Steinway Immortal Isabelle Vengerova lived on in the hearts and heads of her students.
by Jason Terry
“Shouts, screams, threats, curses, and stamping... and on special occasions even the crashing of furniture.” This is how famed American pianist and pedagogue Gary Graffman — and a host of other pupils — describe their lessons with Steinway Immortal Isabelle Afanasievna Vengerova (pronounced Vehn-geh-ROH-vah). But her popularity as one of the twentieth century’s greatest pedagogues was not built on those characteristics alone. “Madame,” as she was affectionately called by her students, was brutally honest, but consistently patient. She was dedicated to her students and maintained lifelong relationships with them.
Having been raised in a Jewish upper-class family, Vengerova, like most girls of her social standing, enjoyed top educational opportunities; indeed, musical training was a substantial part of her childhood. Though piano was her chosen instrument, she would recall in interviews later in life that she was interested in the violin and the cello; however, societal norms expected a cultured woman to pursue the keyboard. Regardless, through her teaching Vengerova helped craft some of the biggest names in twentieth-century classical music. Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Graffman, and Vengerova’s nephew Nicolas Slonimsky were all among her private students, and she coached many others, including Menahem Pressler and Sidney Foster.
Samuel Barber remarked that with Madame, ‘one entered into a lifelong love affair with the piano.’
Unlike many fin-de-siècle piano pedagogues who enjoyed a longstanding concert career before splitting their time between audiences and students, Madame began teaching early in life. Following her studies at the Vienna Conservatory, she moved to St. Petersburg, where she enrolled in the city’s conservatory as a pupil of Anna Essipova. Soon thereafter she was selected to serve as Essipova’s teaching assistant. It was also during this time that she taught daughters of the Russian nobility at the Smolny Institute. By her thirtieth birthday, she was quite active as a piano pedagogue and had already developed a rigid set of requirements for her students. Musicologist Vitaly Neumann reminds us that at this juncture of her career she was already “prepared to teach any work and could play the entire repertoire from memory” — from the early Viennese School composers to her contemporary Russian friends’ works (e.g., Glazunov, Borodin, et al.). Moreover, her pupils in Russia were to come to their first lesson with all their pieces memorized. (According to later students, this requirement was relaxed by the time she emigrated to the U.S.)
World War I caused great difficulties for all artists, including Vengerova, and more often than not she performed for sheer sustenance. Years later, Slonimsky recalled several occasions when his aunt performed a full concert for a sack of potatoes or sugar. But her concertizing during this period seems to have encouraged her to continue performing even after the war was over. From 1920 to 1923 she toured Europe, hoping to be accepted primarily as a concert artist. But this dream abated after she realized the complications of competing with her male counterparts. And thus, with the outcome of the Russian Revolution decided, she emigrated to the U.S. in 1923.
The following year she was asked by Josef Hofmann to join the faculty of a small start-up organization: The Curtis Institute. She would teach there for the next thirty years. Later she also joined the piano faculty of the Mannes School of Music in New York; the city became her home base, where she taught a number of private students in her apartment. From these studios was born the legend of “Madame Tyranna” — so nicknamed by Leonard Bernstein because of her dinosaur-like personality when teaching.
Nearly all of Madame’s pupils remember her physical qualities: a charming and pretty face supported by a large, wide frame. As Graffman recalls in his book I Really Should Be Practicing, “She sailed around her studio like an overstuffed battleship in search of the enemy, cannon loaded and ready to fire.” Another former pupil, Robert Schick, explains her personality on a similar note: “There is no denying that it was often a difficult experience emotionally for many to work with [Madame].... Her chief faults were the sharp tongue and the ferocious temper she displayed at times.” Slonimsky once shared to Joseph Rezits, another Vengerova pupil, that his aunt possibly suffered from epilepsy — a genetic trait in their family — which may have led to her extreme temper and the strength to throw furniture. But behind her unique personality was a pedagogue who cared intimately for her students and their development as not only pianists, but humans — something often lacking in mentorship today.
Based on the many testimonies of her students, Madame not only possessed an exact awareness of her goals but also a precise knowledge of how to achieve them with each individual student. As one pupil recalled years later:
She could spot a pedal that was held a fraction too long, or a chord that was out of balance, or a slight but unwanted accent in a melody, and then work relentlessly on the passage until it was pedaled, balanced, and phrased with subtlety and character.
Eileen Flissler wrote in a 1965 article for Music Journal that “the Russian Reign of Terror” was a woman of “enormous contradictions and iron-clad opinions.” But Flissler, like her fellow pupil-colleagues, remembered the artistic side of her teacher, as well:
She was a fantastic musician, and played superbly. Her tone was like velvet; her marvelous, supple hands, quite large, were slightly bent up at the tips from long years at the keyboard. Her knowledge of the immense piano literature was staggering, her insistence on the meticulous observance of detail, unbelievable.
And she was clearly a worthy teacher; according to Slonimsky, one student traveled from California to New York every month for a lesson — and this in the days before commercial air travel existed.
Vengerova’s foremost goal for her students’ music was to create a beautiful legato. But her passion went deeper than a lovely melodic line and balanced harmonies underneath. Yes, Madame desired for those striving towards the pinnacle of performance to execute the most minute details flawlessly; however, she realized that not all of her students would trek the same paths of success. This she knew from experience since she, as a child, wanted to be an actress. “But that was not possible,” she once told Rezits, gesturing toward the piano. “So I chose this.”
Madame Vengerova passed away in 1956, just ten days before her eightieth birthday. She had pancreatic cancer, but the diagnosis was unknown to her. In the last weeks of her life, she could not figure out why she was receiving so many phone calls and personal visits. She even remarked to Slonimsky, “Everyone is so kind to me! Leonard Bernstein came, spent the whole evening, and washed my dishes!”
Samuel Barber remarked around the same time that, with Madame, “one entered into a lifelong love affair with the piano, with all the exigencies, delights, and tortures involved in such a relationship.” That relationship with the piano mimicked the relationship Vengerova had with her multitudes of students: forceful and torturous, yes, but lifelong and loving.
Photos: Curtis Institute of Music Archives