Sawallisch, James Levine, Sir Simon Rattle, Kurt Masur, David Zinman, Robert Spano, and Andre Previn.

The legacy of Mary Louise Curtis Bok has grown to include a Visiting Artist Master Class Program, free enrollment for qualified students in University of Pennsylvania classes, an opera theater, a symphony orchestra, even a soccer team--with a Beethoven victory motif on their T-shirts.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. "Mainly, principally, and first and foremost," director Gary Graffman is quick to note, "our mission is to train the most gifted musicians in the best possible way.

"As Josef Hofmann so clearly stated in 1927, our job is `to hand down through contemporary masters the great traditions of the past; to teach students to build on this heritage for the future.'"

Thanks to the dream of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia is doing just that.
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Title Annotation:the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Geographic Code:1U2PA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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