The eminent Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, a member of the Juilliard faculty from 1965 to 1994, when he died, would have turned 100 this month. In celebration of that milestone, his children, Igor Firkusny and Veronique Firkusny Callegari, have donated his personal papers to the Juilliard library, which will provide unparalleled access to the legacy of one of the most significant pianists of the 20th century. And at the end of April, a distinguished group of Firkusny’s former pupils will gather in the Czech city of Brno to pay tribute to—and share memories of—him with three days of public concerts, master classes, and lectures. Avner Arad, Eduardus Halim, Robin McCabe, Dora Novak, and Alan Weiss are just a few of Firkusny’s Juilliard pupils who will assemble for the celebration, which is sponsored by Brno’s Janacek Music Academy.
Firkusny was born in a small town near Brno, and soon displayed prodigious musical gifts in both piano and composition. At age 8, he was brought to the attention of native son Leos Janacek, who shared cookies with this soon-to-be beloved student—and before long was being invited to sit in Janacek’s box at the local premieres of the composer’s operas, including The Cunning Little Vixen and Katya Kabanova. With the support of the Czechoslovak president, Tomas Masaryk, Firkusny was sent to Berlin to study piano with Artur Schnabel, and to Paris, where he worked with Alfred Cortot. At the outbreak of World War II, Firkusny fled Czechoslovakia for Paris, and from there, he and a small Czech artists’ community that included composer Bohuslav Martinu and novelist Jiri Mucha escaped to New York City in the fall of 1940. Firkusny became an ardent American citizen and enjoyed a busy international performance career championing the composers of his native land as well as playing solo recitals, concertos, and chamber music with leading artists. A year after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, in 1989, Firkusny returned to his homeland as a national hero to play Martinu’s Second Piano Concerto.
I had the great honor to study with Firkusny at Juilliard for five years, and in person he was as modest and affable as he was unruffled and commandingly communicative on stage. The sweet scent of his cherry tobacco pipe and kindliness of his smile greeted me upon entry to Room 557 for my lessons. They’re etched in my memory as are his endless patience and aristocratic demeanor during my lessons. The greatest pleasure of all was to sit at the piano on the right and observe as he demonstrated passages from the music I studied. I always felt like a piano lesson with him was akin to sitting next to Renoir as he showed a student how to handle a paintbrush. And I suspect every one of his pupils felt as blessed as I, to be able to learn from such a sovereign artist.