Serkin, Rudolf. (1903–1991)
Two Important Autograph Letters
Pair of rare and extraordinary autograph letters from the Austrian/American pianist, in German. To his friends Hans-Erich and Gerda Riebensahm in Berlin. Both letters signed "Ruli." From the collection of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
The earlier letter (dated March 23, 38, 8 pp. [two bifolia], 8vo, on headed paper of the Italian vessel M/N Vulcania) was written at sea in the Mediterranean. Serkin, who at the time lived in Switzerland, opens with a note of disappointment about the failure of his plan to see the Riebensahms in that year before turning to his recent American experience, where he had given a series of concerts in New York City. After acknowledging that he had a "lovely apartment" and more friends and acquaintances "than in any other city in the world," he ushers into a remarkable four-page rant against the American way of life. His views are typical of Germans/Austrians of the day and of artists in particular:
"Everything is money. Everything is standardized, categorized and graded by its monetary value, including "taste"—even that is mass-produced, it only costs more. Anything cheap must be tasteless, and the nicer, more agreeable and pleasant things become, the more they will cost, carefully graded. This applies to apartments, furniture, apparel, food—to everything, mercilessly. And what is most terrible is that even immense amounts of money do not mean anything because anybody who has it will buy the same with it.
"I have come to understand young Americans ever better who all get drunk for no purpose (even the girls)—then they see at least their own world and not this unbearable, more or less solid, standardized taste. When I recently had a great opportunity (which, of course, came to nothing) to make a lot of money (if at the price of staying there), a terrible thought occurred to me: What should I do there with so much money—I could not thing of anything that would have appealed to me.
"'Yes but I still have my art'—can a person always mine old memories only instead of new impressions and express oneself into the void! The "cultural life" is a thin veneer on the surface—without any roots; created by purposelessly gathered Europeans—the American "understanding" of it is a misunderstanding; for this reason, what is most despicable and insincere is equally successful as what is genuine—and it is equally appreciated by the same people. The depth is a void, not filled by anything; there is not even an uncultivated substance in which our roots could take a hold."
After a brief reference to his difficult relationship with his father, Serkin writes about his current voyage and expresses his intention to leave the ship at Trieste to travel to Tremezzo on Lake Como and further to visit his mother. He expects to do recordings in London in May. One last time he returns to the topic of the United States, mentioning that his concerts there were successful with the audience but not with the critics; "the most important newspaper published sixty lines of mean, ridiculous invective." He asks the Riebensahms a few questions about their musical exploits and gives them his contact information for correspondence.
The later letter (dated Brooklyn, October 3, 1946; 4 pp. [1 bifolium]) is addressed to Gerda Riebensahm only and a response to the death of her mother, to whom Serkin had been very close. After reminiscing about the deceased and expressing his condolences, he refers to his recent correspondence with Gerda's husband, Hans-Erich Riebensahm, whose "very sad" letter prompted him to send CARE packages to both Riebensahms. He mentions his aunt Lilli, who survived the war in Berlin and asks the Riebensahms to visit her. He reports at length about his family, including his parents, who are now back in the United States after examining their home in Switzerland: "They found almost everything intact. Only my car was stolen by the Nazi occupants." On the last page, Serkin takes stock of his Jewish friends who did not emigrate: "Mautner is probably dead. I still find it incomprehensible. Already immeasurably weakened and sick from long-term slave labor, he was sent to Theresienstadt [Terezín]. – Peter Diamand escaped because he could hide in a hole below the floor of Dutch friends. His brother survived in [Bergen-]Belsen for a year and was already on a train to the gas chamber when the war ended and Allied troops liberated him. Practically all of my father's extended family were killed, entire families; his two sisters and Poldi were fortunate to be here. Many of my mother's family, in turn, perished in the war and during air raids." He concludes his letter on an upbeat note with questions about common friends and his satisfaction about the survival of his friendship with the Riebensahms. Interestingly, there are no negative statements about life in the United States.
Hans-Erich Riebensahm (1906–1988) was a German pianist and student of Schnabel. From 1949 he taught at the Akademische Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. He regularly accompanied German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925–2012) in his recitals. Gerda Riebensahm (d. 2003) was his wife.